Lincoln University -- a historically black university located in Jefferson City, Mo. -- suspended its major in history on its 150th anniversary. Explaining why that step was necessary, the president of the university emphasized, “We must make decisions like these as we look toward the future and the needs of the changing workforce.” Embedded within that statement is a declaration about higher education and its purpose: higher education should make good, high-paid workers. We should step back and ask whether this is really what we want from higher education.
Since I took my first academic position in 2010, I have continually heard in the news media, from visiting speakers and many other people that transforming students into employees is the purpose of higher education. Whenever I hear this, I cannot help but recall one particular graduate seminar when we discussed the writings of Marxist Louis Althusser. The discussion turned to higher education, and some people in the class claimed higher education was little more than part of a plot to provide good and obedient workers to the bourgeoisie. At the time, I thought that was overly reductive. I mean, we were talking about the supposed conspiracy of the bourgeoisie in class at an institution of higher education; surely this was not part of the plan.
Once I got my first academic job, however, I learned that this really was the perennial question in higher education. What should our general education curriculum look like? On which majors should we focus our resources? The answer was always put in the form of another question -- what do employers want from our graduates?
Perhaps because of the rising costs of higher education, politicians have increasingly said that the point of higher education is for students to make lots of money in their chosen careers. Is that what we want from higher education? Maybe a better question would be is that the only thing we want from higher education?
In her recent article in The American Historian, Nancy F. Cott indicates it is hard for humanities degrees -- like history -- to compete with degrees related to engineering if the only significant variable is potential earnings. One study found that throughout their careers, engineers consistently earned more than graduates in the humanities. But then, not everyone wants to be an engineer. As Cott phrased it, neither would we really want “to see an educated world populated by engineers only.” The fact is people educated in the humanities go on to important, although often not quite as lucrative, careers in education, government, law and a host of other interesting and relevant occupations.
Since students enter into significant debt to earn their diplomas, it seems reasonable for students to expect some return on their often significant investments. I hope as we review what we value in education, however, we do not simply ask which majors lead to the most lucrative careers.
Du Bois and Shaping Lives in the Present
What is higher education for? Should it exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing workers who make the greatest amount of money? It’s not a new question. It’s one that the renowned African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with in his speech commemorating Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary in 1941. He worried that the temptation would “come and recur to make an institution like this, a means of earning a living or of adding to income rather than an institution of learning.” Du Bois believed the kind of students Lincoln produced would end up changing the world for the better -- that it would be Lincoln students who would “show the majority the way of life.” Not from privileged and “powerful groups which from time to time rule the world have come salvation and culture,” he said, “but from the still small voice of the oppressed and the determined who knew more than to die and plan more than mere survival.” In short, Du Bois hoped that Lincoln would become “a center where the cultural outlook of this country is to be changed and uplifted and helped in the reconstruction of the world.”
Why did Du Bois believe that students at a university like Lincoln would be so influential? Du Bois recognized the power of history to shape lives in the present, and he rightly believed that this nation needed more diverse students if the status quo was ever going to change. In Du Bois’s day, history was being used to justify violence against African-Americans. In 1915, the original version of The Birth of a Nation premiered in the United States. In that movie, President Woodrow Wilson’s book History of the American People was regularly quoted. Audiences around the country saw Wilson declare through this movie that Reconstruction had been a misguided failure during which “the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.”
Wilson and many other people in the academy were part of what eventually became known as the Dunning School of Reconstruction History. For William Dunning, the historian for whom the broader school was named, Reconstruction was a failure because great numbers of the recently emancipated slaves “gave themselves up to testing their freedom. They wandered aimless but happy through the country.”
According to Dunning, it was Southern whites who “devoted themselves with desperate energy to the procurement of what must sustain the life of both themselves and their former slaves.” Lesson learned: black political participation meant misery for all, but exclusive white control meant the best for both black and white Southerners. The Dunning School of Reconstruction History justified the exclusion of black people from politics, and it implicitly justified the violence used to maintain that exclusion.
W. E. B. Du Bois labored to contradict those impressions. In his now widely read TheSouls of Black Folks, Du Bois argued that it was not the irresponsible silliness of black people that doomed Reconstruction but rather the impossible problems facing the recently freed slaves. Reflecting upon the failure of efforts to make Southern African-Americans truly free, Du Bois noted that the Freedmen’s Bureau could not even “begin the establishment of goodwill between ex-masters and freedmen,” and perhaps most important, it could not “carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land.”
Adding to the impossible challenge was the fact that much of the legislation created during Reconstruction was intended to punish the white South rather than empower the recently emancipated. As viewed by Du Bois, black equality was a cudgel used to punish the rebellious South rather than a goal in and of itself. Without any real support for black equality in either the North or the South, how could we expect anything but failure from Reconstruction? Because of those failures, black people suffered under the weight of white supremacy.
White historians largely ignored Du Bois’s conclusions for years; it was not until higher education expanded to include a wide swath of the American population -- due in large part to the GI Bill -- that more historians came to accept what he had long argued. Today, the vast majority of historians of Reconstruction accept his premise that many capable black politicians participated in the Reconstruction. Many worked to expand roads and education to include a plurality of the Southern population. At the time, their opponents saw this as waste and corruption, but the vision of those black politicians more closely aligned with our own expectations. We -- like they -- expect our governments to maintain public roads and public education. History looks different from the bottom up.
Reversing Dominant Narratives
Du Bois did not mention the degree in history specifically in his speech in 1941, but his life’s work demonstrated the importance he placed upon the historical imagination. He correctly predicted that making the academy more diverse would change the world for the better. History has been used to justify white supremacy, and it has been used to undermine it as well. As the population of historians changed, so too has the accepted narrative of the academy. That’s why Du Bois did not ask what majors earned the most money upon graduation but had a loftier vision for Lincoln’s future. America needed impassioned graduates from schools like Lincoln. Someone had to help reverse the dominant narratives prevalent in 1941 about black inferiority.
On Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary, Du Bois provided a powerful argument in favor of empowering Lincoln’s students to go and change the world. I fear that the end of history at Lincoln University means students will have less ability to do so in the future. That saddens me, because our national history is particularly relevant today. In 2016, a reinterpretation of The Birth of a Nation is set to debut and likely make radically different claims than its 1915 namesake. Why did the creators of this new movie -- which will document the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner -- give it that name? In 2016, some people have suggested that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was relatively short and its goals were largely accomplished. How then do we explain the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement? Do these protesters fail to understand just how racially progressive our country has become? In 2016, some politicians have suggested that the United States is a nation founded by white ideas -- or “Western civilization” -- and people of color are guests. Are they right?
Our history as a nation has been used to answer those kinds of questions, and someone is going to be answering these questions in the future. In addition to asking what employers want our graduates to do, we should also ask whom we want to answer such important questions.
Graduates -- whether in the humanities, sciences or engineering -- will continue to get relevant and interesting jobs. Some will get paid more than others. In finding the right major, students will have to make strategic choices about what they want for their lives. Having spoken with many students, I know many are not so single-mindedly focused upon profit. Many have more philanthropic purposes in mind for their education. By so circumscribing the range of possibilities, however, we are creating a future in which Lincoln’s graduates will be able to get jobs but maybe not make history.
J. Mark Leslie is an associate professor of history at Lincoln University.
Three people in the United States have contracted the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, so far -- two while traveling abroad, the third through contact with one of them. Another 600 or so cases have been diagnosed elsewhere in the world since MERS first appeared in early fall of 2012, according to the World Health Organization.
Or rather, that many cases are now confirmed. It could well be that more people have had MERS (wherever in the world they may be) and endured it as if a terrible flu; it’s also possible to be exposed to it and develop antibodies without showing any of the symptoms. With a new disease, solid information tends to spread more slowly than the vectors carrying it. Some of the online news coverage calls the disease “highly contagious.” But that doesn’t really count as solid information: while MERS has proven fatal about a third of the time, it seems not to be readily transmissible in public settings.
No travel advisory has been issued, nor are special precautions being recommended to the general public, though health care workers are vulnerable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests washing your hands regularly and keeping them away from eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible -- hygiene recommendations of the most generic sort.
But the fearsome label “highly contagious” became almost inevitable when MERS was branded with a name so close to that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. For SARS was highly contagious; that’s what made it so terrifying. I use the past tense because no new cases have been reported in 10 years. The rapid spread of SARS was halted, and in its wake international efforts to monitor and exchange information about emerging diseases have improved.
MERS ≠ SARS. Even so, its very name calls up the specter of a quick-moving, lethal, and global pandemic. And those connotations insinuate themselves into discourse on the new disease -- as if to ready us for panic.
Well, don’t. That would be premature. (Try not to lick doorknobs or French-kiss anyone with a wracking cough, and you’ll probably be just fine.) The start of the 21st century may well be what CDC director Thomas Friedan has called the "perfect storm of vulnerability”: unknown new diseases can continent-hop by airplane and test their strength against antibiotics that have become ever less effective, thanks to overuse. But humans can think while viruses cannot, and it seems at least possible that could prove the decisive advantage.
Consider a new book from Southern Illinois University Press called Rhetoric of a Global Epidemic: Transcultural Communication about SARS by Huiling Ding, who is an assistant professor of professional and technical communication at North Carolina State University. It is a work of some factual and conceptual density, but I suspect it will play some role in how information about disease outbreaks will be organized and delivered in the future.
Ding has not set out to write the history of SARS, but she does reconstruct and scrutinize how bureaucracies and mass media, both east and west, communicated among themselves and with their publics as the disease emerged in China in November 2002 and began spreading to other countries in the new year. Her analytical tool kit includes elements of classical (even Aristotelean) rhetoric as well as a taxonomy of kinds of cultural flow based on Arjun Appadurai’s anthropology of globalization.
The author prefers to identify her approach as "critical contextualized methodology,” but for the purpose of making introductions we might do better to dwell on a single guiding distinction. Ding is wary of a number of established assumptions implied by the term "intercultural communication,” the very name of which implies two or more distinct cultures, standing at a certain distance from one another, exchanging messages. When things are so configured, “culture” will sooner or later turn out to mean, or to imply, “nation” -- whereupon “state” is sure to follow.
By contrast, "transcultural communication” drags no such metonymic chain behind it. It has a venerable history, with roots in Latin American cultural studies. “Transculturation,”writes Ding, “can be used to describe a wide range of global phenomena, including exile, immigration, multicultural contact, ethnic conflicts, interracial marriages, overseas sojourns, and transnational tourism.” A transcultural perspective focuses on layers and processes that constitute different societies without being specific to any one of them, and that can themselves be in flux.
So, to choose a SARS-related example, referring to "Chinese mass media” will, for most Americans, evoke a relatively simple-seeming concept -- one that involves messages in a single language, circulated through certain well-established forms of transmission (newspapers, radio, television) among a population of citizens living within the borders of a nation-state (presumably the PRC). I dare say “American mass media” has analogous implications for people in China, or wherever.
But whatever sense that outlook once might have made, it now distorts far more than it clarifies. The range and the audience of mass media are in constant flux; the messages they transmit do not respect national borders.
“My research,” Ding said in an email interview, "shows different values and practices of traditional newspapers housed in Beijing and Guangzhou (mainstream and commercial ones) despite the exertion of censorship during the early stage of SARS.” The People’s Daily, official mouthpiece of the Chinese leadership, remained silent on the health crisis until as late as March 2003. But by January 2003, regional newspapers in small cities began reporting on the panic-buying of antiviral drugs and surgical masks -- information that then became known elsewhere in the country, via the Internet, as well as to “overseas Chinese” around the world, well before the crisis was international news.
Ding also discusses the “ad hoc civic infrastructure” that sprang up during the outbreak, such as the website Sosick.org, which engineers in Hong Kong created to circulate information about local SARS cases and encourage voluntary quarantines. "Concerned citizens can learn from coping strategies from other cultures,” she said by email, "be it communities, regions, or countries, and adapt such strategies to cope with local problems. For instance, I am working on another project on quarantine policies and practices during SARS in Singapore, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Canada…. Such bottom-up efforts often carry persuasive power, and in the case of Hong Kong, did help to introduce policy changes.”
Her reference to “persuasive power” is a reminder that Ding’s book belongs to the tradition of rhetorical scholarship. She devotes part of the book to an analysis of enthymemes in official Chinese commentaries on the crisis, for example. (An enthymeme is a deductive argument in which one of the assumptions goes unstated.) That a grassroots quarantine movement on two continents proved more successful and persuasive than state-sanctioned efforts to maintain social order is easy to believe.
What we need, Ding told me, are analyses of the "communication practices of global and/or flexible citizens, or multi-passport holders who regularly travel across continents in search of fame, wealth, or influence. Their familiarity with multiple cultures certainly introduce interesting transcultural communication strategies.” That bottom-up appeals for quarantine proved effective in a number of countries suggests she could be right: cultivating new skills in communication and persuasion might well be crucial for dealing with other public health crises, down the line.
How universities are organized can confuse not only the sympathetic, casual observer of higher education but students and staff members as well.
One campus has a college of arts and sciences, another has separate colleges of sciences, humanities and social science. Microbiology can be in the college of natural resources and environment at one place, and in the school of sciences or the medical school somewhere else. Modern foreign languages appear organized in departments that encompass all of the modern foreign languages and their literatures, in departments devoted to Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, or other combinations.
Insiders know, however, that all of these organizational permutations reflect not only significant changes in the universe of knowledge but also internal structures of personality, politics, money and power as well as the external pressures of fad, fashion or funding. Academic reorganization is a frequent exercise on university campuses, and often generates tremendous controversy because each effort signifies a potential for gain or loss in academic positioning for money, power and prestige.
Although, to outsiders, the warfare that these reorganizations frequently provoke can often appear out of proportion to the stakes involved, insiders know that organizational structure can influence internal distributions of resources. Even more importantly for many faculty and students, the organizational structure serves as a prestige map.
Reorganizations that adjust the boundaries of campus subunits are among the most complicated of issues because often reorganization is a good and effective thing while in other cases that look almost the same, it is a scam. Reorganization as an internal political exercise occurs frequently, but so too do readjustments to reflect the expansion and redefinition of knowledge. Separating the substantive from the political requires some careful observation.
For example, the development of a subdiscipline into a major field of study is a complex and fascinating process that produces new departments such as computer science or biomedical engineering. The emergence of new departments or academic guilds follows the development of specific intellectual domains with their own methodology, journals, research agenda, and definition of the particular intellectual skills required to advance knowledge in that area.
The academic guilds eventually determine what new fields have reached sufficient maturity of methodology and intellectual focus to warrant separate status as departments, with the attendant definition of a specific set of requirements for the Ph.D. and often a particular pattern of courses for an undergraduate major. Often national funding agencies and research foundations help advance these changes by supporting research based in defined departments that can give the new research direction and continuity.
Although these intellectual advances often produce some controversy about the point at which a subfield deserves to recognition as a major discipline with its own department, much of the controversy turns on legitimate intellectual issues of methodology and academic substance. These represent significant efforts to readjust the academic world to match advances in knowledge and the organization of scholarship.
Other reorganizations represent mostly varieties of academic game playing. They reflect much less academic substance and instead turn on issues of politics, power, prestige and money.
The game often takes place in shadow form, with highly evolved intellectual arguments that underneath speak to the issues of prestige and money. If one department consolidates with another, the loss in academic status for the members of this consolidated unit can be devastating. Similarly, if a field gains separate bureaucratic status as an independent department, a substantial status gain results. It is much better to be a department of Spanish than a field within a department of Romance languages. It is much better to be a school of journalism than a department of the College of Arts and Sciences. The goal of these organizational transformations is for subgroups of like-minded faculty to have a seat at the institutional table for the distribution of resources, rather than to suffer the risk of having someone less sympathetic to their particular subdiscipline speak for them.
Other organizational anomalies reflect historical, accidental or opportunistic events. Some institutions, concerned that the traditional arts and sciences reflected a domain too large for effective administration, divided the disciplines into subgroups: humanities, social sciences, and sciences or some variation. In such cases, departments like history reside within either the humanities or the social sciences, depending on the intellectual fashion of historians at the time of reorganization.
Business schools can acquire business-like units, and a management school at one institution may include such programs as sports and hospitality management while in another these programs reside in colleges of human performance or continuing education or in separate freestanding schools of hospitality management. Music departments live within colleges of humanities and fine arts or exist as separate schools of their own depending on their size, their focus on performance as opposed to theory or history, and the accidents of their original founding.
Many campus leaders take on reorganization projects to try to align the bureaucratic structure of units with a clear sense of the institution’s academic mission. These efforts can provide a major focus of engagement for the campus, occupy faculty task forces and councils in heady debate, and then, after an extended period, produce a new organizational matrix.
The value of such reorganization varies. Sometimes reorganization can reduce the fragmentation of the campus produced by prior political warfare, consolidate micro-administrative units, and achieve some economies of scale in staff and management. In other cases, the reorganization simply serves to distract the campus from the need to work harder, better and more competitively. Reorganization changes take much time and energy and often substitute for the real work of requiring performance from the units. Reorganization is also a highly visible form of executive leadership that places senior administrators in publicity rewarding, take-charge roles.
The beauty of a reorganization initiative in this context is that it has no measurable outcome. No one has an obligation to demonstrate that the new organization is more effective than the old one, and even if it is more effective, the results will not appear for several years. Reorganization achieves the appearance of significant administrative leadership without an obligation to deliver any improvement in the quality or productivity of teaching or research. And refocuses everyone inward on the internal competition for position, place and money, diverting attention from the necessity of competing against the outside marketplaces of higher education.
Other reorganizations, however, follow the money. In cases where a particular subunit of a campus becomes remarkably successful at attracting external funding, a frequent result is a reorganization that gives the highly successful unit separate bureaucratic identity. Sometimes this occurs through the invention of institutes and centers, which are holding places for academic entrepreneurial success. In other cases, subunits of traditional departments or programs become independent departments, such as polymer sciences or legal studies. A music department can acquire external resources, hire nationally preeminent faculty, and emerge as a freestanding music school. A journalism department can expand its scale through grants, external programs, and fund raising and break free from a college of arts and sciences to become its own school.
For those conversant in the internal political dynamics of universities, the organizational chart of departments, schools, and colleges, and the list of centers and institutes, serve as a guide to the political history of the campus’s intellectual enterprise. By reviewing this chart, a newcomer acquires a sense of the relative political power and intellectual and financial muscle of the various campus units.
University systems also have their own particular and peculiar organizational structures that they revise and reorder frequently, also in response to political and fiscal pressures of various kinds, but that is a topic for another day.
It’s time for a new metaphor for higher education. If, like me, you are tired of hearing the academy referred to as an ivory tower, cringe at the description of the disciplines within higher education as silos, and resist the idea of higher education as just another consumer-oriented business, let me suggest the following. How about higher education as a community greenhouse?
Why a community greenhouse? A greenhouse is a protected environment where individuals can grow unique, delicate and beneficial vegetation that may not flourish in a more general environment. A community greenhouse enables all members of the community to partake in the advantages that emerge from the plant life that is cultivated within that protected environment. The quality of the lives of the community members are enriched because of the creations that materialize from the endeavors of academics who dedicate their lives to specialized studies within the community greenhouse.
The era of the academy as an ivory tower is over and yet, there are components of this metaphor that remain salient. This metaphor brings to mind images of scholars protected from the environment around them, free to engage in their intellectual pursuits, afforded a broad view of the world from atop their lofty perch. The public has historically placed confidence in the work of academics because of the notion that the ivory tower produced an objective view; there was a purposeful separation between members of the academy and the world around them. This separation appeared necessary to address issues of the public good in an unbiased manner.
Now public sentiment criticizes the academy precisely because of the distance this metaphor depicts between us and the rest of society. I believe we should reject this metaphor because it denies the genuine connections academics make with other individuals within our society and the contributions they make to the welfare of these individuals.
True, at times our work does require protection from the elements of our environment. It sometimes requires distance from the economic, political and social forces that often change abruptly, and not always for the better, and can readily damage the potential benefit held in the saplings of our scholarship. Even the hardier vegetation that has borne fruit over time can be endangered without proper care and the right mix of nutrients for continued growth.
A community greenhouse environment provides this protection and, even more importantly, acts as an impetus for greater growth and development of our intellectual pursuits. The walls, rather than being solid stone, are transparent, allowing sunlight to permeate to nourish our plants. The ceiling is not dark and dank, but is covered with sprinklers and vents, allowing moisture and air to nurture our greenery.
The view from a community greenhouse may not be as lofty as the one from an ivory tower, but it is more realistic. The transparency of the walls permits academics to look out on their world and understand their place within it, rather than from above it. Perhaps more importantly, the clear walls allow others to see in. The doors on the greenhouse are not bolted; there are no moats or drawbridges around the structure. The greenhouse is for the community and community members are encouraged to come in to hear lectures, see performances, and engage with faculty in examining the world we co-inhabit. Students are welcomed year after year to immerse themselves in the beauty and richness of the community greenhouse. Families of students and alumni must be openly received and invited to partake in the fruits of labor of the members of the academy.
Many of the problems with the metaphor of the academy as an ivory tower are also present in the metaphor of the academy as a set of disciplinary silos. This symbolism also conjures up notions of protection and separation. The walls of the silos are impenetrable, the wealth of scholarly vegetation locked inside, unavailable to the surrounding community. Further, the image of silos signifies a distance and lack of sharing among members of the academy themselves. The symbol depicts academics as narrowly focused and consumed by turf battles and intellectual greed.
Yet, there are some positive components of the silo metaphor that can be encompassed in the community greenhouse. The specialized focus put forth by the silo metaphor has its advantages. Individuals who specialize in the study of precise and detailed topics undoubtedly create knowledge and value for all of society. The neurosurgeon who specializes in a particular procedure for individuals with traumatic brain injuries. The photojournalist who devotes her whole life to the pursuit of capturing human emotions to communicate the stories of individuals with people around the world. The engineer who develops safer, more stable construction methods for our air travel. Are we not better off because of the specialization each of these individuals has undertaken and sustained?
Similarly, the specialized focus that many, but certainly not all, academics maintain in their scholarly pursuits is vital to yield many future gains. It may not be immediately evident what the outcomes will be, but without individuals willing to devote their attention, for years on end, to the lifecycles of specific amphibians, to the long-term trends in economic markets, or to the behavior of rodents under strictly specified conditions, many great discoveries that could benefit the community would never be made. The intense focus with which these academics labor may appear narrow to some but it affords them the opportunity to commit themselves to seeing their work to fruition. In the community greenhouse, they are free to pursue this specialized study and to better resist distractions from their work, temptations to distort their scientific aims, or the pull of the market forces to value short-term gains over long-term investments.
The community greenhouse environment safeguards academics and their work, enabling them to specialize and share the ideas they harvest with other academics who, in turn, build upon those ideas in the creation of new knowledge.
This is not to say that academics shouldn’t try to expand their understanding of the world around them. We have all known academics who seem a bit out of touch with “the real world,” who don’t understand the pressures their students are under, or who don’t appreciate the work world those students will enter. While a narrow focus can be beneficial for discovery, a broader view is often needed for the dissemination of knowledge learned through those discoveries and, equally important, for receiving knowledge about the world around us from others.
Many academics, working across disciplines in teams, are addressing “real world” problems and discovering crossbreed shoots of knowledge to share with each other, their students, and the rest of the community. The community greenhouse environment encourages cross-disciplinary work and the training of students in interdisciplinary fields. Several problem-based work areas are set up in the community greenhouse with academics working in close proximity not only with each other, but with students and community members. The value of the rich exchange of new hybrids given to community members in return for input and feedback on what works best in the outside community cannot be overestimated. Many academics leave the borders of the greenhouse to explore and bring back vital information to further their research and teaching. Many venture into the larger community to plant new growth there, in the hope that it will flourish outside of the community greenhouse environment.
The notion of bringing the academy into the “real world” has led a number of individuals to promote the metaphor of the academy as a business. This symbolism creates an image of academics as producers of knowledge, with the community and students their primary consumers. A greater accountability to the public at large is called for through cost studies outlining the success of research endeavors, outcomes testing for students graduating from higher education institutions, and pressure to limit or eliminate tenure for academics.
Many members of the academy balk at the idea of education as a business, particularly at the notion of profit as the bottom-line. They resist the idea that knowledge is a commodity acquired simply through tuition payment. Rather, they see learning as a mutual process that requires effort on both the part of the teacher and the student. They are concerned that a business model would curtail some of the characteristics of higher education that have resulted in many impressive outcomes -- long-term studies, investment in more focused and sometimes more atypical research, and freedom from economic, political, and social pressures to maintain the autonomy they currently enjoy in their teaching and scholarly pursuits. Surely, such limitations would injure not only academics, but students and other members of the surrounding community.
Still, there are some aspects of the business metaphor that make sense in the community greenhouse metaphor. A business, if it is well-intentioned, conducts a needs assessment and markets its products or services based on the needs established by the community it serves. Likewise, a community greenhouse welcomes input from the surrounding community in deciding and developing its initiatives. What types of plants are needed in the community? What types of botanical problems are the community members facing and what types of assistance could they use to address these problems? It would be imprudent for academics not to consider this input as they undertake their teaching and research.
A business also holds itself accountable to shareholders or the public. The community greenhouse should follow this lead. A community greenhouse has a limited amount of space, materials, and other resources to devote to teaching and scholarship. It is critical that these resources are used wisely. This does not mean that profit is always the bottom-line, but is does mean that increased accountability for how resources are used and what outcomes have resulted from this use must be a priority for academics.
It is my experience that most of my academic colleagues are highly productive both in and outside of the classroom. The dilemma I have observed is that sometimes we are too busy to effectively communicate the results of that work to key stakeholders – students, their family members, policy-makers, taxpayers, and the community at large. A lesson or two from the business community on how to highlight achievements and market success could greatly promote the work undertaken in the community greenhouse. We have to let people know what’s inside the greenhouse for them.
The higher education community greenhouse isn’t ideal. The doors and vents may sometimes stay closed for too long, creating a somewhat artificial environment. The windows may fog up or become more opaque at times. It may be hard for the community to see some of the plants growing in isolated corners of the structure. And, of course, there are a few weeds growing in the greenhouse. Perhaps we need to spend more time cleaning the vents and wiping the windows. Yes, it takes time away from what we may consider the fundamental purpose of our work, but if we don’t devote time to this, our plants may fail to thrive. We need to invite more people in to let them see what we are growing and exchange ideas with them for future plantings. We must continue to venture out more into the community to see what will grow best under less controlled conditions.
While not perfect, I believe the metaphor of the academy as a community greenhouse captures the richness and openness of the academy. As I traverse my own campus, I am intrigued and delighted by the many wonders that are growing in this environment. I see dedicated academics, researchers and teachers, toiling over the small plot of earth or set of potted plants where they have settled to conduct their own life-long learning and have committed themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. It is my hope that the metaphor of a community greenhouse will help us to continue to grow in sharing and celebrating the fruits of our labor with those in our community, just outside the greenhouse walls.
Carolinda Douglass is an associate professor of public health at Northern Illinois University.
Early on, as the financial markets spiraled down and unemployment surged, some commentators argued that the national environment would provide the impetus to effect serious change in higher education. After all, they reasoned, campus stakeholders understood the seriousness of the events around them as massive layoffs were occurring, 403(b) funds were being reduced to 203(b)s and it was universally understood that no job on campus was safe, potentially even faculty jobs.
As a variety of troubling conditions became almost simultaneously woven together, it appeared as though a sea change for institutions was inevitable -- a perfect storm for change was developing over higher education. The economic downturn and associated collateral damage created urgency for all stakeholders to come together in a more politically civilized environment to invoke major shifts in how the academy operates as an organization and as a learning community.
However, generally absent from cost containment and revenue sustainability decisions are cost reallocation decisions regarding the relevance and viability of the academic portfolio. The extent to which institutions explore the financial performance, market demand and mission impact of academic programs (e.g., programs, concentrations, courses, sections) across the program portfolio is largely unknown. It is unclear if institutions have a structured process, access to the data and reporting mechanisms to inform review of programs and, subsequently, if they have the capacity to make decisions to retire/eliminate programs.
Given the significant resources allocated to academic programs, the time many programs have been in existence, and the changing market place and challenging economic conditions, a rigorous, objective review is a reasonable and necessary part of an institution’s due diligence. However, these decisions may be the most challenging of all.
Even in the face of unprecedented financial challenge, are the traditions, political forces, mission arguments and ideological posturing within the academy trumping the ability to restructure the academic portfolio, and the decision making and resource allocation structures that currently exist? Or, alternatively, is the eye of the storm of such magnitude that this level of macro change will be deferred until stimulus funding evaporates and there is a public moratorium on tuition and fee increases?
Perhaps for some regions, major restructuring will occur only when the reality of large declines in the high school pipeline make their way into annual operating budgets, and community colleges begin cannibalizing enrollments from neighboring four-year institutions.
A Case Illustration
Consider a view of the national academic program portfolio. In 2007, higher education produced 2,189,315 degrees in total across 1,079 fields of study. The distribution of degree conferrals across fields of study varies greatly, ranging from 0 to 218,212. Despite the volume of degrees conferred annually, focused on an extensive variety of fields of study, it is a reasonable assumption that not all of these programs possess either the recent historic evidence or market opportunity to support their continuation.
For illustration purposes, review the set of program viability metrics below. These are real data points of an academic program currently offered by an accredited institution. Enrollments have not grown over the past 5 years, degrees conferred have declined by 20.5 percent, projected employment of graduates in this field within the State is relatively static through 2014 and the regional competitive landscape is saturated with similar programs, as seen in the table below:
Has enrollment for this specific program grown at the institution?
Enrollment for the program has witnessed 0 growth from 2004-2007 with 17 degrees conferred during each of those years.
Nationally, have conferrals in this or similar degrees grown?
From 2002 to 2007, bachelor’s degrees conferred nationally in this field declined from 468 to 372 degrees, or a 20.5% decrease.
Regionally, are relevant occupations for graduates of this degree expected to increase?
Employment of graduates in this State is low and growth is expected to remain static. Specifically, employment is expected to increase minimally from 99 in 2004 to 122 occupations in 2014.
Nationally, are relevant occupations for graduates of this degree expected to increase?
Employment prospects for this field will remain relatively static at a 3.7% growth rate from 2006-2016 (or 1,000 jobs dispersed nationally) with no (0) expected annual average job openings due to growth and net replacements.
Is there a strong market opportunity for this degree program?
There are 12 regional competitors offering a similar bachelor’s degree.
Institutional leaders can use this type of analysis to make difficult, but evidence-based, decisions. There are, of course, other variables that should be considered in this context. For example, is the program directly aligned with the institution’s mission and strategic plan, and/or does it support the goals of a liberal arts education? However, a decision to maintain the program will be made based on a review of a more comprehensive set of program metrics, including projected market demand.
Adopting a Portfolio Review Process
An academic portfolio review process differs from the traditional internal review process. The internal review often focuses on such academic program elements as student achievement and learning outcomes, course scheduling, strengths of faculty, course/adviser workload and resource utilization. The review of the academic portfolio is focused on sustainability, market relevance, and viability of programs moving forward.
The results of a regular and systematic academic program viability review can help institutions creatively address a number of key challenges. As institutions identify emerging program growth areas, many have a severely restricted capacity to add new programs -- new programs that make sense in the context of emerging/evolving fields, occupations and sectors such as sustainability, energy and the health sciences. However, absent grant awards and major gifts from donors, these and other necessary new programs will not have access to the significant capital to both launch and sustain them over time.
Beyond new program development, there are also competing needs for resources to improve student retention and success; advising and mentoring, faculty enrichment, assessment, and focused student support resources. The academic resource pool should be dynamic and fluid. Programs that might be missed but are no longer necessary or relevant (based on market demand, financial performance, competitive landscape, quality, etc.) should have their resources repurposed for emerging needs or opportunities. The tradition of adding programs without changing the base is simply no longer feasible.
So, to what extent are institutions engaged in a systematic and regular evaluation of its academic program portfolio? Consider the following set of questions as an entry point to such a process:
1. If a program has neither the demand (marginal or declining enrollments) nor the market for its graduates, what other factors or rationale is used to support the program’s continuance?
2. To what extent are academic offerings directly aligned with the vision, mission and strategic objectives of your institution’s priorities? If a program is not financially viable but is clearly aligned with the mission of the institution, can the institution afford to have that program subsidized by other financially viable programs?
4. What impact does the competitive landscape for a program have on the institution’s capacity to successfully recruit students, retain faculty and sustain resources to make the program viable in the long term?
5. Do the characteristics of the program lend itself to an alternative delivery mode such as online learning?
6. If analysis suggests that a program is not financially viable, is without a market and is not mission critical, consider how those instructional, program and physical space resources could be re-tasked to address emerging needs or other mission-specific needs of the institution.
There is no question that this is a challenging area to address. There can be strong arguments to maintain programs even if those programs are not directly reflected in present or future market demand or are financially neutral. It may be that they are “untouchable” due to the core values and commitment to a broad based education. But it seems implausible to think this can be the case for all academic programs.
Creating a program viability assessment culture that objectively organizes the metrics for market demand, financial performance, mission impact and program quality appears a necessary part of institutional due diligence, especially during these economic times.