The fiscal collapse of 2008 exacerbated a malaise for many of us in colleges and universities. We feel besieged from within and without, as the public seems to have turned against us. Texas A&M University now has done a thorough cost accounting, publicly valuing all faculty in terms of productivity. All over, public spending for higher education is being cut to the bone. There is a revolt against the high tuition at many private universities. And there is the spate of recent books from a cadre of academics themselves who blame the academy for failing in its mission.
Mark Taylor, Andrew Hacker and the recently published book entitled Academically Adrift have held up a magical mirror showing higher education’s dysfunctional present and a dystopian and unsustainable future, one where students don’t learn, more education takes place online than face-to-face, tenure does not exist and many small, private universities and colleges are gone. The journalist Anya Kamenetz goes one further in her recent book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, when she argues that the university as we know it is obsolete, as a generation of “edupunks” educate themselves.
Under this level of bristling assault, it is easy for academics to bury our heads in the proverbial sand. We have already begun the long slog through the academic year, as our shoulders are against the proverbial wheel. The rhythm of the academic calendar tells us we can't relax until we make it through the academic year. We no longer have the luxury to wait until summer to recharge and rethink how we make ourselves relevant in a world that seems to no longer respect college.
This crisis is nowhere more marked than in the liberal arts, as we feel particularly vulnerable to market forces and often feel disconnected from social engagement. Some of this is the result of students flocking to majors that they feel offer job opportunities after graduation: business, health-related fields, some of the sciences, technologies, etc. They are not rushing to major in sociology or history. This has caused many of us in the traditional liberal arts to become increasingly defensive and too often derisive of what we label “vocational education.”
We cannot and should not hold our noses or draw lines in the sand because it is a losing battle. We should use the moment to reinvent what we do and reconnect us to the world. We are searching for models that will make us relevant, make sense to the public in this political and economic reality, and better serve our students. And for some of us, this reality has turned us to the past, where we may feel we got things right and had a sense of place. In uncertain times, the past offers some us comfort. Yes, one has to just read the memoirs or biographies of the great academics of the 20th century to realize the past is indeed a foreign land. Some of us might make it to superstar status and enjoy this lost rarified world. Most of us, however, will need to soldier on.
We find ourselves in anxious times because everything we value is now questioned and challenged. This intense scrutiny has caused a crisis of identity for the humanities and social sciences, as more and more the public asks us to justify not just the costs of a liberal arts education but its ultimate value. So we need to truly examine and explain the value of a liberal arts degree and search for ways to become relevant again. We can no longer just say, in a sense, take it because it is good for you and society, as if the liberal arts were some sort of foul medicine that we needed to take but needn't like.
We know this is not the case, but in a market place where families are investing a small fortune for their children's college education, we have to show a tangible return -- by rooting programs in the real world they become more relevant. We need to finally ask who are we in today’s crowded and ever-changing higher education marketplace? How can we get students, employers, legislatures and others to see see the liberal arts are not a luxury, but a true necessity? We need to stop telling and start showing. In short, we need to model a new knowledge creation process. We need to live it.
I would suggest that we are witnessing a moment in the history of higher education where what we do now will matter intensely for the future.
This is a moment of formation and transformation, where everything seems to be on the table. Some argue that one model for our salvation might lie, in part, in the past, or the particular example of some golden age, as most of the recent books on the crisis in higher education look romantically at the last 50 years as a sort of last hurrah for a sort of education they saw as ideal in many ways.
This is not the time for us to get dewy-eyed over what is being lost. We need to be pragmatic and embrace the new reality, challenges and all, and find a way forward. This is the exact moment we need to end any notions of the university or college as a protected or safe intellectual zone, one separated from the world. We need to embrace the world we inhabit, with all its complex social problems, and break down what are by now artificial barriers between colleges and universities and the wider world.
Michael Crow, the president at Arizona State University, has challenged all of us to make the “university … more than a place.” Crow argues that the university needs to be a “force” for change in the world. Maybe many of our campuses can’t change the world, but they can engage their communities. Imagine if each of our institutions became a force for change locally. The collective effort could reverberate loudly, providing both support and the tools for a better world. But it could also win over legions of fans who see tangible value from the local college. And, all evidence shows, engaged learning is higher learning. So our students benefit, too.
The current crop of critics are right that we need to rethink our mission, and I applaud them for recognizing the need for change.
Universities need to find ways to foster critical introspection and intellectual growth in the midst of a rapidly changing world. But hasn’t that always been the case? Universities are not stagnant institutions. Rather they are organic, breathing in society problems and all. Evidence from Imagining America, Campus Compact, and Project Pericles, among others, suggests that knowledge in motion, or civically engaged learning, creates intensive pathways that reinforce knowledge, creating enhanced learning outcomes. In short, it provides better and deeper educational opportunities for students. Part of a college education must require education that is rooted in society -- even the messiness of it -- not apart from it.
Those of us in position of leadership have a unique challenge. We need to support faculty, provide resources (including “silence and space”), respect governance, and encourage students. But, in the end, we need to lead in this time of great transformation. Each college will need to find its own way. There is no magic, one-size-fits-all bullet to solve the crisis. Using the resources at hand, fostering and nurturing faculty and taking advantage of geography (our space and place in communities) will enable us to move forward.
I am not saying everyone needs to do civic engagement. Surely this is ludicrous, impossible and would have disastrous effects. Rather, I would suggest that in focused and deep ways, colleges develop lasting partnerships within the community. It might mean for one school adopting a school district to improve education for all. Or, for another, researching and developing policy suggestions for environmental impact issues. We have great resources: some of the smartest experts in the nation, an army of eager students who want to apply their research and a world of problems. Through sustained and meaningful partnerships, colleges can have a positive impact on society.
These efforts will tie colleges more visibility into the world they inhabit. By becoming part of the community fabric they will be viewed as a resource rather than a liability or unknown entity. This alone, however, will not solve our crisis. There will need to be a thorough rethinking of how higher education is financed.
Part of the crisis in the liberal arts is of our own making and we need to recognize our role in it. We have retreated into our disciplines, and subdisciplines, speaking to fewer and fewer people about narrower and narrower topics. We deride public intellectuals as sellouts. We have become, in a word, smug. So, rather than model the university as a modern cloistered haven in a heartless world, let’s return to how John Dewey saw it. “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”
And life should not be lived walled off. By joining the world, combining the classroom and the streets, will we regain our place in the world and better serve our students and teach our students not to be afraid of the world, but to fully inhabit it.
Richard Greenwald is professor of history and social sciences and dean of St. Joseph College in New York City. His forthcoming book is The Death of 9-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works (Bloomsbury).
Innovation in higher education, I sometimes think, is a bit like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.
Every six months or so, as some new conference or other on the future of higher education heaves into view, I’ll get a call asking if I can list any and all recent innovations in higher education. The people on the other end of the line seem to feel that these innovations must surely be out there, so they make phone calls looking for them. But they always seem disappointed when I resort to listing the usual suspects: online universities, open educational resources, commercial ventures looking to partner with institutions. That’s not innovation, the people on the other end of the line seem to be saying. And in many respects, I agree with them. We haven’t yet seen anything truly game-changing, have we?
In recent months, the focus on innovation in higher education has turned to “disruptive innovation,” that concept originally formulated over a decade ago by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen to describe change and innovation across numerous industries, but which he has more recently begun applying to education. Now everybody wants to know where the disruptive innovations in higher education are hiding.
For his part, Christensen points to online learning. But even by the standards established by Christensen’s own theory (where disruptive innovations are easier to use, cheaper, and serve new audiences), the case for online learning as a disruptive innovation is equivocal.
Is it a simpler, easier-to-use product? In some respects, but not all.
Is it less expensive to deliver? Outside of a few grant-program case studies, not particularly; the potential may be there, but it has yet to be fully realized.
Is it reaching a new audience? Probably, yes, but the evidence is mostly indirect and approximate.
Of course, there’s a reason why we don’t actually see much in the way of real innovation in higher education, and Christensen understands this. Incumbent leaders in mature industries engage in what Christensen calls “sustaining innovation” – the development of new features and benefits that make a product or service more useful, but not dramatically so. Think, for example, of the addition of a camera on the iPad2. With an increase in benefits, prices typically rise as well. What keeps pricing in balance in most industries, however, are those disruptive innovations – think of the personal computers that supplanted the mainframes decades ago. These cheaper and easier to use tools attract new audiences to the category and refashion the economics of the industry’s business model.
While colleges and universities may well engage in some sustaining innovations (the high-rise dormitories, the state-of-the-art fitness centers, the not-entirely-mythical rock climbing walls, not mention the world-class science labs and other high-tech investments), the fact is that they face little in the way of disruptive innovation because they have a lock on the market – it’s called accreditation – and thus there’s little opportunity for new entrants to come in and offer something less expensive or simpler to use.
To my mind, if you’re looking for an innovation opportunity, technology is just a part of the story. The real innovation – in price, in ease of use, in access – will occur when our colleges and universities face some real competition, and that will only come when we allow some new, entrepreneurial providers into the market.
If you want innovation, I say, remove the barriers.
To that end, I’d like to propose that the U.S. Department of Education establish a new “demonstration program,” not unlike the Distance Learning Demonstration Program of the past. That former program allowed institutions that delivered a majority of their programs online to distribute Title IV funds. Twenty-four institutions – a mix of nonprofits and for-profits – participated in the program. Along the way, we learned something important about the potential for scale within online learning; and today, one in four college students has taken at least one course online.
Now we need something a little different, but based on the same model – call it the “Innovation Demonstration Program.” In this case, the program will charter new organizations to offer degrees and distribute Title IV funds – even if they lack accreditation. That has the potential to open up real innovation within multiple segments of the marketplace.
Commercial organizations that offer tutoring services, curriculum, or learning technologies could get into the degree granting business and even make federal financial aid available to their students.
At the same time, established institutions might see this as a terrific opportunity to build new degree-granting organizations adjacent their own traditional campuses – unencumbered by the regulatory and governance hurdles that currently stymie their attempts to reach new markets, deliver new programs, or otherwise rethink how they do business.
It will, of course, be necessary to guard against the potential for new diploma mills entering the market and targeting federal dollars, but that’s where the regulatory apparatus becomes useful. It can both foreclose fraud and stimulate innovation at the same time. Under the kind of close supervision that a federal demonstration program would require, a few dozen experiments of this sort could teach us a great deal about what’s really possible when it comes to innovation in higher education.
If you think this sounds absurd, consider the case of the Relay Graduate School of Education, granted a charter by the New York State Board of Regents earlier this year to offer master’s degrees to teachers in New York. Founded by three charter school organizations – KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools – the Relay Graduate School of Education was purpose-built to meet the education and professional development needs of those schools’ own teachers.
Along the way, Relay did something innovative. It tore up the semester model. In its place, Relay delivers 60 discrete learning modules. Students learn in the context of the schools in which they teach, and online curriculum is augmented by cohort discussions within the schools, all under the supervision of on-site mentors. This is a very different way of thinking about delivering education – and it’s innovative.
What makes it innovative isn’t that there’s technology involved – it’s really a very people-centered learning model – it’s that the organization is free to rethink the “why” and “how” of teacher professional development. Equally important, the oversight of the Board of Regents puts Relay on a level playing field with all of the other traditional providers of master’s degrees in education within the state of New York. Now ask yourself why the same thing shouldn’t be happening in disciplines such as business, engineering, computer science, health care, and numerous other fields, and on a national scale.
There is, after all, another key element in Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. It happens at the margins, and it happens within organizations that are free from the obligations of established incumbents. One of the great misunderstandings regarding Christensen’s theory, in my view, is that we can all disruptively innovate ourselves. But Christensen himself points out that the only companies that have successfully accomplished that feat have done so by establishing separate, discrete R&D units free of the pressures of the parent organization’s business model, customer demands, profit targets and more. The reality is, more often than not, that disruptive innovations put established incumbents out of business. That, after all, is what makes them disruptive.
If traditional higher education wants to innovate – if it realizes that it must – then that innovation will have to take place in the margins, free from the demands of traditional culture, regulation, and financial models. An Innovation Demonstration Program would allow us a chance to see just how much invention is in us, and how far we can go in lowering prices, increasing access, and educating the nation.
Peter Stokes is executive vice president of Eduventures, a higher education consulting firm.