Don't Go Changing

Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, “Change we can believe in,” will never be mistaken for a classic of the genre. It has none of the poetry of “morning again in America,” the precision of “a chicken in every pot,” or the back-slapping bonhomie of “I like Ike.”

September 25, 2008
 
 

Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, “Change we can believe in,” will never be mistaken for a classic of the genre. It has none of the poetry of “morning again in America,” the precision of “a chicken in every pot,” or the back-slapping bonhomie of “I like Ike.”

Nevertheless, Obama has succeeded in placing “change” at the rhetorical center of this year’s presidential contest. In just the last few weeks alone, he introduced his new and improved tagline, “the change you need,” John McCain countered with “change you can trust,” Joe Biden scoffed, “That’s not change, that’s more of the same,” and Sarah Palin hit back at “candidates who use change to promote their careers,” as opposed to “those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.”

Of course, sophisticated pundits and politicos would never let themselves be snookered by this sort of rhetorical gamesmanship. They’ve called out Obama on his messaging numerous times, dating to the Iowa caucuses when, for example, the editors at USA Today asked, “As the candidate of ‘change,’ what changes does he want? Could he deliver them?” Obama "seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public" with nothing more than the "vague promise of ‘change,’" complained the Washington Post's Robert Samuelson. And even John McCain -- who was against such tactics before he was for them -- rebuked Obama for making “an eloquent but empty call for change.”

Higher education, on the other hand, seems very much to enjoy snookering itself. Academic reformers have been making lofty appeals to change (and its souped-up partner, “transformation”) for years now, rarely stopping to ask what, if anything, such terms mean or whether anybody could deliver on them.

A quick search of scholarly publications turns up literally hundreds of titles such as “10 bellwether principles for transforming American higher education,” “Organizing adjuncts to change higher education,” “Transformation of the community colleges for the 21st century,” “Virtual transformation: Web-based technology and pedagogical change,” “Transformation of higher education: The transdisciplinary approach in engineering,” and “Transforming library and higher education support services.”

Appearing in the pages of the Journal of Transformative Education are pieces such as “Mentoring for transformative learning” and “Transformative higher education: A meaningful degree of understanding.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning chimes in with “Teaching and learning in the service of transformation” and “Creating change in engineering education.” Fordham University Press just released Class Degrees: Smart Work, Managed Identities, and the Transformation of Higher Education, Routledge offers Strategic Leadership of Change in Higher Education , Jossey-Bass presents Latino Change Agents in Higher Education and even TIAA/CREF, the retirement planning giant, has gotten into the act, with Transformational Change in Higher Education.

Recent events have included the National Conference on Civic Engagement: Creating Agents for Change, the Annual Conference on Teaching for Transformation, Vision 2020: Digital Ubiquity & University Transformation and the 18th annual Teaching for a Change conference. The state of New Mexico hosted Changing for Learning’s Sake: A Focus on Assessment and Retention, Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership sponsored Women Moving Forward: Navigating Change, the Council on Independent Colleges offered workshops on the Transformation of the College Library and the U.S. Department of Education held an event that it billed as a “National Higher Education Transformation Summit.”

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual at the University of Michigan’s Work Group on Organizational Change and Transformation in Higher Education, the University of Maryland’s project on Change and Sustainability in Higher Education and the independent National Center for Academic Transformation. The American Council of Education’s Project on Leadership and Institutional Transformation finished up its work a few years ago, taking with it ACE’s series of occasional papers titled On Change. However, for academics still needing a fix, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO continues to host discussions of "Working Together to Transform Higher Education," the report of the 2003 World Conference on Higher Education.

So what’s wrong with all of this change-mongering?

To be fair, much of it perfectly harmless. People have to find something to name their articles, conferences, and institutes, and if nothing clever comes to mind, then “transformation” makes for a convenient rallying cry. As Barack Obama knows (and let’s not forget Walter Mondale, who went with “America needs a change” for his 1984 campaign slogan, and Jimmy Carter, who had a somewhat more successful 1976 run with “A leader, for a change”), change sounds like a pretty good thing to pursue. It captures people’s attention, makes them feel hopeful, and probably helps draw them to workshops and conferences.

The problem isn’t that academic reformers try to put a positive spin on their work. Rather, the problem is that they’re not very good at it, whether as producers or consumers of rhetoric.

As producers, they’re simply unimaginative. Again and again, they dip into the very same rhetorical well, as if there were no means by which to inspire audiences but to speak of transformation, and no way to stir people to action but to warn them that they live in a time of great change (as though that couldn’t be said of every decade since the Mesozoic era), one that compels a response.

And as consumers of this sort of rhetoric, academics are far too easy to please. Journalists and politicians pride themselves on their ability to dissect the candidates’ slogans and bumper stickers. But college professors and provosts seem all too happy to take such language at face value, smiling sweetly at the latest call for transformation.

Perhaps the appeal of such promises stands in inverse relationship to their likelihood of being fulfilled. As numerous historians of higher education have documented, for all the bold words and big plans of academic reformers, the “basic grammar” of higher education -- the familiar ways in which faculty teach, students learn, departments function, administrators govern, and so on -- has proven to be extremely durable, evolving little over the past century. It could be that reformers go easy on the vaguest of slogans precisely because they know how difficult it is to achieve the concrete goals toward which they work so hard, such as to get students to drink less and study more, to create tenure systems that reward excellent teaching, to graduate much larger numbers of low-income students, to devise a truly coherent undergraduate curriculum, and so on. Maybe academic reformers talk so often about transformation precisely because they see so little of it and they need the occasional dose of hopefulness.

Some such hopeful “audacity,” as Obama would put it, may be necessary, inspiring faculty and administrators to press on with the painfully slow and necessarily incremental march of academic reform. But too much of it can ruin their sense of direction, leading them to believe that “change” is actually a meaningful objective, and leading them to mistake every new curricular policy or departmental initiative for a dramatic transformation.

Those of us who care about higher education certainly wouldn’t want to forego the audacious optimism that sustains us, but it may be time to ditch, or at least tone down, the empty calls for change.

Bio

Rafael Heller is an independent consultant and education writer in Washington.

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