The Don'ts of Higher Ed Reform

The 18 months that I spent on Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education left me convinced that American higher education must undergo dramatic change if it is to keep thriving. The commission got that part right, even if -- as I believe and argue in my new book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education (Rutgers University Press) -- many of its preconceptions and strategies were deeply flawed.

September 4, 2009

The 18 months that I spent on Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education left me convinced that American higher education must undergo dramatic change if it is to keep thriving. The commission got that part right, even if -- as I believe and argue in my new book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education (Rutgers University Press) -- many of its preconceptions and strategies were deeply flawed.

The book is my attempt to write the report that the Spellings Commission should have. I try to make sense of all of the public criticism and debate that is now swirling about higher education -- and to offer what the commission did not: a challenge for the future and a strategy for enlisting the very instincts of the academy to do more, to be bolder, to take the kinds of risks that the academy, from time to time, has taken. (See related news article here.)

To make reform I would start with the wisdom of the Wharton School’s Greg Shea, who, in talks he used to give to presidents and deans at Penn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, frequently discussed what he called the “necessity of the don’t-do list.” To avoid getting hung up on endless lists of potentially tangential things “to do,” Shea told the campus leaders attending a week-long executive education seminar that they should construct don’t-do lists to accompany their to-do lists.

That approach would work wonders for higher ed reform as well. Too often, calls for change begin with a nearly exhaustive list of the problems and challenges facing the enterprise, followed by an even longer list of the steps that need to be taken in response to those ills so carefully catalogued. The report of the Spellings Commission is as good an example as any of what happens when no problem or challenge is considered too small or too tangential to be included in the list of things that must be done. The result is an agenda that overwhelms precisely because it has failed to discriminate.

My to-do list -- the issues and challenges I think American higher education needs to address during the next decade – will follow in a forthcoming essay. But the don’t do list is just as important. Two are on it because, for the moment at least, no practical solution is at hand and to pretend otherwise would be to waste time and energy. One represents a kind of third rail that trying to change becomes not just quixotic but outright dangerous. The last item, for all its importance to the nation, belongs on a different to-do list, one more focused on higher education’s research as opposed to its educational mission.

Don’t Try to Reform the NCAA’s Big Money Sports

In the realm of higher education reform, intercollegiate athletics is the one that got away -- permanently. Derek Bok is right when he laments that it’s already too late to reverse the tide of athletic commercialism. The sums are too large, the constituencies too powerful, the absence of agreed-upon purposes all too readily apparent.

Is reform necessary? -- yes. Is it possible? -- no, just ask the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Ten years after their initial report, the distinguished panel that composed the commission was painfully blunt in assessing the Commission’s lack of success.

The bad news is hard to miss. The truth is manifested regularly in a cascade of scandalous acts that, against a backdrop of institutional complicity and capitulation, threaten the health of American higher education. The good name of the nation’s academic enterprise is even more threatened today than it was when the Knight Commission published its first report a decade ago. Despite progress in some areas, new problems have arisen, and the condition of big-time college sports has deteriorated.

Big-time football and basketball will not likely change any time soon -- witness current discussions as to whether athletes in these money sports deserve to be paid given the substantial funds the sponsoring universities derive from their athletic prowess. The best higher education can hope for is that eventually universities will cut loose their programs in football and basketball, making the university a sponsor rather than an owner of the enterprise.

Don’t Tackle Tenure

For much the same reason, though the issues are fundamentally different, higher education’s reform agenda should not tackle the issue of tenure. The circumstances of academic tenure have changed and will likely continue to change, perhaps even dramatically. Among university and college staff members who are fully academically qualified -- which usually means an individual with an earned doctorate or a corresponding terminal degree -- the proportion either with tenure or serving a tenure probationary period has declined steadily over three decades. In many large research universities, the proportion of academically qualified faculty not on the tenure track now exceeds the proportion of those eligible for tenure.

So what is tenure’s future? The easy answer is that there will be more of the same -- a decrease in the proportion of academically trained personnel who either enjoy or are eligible for tenure, adjustments to the tenure clock to accommodate the growing prevalence of two-career academic families, and continued fussing about how to keep older faculty, in particular, productive and accountable. Nothing on the horizon suggests these trends will either abate or be reversed.

Still, too many of the academy’s critics cannot seem to leave the question of tenure alone. To the populists among them, tenure is synonymous with elitism and privilege. To the efficiency pundits, tenure is a way of ensuring that a faculty member never has to work too hard. To others, tenure is the stone wall against which every attempt at curricular reform ultimately crashes.

I don’t rule out the possibility of a significant public outcry by those who have never liked tenure. Why, they will ask, should the academy be exempt from the discipline of the labor market? Were there to be a perfect storm -- a perception of out-of-control costs, a sense of students not being served, and a steady stream of arrogant pronouncements by faculty spokesmen to the effect that the academy is different and hence exempt from public scrutiny -- the result could be a state in which the legislature abolishes tenure in a fit of spite.

However undesirable or, from the academy’s point of view, irrational such a political coup de grace would be, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Could there be a successful battle to do away with or limit the privileges of tenure? Probably yes, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory followed by a decade or more of campus turmoil. Higher education would not be transformed, but stalled, consumed by an angry battle that would employ symbols, not actual change.

There is a second reason for not tackling the question of tenure now. The spread of for-profit higher education and its very different ways of employing instructional staff suggest that the labor market itself could be an agent of change. Here the model is the University of Phoenix, a business that has proved remarkably resilient despite the disdain of traditional academics.

The University of Phoenix has academic employees rather than faculty; those who there or at one of its principal competitors or imitators are not independent contractors, let alone tenure-eligible faculty. They do not own their own courses. They are not the final arbitrators of either what or how they teach. The academic staffs of the University of Phoenix and similar institutions are contingent workers in both the best and most restrictive sense of that term. They are well rewarded but only as long as what they have to offer in terms of both teaching content and style is valued in the marketplace; Phoenix is not interested in supporting either subjects or individuals whose efforts do not tap an ongoing revenue stream.

Few doubt that this labor model will continue to spread -- first through the growth of for-profit entities and eventually by spreading to nonprofit institutions, particularly those serving adult and part-time student markets. Already most of these institutions -- principally community colleges, less selective liberal arts colleges, and state comprehensive universities -- employ large numbers of adjunct faculty, many of whom work simultaneously for more than one institution. Today they are the academy’s gypsies -- poorly paid, ordinarily without benefits, often without offices, and almost always without standing in the institutions they serve.

The University of Phoenix treats its contingent work force much better. Were a University of Phoenix-like contingent-labor model to spread, the working conditions for the professionals who serve these markets might actually improve in the sense they would likely be treated as contingent professionals rather than academic gypsies. But that improvement would depend on the institutions that employ them, like the University of Phoenix, abandoning the distinction between “regular” and “adjunct” faculty; instead, the institutions would treat everyone as a part of a contingent academic labor force.

Don’t Try to Reform Accreditation

The more external the critic, the more likely he or she will turn to accreditation as a means of reforming individual colleges and universities. To the uninitiated, the accrediting agencies, particularly those responsible for accrediting institutions offering the baccalaureate degree, have (or should have) the power to change both how and what institutions teach.

The reason accreditation has not been an agent of enforceable reform, these critics argue, is that there is an all-too-cozy relationship between the accreditors and the institutions they accredit. In support of their argument, they often point out how often the officials of the accrediting agencies and the experts they place on their accreditation teams are drawn from the ranks of established colleges and universities.

Right question, wrong answer. Accreditation has not been an agent of enforceable reform because the accreditation industry is itself a hopeless mess: six different regional agencies are responsible for undergraduate and graduate education, while two dozen separate, professionally focused accrediting agencies each jealously protects its own turf and prerogatives. Although the regional accrediting agencies share insights and occasionally personnel, there is both no common methodology and an irritating tendency to abruptly change how they monitor both themselves and the institutions for which they are responsible.

To make accreditation an agent of national reform would require a major, probably exhaustive campaign to make the accrediting agencies much more like one agency in their ability to gauge the quality of education an institution provides. Testing regimes would have to be agreed upon, as would common definitions of the educational outcomes that accredited institutions are expected to supply -- in short, an agreed-upon set of national standards.

To make such an accrediting system work on a national scale would require a fundamentally different methodology. The United Kingdom and Australia have both experimented with what they call “quality audits.” The Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) defines a quality audit as a “systematic and independent examination to determine whether activities and related results comply with planned arrangements and whether these arrangements are implemented effectively and are suitable to achieve objectives.”

Though the language suggests something like a financial audit, even in this national agency independently charted by the Australian federal government, the quality process involves very little statistical data testifying to the learning outcomes achieved by the audited institutions. Were there in fact data that could be audited, the result would be more like what the reformers have in mind when they link testing and accreditation.

Perhaps the largest problem is that almost no one outside and very few inside the academy either care about or are familiar with how institutions are accredited. Parents and students simply assume the institutions in which they are interested are accredited because they are. Most accrediting reports are not made public, but then again, it is doubtful that higher education’s consumers would know how to interpret what are almost always highly nuanced and somewhat opaque essays.

The exceptions to this rule are the agencies that accredit professional programs. Not to be accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), for example, is to be at a significant disadvantage in the market for an MBA education. AACSB sets high standards, mostly reflecting the resources an institution invests in its MBA program. Once accredited, however, and despite a regular review cycle, there is not much mystery surrounding a particular program's accreditation reaffirmation.

Tackling these issues would be a Herculean task promising at best uncertain results. One painful lesson Margaret Spellings learned when she tried to transform the regional accrediting bodies into federal enforcement agencies was just how unpopular that idea was. While the hue and cry was less than what would have been a parallel plan to make the NCAA a federal enforcement agency, the effort taught the same lesson. Some opportunities were lost long ago.

Leave Investments in Research Infrastructure to Others

One of the most important but worst-named federal reports of the past 20 years was “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” by the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. It is comprehensive and, like too many such efforts, has a little bit of something for everyone, but its central thrust is nonetheless true to its central intent: The federal government, in particular, must substantially increase its investment in basic research in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

The report also talks about the need to make sustained investments in the teaching of the STEM disciplines. Any higher education agenda needs to address that particular need, but one focusing on the general transformation of the enterprise need not -- indeed, should not -- invest any of its fire power in promoting support of an agenda for basic research. No doubt increased expenditures on basic science research will trickle down to the rest of higher education, if only because America’s top research universities train the bulk of college and university faculty.

But let me note -- maybe even shout -- that transforming American higher education and revitalizing the nation’s capacity for basic research in the physical and related sciences are separate agendas and should remain so.

That’s my don’t do list. I hope you’ll check back for my to do list in the days ahead.


Robert Zemsky is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and chair and CEO of its Learning Alliance for Higher Education.This essay, the first of two parts, is drawn from his new book, Making Reform Work, from Rutgers University Press.


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