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Published:

January 1, 2010
 
Tagged: President Emeritus

The Modern American University: A Love Story

Essays and Opinion Pieces


By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University

Introduction

Why “Love Story”? I know higher education well enough for admiration; deeply enough for anguish; and sure enough for anticipation of a positive future. While there are many elements to lament, I think there is reason to believe in the idealism which has fueled the desire for learning in groups for over the millennia, and in a concomitant commitment to relevance which has been the essence of the American higher education journey

Admiration

The modern American college and university carry in them the DNA of an historic institution that fulfills three critical roles central to society:

  • Curator of the past, society’s memory, whether recorded in ink, clay, brass, or databases;
  • Creator of the new, whether from a microscope slide or a new synthesis of theories on social phenomena; and
  • Critic of the status quo, standing at the periphery of society, asking questions related to fair treatment, justice, equality, and “what if?”

This unique institution carries a covenant between those who form it and the public that gives it a charter, the major asset of each institution. The faculty may be the heart, and students the soul, but the license to award degrees and certificates is what gives the institution stature, credibility, relevance, and viability in the modern age.

Colleges and universities have evolved and developed, from an institution dedicated to preparing and perpetuating elite classes of professionals to one embraced by policy makers to promote social mobility; economic development; lifesaving medicines; smart, self-correcting materials; waterless crops, technicians of all types, and life-long learners. Universities are both “ambassadors” when they welcome students from other countries, and exporters who educate people from around the world who return home.

University graduates, no matter what their socio-economic origins, have lower unemployment, higher incomes, commit fewer crimes, and have a greater likelihood of civic participation. Colleges and universities are sources of intellectual achievement, cultural programming, entertainment, and facilities for public purposes.

Three themes have been dominant for several decades now, including access, affordability, and accountability or assessment. While universal access is not a reality, mass access is. Universities are vehicles for remaking society. A university is an institution committed to the transformation of lives through intellectual challenge and societal engagement. It is not like a trade school, emphasizing transactions and “how to,” although in its mission for advancing knowledge, skills, abilities, and values, it is committed to the development of citizens able to accomplish a wide variety of tasks and goals.

For the individual, a university education is intended to be an investment in a lifetime, not an expense for a year. It is designed to prepare students not only for a job, but also for a series of careers, for an enriched life, even as it enhances the opportunities for life’s riches.

If a chamber of commerce, engaged in strategic planning, wanted to attract an entity that would employ highly educated workers, whose employees would engage in the community, whose activities would be sensitive to the environment and contribute to the economy, and whose end results would be those in which all could be proud, they would recruit a university.

Indeed, the advances in society as a result of university initiatives are so numerous to name that we must simply stipulate: universities have been the engines of economic development in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st Century.

Universities have expanded their conception of research over the years, embracing Ernest Boyer’s four categories of “scholarship reconsidered.” These include Discovery, the work of the scientist and archeologist engaged in fundamental research and pursuing the “ah ha” moment; Integration, drawing from different fields to form a new synthesis that reveals new understanding; Application, applying what is known in new ways so as to create new opportunities for solving problems; and Teaching, understanding how students learn so that what is taught becomes more permanent as learning.

Higher education is a diverse enterprise, with multiple institutional types; students from every country and socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic group; faculty with diverse backgrounds, from pure academe to those who have changed careers multiple times; staff who are devoted to the enterprise and, knowing that the role of faculty is more central, nevertheless engage in a metaphorical organization of “lords, squires and yeomen”; and a curriculum that has evolved over time from an emphasis on the classical disciplines of language and reasoning to newer disciplines, such as real estate and emergency management.

Colleges and universities have varied aspirations, although a model espoused by Gerald Grant and David Riesman nearly fifty years ago still obtains: a serpent whose neck and trunk undulate in concert with the head, mimicking the paths of the most prestigious institutions, copycat style. The result is called “mission creep.”

Of all institutions of higher education, the community college is perhaps the most unique. Born in the U.S., the public community college is supported by the local county government, the state government, and student resources, charging low tuition and providing alternative paths to crafts, trades, licensure, and degrees transferable to four-year institutions. The curricula at community colleges include that which is matched almost perfectly to the traditional liberal arts college as well as that which is finely tuned to the trades, crafts, and select occupations.

In addition, there are numerous “corporate” universities providing education and credentials to employees of a single corporation, hospital, or scientific lab.

For a period in the 1980’s, corporate universities offering associate, baccalaureate, and graduate degrees “grew and prospered.” Since that time, however, a combination of forces has stalled this forward movement, including reductions in employment, reductions in expenditures, and the elimination of companies through mergers and bankruptcies. It seems likely that this trend will continue and that for-profit and not-for-profit colleges will fill the need for human resource development.

The U.S. is also unusual for the number and variety of for-profit institutions that have been developed. Over time, these organizations have become eligible for federal and state support for their students as they provide access to increasing numbers of students in classrooms and on-line, begging the question of what “college” means.

Other reasons to admire higher education are the technological advances in communications, teaching and learning; the various systems of Web-based course management and research sources, whether for science, literature, or museum collections; the opportunities for “second chances” and part-time study; and the person-to-person networking and internship possibilities that campuses have developed.

There is a growing emphasis on providing opportunities for college education for advanced high school students, even as increasing numbers of institutions, especially community colleges, are providing remedial education for those returning to schooling several years after high school graduation.

In addition, alumni relations have come a long way from simply asking for a donation each year to actually providing services that have become especially important as increasing numbers of college graduates find their jobs eliminated or careers challenged due to new technologies and dramatic currents in the economy.

College and university fundraising techniques have pioneered the field for other tax-exempt organizations, for annual giving and for capital campaigns and gifts from corporations and private foundations. The formula is the same: Interest, Inform, Involve, and Invest: the four “I’s” for friend and fund-raising.

United States higher education is a beacon to the world, and five times as many students come here as leave to study elsewhere. There are problems to be solved, ills to be cured, but, in many ways, American colleges and universities remain an ideal for others to emulate.

In summary, there is much to celebrate and admire about higher education.

Anguish

At the same time, though, there is much that causes anguish. Colleges and universities are privileged institutions, whether private, public, or for-profit, with tax advantages for themselves and their patrons. Federal and state rules and regulations grant them the unique authority to award degrees and certificates; make students eligible for government financial aid; and provide tax exemptions for donations and the bonding of facilities. While for-profit institutions do not enjoy all of these benefits, they certainly enjoy many privileges granted by federal and state laws, rules, regulations, and programs.

Think of the use of tax-exempt bonds to build athletic facilities used to gain television fees and tax deductible donations from corporations and patrons, even as the debt service for the facilities results in more benefits and advantages to the bond holders. Think also about non-mission revenue and executive compensation which raise concerns in the public and political circles.

We then witness some of these same institutions during “March Madness,” when the “student”-athletes playing for institutional glory in tax-preferred facilities are unlikely, on average, to graduate and earn a college degree. Yet, all students and citizens will pay for the debt service needed to support the facilities required for recruiting the athletes and supporting the teams, as well as athletic grants-in-aid, whether through taxes, tuition and fee charges, or other means.

Other examples of questionable institutional behavior can be found all too easily. Think of admissions “view books” that show campus scenes not to be found on a tour; scandals about “kickbacks” to financial aid officers; and calculations of average SAT scores or the percentage of donors which falsify the results and show better ratios than they really are. While some allegations about institutional misbehavior are exaggerated, these examples are, unfortunately, true.

We have read about board of trustee members who have conflicts of interest which are not properly disclosed, about courses with hundreds of students where major responsibilities for teaching and grading is left to graduate students whose first priority is their own degree, about colleges which fudge their student-faculty ratio, about those which do not offer sufficient courses for students to graduate on time, about doctoral students laboring for a dozen years or so as Teaching or Research Assistants, accumulating burdensome debts, instead of completing their dissertations and beginning their careers. Such use of Graduate Teaching Assistants, or adjunct faculty leaves one to ask about the role of full-time faculty in contributing to the excellence of undergraduate education.

A frequent question is, “why does college cost so much? Have costs escalated beyond reason? What percentage of a middle class income is required for tuition now compared to 50 years ago? College costs (prices, really) are most highly correlated to faculty, staff, and facility costs. Faculty are more highly educated than ever, are more likely to be specialists, and command higher relative salaries and benefits.

Performance appraisals, academic program reviews, and quality assurance for accountability are much more common, and cost time and money. Many more staff lines and categories are required now than in the past due to accreditation, state, federal, and auditing requirements, and new standards for student services related to campus missions and priorities for retention and career advising.

In addition, facilities and capital equipment needs and wants are greater than ever. Space formerly used for classrooms has been taken over by computer labs, which no doubt will be renovated again when most students will have smaller, personal, powerful, and portable communications and other devices; these and new services for the orientation of faculty to new technologies require space. Strategies for student satisfaction and success require space. And classrooms used for other purposes must be replaced. While there certainly are examples of “spa-like” recreation facilities costing plenty, even the basic needs for Bloomberg terminals, lounges and lockers for commuting students, and IT quarters require new and renovated spaces. For most institutions, such space is paid for by bonds whose debt service places yet more demands on the operating budget and tuition.

Therefore, when we compare the average private college tuition of 1964-1965, $1,008, to the average in 2008-2010, $26,273, one can begin to understand the effect of these drivers on increases. By comparison, the average price for a Chevy Malibu in 1965 was $2,156 and in 2010 is $21,285, an increase of 912% compared to the 2315% increase in tuition.

With the price of higher education causing concern because of annual costs to families and the debt incurred by students upon graduation with a bachelor’s degree, and the demand for higher education admission growing significantly, it is important to ask whether society can continue to make traditional forms of higher education available and affordable for those who desire it and are qualified. Even Moody’s Investor Services questions the current model.

In addition to slowing expense growth going forward,
higher education institutions may need to revise their
business models to accommodate lower revenues and
wealth. For example, private institutions will need to
prove their value in the market place by pursing
heightened name recognition and creating more
effective alliances, networks, and associations to
achieve better economies of scale across many
institutions. With student purchasing power likely
stagnant, private institutions in particular will need
to better portray their value to families.1

From these examples, we can see that institutional aspirations and efforts for prestige, whether through research or sports, are not necessarily connected to the stated campus mission for student learning and preparation for life. We recognize, all too often, institutional and individual faculty behavior in support of the commercialization of research and big Pharma, and how dollars flow.

Many institutions seem more ambitious for prestige than for results; more focused on the transactions of enrollment and graduation rather than on the transformation of students through close faculty-student relations and campus activities. We often hear that this or that college is “better” than the other without regard to what “better” means with regard to what outcome? “Better” with regard to student advancement or institutional characteristics? “Better” with regard to institutional output or student output?

Students should be concerned about the quality of programs, the extent and ease of student-faculty contact, ready access to information, and the degree of “fit” between individual talents and aspirations and institutional values and style. Yet, institutions more interested in enrollment than in student advancement don’t honor these principles.

When asked about improving productivity and providing increased forms of accountability, institutional leaders often use the false analogy of comparing the campus to a symphony orchestra and say it can not play its music faster. Yet, even the orchestra experiments with the clock, the calendar, programming, and easier access via technology.

One way to increase campus productivity is to make better use of the clock. New academic buildings and parking lots are at times constructed because the most popular times for teaching are Monday – Wednesday – Friday, or Tuesday – Thursday from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, creating maximum demand on space, while that same space tends to be underutilized on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Another way is to make better use of January for short courses, if on a semester system, and the three months of summer. Institutions of higher education are notorious for making ineffective use of physical assets and for giving up decision-making for one quarter of each year because summer is deemed “off-limits” for campus governance.

Still another form of productivity could be enhanced by greater coordination between and among academic units. Deans tend to look inward because of requirements for course scheduling, curricula development, and personnel issues, instead of also looking outward to see opportunities for collaboration with others on and off campus. One result is a tendency toward duplication of effort instead of cooperation for results.

Unfortunately, the reward structure of most colleges and universities seems more aligned with individual faculty accomplishments than with institutional priorities for student learning, interdisciplinary programs, community engagement, and global education. Much of what is labeled as scholarship is “publication for publication sake,” designed more to satisfy institutional reward systems for promotion and tenure than to advance teaching and learning.

An important part of the reward structure is tenure, with promotion in rank a strong second and release from teaching another. These all are related to the institution’s priority for research, the scholarship of discovery, integration, and application, and the priority for externally-sponsored grants. All this begs the questions of what is the commitment to teaching and how many research universities are needed. The challenge is to synchronize the reward system with the mission for teaching and learning. In too many cases, institutions express one mission and use the reward system related to another.

We have a federal goal to increase college attendance without clarifying what “college” actually means. What can it mean when there are so many different kinds of organizations using that name? Unfortunately, we have come to a point where families think that college is the four year institution for eighteen year-olds after high school, when in fact it might be a series of institutions which provide associate degrees, baccalaureate and graduate degrees, and certificates over a lifetime. We need new forms of post-high school education and training for essential trades, crafts, and other skilled occupations that get short shrift in status rankings, not more aid-supported, under-prepared and under-motivated students scraping by in non-rigorous majors.

With many opportunities for collaboration between and among campuses in terms of degree programs as well as backroom services, we see little of either. Perhaps this lack of collaboration is related to the notion of each campus as an ivory tower unto itself. The power of competition for students, donors, and recognition often thwarts the benefits of cooperation.

Universities gave up in loco parentis on the premise that if students were mature enough to fight in wars they should not have strict regulations on campus, and drugs, sex, and alcohol flourished. Yet it is not uncommon to find campuses where the faculty have decided not to give tests on Thursday because of student parties on Wednesday night, prompting the question of who controls the learning environment.

It used to be that colleges were focused as much on character development and citizenship preparation as they were for preparing students for careers and commerce, but the first two got short shrift for many years. Now, they seem to be coming back, in part because accrediting standards and other external forces are asking difficult questions about student development and learning goals.

As someone who has served all three roles, public college president, private university president, and State Higher Education Executive Officer (SHEEO), I have a unique perspective on the dynamic balance of what makes sense for public policy at the state and federal level, and for local priorities for an independent campus. These issues are usually not in balance, yet must be reconciled if we are to meet national goals for advanced learning.

A particularly egregious example of federal policy gone awry is reflected in the extent to which federal student loan programs have become the life-blood of private career schools and for-profit colleges and universities. While such organizations are lauded for providing competition to state and privately-funded non-profit institutions, they actually have higher costs, higher debt per student, higher default rates on that debt, and higher drop-out rates.

Yet Congress, whose members benefit from campaign contributions from such schools and colleges, turns a blind eye to such evidence and proclaims competition to be good, even when 90% or more of the revenue for such schools and colleges come from federally-subsidized or originated loans,2 and a growing proportion of Pell Grants are being used at schools with high dropout rates.

We see Congress acting to reward for-profit schools with reduced regulations for accountability, even with high default rates on federal loans, and the ability to contribute to Congressional Political Action Committees, while at the same time instituting regulations that induce unnecessary costs resulting in increased tuition at traditional campuses.

This same Congress mandated that banks should no longer issue guaranteed student loans, and that the federal Department of Education should issue student loans directly. Unfortunately, Congress also took nearly $20 billion from the student loan program, resulting in a cancellation of nearly $100 billion in available loan aid, opening even further a market for “alternative loans” with interest rates approaching 20%. Having the government maintain a monopoly on “subsidized” loans means that programs for students will most likely have fewer of the benefits resulting from competition between the Direct Lending Program and the guaranteed program.

The historic philosophy of student financial aid based on family need has been replaced by the discounting of tuition for affluent students whose higher test scores improve the institution’s academic profile and ranking in college guides. Some colleges discount tuition at 40-55%, without even including room and board forgiveness. How can such behavior be sustained?

One of the great ironies to me is the use of financial aid. We have no truly systemic approach involving the federal government, state government, and institutions in supporting access and affordability for all citizens. Instead, we have multiple policies which support campus or organizational goals instead of national goals.

In particular, the system of merit scholarships means that those who can pay full tuition actually provide scholarship assistance both for those who could afford to pay as well as those who can’t by making it possible for the campus to discount tuition. Merit awards are designed to attract students with specific talents or attributes, whether or not their families can afford the tuition. The system of student scholarships and financial aid has moved a long way from its earliest intention to make college affordable and to attract talented students who would add income and cultural diversity to student populations.

Donations from grateful alumni and generous friends support endowed scholarships which institutions use to help make tuition and fees affordable. These gifts rely upon the charitable donation provisions of the Internal Revenue Service Code as adopted in 1917 and amended over the years. With demands for government services increasing and political limitations on raising taxes, there are those who argue that the organizations eligible for tax-deductible donations be scaled back.

In the recent past, we have seen universities that rely on unrestricted investment income to cover operating expenses, such as salary increases and debt service, commit invested funds to alternative investments with little liquidity. The results: faculty furloughs, salary freezes, layoffs, and stalled projects. Universities have used easy credit to finance facilities and programs that support the aforementioned “mission creep.” Even the wealthiest of institutions seemed to believe that markets only rise – much to their regret.

All of this raises again the question as to whether the financial model for higher education based on tuition-fees, philanthropy (whether through endowment or current dollars), and debt, must be rethought. The economy is not likely to return to the buoyancy of recent years; state tax revenues are not likely to return to previous levels; and, even if they do, higher education’s share of state expenditures are likely to continue their decline.

The consequences of changed economic circumstances for public institutions are severe. Their lower tuitions and, for some, their rising prestige, attract increased numbers of a new applications for admission, driving up their selectivity, and therefore both their prestige and the average income of the families whose students enroll. One result is that state universities, in particular, become more elite and move beyond their mission to serve the public through access to opportunity. These institutions may increase tuition because they can, and legislators allow them to do so, but the combination of increased enrollment and increased demand for a high quality experience, when combined with reduced state support, will lead to criticisms from families, students, faculty, and accrediting bodies.

A consequence for less selective state and county campuses is increased enrollment, which, when combined with reduced public funding and increased efforts to gain private contracts for training, leads inexorably sway from their public purpose.

The consequence for independent, or privately funded institutions, varies more widely. Those already elite have plenty of families willing to pay, whether through assets or debt, for what they offer, including prestigious education and credentials, a campus environment designed to nurture success, and a network of highly accomplished students and alumni.

For less selective private colleges and universities, the consequences of such formidable competition, from public and prestigious private campuses, can be devastating. When enrollment becomes threatened, discounted tuition aid is increased, financial ratios deteriorate, and some campuses are being taken over by for-profit education corporations.

In response, campuses’ have turned to outsourcing services, including bookstores, food services, maintenance, security, and other functions. One could argue that the switch to more part-time faculty is a form of outsourcing, and some campuses have even turned to for-profit colleges to take responsibility for even basic instructional missions.

Increasingly, students and family pay by use of loans, both government-supported and so-called “alternative loans,” which can result in debt of $25,000 to $100,000 for certain baccalaureate graduates, and up to $400,000 for graduates of select graduate programs. Such debt levels will not only influence the careers chosen by the recent graduates, leaving important choices such as teaching and social services as less attractive, but also will burden graduates with debt which cannot be forgiven or forgotten through bankruptcy – – an especially devastating condition during a recession and a retrenchment in employment levels.

Both institutions and families have used borrowing to advance their causes: institutions to build competitive facilities and families to “afford” the most prestigious college for their children. It is likely that debt markets will take time to recover and that both campus boards and parents will be less inclined to borrow. In addition, home equity and pension accounts will no longer be rich alternatives to banks as they have in recent decades.

In some cases, campus unions add to the complexity of the campus environment. Yet, unions exist to serve a purpose and deserve respect. To do otherwise is to provoke problems that don’t need to exist if a policy of “no surprises” is in place. Unions and union officials deserve respect for what they represent, no matter who the individuals are. This approach serves all constituents.

Campus leaders often talk about shared campus governance, by which they mean that the faculty and administration have both distinct and joint responsibilities for fulfilling the mission of the institution. Interestingly, such discussions often ignore the role of the board of trustees, from whom all institutional governance is derived. The Board, through its Charter and By-laws, delegates authority and responsibility to the president, and by that office to the administration and faculty. In most cases, the faculty then creates a representative group, often called a Senate. It is important to remember that the faculty senate; the faculty union, if one; and the administration are three distinct entities, with different responsibilities, yet bound to the same institution. When the distinctive roles of these three are blurred, each can suffer, the balance of powers can be undone, and the strength of shared governance weakened.

A common criticism of higher education relates to schools of education that prepare the teachers and school leaders who are blamed for the achievement gaps between students in different groups and schools and between U.S.-educated students and those in other countries. Universities must do more to partner with schools to prepare prospective teachers for classrooms in different neighborhoods; school districts must be partners in this mission and willing collaborators in developing medical-model residences; and state departments of education must be less bureaucratic in setting requirements for who can teach in schools of education, and what is to be taught, and more flexible in allowing innovations in staffing, the design of experiences, and the establishment of new programs. Only then will the parties be aligned to reduce the achievement gap that plaques schools and children.

Nevertheless, we see noble, ambitious, and appropriate goals for foreign languages and global understanding, and renewed emphasis on campus presidents joining together to advance the mission of liberal learning, scientific research and climate change goals, in both public and private institutions. Yet, these large societal goals often get subsumed by more immediate issues, like financial turmoil. It causes anguish to know that great ideals for the public good become so easily overshadowed by crass efforts at institutional embellishment.

Anticipation

However, I know higher education well enough to see hopeful signs “on the horizon.”. As the past can offer important lessons for the future, one simply has to think about the connections between higher education and national purpose, including the Northwest Ordinance, the Morrill Land Grant Act, the G.I. Bill, and the National Defense Education Act, which supported population dispersal, scientific agriculture and engineering, service members readjustment, and national defense, among other goals. They all demonstrate that “national purpose” is grander than “Direct Lending.” Public Purpose counts.

In fact, it is “purpose” that is the center of discussions about the sustainability of the higher education business model. History suggests that universities will survive, but the question is, for what purpose. Will it be a public purpose or for private gain? A related question is whether higher education should be viewed as an investment for a lifetime or as consumption for immediate benefit?

This, then, leads again to the critical questions of “who pays for college?” and “who should pay?” Equally important, one must ask who will support scientific research in an anti-science environment, and protect research universities from the threat of censorship.

In recent years, we have read about the likely demise of the university, and a spirited defense of its viability. Both extremes are to be questioned. The “university” has evolved in dramatic fashion over the 1000-plus years, from one where students hired faculty to one where institutions pay students to attend, without regard to family income. Just as the modern corporation as a model for business is not even one hundred years old, so the modern university is only about sixty years old. Therefore, when I read that the university will disappear, I ask, what part or parts of it will wither, and what are the assumptions behind the forecast? For the imperatives for learning and scholarship, the missions of the institution we call college or university, seem to be eternal, and will be continued in an evolving form. The goal is to ensure that it does so with integrity and respect for its unique character.

We need stronger institutional leadership and governance; action must be taken within a broader context, and not simply aimed at rankings. We need new or restated purposes and should ignore the lure of the U.S. News and World Report and Division I glory. We need renewed attention to the three C’s – – cash, communication, and credit – – and restoration of the soul of institutions.3 We know the challenges, but we also know the opportunities for greater collaboration between and among colleges and school districts; better alternatives to “college”; and global partnerships and ventures, with the European models of Erasmus and the Bologna Process as examples.

The major trends for higher education are known,4 and their implications for institutions are not unique. Every institution and organization must consider the forces behind these trends. First, there is globalization, including students and faculty moving between and among nations, information and data flowing freely, and institutions starting campuses and partnerships in other countries.

Second, this mobility of information and people will mandate a need to harmonize what a bachelor’s degree means so that employers and graduate schools will know how to evaluate the transferability of credits and credentials. There are projects in Europe and the Pacific Rim creating models for this for others to consider.

Third, we already have mentioned technology and improvements in the ease of communication. Information and communication technologies challenge educators and executives to think anew about time, place, and space. Distributed learning environments are a reality now and represent a tremendous opportunity for the future. The dramatic expansion of course management software and on-line and other forms of distance learning, whether far away or on campus, connecting students with faculty who are in residence or travelling, has been astonishing.

Fourth, the aforementioned forces, of globalization, transferability, and technology, will have great impact on the preparation, selection, and role of faculty and classroom. These same forces will affect the origin, age, station, and preparation of students.

Fifth, all of the above will cause a reconsideration of campuses and their roles in credentialing and networking as opposed to their roles in socialization and nurturing. These are distinct roles, and the first pair lend themselves more easily to virtual university experiences, even with periodic exposure to “coaches” than the second two.

I see promising signs of attention being given to costs, graduation rates, and the transfer of credit and credentials. There also are exciting activities in leadership development and ethics. Now, we need new means for selecting and nurturing leaders without “Noah’s Ark” search committees. We need increased emphasis on succession planning for boards of trustees, senior executives, officers, and deans.

The emphasis on advanced standing, not only for high school students, but also for military veterans is notable, as institutions change traditions to accommodate new generations of students. Accrediting bodies have evolved as well, perhaps to enhance their monopoly, but also to advance student learning. We see increasing emphasis on accountability, assessment, and competency-based credentials, which is all to the good.

We note that there is increasing emphasis on the notion that institutions should not be expected to teach everything, but instead must fulfill their promise to help students learn anything. Only when this is understood will we be able to grapple with the rising cost of a college education.

In recent years, we have seen renewed interest in the three-year baccalaureate degree, although I question how much of this interest is related to financial concerns as opposed to academic imperatives. At the same time, we see efforts by community colleges to add advanced coursework and residence halls, other signs of “mission creep.”

Institutions have been aggressive in encouraging civic engagement through volunteer work, internships, and service learning, all to advance the service mission of higher education. Along these lines, we see examples of universities using their neighborhoods as laboratories and activity centers instead of issuing debt and building new facilities.

In addition to concerns about potential and actual conflicts of interest, boards of trustees are special interest in other ways. Some are appointed or elected through political process that may not have the integrity of the college or university at the center of their concern. Being a board member requires attentiveness, preparation, conscientiousness, objectivity, and, often, philanthropy. This is a significant challenge for the preservation and enhancement of institutional commitment to mission, given the potential for intrusion by public and private self-interest.

Must the next generations of students rely on screens and scripts instead of professors in classrooms? We hear this: there are so many eligible students forecast that there is no way to accommodate them all; governments cannot afford to build ten more universities in this country, or 1,000’s more in China and India. In some areas of the world, the need could be for 100,000 more universities. We know what works best in education and in training. Why can’t we provide each for everyone who is ready? After all, we know from John W. Gardner that

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble
activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an
exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good
philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

We know about best practice and high quality. How can we make them more available? If Philips Exeter has it right for secondary schooling, why can’t we borrow from it for all? If Princeton and Amherst have it right for baccalaureate learning, why can’t we borrow from them for all? If “XYZ” training program has it right, why can’t we borrow from it for all?

Well, what is it they have “right”? Let’s focus on education, i.e., college education. What is it? Who can offer it?

First, I distinguish between education and training. To me, education is about questions, “What if,” and not about, “How to,” which is the province of training. We need a better system of training around the world, and some places have it right, by combining classroom, on-line, study, and apprenticeship programs.

Second, even education requires some skills development. I think of education as consisting in four dimensions: 1. knowledge, both general and focused, as in a major; 2. skills, such as writing, reading, listening, speaking or presentation; 3. abilities, such as critical reasoning, discerning between and among evidence, emotion, and epiphany as sources of truth; a second language, use of scientific methods, and leadership; and knowing the difference between and among law, morality, and ethics; and 4. values, such as respect for other opinions, teamwork, the balance of community and individual interests.

I distinguish between and among law, morality, and ethics in the following ways. Laws are norms codified by legislative bodies to reflect current standards. As such, laws can evolve, as we can see in laws regarding the ownership of slaves and penalties for drug possession. Morality is usually grounded in the teaching of religion regarding that which is determined to be good and evil, and it, too, can be seen to evolve as moral attitudes toward slavery, gay relationships, and smoking can illustrate.

Ethics are standards of behavior separate from laws and morality. Whereas law and morality establish standards of right and wrong, ethics is often concerned with “right” against “right” as opposed to right compared to wrong. Ethical judgments are related to fair treatment, justice, equality, and the “greater good.” For example, even though slavery was legal and condoned by religious bodies, it clearly violated standards of fairness and equality.

Now, consider the choices confronting a publicly traded company with extra cash. Legal and moral choices include compensation for employees, hiring additional staff, increasing research and development, acquiring another company, establishing a program to benefit the community, and buying back stock. While all options would most likely be deemed legal and moral, the final choice raises ethical questions because the benefits would be disproportionately in favor of those making the decision.

It is understanding these kinds of choices that distinguished the educated from those who are simply trained.

Such as education also embraces four other dimensions: Inquisitiveness, Integration, International or intercultural, and Involvement, i.e., active or “hands-on” learning. I think of this as liberating education, liberating students from their provincial origins, no matter their age, national origin, or station. They are no longer bound by the answers imposed by their culture, but, in James Baldwin’s phrase, learn to see the questions hidden by the answers, the assumptions, of their past.

In addition to the obvious questions of “fit,” including location, size, governance, cost and opportunities, students should think about what they might study and where they should study it. To start, they should know it is okay if they don’t know what they want to pursue as a major. Students need the flexibility to change a course of study without losing credits or time. So, institutional “fit” in terms of offerings, the tool box of knowledge, skills, abilities and values to be enhanced, should be a consideration right from the start. But parents are likely to argue for a degree program that sounds like a career and press for information about job placement rates, internships and alumni networks. Fortunately, colleges are responding to these calls and reflecting this mixture of the theoretical and the hands-on in their programs.

There is considerable evidence that many employers want graduates with particular skills such as accounting, but the vast majority of employers want employees with a broad set of skills, and abilities, more emphasis on effective oral and written communication, critical thinking and reasoning in multiple settings, and the ability to be imaginative across cultural boundaries.

At the same time, increasing numbers of students say they want to develop a “meaningful philosophy of life,” not just be “well-off financially.” They want to pursue with passion a path that leads to personal satisfaction and fulfillment as well as material comfort. In other words, they want a course of study that combines what employers want and what they want. But what should they study? The path chosen should include preparation for a full, well-rounded life as an ethical professional, citizen and family member, and for work that has meaning and provides fulfillment. Such an education is as much about character and citizenship as it is about careers and commerce.

One way to think about this question is to reflect on contemporary issues and ask what lessons we have learned. A quick survey of the past several years would show that too many people in even sophisticated roles lacked knowledge of history or historical analysis, and did not have the personal or professional memory in which ti place contemporary issues. So, history is an essential subject, especially if we are to understand the different ways people “know” the truth and how they challenge assumptions and validate assertions.

In the study of history as I define it, we learn about the world we meet (nature or science); the world we make (culture); and the systems by which we mediate between them (law, morality and ethics). We learn about the past and present, science and technology, war and peace, poetry and prose. Without this broad background, we cannot distinguish cant from Kant. Students also need to learn in context – whether through field work, profession-based placements, or internships – each of which can help reinforce theory through practice.

The second area to develop is that of imagination. It seems clear in retrospect that even high-profile people confronted new problems without the ability to see connections among different variables, could not visualize or forecast directions, could not approach issues with creativity. They had not developed the capacity to wonder, to inquire, to experience discovery, to look, see and ask. These are the benefits of an education that liberates students from their provincial origins, from prejudices masquerading as principles, no matter what their nationality, socioeconomic status, age or religion, and uses various approaches, including the experimental, to teaching. They, and we, grow up in mostly isolated, two-generation, monocultural communities, and have little experience with those some think of as the “other.” They lack a global perspective.

Using these thoughts as a guide, students and families should look at academic programs that have a strong grounding in the liberating arts and sciences, and that give the student an opportunity to master a subject matter to a sufficient degree to enter a profession either directly upon graduation or after graduate school, and gain a network of fellow students and alumni who can become life-long links to careers and social life. They will be composing a life even as they prepare to earn a living.

In each of these cases, the goal is to liberate students, to transform them into inquisitive, articulate, active, ethical citizens, able to consider more sophisticated levels of abstraction, distinguishing conclusions from premises, and the universal from the specific, not simply to engage them in a series of transactions, as if education were a commodity: select the correct answer and we will grant you a credit or a certificate.

One approach to such an education is to conceive the foundation courses in terms of three overlapping clusters of disciplines and topics. The first concerns the world we “meet” upon birth and childhood: nature, science, scientific inquiry. The second concerns the world we, as humans, “make”: literature, history, economics, etc. The third cluster concerns the systems of thought by which we mediate between the world we meet and the world we make: i.e. law, morality, ethics, philosophy.

Now, the cynic will ask, what proportion of the college-going population is able to take advantage of these approaches to education? Well, why limit these approaches to the late teen-age years? Why not make them available to anyone, at any time?

Next, the question will be, how can we afford these approaches? Well, the professor or coach does not need to be a faculty member at a research-intensive university where those on the tenure-track are expected to raise a significant portion of their compensation from federal or corporate grants each year. We already have many examples of faculty prepared for this form of education, but become diverted from teaching because of a reward system modeled on that research-intensive university model. We know the benefits of a liberating education in terms of careers and citizenship. Historically, it was viewed as a public good, with public benefits. In recent years, as part of a general trend, notions of the “public” benefit have been replaced by the value of “private” gain, thus changing a 200-year old tradition in the United States.

This form of liberating education requires small learning communities, even within large campuses. It is about priority and political will more than about money. Models and missions matter. Focus and distinctiveness make a difference.

Has this idealized version of liberalizing education ever been realized? Probably, for a few students during a relatively brief period. For most of its 1000-plus year history, collegiate education has been designed to prepare elite professionals, including clergy and physicians. Even during the hey-day of higher education after World War II, what was called the liberal arts were mostly introductory courses designed more to prepare majors to pursue graduate study than to liberate minds and prepare generally educated citizens.

But this does not deny the value of the ideal, whose logic is powerful. So, the questions are, which students are best suited for such an education, and at what stage of life? In which institutions can such an education be provided?

While only a small proportion of students study at residential campus whose mission is parallel to this vision, this does not mean that the elements of such an approach cannot be provided to all. How? Consider this. The basic elements of small group discussions, focused on fundamental questions of meaning, grounded in the history of arts, literature, politics, and science, and promoting imaginative approaches to general and expert knowledge, skills, abilities, and values can be offered in a combination of venues. These include seminars, lectures, and on-line approaches, such as “blended” courses, in colleges of all types, community organizations, and adult education programs.

The faculty in such a setting will be more like professors in the 1950’s, people with multidisciplinary backgrounds like David Riesman and Marshall Shulman, intellectuals, writers, and teachers, rather than narrowly focused specialists who have become the model. It is these latter who say they can get to their “work” when the students are gone.

Laboratories, libraries, galleries and museums can be found in local colleges, schools, communities, and companies, as integrated and as separate entities. Greater coordination between and among these institutions and organizations can result in greater efficiencies and reduced redundancies.

New approaches to the goals of socialization are already being pioneered by universities with largely commuter populations because it is known that such “bonding” leads to improved retention, success, and graduation. Clubs and organizations already have parallels in the broader community, so Rotary, Lions, Alpha Phi Alpha, and Links could include “college” students as active members, providing the outlet for service that campus organizations encourage.

In other countries, town teams provide the opportunity for amateur athletics that colleges include at an ever increasing expense for a small proportion of participants. Therefore, the ideals can be provided to larger populations of students even without thinking that small, residential colleges will be increased in number.

With such examples as possibilities, what is “on the horizon” for American higher education? Will there be as much change in the next 60 years as we have seen since the first G.I. Bill? Might we see as much change in the next150 years as we have seen since the Morrill Land Grant Act? In both cases, radical changes in the structure, offerings, enrollments, services, governance, and financing of colleges and universities are now accepted as the norm.

Other features of higher education are a century old. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the “unbundling” of credentials and curricula, and the authority to certify credentials, and ever more strategic partnerships between campuses and companies, will lead inexorably to new opportunities for flexible, convenient, accessible, just-in-time, relevant and certified education and training in ways not now imaginable, but built on the foundations now visible.

Conclusion

This is my “love story” about higher education. I have admiration in abundance, anguish for what I see as violations to the basic public trust institutions require, and anticipation for changes that bear great potential for improved access, affordability, and accountability. We can reclaim a culture of conscience and civic responsibility.


Footnotes

1 Special Comment: Annual Sector Outlook for U.S. Higher Education for 2010, January 2010, Moody’s Investor Service.

2 MacInnes, Gordon A. “Keeping the Spotlight on Student Loans.” New York: The Century Foundation, 2010.

3 Scott, Robert A. “The Three C’s of Strategic Leadership.” Grant Thorton’s On Course, Spring 2010.

4 Dew, John. “Global, Mobile, Virtical, and Social: The College Campus of Tomorrow.” The Futurist, March – April 2010, p. 46.

 

 
Tagged: President Emeritus