Higher Education and Change

college classroom_ Historical

The fate of higher education is a lot like opinions about parenting. Everyone is an expert, whether they have children or not, and everyone feels qualified to offer advice, solutions, commentary and critique—often quite publicly and with significant disapproval. The fact that there is so much discourse suggests that, indeed, from the liberal arts to professional education, we deserve the careful, if not inflammatory, scrutiny we receive. It also suggests that we must own the discourse and examine what is at stake in debates about relevance and identity because to no small measure, we have brought this scrutiny on ourselves.

Within liberal arts there are deep divisions on issues of identity and purpose. We continue to issue degrees in academic subjects that have no correlation to employment fields. We dispute the definition of an educated person among ourselves while failing to engage in pressing public conversations about how our students will, can and should interact with a rapidly changing world. We relegate employment readiness skills to the realm of vocational education and prickle at industry partnerships for work force development as though only we are the “true” purveyors of knowledge and true knowledge has nothing to do with application or commerce. We create fractures and hierarchies between disciplines within the arts and sciences, and gulfs between faculty and administration. We continuously look outward and ascribe blame for our struggles rather than directing a reflexive gaze inward. At the graduate level I see the proliferation of revenue generating programs that are not based on thoughtful academic rigor required of us in the academy. Consequently we are producing students who are not only not prepared for the 21st century– but even more egregious, they are not prepared to create the 21st century. And that is a true failure.  While our programs must be revenue generating for our own survival, we launch programs for the sake of revenue generation at our peril and the peril of all higher education institutions.

Much of the conflict and tension in higher education comes from unanswered questions about who we are and who we need to be in the 21st century. We cannot hope to represent ourselves until we have done our own work. These questions are not necessarily about answers, but about the processes we must engage in to work toward change. And change we must.

I once had a colleague who said she liked working in academia because change, when it came, was slow, well-considered, managed by a committee and driven by consensus. Rapid change, she felt, was anathema to higher education. She is not alone in this sentiment. Colleges and universities are full of faculty, staff and administrators who support this perspective, who uphold the educational traditions, delivery styles, academic subjects, and governance structures that have existed for centuries. But I do not embrace this perspective. I am lit by fire and driven by the urgency of the next century bearing down on us calling us to prepare critical thinkers and problem solvers who can create a better world and who can author the changes that must come for our own survival as a species.

However, colleges and universities are also facing some of the biggest challenges they have ever faced. Public confidence is low with regard to the merit, utility and investment in a traditional 4-year liberal arts education. Industry is frustrated by a college-educated work force that cannot perform basic tasks and functions. And diminishing financial support of public institutions is slowly suffocating the life out of once vibrant programs and de-incentivizing growth.

Perhaps most striking, the educational landscape is littered by small colleges that simply cannot, in a crowded landscape, compete. These are institutions that cannot divest themselves of structures that would allow them the fluidity and relevance required in the 21st century largely because they cannot agree upon or articulate what that relevance is.  Whether she knew it or not, my colleague’s words are the epitaph of many higher education institutions in America that eschew the kind of change required to flourish in the 21st century.

Rick Beyer, Managing Partner of Miles Howland Educational Partners confirms this perspective when he stated in a recent interview in Forbes, “There is more risk to doing nothing and staying rigid than there is in addressing alternatives regarding how colleges offer, support and deliver learning.”

So how and why do we change? How fast must we change? What conversations must we have to facilitate change? Who decides what changes and how much? What are the consequences for not changing?

Part of this blog is devoted to addressing these questions and to understanding the impediments to the change processes. Other parts of the blog deal are personal reflections and deal with the nitty-gritty of being human.

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