Sunday, June 24, 2012


The original topic for this edition of SQUINTS was review of the proposals from the first (President Truman’s) presidential commission on higher education, circa 1947.  It seemed a relevant starting point for assessment of U.S. higher education, given that most of its recommendations have yet to find their way into collegiate reform by 2012.

Sixty-five years seems a rather long gestation period, even for the measured character of leadership of American higher education.  To add some angst to the picture, family and college student debt from the unchecked escalation of collegiate costs, coupled with states slashing public higher education support for decades, now exceeds one trillion dollars, and counting. 

Over the last several weeks the University of Virginia, famously founded by Thomas Jefferson, has been racked by controversy, stemming from the improperly executed action of a handful of board plotters to fire its president along with a ton of obfuscation of the reasons. 

This week, in a courageous, strategic and brilliantly conceived effort, not, to address the debt issue, Indiana University’s trustees voted to solve the problem by approving an educational program to increase student financial literacy.

The same board of IU geniuses also approved a new “school of philanthropy.”  Not articulated was the mission; there is likely a need for academic work on philanthropic process, on not-for-profit (NFP) and non-governmental organizations (NGO), and on their functions.  However, that work and research would appear better executed within existing collegiate work on organizations, finance, administration and marketing, than creation of still another school bureaucratic and overhead structure. This appears to be a constant symptom of the growth syndrome driving many universities, unchecked expansion along with overhead rather than creative use of organizational thinking to reduce burden.  Whatever, let’s hope a vaccine can be found for the condition.

The College Debt Issue

In a few months the student debt issue has escalated, in Congressional partisan squabbling about how to pay for keeping the interest rates on that debt (the principal now exceeding one trillion dollars) from doubling, and has finally started to penetrate the sheltered environs of university boards of trustees or visitors.

Yes, the business of higher education is allegedly education, when it can be interspersed with recreation and sports; so what’s the beef with IU’s quest for financial literacy for its students?  Aside from that educational effort being belated by a few decades, perhaps the question comes from the script of an old TV ad for fast food – “where’s the beef?”  Metaphorically, where is the beef, i.e., where is a strategic plan for higher education reform, for increasing classroom productivity, for cleaning the bureaucratic stables, for seeking sustainable cost reductions, and thereby reduction of tuition?  The notion of better educating students (and their families) to fully understand how they're being gored by a system out of control, while failing to address causes, stretches credibility?

Successive U.S. president’s commissions on higher education subsequent to Mr. Truman’s have made numerous suggestions for reducing the cost, and improving the productivity of U.S. higher education; virtually every proposal over a half century has been rejected by institutions increasingly independent of their original funding, in favor of growth as a goal and expanding functions well beyond the education mission.  That thrust in turn has in part at least been driven by the complexity of a university’s stake holders:  Faculty who can see themselves as independent contractors rather than employees, bargaining for higher salaries; alumni who respond to sports and glitz but shun educational achievement; expanded research roles that require far greater investment; faculty refusals to regularly reassess their curricula as a reality check; Federal mandates; management that frequently cannot decide just what its role is or aspires to emulate our corporate world and its salaries.

Generically, cost reduction in any complex organization also has a long history of strife – the other guy’s costs are always the ones to be reduced, resulting inevitably in conflict and gridlock in any system that cannot be operated traditionally based on command and control.  Universities, in existence for almost a millennium, have been a more complex organizational system than “businesses,” even our largest, and to succeed in their primary missions and venues have been managed differently than businesses.  Yet, the process of cost reduction itself can be highly disciplined and governed by strategic goals.  The writer lived one admittedly simple version of the challenge, but that had to be addressed in quick time.

The first company managed had a customer mix consisting of 80 percent businesses termed mom & pop operations, and 20 percent national chains.  The former bought small quantities of equipment and paid relatively higher average prices; the latter bought on annual contracts and paid far lower prices.   In the space of a few years the industry experienced a major shakeout, with national chains acquiring the smaller firms at an unprecedented rate.  Within two years, our firm’s mix of customers went from the prior 20/80 to 80/20 chain dominance.  With that shift, the average dollar revenue per unit of the equipment sold was virtually cut in half, though the unit volume increased.  Left untouched, the scenario had the potential of abruptly cutting the firm’s profits by more than 50 percent.  As a division of a Fortune 50 company, one’s tenure promised to be short-lived indeed if that trajectory was unchecked.

A solution, with the full engagement of a work force on the same page, was major cost reduction of the products’ and distribution costs via creative changes that maintained product quality and service delivery.  Essentially, every consequential line item on the product’s bill-of-materials was methodically and creatively rethought; necessary, materials, process, made versus vended, just-in-time sourcing, inspection versus process control, packaging, post-sale service and upgrades?  In a period of two years, as the average revenue per unit dropped, the percent (not absolute dollars) product margin was retained, while product appearance and function were actually enhanced.  Coupled with greater physical volume provided by the chains, the company’s dollar profits actually materially increased.  Critically, to achieve such cost change was a consuming full-court press in double-time; there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The questions are:  Are our universities objectively up to or can they even internalize that level of focus and effort; is the university model of organization compatible with that form of focused effort; is there, metaphorically, a higher education “bill-of-materials” that can addressed as in the simple example offered; paradoxically, though it is looked to for intellectual leadership, can higher education actually break with traditions and inertia to develop major creative solutions to improving learning and at lower cost?  I believe there are affirmative answers to those questions, but not without material change in higher education beliefs, a willingness to seek creativity, and accept some risks of demanding higher performance from both their student and faculty populations.

Where Risk Resides

The last few weeks have witnessed the unfolding, perhaps unraveling is more apropos, of a higher education soap opera, that if it wasn’t indicative of what is coming at higher education, would have offered enough intrigue and slapstick to offset summer TV reruns:  The sorry spectacle was of ignorant and secret plotting by a small cabal of the University of Virginia’s board of visitors (along with allegedly the support or instigation of a billionaire alumnus of UVA) to oust Dr. Teresa Sullivan, its president of just two years.  The basis of the coup was that Dr. Sullivan had allegedly not moved with enough aggression in two years in addressing escalating costs or alternative pedagogical methods applicable to higher education.

Below are seven citations that tell the University of Virginia story to date.  They will not be replayed here, but they are both an object lesson for would-be outside reformers, as well a warning bell that change in higher education is even more complex than in public K-12.  For a good example of how not to reform U.S. higher education, and worth your attention:

The UVA example has four major thrusts, three of which are generalized.  The issue particular to UVA is the failure of its board of visitors and the principal instigator of the coup to reflect any transparency or any sense of good management.  The UVA board’s methods violated literally every caveat of contemporary management of any organization regardless of its categorization.  Therefore, one general issue is whether reform of higher education, ala K-12, should take the course of corporate attacks on the establishment to force change, a risk of quickly becoming its motif?

The other issues that can be generalized to this discussion are what are viable and sustainable education cost reductions, what pedagogies and which rubrics work for improving learning productivity, and whether the processes to achieve either and the timetables should be set by external stake holders or set within the institutions?

The Gut U. S. Higher Education Challenges

For better or worse, the University of Virginia has become the camel’s nose in the Arab’s tent, to put the least onerous spin on that brouhaha.  That nose is, should corporate reform, and its conceptions of what parts and at what rates higher education processes can be changed, be the modality for reform of our colleges and universities?

The counter is, U.S. institutions of higher education have been in denial of need for change, along with public K-12 education, for most of the last half century, and some majority of their number has abandoned higher education first principles in favor of an expansionary, corporate form of organizational logic and goal setting.  The issue is that reform of higher education is far more complex than the same mission for K-12.

Reform challenges:

The complexity of the core institution; there is far more complexity in the operations, and diversity of forms of collegiate and university process.  A proposition, there is more disparity between our best collegiate work – the ivies and upscale techs – and our worst – too many of our so-called community colleges, high school 2 – than the best versus the bottom quartile of public K-12.

Most undergraduate higher education curricula are less obsolete than their public K-12 counterparts, but selectively fall short of being contemporary expressions of their genre’s science and art.  The sciences including neural biology fare best, followed by medicine, law and the humanities.  Schools of education in their present state of knowledge should likely be put out of their misery, or declared startups, and political science seems to have gone underground. 

Most of the nation’s overripe, overfunded, and overrated B-schools have never in a half century fully melded basic disciplines with business theory, moving from fad to fad, nor ever effectively reflected business practice at a high level and its ethical demands.  Current practices in too many corporations massaging greed like a mantra indicate the U.S. has reaped in the moral products of its B-schools what it sowed, and there has been only one major rethinking of its disciplines and curricula since WWII. That in turn had to be pounded into the B-schools by the Carnegie and Ford Foundations.  B-schools in other nations are now besting this American higher education creation.

The cost of four years of U.S. higher education in general exceeds the cost of 13 years of prior formal education process, and if current research is believed, those four years produce very little change in learning.  Paradoxically, public K-12 practices classroom instructional dogma with marginal knowledge content, while higher education steeps itself in assumed knowledge virtually thoughtless about how to optimally explicate it in the classroom.

U.S. higher education reflects an interesting paradox; its products – the alumni – exhibit remarkable, even exaggerated loyalty to places where they did baccalaureate work; but if truth be told, most of those institutions view most of those alums as semi-educated and with mild contempt, patronizing their institutional interests to solicit contributions and procure endowments.  In recent years, the better-managed and most contemporary divisions of most colleges and universities have been their alumni offices, the rainmakers.

Higher education faculties excepting the high end of the breed have become a fairly arrogant lot, assuming they can’t be replaced, willing to threaten administrations with relocation to extract higher salaries, many not perceiving themselves as employees, and possessing in general less loyalty to their institutions than many hourly employees exhibit to companies where stably employed.  Collegiate faculties have resisted for over a half century studying and learning how to teach.

Sports are exploited in public K-12 in a perverse fashion to smoke parents and divert their attention from education, but the collegiate sports mess beggars that misapplication, increasingly being the collegiate tail wagging the collegiate dog, generally corrupting it.

The former corruption is only matched or exceeded by the chase of endowment dollars from successful alumni with egos that exceed even their balance sheets.  This form of funding, hyped unceasingly, has become a form of university and academic foundation corruption that rivals the political super pac.  More dangerous, that link with donors has now fostered the “Gates effect,” breeding wealthy advocates of self-styled accelerated collegiate change but lacking the wits to even understand the system being attacked.

There are undoubtedly competent academic managers, but little agreement about how they should be prepared for the assignment or what those attributes are.  Increasingly, where the thirst for dollars has been stoked, many deans and program leaders have been selected because they are willing to roll the dice on their disciplines or are con artists rather than academic leaders.  In one article cited above, UVA’s Dr. Sullivan is described as the opposite, doing precisely the things generally associated with successful organizational management; somewhat bizarre then, being ousted for doing what good managers are supposed to do.

In another article cited above, higher education’s increasingly Achilles’ Heel, no pun intended, is the lack of preparedness of trustees and visitors to be the needed collegiate oversight, many appointed for purely political reasons rather than competence to materially effect collegiate strategic choices; e.g., the case of UVA, or IU, or Miami University another proximate example of the endowment addiction and misdirected spending, or practically every state institution of U.S. higher education.  The weakness doubles down on the tragedy usually represented by incompetent or self-interested K-12 school boards.

Lastly, the saying should be tattooed onto every fledgling trustee or visitor given the responsibility of high-level collegiate oversight – COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BUSINESSES, NOR SIMPLY CREATURES OF TRADITIONAL MARKETS.  This may be hard for many of our so-called corporate reformers to grasp, even those who manifest good business management instincts and skills; it will never be grasped by many contemporarily who have substituted simplistic political ideologies about markets for awareness in 2012, just 76 years short of a millennium since the formation of the university concept.*

On the Cusp?

Political dysfunction in the U.S. has now forced onto our K-12 schools a reform agenda that lacks intellect, even common sense, and now is at the cusp of colliding with public higher education in the same fashion.  Both attacks were earned and are deserved by the inattention and hubris of their respective administrative universes in addressing their respective purposes and means, but the repercussions for American progress are dismal.  Higher education, because its institutions can’t easily get lost in a crowd of 100K entities all invoking local control, may be more vulnerable to misdirected change than public K-12.

The above views will elicit squeals of protest, but they come closer to the challenge of U.S. academic progress than the naïve assessments issuing from those institutions.  If there is any counterpoint, it is ironically that our colleges and universities are generally being guided by competent resources, who still command enough of the confidence of most of their stake holders to avoid the "reform" confrontations of public K-12. They could deflect externally dictated alleged reform long enough to launch the needed change processes from within.

Are they strategically smart enough, with the courage to use the opportunity?  Good question.

Footnote:  UVA's governing Board of Visitors, in an afternoon session on June 26, unanimously voted to reinstate Dr. Teresa Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia.  It remains to be seen whether on July 1 Virginia's Governor will reappoint to that Board its present rector, Helen Dragas, the alleged architect of the coup to oust Sullivan with something less than due process even in the corporate world.  Ms Dragas, a graduate of UVA's Darden graduate B-school, apparently took little awareness of managerial excellence away from that division, also alleged to be a focal point of the ouster attempt.

The issue, whether our nation's B-schools are currently the right source of a template for higher education reform, was briefly addressed earlier in this post.  Reaffirming the sentiments, our B-schools first need to clean up their own act before exporting present dogma to our universities as a whole. Clearly, the present cadre of alleged corporate-based reformers, and the naiveté they represent, should not be calling out either higher education's reform's strategies -- "dynamic" slogan or not -- or its tactics without being taken "back to school."

*The concept of the university is generally traced to the formation of the University of Bologna (Italy) in 1088.  Subsequently, the universities of Paris, Oxford and Cambridge were formed.  Harvard, for example, traces its founding to 1636.  Our public K-12 schools by contrast are mere toddlers.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


This is a brief detour from a series about U.S. higher education; call it an epilogue to SQUINTS K-12 after a year and 50 blogs.  It was prompted by reflection stimulated after a brief retreat from the challenge of weekly K-12 posts, and by the confluence of a series of blog and article posts this week.


The most effective media critic of the present maniacal path of public K-12 reform, arguably the genesis of a potential testing bubble mimicking our housing and financial debacles, has been The Washington Post, especially "The Answer Sheet" guided by WP's Valerie Strauss.  That feature has attracted posts by a blue-ribbon cadre of thoughtful educators, providing counterpoint to the propaganda machines being funded and manipulated by a Duncan, Gates, Rhee, Klein, Kopp, and sundry other players seemingly more highly motivated by self-promotion, or ideologies, or greed, than systemic K-12 awareness and true national need.

This week's “The Answer Sheet” produced four posts that capture some of the insanity of the present reform mentality.  They are linked as follows: Some candor about our students; the widening gyre; useless standardized tests; and why charters are not an answer.  Two more items came from the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science, and publisher of the definitive U.S. science journal, Science), on the challenges in teaching in the U.S. both evolution and climate science; juxtaposed against frequent public commitment to ignorance, mythology and religious and other demagoguery.

Ideally, the above citations should be read before proceeding.  Rhetoric continues to swirl around this real life educational "game of thrones," but those with the lead seem impervious to reason, refusing even the objectivity to entertain content or an alternative view that conflicts with their rationalizations for actions.  Some practicing in the public K-12 venue jump to denial, refusing even the possibility of addressing issues that represent any risk from even acknowledgment.  Comparatively, for those who practice or have practiced at a high level in the private sector, and taken the risks that accompany accepting hard targets, plus change and creative strategies to meet them, public K-12 education's spineless or self-righteous retreat from invention or change explains though it may not justify the contempt evoked in the private sector. The issue is that contempt is motivationally driving present corporate reform initiatives and dollars harder than concern for America's future learning.

Ready or Not – Twenty Questions

If you've read the above links, the following questions will not be surprising. Whether any force or coalition will be capable of countering what psychologist Irving Janis pioneered as an explanation that fits the current K-12 reform mentality -- "groupthink" and its effects in present reform -- is another issue.

The questions:  

Why is K-12 "reform" in the U.S. now the province of a sub rosa army of right wing corporate advocates and lobbyists reflecting educational ignorance, drive for profits, or twisted ideology, or even managerial ignorance?  Is this a perceived vendetta owed public education because it is assumed to represent "liberal social views breeding Democrats?" (Parenthetically, a large swath of public K-12 is so retro and reactionary that our corporate raiders are in essence sacrificing their own kind.)

Why have America's teachers been targeted as the apex of alleged accountability, when genuine accountability, the 360 degree imperative, should start with public K-12 education bureaucrats and administrators, ranging from many poorly trained and self-centric through genuine sociopaths, all lacking effective board oversight?

Why have our teachers' unions suddenly turned into meek recluse, going to ground instead of being the source of countervailing power protecting what has become a discriminated and persecuted teacher minority?  (One may argue that America's teachers' unions bested even public K-12 in refusing to read the room, and know when to become a partner with K-12 reform rather than its enemy.  The current political caucus is calling for elimination of all public sector unions, on the heels of Wisconsin's recall outcome.  Sounds good to all the union-busters, but without the countervailing power of, in this case, teacher representation with teeth, the risk of teacher abuse and despotic organizational performance soars.  If not precisely that, what is the effect seen in dismissal of teachers with proven performance on the basis of a flawed VAM calculation?)

Why has Mr. Obama: One, joined forces with some of the worst of right wing ignorance and cynical profiteering to continue to hypocritically allow discredited standardized testing over better assessments; two, allowed public K-12 education to be turned into in effect a Federally promoted and funded corporate takeover using VAM to whack teachers; and three, now incongruously advocated hiring more teachers even while false assessment actions are diminishing their ranks and demotivating them, that hiring of necessity coming from schools of education he has by default neutered in praising TFA?

Who are the unnamed and invisible liberal ideologues inside the U.S. Department of Education or the White House, willing to entertain the devastating strategic learning consequences of present testing-based change, to pursue a utopian fantasy of perfect educational equity; and who is writing the software animating the USDOE’s robot, Arne Duncan, producing endless and hypocritical propaganda on cue?

Charters are demonstrating the failing consequences of privatizing K-12 universal education: Why, when even Bill Gates acknowledges that privatized charters may never exceed 10 percent of all K-12 schools, are profit–driven, unaccountable, and even corrupted tax-funded charters still being forced on our nation’s parents and children?

Why in America’s heartland, and especially in its non-urban places, are schools like Ohio’s New Bremen system, or even Bloomington, Indiana’s Monroe County Community School Corporation (spanning a Big Ten university community), still mired in last century’s retro thinking and bureaucratic organization, meekly accepting dysfunctional testing or cheating, in denial that public K-12 is under attack, projecting self-righteousness and even arrogance, and offering transparency metaphorically only “arrow slits in the battlements?"

Why has U.S. public K-12 education as an institution rested on its laurels, or to be less complimentary, sat on its hands wearing blinders for the last several decades, letting the core function of learning assessment be ripped away from education and given to the corporate sector, instead of recognizing the reform straws in the wind and broadly initiating self-reform? 

Why have America’s collegiate schools of education both settled back into the last century’s thinking and literally gone to ground, when their products are being attacked by corporate education testing drones and Teach for America?

Why has Wendy Kopp elected self-promotion and profit by demagogically using Teach for America, even making it a cult, rather than using alleged passion for learning to reform our collegiate schools of education instead of undercutting them; and why has Obama embraced and even applauded the systemic treachery?

Why has a Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Riverside, ETS, etc., been allowed to simply monopolize and commercialize for profit the creation and scoring of K-12 testing, and when there is evidence the corporate expertise for that measurement is flawed and its practices reflect ethical lapses?

Is the present K-12 reform trajectory another bubble, that will burst when it is finally discovered or revealed that present testing does not advance genuine learning that can be leveraged to do the nation’s work, and the effect is an even deeper structural U.S. unemployment crater; and how can a public system disemboweled again be made whole, and over what time horizon given the damage inflicted?

How many extant examples are there of competent research validating the learning effects of present standardized testing and the use of VAM to flog K-12 teachers?  (Too easy, none.)

How much research has been funded and methodically pursued to create better testing models for high order thinking and learning, to experiment with their performance, and to make the testing actionable at the school level?  (Also too easy, virtually none.)

How many K-12 administrators have had sufficient training in management, strategy, technology, leadership or ethics?  (Ditto above.)

How many schools have been nudged by fear or arrogance into cheating either subtly or egregiously, to try to escape slavish state punitive test repercussions, souring an education system once based on ethical precepts?

How many public K-12 administrators would be hired in the private sector and remain employed if held accountable for performance, and how many should have their ticket to practice lifted, or belong in the slammer?

How many state departments of education are manned by education’s best and brightest, exuding objectivity, ethics and independent of political sycophancy?  Hint:  An answer is an equation that starts with “50 minus Ohio, Indiana, Florida, etc., etc.”

How many corporate right wing ideologues can actually think strategically about education, recognize unintended consequences, and can define K-12 learning versus business functions and cranking out product; and to what extent do we owe this deep philosophical perspective in part to the increasingly defective performances of America’s collegiate B-schools?

Lastly, how many Duncans, Gates, Rhees, Kopps, Kleins, et al., does it take to undermine American K-12 public education?  This one’s bone-head easy:  “One each.”

The Twenty-First

Our national lexicon bristles with shards of the “21st;” the century, the age of maturity, the twenty-one gun salute, the gaming table, the Twenty-First Amendment, so here’s a bonus twenty-first question:  

How has an alleged K-12 reform movement – pivoting on the historically developed concepts of intelligent performance measurement and accountability, steeped allegedly in the educational literacy of a national department of education and 50 state departments of such, and a corporate sector allegedly steeped in business theory and organizational performance expertise – managed to utterly and stupidly pervert both?

Accountability has a complex history of thought, and comes in a plethora of versions; vertical, horizontal, 360-degree, alignment with other precepts of organizational theory, and melded with sensible choreography of application in human organizations.  Testing has been ongoing since the Greeks, and likely long before, but attached to awareness and understanding of how any assessment of performance should serve to advance learning.  Even in the remains of the last century there was prescient work on learning measurement – along with advanced tools for administration – that should have set the course for improving its processes, rather than demonizing its most vulnerable recipients.  

Both elegant and hard won organization theory and performance concepts, and a half century of testing wisdom have been blatantly ignored, even venally repudiated by those advocating the prosecution, embarrassment, even denouement of public K-12 education to create liege to a fantasy of perfect markets and the alleged discipline of corporate control.  The ideology of the corporate reform hammer of K-12 is in fact manifest corporate ignorance and hubris; its mantra, that K-12 delivery of the processes that evoke learning and related accountability are monotonically equivalent to how business’ functions and utility are achieved, is just fundamentally wrong.  That tragic assumption is testimony that America’s education and accountability for business leadership has also come off the rails, and that realistic understanding of markets as the bases for resource allocation in an America that Adam Smith could not have imagined is equally or even more needy of insights than its public K-12 systems.

If an American K-12 public educational commons cannot stand in this republic, then America has truly devolved and set a course back to political and economic tribalism – let self-interest be the beacon, and the devil take the hindmost?  Is this to be America’s twenty-first century legacy to civilization, knowledge creation, and evolved social and economic intelligence?

Monday, June 4, 2012


For a time SQUINTS is switching venues, from K-12 to U.S. higher education.  Not yet fully in the crosshairs of the same gang of alleged reformers assaulting public K-12, the early straws are in the wind; even the standardized testing tactics.  For the curious, and wary, those straws have been blowing in the breeze since 2006 and the Spelling Commission, the George W. Bush administration’s edition of the president’s commissions on higher education.

Challenge and Reality

Plunging into even some selective critique of American higher education is a trip likely to augur a good deal of humility and a long haul.

America’s colleges and universities are publicly lauded as the brightest stars of U.S. culture, best in the world, source of much of the nation’s creativity and driving innovation.  Except that has ceased to be universal, even the latter accomplishments except for selected disciplines in the sciences.  Most of the basic research dollars in the U.S. are by and placed in the private sector. 

The subsequent table of contents of any assessment of higher education is huge.  Since the turn of the century, well over 100 books and major journal articles have been authored about the U.S. version.  Most have been critical of the trajectory of these institutions; but few if any have catalyzed any material change in higher education that hasn’t been self-serving.  In that regard the initiative of self-reform in higher education has matched its elusiveness in public K-12.

Even with a quarter century of tenure and practice in our universities, trying a different perspective than available from a few Google search efforts is daunting.  So the critiques that follow will attempt to probe some of the least beaten paths, and some specific examples of 13 to 14 and 13 to 16 opportunities and pitfalls.

At the moment, subject to change, the following topics seem germane:  The history of assessments of the genre from on high; the chasm separating 9-12 and postsecondary work, and bridging it; the concept of universal 9-14 or technology-enabled alternatives; the largely un-chronicled, even untouched (untouchable?) issue of quality of postsecondary work as a function of its mass expansion via community and for-profit colleges; whether our major public universities are becoming or have become de facto private institutions and nearly impervious to oversight; our retro B-schools and their contribution to a growing and dystopian American corporatocracy; teaching quality and faculty productivity in our universities; and alternative visions and projections of how postsecondary learning might evolve.

Lastly, a further mission will be to provide bibliographic material enabling the reader to pursue their own probes of our higher education challenges.

Higher Education Scope

The “numbers” are hardly ever exciting fare; however, they are frequently ignored, as in the case of the impression from the media and groups with an agenda, that charters are about to fully displace public schools.  For perspective, here are present (circa 2010) counts for higher education in the U.S.:

Total of 4,495 HEA Title IV-eligible (Federal student financial assistance) degree institutions.

With 61.7 percent 4-year institutions, 38.3 percent 2-year.

Plus 2,223 non-degree granting Title IV institutions.

In 2010, 20.3MM students enrolled (about 14.6MM full-time), roughly 5.7 percent of the total population.

In 2006, 24.5 percent of the population had an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, while another 19.5 percent had attended college but had no degree; a composite long term 44 percent drop out rate.

In 2009, 70.1 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college; however, the percent graduating has been declining, as has the percent graduating in four or even six years.  In the bottom half of high school graduates, three-quarters will never enter or graduate collegiately.

Current rhetoric about universal postsecondary work, as in the case of the NCLB fantasy of 100 percent achievement of anything, ignores the asymptotic property of any human population; as behaviors approach any limit of 100 percent each increment becomes marginally harder to achieve.

Superficially, it would appear far easier to scope the performances of five to six thousand institutions than nearly 100,000 K-12 schools.  In fact, America’s colleges and universities are complex, representing public versus private ownership, diverse internal organization, different education-teaching-research philosophies, and different identities – national, regional, urban, community, denominational, for-profit, online, as well as diverse cultural reference group images.  They have also been successful in blocking most access to their more complex internal organization arrangements and diverse internalized missions, and what actually governs the operations of a university is virtually impossible to track from the outside and by the academic civilian; for that matter, also by either the USDOE, or an institution’s resident state, or even an institution’s board of trustees.

Over a period of several decades states’ public colleges and universities have been persuasive in pulling the teeth of state higher education commissions and chancellors.  In many cases the commissions or chancellors remain, opportunities for political appointments as reward for campaign support, but provide only pro forma oversight of programs or budgets.  Indiana’s IHEC represents a classic example of the effect.

An isolated vignette, and inside joke, in many states a legislature is disproportionately composed of attorneys, and those lawyers in turn are overwhelmingly the product of the state’s law school(s).  That can translate into loyalty to an alma mater and sports, producing less representative and rigorous institutional oversight even by legislatures.

Additionally, in contrast with public K-12 education, though defined by each state, having a form of universality by virtue of educational instruction, certification, and national teachers’ unions, higher education certification and standards are parceled out across a plethora of discipline-based national organizations and their standards, national organizations representing academic faculty participation, an institution’s reference group, and only occasionally by its state, with less scrutiny than most American institutions.  It is indicative, that in spite of highly vocal calls by the 2006 President's (Spelling) Commission, for some common criteria for information assisting students to assess and choose a college or university, our institutions refused even that minimal recommended cooperation.

Not publicized, nor tracked well, most higher education leaderships are quietly represented in national organizations that promote sharing of views, and can fashion tacit agreements on strategies and general policies.  In another day, in our private sector, and before our anti-trust laws were disemboweled, collusion was the term generally employed.

Those Presidential Commissions (and Their Pretenders)

The history of these commissions is another story, for another day, but observations that will kick start this series begin with a look at the first President’s Commission, created in 1946 by a prescient former President Harry Truman.  It may well have been the best of the irregular (not every president pursued the assessment) series to date; a material fraction (can’t hazard a better guess yet) of the recommendations of the Truman Commission could be presented today, and appear contemporary, as well as remaining unfulfilled.  One later President’s Commission, featuring multiple Nobel Laureates, drafted a report – critical of America’s colleges and universities – but it never made it to publication, buried by that administration and an institution that we have assumed to be above reproach.

The current SQUINTS’ series has behind it roughly two decades of rapt attention to higher education’s trajectories even after departing those cloistered ranks; however, a restart of research yielded an unexpected observation.  A rational beginning seemed to be post WWII, 1946, and Mr. Truman’s President’s Commission on Higher Education and a constituency of intellectual stars.  But tracking through subsequent federally enabled commissions and their references – each Federal commission in turn adopting usually an additional theme for both emphasis and titling – turned up an unexpected finding.  Almost immediately after the promulgation of each true President’s Commission’s findings, across our states a plethora of copy-cat titled reports hit the press and streets, sowing confusion, in many cases drowning out in sheer numbers of words the original commission’s report and thrust.  Those so-called “president’s commission” reports might reflect origination with anything from a university president to the president of a chamber of commerce.

Coupled with stubborn resistance by higher education in general to the real President’s Commission’s recommendations for over 65 years, the hypothesized patterns of disruption mirror the present extreme partisan warfare about the role of the Federal government versus the states.  Looking at the report processions in perspective, it was as if the Civil War had never ended, and that the phrase we all righteously intone in “The Pledge, “…one nation indivisible…,” ceased being descriptive?

The Series Cometh

Thus starts the poking and probing of America’s allegedly brightest intellectual and academic stars, not so bright as once hyped, overall increasingly less intellectual, and in this century universally more costly and arguably less productive and effective in creating learning, as alleged by recent research reports on contemporary higher education.  Our nation's professionals seemingly can’t prosper without their “degree certificates,” but simultaneously, student higher education debt owed in the U.S. currently exceeds $1 trillion.

An initial impression is that in spite of the deluge of higher education rhetoric, there are still some higher education issues worth engaging in this upcoming SQUINTS’ series.