Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why Is US Collegiate Change a Non-Starter?

If the last post was missed, the premise advanced was that change in the strategies and policies of America’s higher education institutions is overdue. 

Expressions of that position have now accumulated in the public square, coming from such diverse places as the White House in the last SOTU, from the US corporate sector, from the discordant mutterings of parents viewing collegiate tuition, from our new graduates and their predecessors saddled with one trillion dollars in collegiate debt, and now interestingly even from collegiate administrators. 

The most telling citation was from the 2012 TIME and Carnegie Corporation of New York sponsored poll of a sample of senior college/university administrators:  A key finding – 96 percent of the sample of administrators said “higher education is in crisis.”  That number was seven percentage points higher than responses by the public sample to the same question.

Perhaps one can marshal some arguments to the contrary, but the mass of economic indicators, along with qualitative assessment from being in the academy make the case clear if not irrefutable. 

Our colleges and universities are with few exceptions run by very smart people; so why, facing a barrage of critique, and factual data that indict, are our higher education leaderships reform laggards?  The question is even more puzzling given the volume of explanation on the record.  Compared with US public K-12 education, where the cultural and psychological explanations for resistance to change are obscured whenever possible (though deducible), the bucket of hypothesized causes for higher education’s intransigence runneth over.

Top Lines

Based on having lived in the academy during the heart of the 20th Century, it seems that dominant reasons for resistance changed over a quarter century.  In the decade post WWII, universities struggled but entrepreneurially worked to cope with the influx of mature students enabled by the GI Bill.  Post-secondary work took on an aura of seriousness and with a mission, to prepare students to take on civilian responsibilities of economic growth. 

The next decade saw expansion of masters and doctoral programs, those apostles employed to cope with soaring student teaching loads.  Then parts of the private sector began to question curricula still wedded to pre-war days.  A case in point was America’s B-schools, critically evaluated and found still steeped in the descriptive lore of the ‘30s.  The case was reinforced by the emergence from WWII’s “whiz kids” what was then termed “operations research,” suites of mathematically based decision tools that quickly found postwar adoption in alert businesses. 

Two subsequent studies, funded by the Ford and Carnegie foundations, forced our B-schools to scramble to retool business principles, teaching, and research to embrace basic disciplines, and seek explanation and prediction as missions.  (Parenthetically, this change was not all positive, sending B-schools detached from market reality on excursions into theory for its own sake that frequently became the mission, versus a marriage of that science applied to real world problem solving.  A half-century later America’s B-schools are still wading in esoteric ramblings, long overdue for another wave of needed change.)

The next epoch was seeded by both a liberal thrust combined with economic demands being placed on our states, resulting in reduced support for higher education, but simultaneously creation of a slug of regional campus programs launched to broaden the base of post-secondary work available to all.  Both trends had unintended consequences.  Reduced public sector funding ignited universities to go entrepreneurial to seek to ensure their survival by becoming less dependent on public sector funding, the deficits made up by tuition, endowment dollars, and Federal research funding.  The result was decreasing felt responsibility to adhere to states’ oversight.

Simultaneously, the noble but utopian vision of college for all resulted in creation and rapid expansion of a collegiate cottage industry, community colleges and vocational to medium tech programs, with unproven or unknown academic provenance.  Many of these programs found their political bootstraps before finding their intellectual and curricular footers.  The result was frequently lobbying by these marginal programs to have their credits accepted by major schools, a basis for marketing their programs.  This less than noble perversion of legitimate academic values further contributed to degrading learning even on state flagship campuses.

An additional economic effect was the rise of inter-university competition for students and external funds along with the metamorphosis of universities’ primary mission as education into a diversified enterprise.  Academics may bristle, but the academy became a big business, pumped up by sports dollars, more easily found dollars for non-academic bricks & mortar, and programs that would either raise money or enhance reputation and recruiting.  Not unexpectedly, if one studies history, these changes in priorities induced various dollar-driven excursions from ethics.  A case in point, the practices that resulted in the relatively recent departure of Miami University’s Farmer School (B-school) dean.  Also, not surprisingly, transparency in higher education in Ohio suffered another hit with this saga.

In parallel, few universities have been led by resources chosen for demonstrated managerial excellence, versus academically proficient or even renowned resources who also became politically proficient and migrated into administration.  Pragmatically, universities became big businesses managed by amateurs, but with little change in the organizations’ decentralized and loosely coupled structure, and goals and objectives that were complex, diffused, and soft versus the reasonable clarity of the corporate mission.

The Take-Away

The campus has become an assembly of quasi-independent academic enclaves, with faculties more likely to view themselves as independent contractors, further exacerbated by academic tenure. Faculties, almost invisible when innovation is sought, quickly become defensive about any initiative that might intrude on the privacy of their classrooms, or disrupt a privileged professional life style.  Simultaneously, traditional teaching excellence continues to regress as the core of many institutions' priorities and resource applications has retreated from learning to serving other constituencies than students, generating dollars, or avoidance of controversy.


  • The failure of intellectual integrity of faculties raising roadblocks to any opportunity for higher education updating is illustrated in the May 2, 2013 story about Duke University.  By an incredible two votes (16-14), a Duke Arts & Science faculty group forced that university’s withdrawal from a major MOOC effort.  Perhaps this group of forward-looking academics was put off by the company they would have to keep; low class universities including Northwestern, Washington University, Boston College, Brandeis and Emory?  Or perhaps they felt competition with the MOOC program EdX demeaned their potential effort, that competition schools with such low academic standards as MIT and Harvard?  Or more likely, the Duke enclave was just demonstrating that self-centric and retro faculty do in fact litter our universities, reflecting a previously cited presidential commission conclusion.
  • The only performance more anti-intellectual than the above faculty regression is the yellow stripe running down the backs of Duke’s leadership.
  • The above example also illustrates another change complication, universities’ “loose coupling” of decision centers, the result of decentralized and ritualized distribution of power over organizational decisions, with veto power over especially major items.  Loose coupling of clusters of resources with differential demands makes small changes relatively easy, but major change becomes a challenge.
  • Change is simply dogmatically resisted:  “Active resistance includes being critical and finding fault, perhaps ridiculing the whole idea. It might include the typical psychodynamics of guilt, blame and shame. A second type of active resistance is the various forms of manipulation, including sabotaging an idea, and might include distorting facts or being deliberately threatening or ambiguous. Consider, for example, a Dean who expresses support for change in one forum only to return to their Faculty and suggest to their academic colleagues that it is something that need not be taken seriously; that it is a passing fad or something that they simply do not do where they are.”
  • Increasingly expansion and loose oversight in our institutions allowed bureaucratic resources to explode, to both manage the expanded list of non-education functions, to support an increasingly “endowed” faculty eschewing chores perceived as non-academic or just the concept of work, and to cope with the explosion of Federal and other bureaucratic reporting requirements loaded on the institutions.

The sad reality is, by the end of the third quarter of last century, traditional collegiate faculties at other than our niche institutions still governed by learning values had with some notable exceptions become overpaid, underperforming refugees from the real world.  Arcane journal minutiae replaced much needed research except in the sciences, and a pampered faculty continued to practice in the classroom with zero transparency, and with little or no performance measurement.  In our B-schools, most traditional faculty would strain to successfully manage any contemporary enterprise, and be entrepreneurial novices.  Based on some empirical research on students’ actual learning after four collegiate years, many faculty in the social sciences and professional schools might be beneficially replaced (with both performance enhancements and cost reduction effects) by some large LED displays and wholesale MOOC.

Sometimes candor emerges from unexpected places.  The May 5 issue of G. B. Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip displays (in admittedly exaggerated form) another unfortunate truth about the debilitating trajectory of much US education; check it out.

Organizationally, our campuses ultimately developed a level of complexity and diversity that rivals or exceeds the demands for management in a comparably sized technically complex business; that diversification and complexity tracks the classic ratchet effect, it only evolves in one direction. America’s higher education leaderships missed the tipping point in that institutional evolution.  The academy became a hybrid; part increasingly bureaucratized education sacred cows, coupled to dollar generating diversification and sports addiction, but with the at least topside recognition that it had become big business.  The issue is that attempted managerial style is encumbered by a trailing organization little changed under the surface in half a century, as well as provoking a conflict between the core values of education versus commercialization.

Thus university leadership in turn becomes very corporate, demanding the monetary returns perceived as due the assets being allegedly managed.  Not unexpectedly, servant leadership recedes, and a form of arrogance seen in parts of the private sector emerges.  Too big to fail becomes a mental set.

More Reasons for Resisting Change

The above barely scope the roster of roadblocks to higher education change that have been advanced over the last couple of decades.

The UK’s Higher Education Academy (tellingly, offering assessments not found in most of the US literature), an organization devoted to assessing UK higher education, has assembled a roster of the additional reasons those institutions resist change.  The list is presented in an accompanying Appendix A.  Dig into it at your own risk; of starting to equate America’s lesser colleges’ and universities’ leadership attitudes with a polite version of our present US Congress.

A Bottom Line?

Based on the above, and even without Appendix A captured by your neural nets, the futility of intercepting the present US higher education trajectory seems almost intractable.  America’s higher education universe may actually now be too big to fail. But arguably, analogous to the theory that all expansionary systems move toward entropy, they may not be too big to simply become a major societal cost without offsetting performance, anchoring increasing mediocrity.

Can that trajectory be nudged?  A paper issuing from that UK Academy says it so well there was no point in seeking to rephrase the view:

“Coercion rarely works as people quickly find covert ways to ensure the change is thwarted or seriously diluted.  So what can an educational developer do? Obviously, the opposite of the things identified in the reasons for resisting change cited so far. Clearly, what these represent is a failure to manage change effectively and properly. For some scholars of change management it is a question of values and beliefs. For example, it is a common belief that the introduction of on-line learning will lead to a reduction in teaching staff. Similarly, the core value of academic freedom is often challenged by the suggestion that there should be some method of quality assuring on-line learning materials. For others there is reference to the innate conservatism of organizational culture and, arguably, a romanticized view of academic life that has probably never existed outside the pages of ‘campus novels.’

It is common sense that not all change is positive and not all resistance is negative. Looking at the reasons why people resist change we can see that there are times when change is inadvisable; where the preconditions have not been satisfied and where there is no clear articulation of what the outcomes might be. ‘Blocking a decision that has good short-term but bad long-term consequences’ might be a good solution. So what can we do to manage change effectively and deal with resistance to change when we need to?”

Exploring change strategies in US higher education is the topic for the next post in this series.  But out there as low-hanging fruit are some of the changes that have been advanced repetitively by presidential commissions but dismissed by academy leadership:

Rethink the role of the traditional tenured faculty member – is it finally time to acknowledge that the original purpose of tenure has expired, and that options to traditional tenure be assessed along with how faculty classroom performance is measured;

rethink the present organization of most universities – if the Duke experience cited above doesn’t conjure a vision of a coddled tail wagging the flaccid dog it should;

in light of major changes in technology viewed as what they are, basic changes in how human perception, communication, and learning can be modified, rethink whether “Baumol’s disease” can now be treated to increase learning productivity and change post-secondary cost accounting – this comprises far more than just the present debates about online learning, asking whether reactionary views of technology are consistent with the philosophy of higher education;

start asking questions – what is being offered in our carefully cloistered college classrooms, and what is being executed institutionally to assess its learning effects; and

open the windows and let in some light – make transparent and comparable the data parents and potential college students need to choose the right post-secondary experience – as our colleges and universities have resisted even this most obvious example of servant leadership and responsible marketing.

The Leadership Dimension in Higher Education Change

The last change venue cuts to the chase, but is not pretty; some on-the-record examples of performances by those allegedly managing our institutions. 

One example, the joint ineptitude illustrated in the naïve performances of the University of Virginia’s president, matched for dysfunction by the star chamber performance of that institution’s oversight.  UVA briefly became a media event when its president was deposed by board manipulation, then reinstated; the brouhaha broke through the usual facade of benign and forthright higher education administrator-oversight cohabitation.  Both UVA factions, if there were real higher education accountability, would be looking for new horizons.

A second example is the in-your-face hubris and ethically questionable machinations of the present leader of The Ohio State University, a travesty for an institution that allegedly recruited and hired this administrator to “institute reform” rather than magnify its need. Almost as egregious was Mr. Obama’s election of this human resource to chair the present administration’s presidential commission on higher education when there are ethical and innovative US collegiate leaders that might have better represented the venue.  

Ironically Mr. Obama addressed the May 5 OSU graduation ceremony, concluding with: “I promise you, it’ll give you a tough skin. I know a little bit about this. President Wilson once said, ‘If you want to make enemies, try to change something.’ ”  Paradoxical issuing from our POTUS.  Try changing the public K-12 standardized testing reform path of NCLB/RTTT now being challenged across the nation for its dysfunction and inequities, regularly but hypocritically defended by the President, and being flogged with equivalent double-talk by Arne Duncan to the cheers of Gates, Broad, Walton, Rhee, and the managements of the cabal of corporate testing companies reaping bottom line contributions.

Not discriminating, this writer’s former stomping grounds, Indiana University, should be nominated for an Emmy – for the recent and best last century rendition of how to grow an educational bubble.  This is now a tactically well, even brilliantly managed university at the top, but building an overhead-heavy bubble in last century's spirit of dynamic growth and an optimistic expansionary credo.

That mission definition is arguably a retro 180 degrees off the needed future higher education vector:  Major tuition reduction; less bricks & mortar and greater core learning focus; reform of tenure; balancing theory and applications that support job creation; priority privatization of non-academic functions; aggressive cost reduction and productivity sourcing in both classroom and support operations; and conscious and major thinking about what higher education sustainability will entail by 2025.  (Parenthetically, this university has in this century blown more dollars in buying off administrators and coaches who have failed than it would take to fund a system-wide self-assessment exercise.)

Lastly, the May 5, 2013 New York Times featured a story less than inspiring from one perspective:  That the last refuge of many of our high profile disgraced politicians and others who have crossed societal red lines is now professorship and our higher education classrooms.  What an inspiring menu to offer our formative young adults?  There is certainly a counterargument, that the gig may be a chance for personal rehabilitation, and those appearances constructivist learning about how not to do the job, but one has to wonder if there isn't a better venue than the formative setting of higher education?


Reform of US higher education makes reform of public K-12 appear almost benign.  But speculating, just suppose national disgust with higher education’s soaring tuition, posturing that the genre is above critique or needn't recognize current societal challenges, sports excesses, and frustration with these institutions’ resistance to change, ignites some of the same odd-fellows’ efforts that presently vex public K-12?  What would the fallout from that look like?

The next post will look at what might be beneficially changed in US higher education, recognizing the largely ignored prior three-score and six years' parade of national higher education reform commissions.



Homeostasis; stability is the natural order; resistance to change, therefore, is a natural response.

Inertia; it takes considerable force to get a large body to change direction – the cliché analogy is of changing the course of a supertanker.

Satisfaction; most people are satisfied with the status quo in comparison with what an alternative future looks like (or they hanker after a status quo that never really existed; they are nostalgic for a ‘golden age’ of universities).

Lack of ‘ripeness’; the necessary preconditions for change have not yet been met.

Fear; we have an innate fear of the unknown:  ‘better the devil you know...’.

Self-interest; change may be good for others, or even the organization as a whole, but unless it can be demonstrated that it is good for me I will resist it.

Lack of self-confidence; change threatens one’s self esteem. New conditions require us to learn new skills and abilities, even values and we lack the confidence to engage with new challenges.

Future shock; there is only so much change that we can cope with at any one time. With e-learning; new funding models; re-structuring; and implementing PDP all before 2005, I cannot cope with anything else that is new.

Futility, cynicism and human nature; these combine in the view that any proposed change will be cosmetic; that we are all selfish and since change requires a degree of altruism it cannot work and we must suspect the motives of anyone proposing change. “Isn’t it the case that Vice Chancellors routinely propose change in order to conceal mistakes and keep people on their toes?”

Lack of knowledge; we do not know how to change or what to change to.

Ego; this alludes to people in powerful positions having to admit that they have been wrong. Within the context of change in higher education we might be more charitable and allow for rapidly changing external influences. It does raise the question, however, of what those influences are and how many of them our university executives were not able to predict.

Collective fantasy; this is a group response that ignores the direction that reason points to and is based on an inability of organizations to learn from experience. It is linked to chauvinistic conditioning which holds that the way we do it is correct and they are wrong.

Fallacy of the exception; there is nothing we can learn from others because we are different.

Change has no constituency; this is a Machiavellian notion that the stake that a minority of individuals have in preserving their power is far stronger than the stake that the majority have in bringing about an uncertain alternative. This includes the followers who espouse the notion that the people in powerful positions have the ability to steer us on the right course and we should not question their leadership.

Purpose of change not made clear; change brings uncertainty, confusion and mystery that induce fear.

Not involved in planning; in current ‘management speak’, this is about ‘taking ownership’. We are more likely to be committed to change if we are able to participate fully in the decision-making process.

Appeal is based on personal reasons; personal and institutional loyalty are variable but even the most loyal colleague may come to doubt the need to change if the sole or predominant rationale is based on ‘because I say so’.

Lack of trust; a lack of trust, respect and confidence in the proposers of change is often cited as one of the principal causes of resistance.

Fear of failure; this becomes particularly acute with academic colleagues undergoing change and maybe expressed as a fear of embarrassment, loss of status, or the fear of incurring the disapproval of a senior colleague.

Excessive pressure; the scholarly literature on change management is unequivocal when it comes to compulsion. Compulsion often occurs when there is a failure in planning change, in communicating change and when the organization’s leaders are unsure themselves about the change.