Saturday, January 31, 2015

US Higher Education: Quo Vadis?

An opinion piece in Friday's Dayton Daily News, by the president of Ohio's Antioch College, jump-started today's post.  The promised offering of alternative futures for America's colleges and universities has been delayed, and a puzzle.  The puzzle, however, was not for reasons one might suspect.

Antioch's president addressed the core need for higher education to achieve not just pro forma housecleaning, but material basic reductions in the cost of a college education, citing the now prominently displayed findings that over 50 percent of America's public PreK-12 students now live in poverty.  That finding doesn't magically improve when those constituents try to educationally move into the next level of education, where they encounter a level of magnitude greater costs.

Reflecting on Antioch president Mark Roosevelt's common sense statement of need, its contrast with a reality became writer’s block.  That reality:  Few if any of the contemporary depictions of why the cost of higher education is what it is capture the full scope and depth of the issues, and there is little candor in describing prospects that those costs can even be nudged.

Prevailing Wisdom

The most common assertion – true – is that the last decades’ college tuition escalation reflects long term reductions in state support of those institutions. Next in line is the plea that human resource costs have soared, both required salaries to hold quality faculty, and the costs of health insurance and pension reserves.  Kept low key in reporting, the cost of debt incurred to support bursts of campus construction, some justified, but much designed to dress those campuses to compete for students.  Next, legitimate, some fragment of those costs is attributable to meeting regulatory requirements.  The net costs of sports to our institutions is rarely transparent – a mixed bag, in some cases profitable, in other cases football and basketball revenues offset the costs of other sports. Lastly, add the soaring costs of research assigned to our universities to support the nation's technology needs, some moved from the private sector and imposed on our research universities.

Collegiate administration, an increasingly savvy lot in this century, squirm or bob and weave, but rarely find the industry or courage to try to re-write their strategic game plans.  The dirty little secret that has blocked higher education reform for decades is, with rare exceptions, they have no need to change.  A virtually isolated exception in this last decade was the University of Virginia, where an initial brouhaha slowly dissipated moving the dial back to virtually where the revolt started.

Reality is that our traditional colleges and universities have few natural predators as a check and balance, pragmatically receive perfunctory oversight, and increasingly corral a captive audience of sports-intoxicated supporters, and alumni who where successful and with nostalgia for their campus salad days feed those institutions endowment dollars.  That wake, funding diverted to student recreational infrastructure, doubling of bureaucratic resources, naive over-compensation of privileged faculty in the guise of staying competitive, and pious refusal to entertain the use of various learning innovations (MOOC) pleading they will reduce education quality.

The Riddle That Is US Higher Education

The list goes on for any willing to dismiss the hype, and look deeply into what the academic legions are and have been doing for the last 25-30 years.  Complexity, however, is that the academy is not an organized entity aligned with private sector organizational design.  It is fragmented, with mixed levels of faculty versus administrative governance, with operating rules and values installed over most of last century.  Inside the whole, every discipline can also be an organizational subunit reflecting a different set of management and performance criteria.  The presence of faculty tenure virtually ensures that there will be little slack to remove unproductive human resources at the academic level; lack of administrative courage in turn virtually assures that once bureaucracy is planted it will mightily resist uprooting, even in the face of reduced need or obsolescence.

Vivid in memory of being a collegiate administrator, was the realization after a few months in the saddle, that the faculty for whom I was responsible did not typically see themselves as employees of the university; rather with uncharacteristic boldness they perceived themselves as independent contractors to the institution.  Tenure meant you could not terminate a poor teacher, or faculty member who would rather wander the campus smelling the flowers than do research, or write, or even regularly meet their classes.  There was great diversity of organizational behavior depending on the colleges/schools/departments, and at some complex level based on the nature of the disciplines represented.

Because of the writer’s prior academic venue, better known cases in point are US schools of business.  Last century, circa 1960, spurred by widespread private sector critique and scathing criticism by two major foundations, those schools were forced to retool their curricula.  What had been a practical but simply descriptive view of American business was prodded to find disciplinary roots for business as a legitimate social science.  In the early 1960s that widespread curricular change occurred, creating a new B-school model, one driven by psychology, sociology, research methods, mathematical modeling, economic theory, and computer technology and computational business solutions.

That regimen legitimized our B-schools academically, but had an opposite effect than the private sector anticipated.  Some sound but exotic conceptual research blossomed, but the manner in which basic disciplines were incorporated damped interest and application of emerging social science to real, street level and especially bottom line oriented teaching and problem solving.  By the late 1970s that approach had again disenchanted the business community, but it had created a bipolar business education revolution. 

Business teaching incorporated some of the science bases of explanation of market and business organization phenomena; simultaneously B-schools’ imports of faculty from more liberally oriented disciplines to reach the earlier reform goals had instilled in those schools – at least for a time – the roots of societal values and ethics to accompany harder edged business practice.  That included 20th century consumerism, and the notion that business had social responsibilities distinct from simply unleashing market-based forces.

By the late 1970s because of corporate voices, and even in B-school internal debate, there was forced evaluation of whether the “social science” missions of that education had diffused and weakened the need for business teaching to be paired with usable applications of theory.  At this point, reminiscent of the reform of the 1960s, a constructive result might have been another update of curricula to marry contemporary theory and business practice.  That need was lost to emerging B-school leadership, pumped up by ramping faculty salaries, emergence of successful prior graduates bringing in endowment dollars, and the misconception that teaching management imbued one with the capacity to practice the best of it.  That preferred result did occur in a few specific business disciplines, notably in organizational behavior and selected research applications, but the overall myopic result was narrowing of focus of educational preparation for business.

For the subsequent 35 years our B-schools adapted to business’ needs by sharply refocusing learning on working to maximize bottom lines, by aggressive development of MBA work and executive education.  Prior sensitivity to business ethics and societal responsibility gave way to current conservative beliefs and myths about the supremacy of “the market” in resolving management decisions – that also created the present public PreK-12 reform debacle.  Bizarre to those of us who practiced through the reform period of the early 1960s, our B-schools began to evolve similarly to our public school system, into learning “factories” premised on standardization, highly programmed curricula, and the ritual MBA.

One might argue that in the last quarter of last century our B-schools created too many myopic marketers; in this century, too many myopic finance graduates, many who helped bring us the prior financial meltdown.  No mistake, tactically the MBA phenomenon brought our B-schools major success, mega endowment dollars, and escalated faculty salaries frequently without justification.  Simultaneously, the last 25-30 years of that academic progress has been a business research wasteland, and has contributed virtually nothing to our advanced understanding of business organization or market behavior.  Only the fairly recent emergence of behavioral economics has added any intellectual accomplishment to business academia.  Even digital applications, once embryonic in our B-schools, were quickly eclipsed by businesses willing to innovate and assume risk.   Paradoxically, assuming risk, and willingness to make mistakes were never tolerated in the academic places supposed to be teaching those arts to the private sector.

Borrowing the term, the ‘bottom line’ is that academic business is long overdue for self-assessment and curricular and learning methods reform.  With the present leadership of most of our B-schools, and without an external force majeure, that is not likely.  To some extent, with the possible exception of our hard and biological sciences, similar critique can apply to most parts of the academy.  Most egregious, among the already questionable, is an obsolete conceptual model for teaching the teacher, the worst of the collegiate breed, our schools of education.  Even that disgrace is not sufficient motivation to prompt collegiate leaderships to enact reform; perhaps because of the belief that would set in motion a view that more of higher education should also be subject to real change?

This is an all too brief survey of why much of higher education needs reform in the worst way; also too brief in part because paradoxically, there is precious little research on higher education that would allow comprehensive diagnosis.


This part of the argument could form the basis for a book or two.  To compress an answer into a few words, the assertion is that there is little threat to higher education, therefore little incentive to generate major internal debate or change, and enduring for the rest of this decade and perhaps the next. 

The Obama/Duncan rating scheme, to shame(?) or with a financial wrist-slap force the institutions into strategy change is so lame it merits no further mention. 

Our states long ago lost effective control of state higher education institutions when majority funding was transferred to tuition and corporatization. An example cited in the last post, the Indiana University system currently received only 24 percent of recent annual revenues from the state.  Collegiate sports in turn have become the armored columns protecting the academic franchise. 

Business practice as an institution is not a current threat, but promises to further compromise academic values by transferring initial training for future hires back to our colleges and universities. 

Too many collegiate boards of trustees or regents are either politically inspired or lack the intellect to exercise that oversight.  Peering into the hazy future, what threats or events could force higher education leaderships to move – to date there appear none.

What Would It Take?

The first answer to that question is, an epiphany by an army of collegiate leaderships that is bright, keeps its heads down, hides behind alumni-bureaucracy-sports, appeals to a swath of America’s middle class parents, and has a formidable if undeserved reputation for being the backbone of American future invention, industry, and prosperity.  In sum, not likely.

The second answer then is almost irrelevant, but still food for thought:  What would that change look like if one could wave a magic wand and scare the bejeebers out of a few thousand collegiate presidents, and cause a sudden internal assessment of their institutions’ missions and methods?  A rough try at an answer:

  • One, it would take the assembly of the full financial statements of a projectable sample of our institutions to understand the financial components that are susceptible to change, and longitudinally, their demand and organizational elasticity.
  • Two, it would require rebuilding the conceptual model of higher education into a major departure from a millennium of history; recognizing that the very nature of knowledge and access thereto has undergone a fundamental change, displacing the core concept of “university,”
  • Three, it would require acceptance of the reality that our institutions are packed with tenured and tenure track faculty who are being over compensated, are not infrequently either subpar classroom teachers or minimally committed to the classroom, and unless they perform a needed research function aren’t really needed to execute the higher education learning mission.  It may even raise the question of whether it is time to scrap out the concept of collegiate tenure.  A majority of higher education classes – for better or worse – is now being taught by part-time and non-tenure track faculty.  Egregiously, on many distance and community campuses, alleged collegiate–level work is being taught by unprepared teachers who could not pass those courses in legitimate university work.
  • Four, it would require coming to grips with the reality that much of now heavily hyped higher education’s lack of on-time graduation performance is attributable to the failure of public PreK-12, and especially its high schools to fundamentally equip their students to operate successfully in higher education.  That should open the door to a new model of education years 9-16, breaking down the disconnect between public education and higher education.  One form that might take is redefinition of current grades 11 and 12, and collegiate 13 and 14, eliminating the grade bands, regularly allowing higher education courses to be more fluidly applied and double counted toward high school completion as well as degree progress.  One simple (but major) factor that could reduce the recipient’s cost of higher education without major challenge of the establishment, is to materially shorten the time a student takes to complete a degree. 
  • Five, arguably every collegiate academic discipline would be tasked to assess and revise as necessary both curricula and how that knowledge is imparted/induced, with some form of oversight of the resultant work by a national academic board for each discipline.
  • Six, a major part of the cost model for higher education is the extended residential environment.  One concept is a staged learning procession that goes one better than tying loan repayment to subsequent employment, but makes some combination of on-campus learning and earlier professional employment the mainstream model.  That in turn would require new processes to allow MOOC to supplement campus work, and/or see that knowledge sourcing tied to a new level of inter-institutional cooperation to cross-recognize academic work.

What’s It All About?

Even the above short list, if one has been sensitive to the arc required to change any major institutional system, immediately becomes discouraging.  If the perpetually more optimistic would dispute that, consider the product of present public PreK-12 alleged reform – 35 years, acts of Congress, high double-digit billions of dollars, an army of idealistic zealots, an underclass army of professionals intimidated to change some undesignated behavior, states slavishly applying and wallowing in test data they usually do not understand, teachers and children degraded by the insensitive application of ESEA without addition of common sense, a procession of Bill Gates’ intrusions and flubs, now emerging protest movements still unable to create sane reassessment of PreK-12 education reform tactics – and a national system barely nudged.

Is the better learning factory the answer, or is the basic theoretical structure being forced onto our public systems simply wrong, based on false assumptions about learning, driven by ideology rather than the learning sought and wisdom, and now peppered with corporate and market self-interest, and political goals that drive out positive organizational learning of a century?

For all of the above reasons, there has to be great macro skepticism that change will occur in higher education venues over less than decades, and without the appearance of the metaphorical “black swan” that disrupts national beliefs and infrastructure.  But in the trenches, America is still graced with great and committed teachers.  For anyone who has spent serious time in the classroom, the event that makes it all worthwhile can be a single episode. 

Years ago the writer, in close to the last class taught before exchanging the classroom for corporate leadership, was offering an advanced MBA course in marketing research.  This was an unusually talented, but also pretty prideful group of about to become MBAs.  The course by design employed both traditional methods exposure and a constructivist approach.  The latter; three real-time marketing research issues underway at Piper Aircraft Corporation.  The class, knowing all that an MBA could possibly want, was pretty dismissive of the projects’ challenges.  They vocally branded the work a no-brainer.  Meanwhile Piper granted funding to buy just about any professional survey resources required to carry out the projects and cover any expenses, and shared proprietary data about past, present and prospective customers for framing the research.

Shortened story, the class had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the awareness that they really didn’t yet comprehend project management, or the market behaviors that had to be assessed.  Prodding but permissive, the class was allowed to seek its own timing levels, with the understanding that performance not pro forma procedure was the mission and test.  As the class approached the end of the term, and graduation for most, their past experiences predicted that if they didn’t finish the work, the worst case was an “Incomplete,” in virtually every case allowing their graduation.

As “fish or cut bait” time neared, it was made clear to the group there would be no Incompletes, rather an F because the course grade was premised on their actual performance; an F would have blocked graduation for all.  We’ll skip the rest of that session which became a bit emotional.  To give all an opportunity to succeed, a classroom was exceptionally sequestered for 24/7 use.  Funding for renting hotel rooms and related expenses was extended for any who were losing their resident housing.  School services were arranged 24/7 as support, and the writer was on call 24/7 for consultation.

The mission:  Piper sent a cabin class twin to pick up the class, and the results of the (hopefully) completed research for all three projects were to be presented in Lock Haven, PA to a full complement of Piper corporate vice-presidents and department/product managers.  The teams completed their reports at roughly 3-4 AM the morning of the flight, just in time to suit up.  All three teams had to practice their presentations for the first time in flight.

The performances:  A bit shaky out of the hopper, but all three teams pulled it together and did an excellent job of reporting their findings, generating from the Piper group praise for the work, a highly respectable congruity of the teams’ findings with Piper’s own professional research results, and praise for the IU MBA.  The flight home was smooth and initially quiet.  The writer was co-pilot in the right seat, the flight compartment separated from the rest of the cabin, but any conversation was audible.  About halfway through the flight home, the buzz started; all three teams congratulating each other, individuals doing the same, all to a person vocalizing how they had made all three projects work, impressed a corporate enclave, and aced their de facto test.  That is why you teach.

Perhaps, as another education writer with major K-12 credentials recently put it, that principle is where present public PreK-12 reform circuses should have started, where any higher education reform should focus, and where its resources and positive reinforcement should be directed -- not to punitive factory quality control logic that was obsolete when the scourge was launched?

No comments:

Post a Comment