Overdue Wake-Up Call For Higher Education
RADICAL change in large institutions is becoming the norm rather than the exception.Skip to next paragraph
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The current agonies of IBM are but the latest example of an American corporate giant struggling to downsize and decentralize its operations to cope with new global marketplaces. The military is a far different institution than it was at the time of the Granada invasion. The 1980s brought major changes in health care. Welfare is probably next.
There is, however, one conspicuous exception to institutional restructuring: higher education. The structures of American colleges and universities have remained virtually unchanged since the advent of graduate education in the mid-19th century.
There is nothing inherently wrong with maintaining proven academic traditions. The problem is that colleges and universities now face a staggering set of issues - cost control, access, quality of instruction, multiculturalism, productivity, and accountability, to cite the most obvious - that cannot be solved by business as usual.
The time has come to consider making the same sort of fundamental structural changes in our colleges and universities that have become the norm in other large institutions, including their counterparts at the elementary and secondary level. In the early 1980s the American public became increasingly restless about the quality of public schools. College admission scores had declined, and American students looked like denizens of the third world on all those international comparisons of academic achievement .
To help restore public confidence, policymakers began tinkering with the system - raising graduation requirements and teacher salaries, lengthening the school day and year, and administering more standardized tests. But the incremental adjustments of the 1980s failed, so today the strategy has shifted from tinkering with the existing system to designing a new one. Schools and school systems around the country are decentralizing, finding alternatives to standardized tests, and moving toward making educato rs accountable for student performance.
Americans are beginning to express similar doubts about the quality of America's colleges that they directed toward public schools in the 1980s. Their anxiety is fueled by reports of enormous classes, inaccessible professors, athletic scandals, allegations of price-fixing, and excessive billing that raise doubts about how well higher education is fulfilling its public trust.
College faculty members enjoy privileges such as sabbaticals, tenure, and long summer vacations, which are widely perceived to be essential to the academic enterprise but come with obligations attached. Recent events have planted the idea in the public mind that maybe these privileges are now being taken for granted. In Plato's Republic the philosopher kings had a good life, but they were obligated to come down the mountain every once in awhile and share their wisdom. A frequent riposte is that the US st ill has the best system of higher education in the world. Don't students and faculty flock here from around the world?