Overdue Wake-Up Call For Higher Education

RADICAL change in large institutions is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

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?

True enough. But virtually all of the flocking is to the top 10 to 20 percent of the 3,000-plus institutions of higher education in this country. In most of our colleges and universities, remedial education is the norm; their collective dropout rate is double what we deplore in the K-12 system.

American colleges made some remarkable accomplishments during the post-war period, most notably the opening of access to higher education and the building of world-class research universities. But in retrospect these feats were accomplished in grossly inefficient ways - and usually with more attention paid to faculty morale than to the public good. Higher education officials like to talk about the specific "mission" of various types of institutions - community colleges, research universities, small priva te liberal arts colleges. This serves to minimize conflicts between the various players, but it means that hardly anyone within the academy thinks about higher education as a whole.

The result is some distressing anomalies. A major university solves its recruiting problems the way big corporations solve their labor problems - "outsourcing." It imports Indian faculty members to teach Indonesian students. Meanwhile, the community college down the block finds the doors to the university closed to its students. To the public, the division of higher education into autonomous sectors responsible unto themselves makes no sense.

Sooner or later, however, higher education will face the same wake-up call that public schools did in the early 1980s. Colleges then will be forced to make systemic changes, not merely tinker. Specifically, several until-now taboo topics:

* Do we need 3,000 free-standing institutions, each with its own library, French department and financial aid office? Can't they streamline and consolidate like everyone else?

* How can we improve governance? Perhaps academic departments, which grew up in an era when interesting questions could be pursued within the confines of a single discipline, have outlived their usefulness.

* How can colleges and universities improve efficiency and productivity? Holding classes on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons is but a high-visibility starting point.

* How can we strike a better balance between research and teaching? Some suggest rethinking faculty reward systems.

* Teachers and administrators in public schools are increasingly being judged on how much students learn. Why not college officials and professors as well?

* Is the concept of higher education still useful? Maybe we should start thinking K-16.

* How can higher education speak more directly to social problems?

Evidence abounds that large, seemingly unwieldy institutions can be radically transformed to meet new conditions. The issue is not whether the forces of structural change will affect colleges and universities. The only questions are how and when this will take place and whether leaders of higher education will choose to take the initiative or cede it to outside forces.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Overdue Wake-Up Call For Higher Education
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today