Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Eighties are Over

Recently I went to see the movie version of Rock of Ages. Basically it was about Rock at the end of the 1980’s and the music was great.  Sadly, my date thought it was a little hard on boy bands but we will leave it at that (I could have been more sympathetic). I started thinking that the eighties were a great time in higher education—at least for me.  I had my first teaching job and started work on my doctorate.  I also began to wonder what happened. After giving the matter some though I came to a conclusion--The world changed and higher education began to change as well.

Starting in the mid-1970s we began to see the unmistakable growth of a global information economy. The huge round of deindustrialization, downsizing and so forth that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s were an early result of this trend. A lot of the changes in higher education were attempts to address these developments.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to see this as being different. I like the analogy that our environmental science friends have with boiling a frog.  If you drop the frog into hot water it will jump out. If you drop the frog into cold water and slowly increase the heat, it will boil to death.  Sadly, a lot of faculty and administrators are in the position of the second frog.  So as a service to the academic community I thought I’d offer a brief tour of the present.  Sing along if you know the words.   

Are you ready to Rock?

Paradise City:  Colleges in the 1980s were almost exclusively traditional bricks and mortar arrangements and the total numbers of students was smaller than it is today.  Pressures for research and publication at smaller and midsize institutions were modest. Students enjoyed a large range of financial aid options that easily covered the relatively low cost of higher education.  Jobs for college graduates were relatively easy to get, in spite of the recessions that periodically hit the job market.  This was especially true for PhDs who found multiple offers for their services. 

Rock You Like A Hurricane:  Things changed. The demand for students increased due to the smaller demographic following the baby boom and other factors, such as the increasing size of administrative staffs.  Even smaller Universities began to see that teaching would not pay for operating costs and pressure for funded research increased. Universities also began to grow more concerned over prestige and rankings. To be fair, some universities were always like this.  In the last two decades however, it became more and more mainstream.

In the last two decades, Higher Education changed a great deal.  Class sizes increased, pressure for research grew and the demands of the faculty role became more substantial.  More and more teaching is done by adjuncts and TAs. The huge growth of administrative staff is dramatic and costly.  The cost of higher education increased dramatically leading to an explosion of student debt. Many new graduates are having a hard time finding jobs.  The economics of higher education will likely drive many institutions into oblivion.  The job I had in 1980 is nothing like the job I have today.  These forces have sparked a number of developments:

Any Way You Want It:   Most universities have moved from only on our campus day offerings to a range of possibilities.  Things like night classes, classes at more convenient locations, classes on Saturday and so forth were well established by the 1980s.  The growth of technology and distance education has accelerated this process. One exciting development, the spread of free courses online promises to change everything.

A lot of people balk at technology, even in the face of overwhelming evidence from the research community.  The truth is that the alternatives are huge classrooms (200-500 students), lot of adjuncts or burning out your faculty. None of those are good choices. Courses that are too small don’t make money.  If you run too many of these courses, you go out of business.

The other side of this is the global search for students.  Many universities have established programs in China, Korea and India. Other universities have created programs to bring international students into the fold.  They are a huge part of the emerging market and you ignore them at your peril. 

I Want To Know What Love Is:  The growth of metrics and activity based budgeting systems is taking a lot of the occasionally capricious choice out of the system.  We now have numbers that are difficult to finesse.  While some of the metrics are not that helpful, others provide needed clarity.  Years ago everything was a judgment call, now that’s changing. 

Students and families are beginning to use metrics to separate spin from substance. They have access to a variety of freely available metrics. It is kind of difficult to mislead an informed consumer.  If you say your program is world famous it had better have the rankings to back that up.

Some of the things that once worked for building fame and glory have fallen on the altar of metrics. Things like prestigious visitors, fancy parties and the like count for nothing in the new world.  Having a nice brochure is useless when a student can look at your placement rate or what your faculty really produces and draw their own conclusions. Transparency might be hard but it is really the way of the world. 

Waiting for A Girl Like You: Because of metrics, especially in the fields that use reputation rankings, schools try to recruit people with substantial reputations, publications and networks.  This is like incorporating a famous actor in your B-Movie.  People will come to see them.  Someone who is good at what they do can revitalize a department and lift it to new heights.  Sadly, that doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes you are there as window dressing for a mediocre program with unproductive faculty.  No one likes that. One of the things that I have learned is that you better be willing to respect what these colleagues bring because if you’re not, they leave and that reputation turns against you.
I’m Gonna Harden My Heart:   Getting a tenure track faculty job is getting more difficult every day and some places are trying to abolish tenure completely.  When I got my PhD, most doctoral students did not publish.  Now it is pretty much a prerequisite to getting a tenure track job at even mediocre universities.  While some schools are still hiring people for their teaching ability, more are looking for researchers.  Many of the former schools are unlikely to survive the next decade.  The quality of your research training, who your references are, publications and what your research plans are for the future can make the difference between a good job and an adjunct role at multiple institutions.

In spite of what people think, this has always been a hard job and it’s a whole lot more than teaching a few classes. After more than 3o years in this role, I push every day to keep up.

We're Not Gonna Take It:  Civility has taken a major turn for the worse in higher education.  Competition over resources always leads to conflict but I really think this is different.  In many cases, people see their positions eroded by changes in higher education and its environment. Even if your job isn’t in jeopardy, your self-concept might be. 

Frustration often leads to bad behavior and occasionally to mental illness.   The fact that the university wants you to produce more does not mean that the people who are already producing are out to get you.  It means that the university wants you to produce more.

When people say their having differences about the “Soul of the University” they are usually are arguing about resources.  It might be better if we dropped the pretense and just fought over that.   The truth is that universities make money on some things and not on others.  That doesn’t make those other things unimportant. There needs to be a balance. Most universities will support productive programs even if their enrollments are modest. What they won't support are programs that do nothing well.

Some departments degenerate into an almost cult-like state with incredible delusional systems that one almost has to see to believe.  Any questioning of the central set of beliefs is met with immediate and very hostile reactions.

Since managing higher education is much harder than it used to be, many talented leaders decide to go elsewhere or avoid management all together.  There are some very good leaders in higher education and some who try very hard to be so.  On balance, there are people who fulfill the old saying that those who have to have power are the ones that shouldn’t have it.  They can be a disaster.

Don't Stop Believin:  The big news is this is not the eighties.  That time has passed. Higher education is a whole different place. Sadly, some people don’t see it that way and for them, life is frustrating. You can make things happen in your mind, but that doesn’t make them real.  Many ideas that seemed to work in the 1980s are not going to work today, even if you wish really hard.

Higher education is changing but many of the changes have yet to come. Like most organizations, successful universities will become flatter, tech savy, more data driven and better able to deal with their various constituencies. State support for higher education will continue to shrink as state finances become tighter.  Universities will have to find less costly ways to deliver instruction. They will also have to find other sources of income. This is a challenge, not a disaster.

I suspect that in 3o years the university system will be far different than it is today. As always, the future will be what we make it. If we do things right, we can be the shining city on a hill.  If not we will be the used car no one wants—or maybe a boy band.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The University of Virginia Situation and the Future of Higher Education

The recent controversy around the President of the University of Virginia has resulted in a good deal of speculation about whether this situation foretells great change in higher education.  The way I understand it, the UVA board clashed with the president, who was subsequently forced out, about the pace of change in the university.  It is actually hard to know what else was involved and it may be that we will never know.  It might be just Virginia state politics or personalities or a range of other things. I suspect that when all is said and done, the impact on the University of Virginia will be minor.

Higher education is an institution that changes less quickly than other parts of society.  Change in colleges and universities comes hard and there is often considerable blood on the floor.  This is an incredibly complex business than many outside the academe fail to understand.  Colleges are not high schools and they are not factories.  We create knowledge and pass it along to those who will change the world.

A little caution is not always a bad idea.  Change does happen.  In the thirty or so years I’ve been a college professor I’ve seen a lot of transformation occur.  Some of that change is good and some of it is not so good.  The pace of change has accelerated in the past few years and this is disconcerting to many.

Students are certainly different and their needs and concerns are different. Not only that, but the future they can expect is certainly not what things were when the diploma was placed in my eager hands.  Huge student loans and the changing nature of the American economy are real stressors. The faculty is also different. A lot more of the teaching is done by adjuncts and more of the employees are professional staff.  Civility in the faculty ranks is in serious decline.  Some of the behavior I’ve seen in the past few years would have been unheard of in the past.  As in much of the rest of the economy, pressure for productivity and new metrics to measure results are increasing.  Then there is the politics of higher education funding and the culture wars.

I have new tools that I wouldn’t have dreamed of in the 1980s that add to my teaching and research.  There are new opportunities to interact with people from many parts of the globe.  There are exciting new things to study.  It is an exciting time in that regard.

The problem is that you are talking about a resilient institution in the hypercompetitive environment that Tom Friedman (2005) described in The World is flat. Colleges and universities, besides being difficult to change, have a number of organizational constraints that make it costly to change. 

In a major university, activities are far more extensive that just teaching.  While that is what the public sees most, it is just the tip of a rather large iceberg.  It is difficult to control the costs of traditional teaching situations and Tuition is probably as expensive as it can reasonably get.  While distance education and technology can help here, it isn’t a perfect solution. While many faculty members are resistant (even in the face of substantial research evidence that it is good as or better than traditional approaches), there are other problems as well. Universities have tremendous sunk costs in terms of classroom and dormitory buildings, an entire range of student affairs facilities, substantial non-instructional staff and so forth.  It would be difficult or impossible to walk away from all that and go to a complete distance education model. At the same time, many of the resources needed for the teaching mission are also needed for the research mission (faculty members, Labs and libraries).  The message is that it can be done but the cost savings may be decades in coming. That is not a good reason for not doing it—only for doing it in an intelligent fashion.

While there is always resistance to change, most people, including those who work for colleges, will eventually see the light.  Good leaders will get the right result.  Poor leaders will not.  Sadly, there are a lot of poor leaders and managers in higher education. From what I hear from my friends in almost any field, we’re not alone.

Badly designed change processes lead to poor morale, turnover and lower productivity. The job market in higher education is challenging, but it is not that challenging for the people that you cannot afford to lose.  This leads to a cycle where valuable employees leave, less valuable employees stay and the enterprise grinds to a halt.

Then there is the matter of reputation.  Universities live for reputations and many of the other functions they have depend on those standings. Those reputations are tied to faculty activity and faculty reputations.  Faculty members with national and international reputations who leave because they are dissatisfied take a chunk of the institution’s reputation with them.  This makes it harder to attract top students, the best faculty members and funding from a variety of sources. There is a tipping point where the university becomes far less desirable.

Turning a boat too quickly results in it turning over.  On balance, not turning it at all can be equally serious.  There are very serious threats to higher education and an intelligent response is needed or we will hit the rocks.  This is not going to be easy and we will not wind up in the same place at the end that we started out in the beginning.


Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.