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.