Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Building the Future of Public Higher Education

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reminded several times of the danger facing American higher education institutions.  One of the strengths of American higher education has been its diversity.  However, today it appears that many institutions are struggling with falling attendance amid increasing competition, at a time when both the higher education community and the broader society are questioning the purpose of the college/university in the new global information society.   

            One suggestion that I heard was that states should privatize their public colleges and universities, selling them off to corporations that would then manage them.  That, to me, is exactly the wrong thing to do.  Higher education is a fundamental institution of our democracy.  Our colleges and universities are the foundry in which we, as a nation, forge new ideas—often ideas that are not popular at the time or that may threaten profit-seeking companies.  Corporatizing higher education would simply turn our campuses into job training sites where students are acclimated to corporate mores.  Higher education is about building and maintaining our society.  Even with faltering State support, much of the teaching mission of higher education is supported by federal scholarships and loans; I see no reason why our social commitment to students, funded by our taxes as a societal investment, should be used to make a few corporations rich.  The critical issue is to understand the social need for higher education in a changing cultural and economic environment as we shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Society.
            A quick look at history might help explain the importance of a societal context and where we need to go.  Most of our public state colleges and universities were created during the early days of the Industrial Revolution.  The big land grant universities were funded originally by the sale of federal lands through the Morrill Act of 1862 in order significantly expand the number of professionals needed to support the nation as it settled the frontiers and created industrialized urban centers.  The goal was (according to the Land Grant Act of 1862):
. . . to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.
The Act was in response to the significant changes to society stimulated by the Industrial Revolution: (1) the need for greater professional expertise in a wide variety of professions—from engineering to social sciences—and (2) urbanization and the growth of cities as a result of industrialization.  We needed better agricultural production to support urbanization; one result was the creation of agricultural colleges and research centers in each state university and an Agricultural Extension Services that put university agricultural expertise into every country, helping farmers improve production on the front lines of agriculture.   This social mandate also resulted in new curricula, new types of courses (laboratory courses in science, for instance), and new academic subjects (statistics and the social sciences, for example).  It also brought to higher education new students—the children of farmers, coal miners, immigrants—who would lead the country as the Industrial Age matured.
            One of the drivers of urbanization was immigration.  As the population became more diverse, States responded by creating normal schools—schools designed to prepare teachers to educate the children of immigrants and to create standards for school systems in a state.  Many of today’s state colleges and universities began as teacher colleges. 
            Over the years, these public colleges and universities became the “three-legged stool” of innovation for the Industrial period, combining teaching, research, and public service to serve the needs of their states and of the nation, generally.  Each college and each university is a community of academics and other professionals who focus on developing new knowledge and passing that knowledge on through direct interaction with various user communities and, through the curriculum, with future professionals.   The diversity of American higher education, then, becomes a societal asset, as there are many places where new ideas can take root and many contexts for understanding knowledge and turning it into action; this diversity is a strategic strength for American society.
            By the 1950s—when the nation was just beginning to see the outline of the coming Information Revolution—the Truman Commission on Higher Education identified eleven principles or goals that summed up key characteristics of an educated person on the eve of the new era:
·      An ethical code of behavior
·      Informed and responsible citizen solving problem skills
·      Understanding global interdependence
·      Habits of scientific thought in personal and civic problems
·      Understanding others and expressing one’s self
·      Enjoyment and understanding of literature and the arts
·      The ability to create a satisfying family life
·      The ability to choose a useful and satisfying vocation
·      Developing critical and constructive thinking habits

These were ways in which higher education was expected to contribute to the quality of life in American society that went beyond simple preparation for a career.
Higher Education in the Information Era
            We are now a generation into the Information Revolution.  It is easy to see that some of the innovations made to help higher education adjust to the Industrial Age are no longer relevant and that others need to be seen in a new context.   We saw that higher education innovations in the 1800s were stimulated by urbanization, immigration, and the need for new kinds of professionals to grow and sustain the industrial economy and the new society that it was forging.  So, what are the drivers for innovation in this new era?  Some thoughts:
·      Just as the Industrial Revolution stimulated a need for a new professional class, it has become clear that the Information Revolution requires a more educated workforce at many levels.  The federal government has set a goal that 60 percent of high school graduates will go on to postsecondary education.  Currently, the level is 39 percent.  This should help reverse the enrollment decline; however, most high school graduates who are prepared to go to college already do so.  We need to significantly increase the percentage of high school graduates who are prepared for college-level work.   This will require that colleges actively support improvement of the K-12 curriculum, potentially blurring the traditional lines that separate K-12 and postsecondary education.
·       Agricultural production remains an issue, but today—and for the future—the problems are increasingly international and driven by long-term global trends. Writing in Scientific American, Lester R. Brown noted that world grain production has fallen short for the past several years, while demand for food continues to rise.  This is an example of what he calls a “trend-driven” change that is “unlikely to reverse without a reversal in the trends themselves.” (Scientific American: Lights Out—How it All Ends, Kindle Edition, p. 722).  The goal must be not simply to increase agricultural productivity but also to address a spectrum of public policy and environmental issues.  The Cooperative Extension model created in the 1860s to improve agricultural production needs to be re-imagined to address these global environmental and biotechnology issues.
·      We are now starting to see unintended consequences of late twentieth century innovations in health, energy, and other fields.  Julie Wakefield, again in Scientific American, noted: “Innovation is changing things faster than ever before, and such increasing unpredictability leaves civilization more vulnerable to misadventure as well as to disaster by design.”  (Ibid., p. 132)  In an increasingly interconnected world, disasters—especially biological disasters like epidemics—can spread both far and fast.   It is essential that our universities produce graduates who are prepared to understand and respond to the increasingly global implications of local actions.  The old disciplines need to be re-thought and, where appropriate, new interdisciplinary curricula need to be created.  At the same time, we also need to generate new interdisciplinary research efforts. 
·      The post-Industrial economy is inherently global, but it is also essential that we build local communities that can thrive in a global economy and society.  In this environment the university is an ambassador, linking local communities with global trends.
These issues affect all three legs of the higher education stool:  teaching, research, and engagement.  Some examples:
·      Teaching – We need a more interdisciplinary approach to general education and a capstone general education event that helps soon-to-graduate professionals better understand the broad social issues that will face them when they enter their professions.  Increasingly, the professions will require interdisciplinary approaches that will facilitate new kinds of innovation and connections across traditional professional communities.
·      Research—We need interdisciplinary thinking to drive research ideas and an environment that encourages inter-institutional collaboration.
·      Engagement—The “service” mission needs to be seen as fully integrated with the other two, as we build new relationships with communities through both teaching and research and technology transfer. 
Reinvigorating Higher Education as a Social Good
It should be clear that higher education in the Information Age should not be seen as a purely “personal” good.  It must be perceived and supported as a “societal” good in this new environment, just as it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  This begins with a re-commitment to the vision of higher education as a three-legged stool, with a firm commitment to the integration of teaching, research, and service/engagement.  
            We also need to recognize that these functions are no longer place-specific.   Technology allows us to distribute our resources and also to combine resources to ensure that all students and beneficiaries of research and engagement have access to the best possible talents and services.  Examples of technology-based collaborations already exist to point the way.  For instance, the Great Plains Inter-institutional Distance Education Alliance (IDEA) allows state universities in the Midwest to offer degree programs that call on the expertise of faculty across all participating institutions.  Similarly, the CIC CourseShare initiative is a collaboration among “Big Ten” institutions to use technology to aggregate students and extend the reach of faculty in specialized courses.  The Worldwide University Network has used the Internet to create research collaborations in a variety of subjects.  The American Distance Education Consortium brought together Cooperative Extension Services at land grant universities across the nation to share agriculture-related expertise.  In short, online technology allows colleges and universities to extend their ability to deliver to their communities the best, most appropriate programs, faculty, and research.
            In this new environment, not every campus needs to duplicate every discipline, every degree program, etc.  Technology should allow states to transform some campuses into specialty campuses and then use online learning to distribute some courses to other campuses as needed.  That said, campuses should also be sure that they are fully engaged with their local community, using technology to bring into the community resources from other institutions. 
            Ultimately, much depends on State governments re-committing to the idea that higher education is a public good, not just a private good and embracing changes that will allow our institutions to do a better job of building educated and agile communities in this new era.