A Commitment to Mission: The Future of Higher Education
There has been a lot of talk lately about the future of higher education. Dan Butin, writing in Inside Higher Education, suggests that part of the problem is that everyone seems to be focused on the impact of technology and, thus, wants to organize around “the next big thing.” However, he notes, “Higher education is changing dramatically, from the “new student majority” of demographic shifts to the changing nature of faculty work and contingent faculty to the disinvestment of public higher education and the debtification of an entire generation of low- and middle-income students. But these are not problems that have been caused by or will be solved by technology. These changes have been thirty-plus years in the making.” He argues that we need to have a clear view that technology is about transmitting information, leaving it to the university to help students learn to transform information into knowledge. “This,” he writes, “would require a fundamental rethinking of what faculty do, of what students learn and how they document such learning, and what goals we want them to accomplish through such learning.”
Earlier this year, in The Chronicle Terry Eagleton described “the slow death of the university as a center of humane critique,” which he saw as being largely rooted in the university’s capitulation “to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.” One symptom is the death of traditional academic governance, where the faculty determine the curriculum and academic policies. With the creation of academic administration as a career, he notes, “professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted into consumers.” Addressing the longstanding tension between the University as a “public good” versus a “private good,” Eagleton writes:
Education should indeed be responsive to the needs of society. But this is not the same as regarding yourself as a service station for neocapitalism. In fact, you would tackle society’s needs a great deal more effectively were you to challenge this whole alienated model of learning. Medieval universities served the wider society superbly well, but they did so by producing pastors, lawyers, theologians, and administrative officials who helped to sustain church and state, not by frowning upon any form of intellectual activity that might fail to turn a quick buck.
Noam Chomsky sounded a similar note in 2014when he described the emergence of a business model within higher education that created layers of professional, career administrators while making faculty more vulnerable by increasing the use of adjuncts and, at the same time, keeping the student body burdened by debit and, thus, less likely to repeat the student activism of the 1960s.
Chomsky describes two basic models of higher education that have been discussed since the Enlightenment. One is what he calls the “empty vessel” approach of knowledge transfer, what we might today call “teaching to the test.” The other, which, Chomsky notes, was the preferred model over the past three centuries . . .
. . . was described as laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure. So an educational program, whatever it may be, a course on physics or something, isn’t going to be just anything goes; it has a certain structure. But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education.
Higher education has suffered over the past two decades due in part to the disruptive change that technology and globalization has inspired around the world. Certainly, one reason is that American public colleges and universities—their mission and their products and services—are a product of the Industrial Revolution; it is only natural that we should refresh the vision of higher education to meet the needs of this new social and economic context in which education operates and, at the same time, protect it from dangers in this new environment that threaten the fundamental purposes of higher education.
Public higher education emerged as a response to a complex societal need in the 19th century: to facilitate the massive immigration and urbanization that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and to provide the new skills that society needed to succeed in the new environment. Among the results:
· A national network of teacher colleges
· New undergraduate and graduate programs in professions like engineering, science, and business
· New disciplines—sociology and social psychology among them—that produced new knowledge and professionals to address social issues arising from urbanization and the new community dynamics brought about by immigration and industrialization.
· A commitment to social engagement, reflected most obviously in the Agricultural Extension movement in every state but also including “general extension”—also called continuing education, outreach, and engagement—that addressed ongoing educational needs of communities and the professions.
· Distance education—originally in the form of correspondence study—designed to make rural life more sustainable and to help improve agricultural production to support urbanization.
· A broad commitment to practical, applied research across all disciplines.
· New degree programs—ranging from associate degrees to professional master and doctoral degrees.
The questions today are: (1) What new societal needs are arising from the Information Revolution? And (2) What must higher education do to address these new needs? Some thoughts follow:
New Social Needs
The Information Revolution is making several significant changes to society, which should drive planning for colleges and universities. Three issues stand out as being at the same scale as those that defined the university in the industrial period:
1. Technology has changed the nature of “community” itself. In the agricultural and industrial ages, “community” a shared physical proximity was basic to the definition of a community. Community was the shared inter-relationships of people who share a physical space. Today, however, technology has reduced—and in some casers eliminated—physical co-location as a requirement of community. We maintain work and social relationships with colleagues who live far away. We work from home offices. We purchase essentials online. We are just beginning to comprehend how this new social structure—a combination of physical and virtual communities—affects the individual’s role as a member of political, social, professional, and spiritual communities. The supply chain for many products is now international. Even the help desks that we call when a product doesn’t work may be in India or elsewhere. In the industrial era, immigration drove the economy, and this drove educational change. In the information era, people need not necessarily move to the United States in order to participate in what is now a global manufacturing economy. The need for American workers and professionals in the new economy is to be able to work effectively with colleagues from multiple cultures who remain in their own culture. The implications cut across the three-part mission of higher education.
2. Our citizens are living longer lives. We need to train citizens for their “third act”—to make constructive contributions to their communities, both local and global. Higher education must not focus solely or even primarily on high school graduates, but must be there to help them through all three stages: first professions, career changes, and the often voluntary contributions that retired adults can make to their communities. At each stage, we also need to ensure that education is not just vocational training, but helps students at all three stages find satisfaction in individual and community roles.
3. We are at the threshold of major climate change in our world. The coming decades will see dramatic impact on coastal communities and on worldwide agriculture. Just as our land grant universities helped to support industrial urbanization and immigration by focusing on agricultural production in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, we now need to conduct research and prepare society for the implications of climate change. Those implications include massive migrations within and between nations as populations move away from coastal flooding; significant changes in agricultural productivity that could lead to large-scale food shortages; and the need to find new sources of energy. In the process, climate change will put stress on national and international social and political institutions and processes and will require new social service professionals. Higher education’s response to climate change will require new emphases in research, the development of new curricula to prepare professionals and the population as a whole to deal with migration and other issues, and new partnerships between institutions to share faculty, and to conduct collaborative research across political, social and climate frontiers. Increasingly, international institutional partnerships will be needed to help institutions address issues that affect their local communities.
Ultimately, however, the future of higher education rests in accepting the fact that higher education institutions are not corporations. Colleges and universities are not companies. They are complex social organizations that have developed to meet the needs of the societies in which they operate. They depend on a commitment to ideals, like shared governance, to ensure that the delicate balance between individual faculty expertise and organizational commitments is maintained so that the institution can serve society. Universities cannot allow themselves to become simply the training arm and private laboratory of commercial interests. Their commitment must be to the broader society.
Only this commitment—supported by the effective use of technology to engage communities and facilitate collaboration across institutions—will allow higher education to translate goals that both Eagleton and Chomsky describe into practice in the Information Society.