Narrative: higer ed needs disrupted; resistance to change (mostly faculty) is the problem. Reality: higher ed will be disrupted when an organization figures out how to do so
I read yet another article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today about how ruinous the resistance to change is in higher education. I have heard this over the 25 years I was in senior administration. And, I heard about the need to disrupt higher education when I was a 12 year old kid in the early 1970s.
I agree that higher ed is in a different situation now given that the demographics are no longer in their favor. So, I can accept that something has to give- probably campus closures.
There are so many ideas about how higher ed can change and be more efficient. As a provost and dean I did my best implement them-most were important but incremental.
I am not an expert in business transformation. But as a casual observer, disruptive change seems to come to an industry sector when it is disrupted by something very different. Over the more than 50 years that this conversation has been going on, and with the huge market of students, no organization has been able to disrupt the higher ed business.
Also, I've lived through a couple of major disruptions. I often think about the end of the typewriter business and the video store business. These businesses weren't disrupted from within. The personal computer wasn't created to disrupt an inefficient typewriter business and make it change, and video streaming wasn't designed to disrupt inefficient video stores. I feel like higher ed change advocates are like the CEO of Blockbuster Video proclaiming that the only way video stores can survive in the face of streaming is having fewer employees, less videos and to make sure they have one or two videos that no one else has.
Disruption is an action based on great ideas that can be implemented. Not a philosophy that is implemented based on the concept alone.
There a few disruptive ideas in higher ed that failed. For example, several for-profit institutions built themselves around the "change" narratives, e.g year-round programs, fewer costs in maintaining physical infrastructure, no research, no tenure. Most all of them failed- at minimum they disrupted nothing.
MOOCs were going to disrupt higher ed. Didn't happen.
Online education has been a great addition to universities where I worked and generated net revenue, but it hasn't been disruptive.
In the end, the challenge that regional, less elite universities have now is enrollment that only offering an affordable, better, or different product is going to solve. The idea that universities can fix that by cutting costs and reorganizing the academic side of the institution while creating some program that no one else has is silly. It can't work unless it actually better facilitates launching students into meaningful and successful lives.
Again I am only a casual observer, but one might view some universities as a business in rural America in a town whose populations has shrunk. There really hasn't been a disruptive model for local businesses to thrive in that environment, other than closing, or being the last business standing. Certainly, cutting the number of products they sell and having employees get paid less and spend more time selling isn't the greatest strategy when your customer base is falling for reasons out of your control.
The world will not end if the number of universities shrinks to match population demographics. I mean it will hurt a lot of people and a number of communities, but the larger problem we face as a sector is more about having way more capacity for in-person higher education than is needed to teach the volume of students. In some states, this is simply because legislators wanted a university or college in their district. Making all of that capacity more efficient isn't going to change demand in the sector.
Most likely, the university's and college's that survive and thrive will be able to deliver the best product at the most reasonable price and be willing to offer that product broadly. In my university, the focus is almost entirely on reducing cost and demanding more student credit hours/faculty and staff, at the cost of student engagement. I might be wrong, but I just don't see that as a winning strategy as competition grows.
Also, almost every "universities are resistant to change" story focuses on faculty and academic programs. Really? the major disruption every one keeps talking about is how to make fewer faculty do more. I would love to learn of a university whose marketing line was "Come here! we increased our student to faculty ratio to 100:1"
Very few universities have thought about aligning the revenue strategy with the mission. The reality is that we don't exist to maximize student credit hour per unit cost, but as a public university that is how we are funded.. We exist to facilitate launching students on to meaningful and successful lives. Are there other ways to charge students to be consistent with the mission and service we provide? Are there other ways to incentivize academic units towards this mission? Of course there are. And, that is probably where the disruption will take place
I hope some day to see a true disruption of higher ed that delivers high quality education and mentoring that attracts students, at a reduced cost, and keeps the US a world competitor in research, scholarship and creative activities. I mean the whole idea of universities was not to simply transfer information- one can do that on Chat GPT now. Universities were also about creation, and very much about mentoring. I hope that idea does not die, only left alive in a few elite universities.
I also hope to see a disruption in the culture that has fostered higher education becoming the enforcer of social inequity, as opposed to the great equalizer perhaps envisioned when land grant universities were created.
When I first become a vice chancellor for research in the early 2000s, the time of the dot.com bubble, dramatic disruption and innovation-- I mean I remember going to a economic development talk where the brilliant futurist that thought cell phone cameras were silly- guess he wasn't such a great futurist.
I often thought about why it was that universities changed so little over their history, even has innovation changed everything over the same time. Even back then, I saw several talks that would show something like trains and then automobiles and then show a university classroom then and now. And, comment that universities must be doing something wrong to still look the same. The only thing that I could come up with in my mind, which was somewhat supported when I talked to people who study creativity, is that the teacher-scholar model, even more so when pushed to the scholar side, requires creative people, and that perhaps creative and open minded people thrived best in a stable environment even though their work was about change. I found that to be an interesting hypothetical paradox.
In any case, I hope that the next article I read about how frustrating it is to change things on a university campus mentions at least a few of these:
1) Recognize that this discussion has gone on for at least the 62 years of my life;
2) Several organizations have tried to disrupt higher education and failed, leaving havoc in many cases. A few other have been successful (Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors), but haven't disrupted anything;
3) At least in state universities, but also in some privates, the bureaucracy and lack of financial creativity is a big part of the problem; and
4) Faculty remain the only employees on campus that actually do the university's mission of teaching, research and service. Blaming teachers and forcing administrative change from on top, hasn't worked for public K-12 schools. But, then conservatives keep believing that tax cuts stimulate the economy and trickle down to lower income people, and increase equity, even though there is no evidence to support that view, and a lot of empirical data to reject that hypothesis.
5) And, please stop suggesting that incremental changes (wow.. new idea, let's make more revenue in the summer, or maybe actually teach courses aligned with the biorhythms of students) are disruptive. They aren't that hard to implement and they affect revenue/expense at the margins (perhaps keeping some universities afloat). I worried about keeping my campus afloat as a provost (and as a faculty member), but whether keeping a campus afloat is good for higher education as a whole is another question.
I think that Higher Ed. will disrupt when an organization figures out how to disrupt it. There is clearly a lot of money to be made for an organization that does so. But, whether that happens or not is totally unrelated to the many books and articles that are published on why higher ed needs to change, and no matter how loud Republican narratives are that they are inefficient, and ineffective at anything except brainwashing students with liberal ideas, or maybe when an athletic teams win.
Beating the drum of disruption and blaming the only employees in the organization that actually perform the mission is certainly not the path to victory,