On Change

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Talking heads are “pondering the future of higher education.” According to an article by Karin Fischer and Ian Wilhelm in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The American model is beginning to creak and groan, and it may not be the model the rest of the world wants to emulate,” said James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and one of the speakers on a panel assembled by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here to discuss the university of the future and the future of the university.

The other panel members largely agreed with Mr. Duderstadt’s assertion that higher education could be among the next economic sectors to “undergo a massive restructuring,” like the banking industry has seen.

This may not be the best metaphor (do you have a different relationship with your checking account or your mortgage thanks to bank restructuring?) but it apparently held the day at the conference, in which many participants enthusiastically endorsed the idea of ambiguous, though “considerable,” change in American higher education.

Or, as University of Phoenix President William Pepicello explained, higher education should be more responsive to consumers. Colleges should alter their curricula to meet students’ needs: “Web sites like Google and Yahoo take note of users’ preferences to give them information more attuned to their needs. Is there any reason why a higher-education platform shouldn’t be able to adapt?”

This assumes, of course, that universities should be responsive to society and its trends. For much of its history, however, the university was restricted to a very small segment of society (not even the upper class but a small segment of the upper class). The university, in fact, can if it wants continue to be the bastion of traditional scholarship. It can continue to be archaic, elitist, and restricted. And the University of Phoenix can continue to be “thinking ahead.”

No matter how efficient career-focused, on-line higher education becomes there will always be other institutions of higher learning. These universities have inefficient, impractical classes, extensive green space, and lavish, wasteful buildings donated by alumni. That’s because people who can afford to attend such institutions like these places.

There’s an argument to be made about why this sort of dichotomy in higher education might ultimately be bad for America but it wouldn’t really necessarily be bad for a university. In all this discussion about the need for change in the university, maybe it’s time to think about what we really mean by need.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer