been enunciated concerning MOOCs, which he thinks have been “overinterpreted… . They are a new resource, just as Gutenberg’s books made possible a number of educational experiences for motivated people… . This new technology is going to open…the library of the world and access to resources that are just unheard of. There will be many more self-educated people out there.” But the meaning of these changes for higher education institutions is not yet clear.
Something else likely to drive change at many universities, England predicted, is the explosion in student debt, which he believes will motivate at least some students to make different choices about where or how to pursue their education. “Kids now owe a trillion dollars in student debt,” he said, “and that is not going to go up to 2 trillion, so at some point that is going to end.” Beyond economics, “the demographics are sort of working against [universities], because the population is getting smaller. The state support is going down [and I think] is not going to improve… . Federal support for research I don’t think is going to go up.”
One component of the academic scene—the tenure system—that has thus far withstood change remains so important that it constitutes “the elephant in the room,” COSEPUP member Paul Citron said. Although it now applies to an ever- shrinking percentage of faculty members, and although in some cases it no longer implies the commitment to provide a faculty member’s salary, it nonetheless remains a powerful factor in university finances, organization and culture. “Is it an entitlement whose time has come and gone?” he asked. “Is it something that is an impediment, or is it something that is a major benefit to academia, for whatever reasons?”
Those reasons, participants noted, have historically involved protecting academic freedom. “Tenure has been very important personally in guarding beliefs and allowing faculty to speak out [on] what they see is right, and not be subject to the whims of each year some group saying, ‘Well, we can’t have someone who thinks that way.’ “ Richard Zare said.
“I think that tenure is a very essential and important protection for faculty,” Edie Goldenberg concurred. “Yes, it is a privilege. Yes, it is costly. Yes, people take advantage of it. The answer in my book is not to get rid of it.” Any modifications must still protect “the faculty’s ability to go after unpopular things.”
On the other hand, John Tully suggested, “I think if we removed tenure it wouldn’t change very much, at least if we replaced it with something sensible like a 20 or 25 year contract instead. Whether long-term contracts or other alternatives to tenure could provide sufficient protection merits examination, participants added.
As the academic world sees ever “more pressure on universities to tighten the belts and to watch very carefully where the money is going,” the fates of the academic haves and have-nots are likely to diverge even further, Tanner said. At a relative “handful” of prominent, well-endowed research universities,