“One size does not fit all”—a phrase first enunciated at the workshop by Cathy Trower and then used by various other participants throughout the gathering’s two days—emerged as one of the discussion’s overriding themes. Universities face a broad range of economic, demographic, academic, and policy challenges. Ever more diverse faculties are dealing with a widening array of personal, family, and professional needs. Ever more unstable financing is affecting different kinds of institutions in different ways. For neither institutions nor individuals, therefore, will a single, broad solution serve to provide resolutions to the issues of the present and the future.
A second major theme is that, given the many changes now under way, the coming years will bring significant changes to some or all institutions. There is not “going to be this continuous line from the past into the future,” observed Gordon England. Calling himself an “industry guy,” he said that he has seen dramatic disruptions and discontinuities in industrial companies. Given current technologies and trends, “I believe frankly that things are going to change dramatically for universities,” he continued. “I really believe universities need to be thinking about it, because it is going to change whether they plan for it or not… . Education is ripe for dramatic change, because there are so many ways now to disseminate knowledge, different than when we set up universities, however many…hundred years ago.”
A major factor changing academe, he suggested, will be “technologies [that] have disrupted a lot of workforces in the last 20 years [but] haven’t disrupted the university” yet. But now an academic version of modern information technology—massive open online courses, or MOOCs—has become “one of the hottest topics in education,” he noted. These courses will grow in importance with effects on education that are as yet unclear, he said. “People are looking to really reduce their costs, and this might be one of the ways.”
But, as Michael Tanner observed, numerous “doomsday scenarios” have
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,
whether private or public, “life won’t change a whole lot probably.” At many other less-favored institutions, “I think it will change quite a bit.”
This means that “for people going along those academic arcs, we owe them very good information about what is happening in the academic marketplace,” Tanner continued. To meet changing conditions, he believes, “we are going to have to educate our graduate students to understand a different role… . The students are going to have to be educated to be more flexible, because it is going to be a more rapidly changing world” in which they will need a broader perspective, “as opposed to a very narrow, tightly focused perspective. That tightly focused expertise may not be wanted in the marketplace by the time they get there. I think we do them a disservice if we have not, in fact, given them a sense of alternatives.”
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