Soul of a New University - 3/14/00
Tue Mar 14 11:55:43 EST 2000
from: Smart Marriages
An interesting op-ed piece from the NY Times
about the future of universities in the internet age.
Think about how this applies to marriage and family
March 13, 2000
The Soul of a New University
By ARTHUR LEVINE
In "The Education of Henry Adams," describing his college
experience under a curriculum that had not changed in several
decades, Adams said he had received an 18th century education
when the world was plunging toward the 20th. In a space of just
a few years, education had fallen 200 years behind the times.
Today's pace of economic, social and, above all, technological
change has put higher education in danger of falling behind again.
And this time, pressures from outside are likely to force those of
us who shape the academy not only to adapt our institutions, but
to transform them.
In the decades after World War II, higher education was a
growth industry. Governments around the world, eager for
better educated populations, supported it with few questions
asked. Today it is a mature industry, and in return for continuing
support, through direct funding, grants and student aid,
government is asking a good many questions. How much should
faculty teach? What's the appropriate balance between teaching
and research? How much should it cost to educate a student?
Should we have lifetime appointments for faculty? Why aren't
graduation rates higher? Why does it take students so long to
Once higher education could simply add new activities to the
old, but the current wisdom is that it must do more with less. We
in academia must figure out what is really critical to us and what
we are willing to give up.
Not all of these choices will be ours alone. Our students, as well
as our governments, have changing expectations. Information
economies require higher levels of education and more frequent
education. More of the new student body may be part time,
working and older.
I asked some students in this new breed what relationship they
wanted with their colleges. They told me that it should be like the
relationship with a utility company, supermarket or bank -- their
emphasis was on convenience, service, quality and affordability.
This group is going to gravitate toward online instruction, with
education at home or in the workplace.
The rise of online education and other new technologies has
enormous implications for all of us. Textbooks are dying. We're
moving to learning materials that can be customized for the
students who are in our classes. There won't be any excuse for
those of us who are still using yellowed notes to teach our
courses year after year.
An article in an airline magazine last year said that travel agencies
of the future will show customers virtual trips, letting them see,
by computer, the hotel room they'll stay in, walk the beaches,
see the restaurants. The time is coming when colleges and
universities will do something similar: instead of telling students
about 15th-century Paris, for example, we will take them there.
And when a student can smell the smells -- which must have
been putrid, walk the cobblestones, go into the buildings, how
will a stand-up lecture compete?
It is possible right now for a professor to give a lecture in Cairo,
for me to attend that lecture at Teachers College and for another
student to attend it in Tokyo. It's possible for all of us to feel
we're sitting in the same classroom. It's possible for me to nudge
(via e-mail) the student from Tokyo and say, "I missed the
professor's last comment. What was it?"; have my question
translated into Japanese; have the answer back in English in
seconds. It's possible for the professor to point to me and my
Japanese colleague and say, "I want you to prepare a project for
next week's class." If we can do all of that, and the
demographics of higher education are changing so greatly, why
do we need the physical plant called the college?
Many countries built systems of higher education based on
propinquity, trying to build a campus in easy proximity of every
citizen. How long will it be before nations ask why they have so
many campuses? How long before they ask higher education to
request new technologies, not new buildings? This is where
growth of the private sector in higher education comes in.
In the United States alone, higher education is an industry with
revenues of $225 billion, and that is causing the private sector to
look at postsecondary education as a potential target for
One corporate entrepreneur recently told me: "You know,
you're in an industry which is worth hundreds of billions of
dollars, and you have a reputation for low productivity, high
cost, bad management and no use of technology. You're going
to be the next health care: a poorly managed nonprofit industry
which was overtaken by the profit-making sector."
An amazing phenomenon is the for-profit University of Phoenix,
which has all the appropriate accreditation and is traded on the
stock exchange. It would like to reach 200,000 students within
the next decade and is already online with more than 6,000. It
has thrown out most of what higher education does traditionally,
using mostly part-time faculty. Class syllabuses are uniform and
prepared every few years with help from industry professionals
and academics in the field.
Phoenix is the nation's largest proprietary institution, and
entrepreneurs around the world are watching its example.
Investment firms are developing higher education practices.
Venture capital groups are starting to put money into higher
I recently saw a list 30 pages long, single-spaced, of for-profit
firms that have entered higher education internationally.
Not long ago a questioner at a conference asked what my
biggest fear was. I answered: "I think in the next few years we're
going to see some firm begin to hire well-known faculty at our
most prestigious campuses and offer an all-star degree over the
Internet. So they'll take the best faculty from Columbia, Oxford
and Tokyo University and offer a program at a lower cost than
A top-notch professor on our campus touches a couple of
hundred students a year. The lower-paid online professor may
touch thousands. The economics is not in our favor.
After the speech, a fellow came up to me and said, "Who told
you?" I said, "What do you mean, 'Who told me?' This isn't
rocket science." He said: "We're doing this. Who leaked?" The
simple fact is that we're going to see an increasing number of
he biggest danger is that higher education may be the next
railroad industry, which built bigger and better railroads decade
after decade because that's the business it thought it was in. The
reality was that it was in the transportation industry, and it was
nearly put out of business by airplanes. Colleges and universities
are not in the campus business, but the education business.
The trend is a convergence in knowledge-producing
organizations: publishers, television networks, libraries,
museums, universities. The head of technology at a large
publisher told me recently, "We're not in the book business
anymore." When I asked what business he was in, he answered:
"We're in the knowledge business. Our big focus now is teacher
education. We're using television and we're using computers,
and we're in thousands of schools. We want to put our brand
name on professional development for teachers."
The "content people," he went on, "are on staff, not at
universities." As for credits and degrees, "we're working on
that," he said.
In the years ahead, every knowledge-producing organization will
begin to produce similar kinds of products.
Those of us in higher education have a small amount of time to
stop and think. What is the purpose of higher education? How
shall we continue to accomplish it? Not to answer these
questions is to make a profound decision, by default, about our
own prospects for the future.
Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College, Columbia
Richard E. Heyman, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
State University of New York at Stony Brook
Stony Brook, NY 11794-2500
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