ICYMI (In Case You Missed It): The Innovation Agenda

In case you missed it, Jeffrey J. Williams, professor of English and of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, published a terrific piece this morning on Inside Higher Ed that convincingly debunks the pretensions of those who would cut educational costs through technological innovation (and “creative disruption”) at the expense of both students and faculty.  It deserves a broad readership.

Here are a few choice excerpts:

The classic definition of the university is that it represents the corporate body of the faculty. Like the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, who wants to establish the Church of Christ without Christ, the New Leaders of higher education want to establish education without educators. Or more precisely, they want to call the shots and faculty to do what they’re told, like proper employees. . . .


. . . most institutions of higher education have a different role than businesses — more like churches, which in fact is the analogy that helped establish their independent legal status in the 1819 Dartmouth decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Something other than consuming goes on at universities, which gets lost in the commercial model of higher ed.

Think of it this way: while I like to shop at Macy’s and hope it stays in business, I would not donate any money to it, whereas I have to universities and churches. Of course universities should use best business practices, but if they act primarily as a business, with a saleable product and positioning students as customers, then they abnegate this other role. This is an inherent contradiction that vexes the push to commercialize higher education. . . .


What the rush for innovation is really about, as Christopher Newfield, a leading critic of higher education, has pointed out, is not a better theory of change but a theory of governance. As Newfield puts it, “it isn’t about what people actually do to innovate better, faster, and cheaper, but about what executives must do to control innovative institutions.” It’s all about top-down plans of action, with the executive issuing a plan to disrupt what you’re doing, and subordinates to carry it out. . . .


The vision of higher education that the New Leaders of higher education would like to install is not a traditional horizontal institution, in which faculty are generally of equal power. . . .  Rather, it has become an oligarchical institution, reliant on business deals and donations. Business corporations, after all, are not democracies but oligarchies, with decisions running from the owners and executives downhill. . . .


American higher education was conceived as a remedy to inequality in the period after World War II, with policy documents like the 1947 Truman Commission Report setting out a plan to fight inequality “in so fundamental a right as education,” spurring state and federal funding to expand high-quality public colleges and universities and allow a greater number of citizens to attend them for minimal tuition.

The new technology reinstalls inequality, with the wealthy (and a few high-scoring poor) receiving bespoke higher education at elite schools, but most of the rest getting theirs on a screen — with great graphics! like a game!

There’s much more in Williams’s essay, including a terrific take-down of his own campus president’s address to the Global Learning Council (yet another of those gatherings of self-important so-called “leaders” who don’t know what they’re talking about) and another of Luis van Ahn, a young computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon and MacArthur Award winner.  Van Ahn “is CEO of Duolingo, a nonprofit designed to bring language training to people for free (or more precisely for their labor). It’s all online, and it’s self-funding: Duolingo sells crowdsourced translations from students to CNN or other businesses in need of them, and the money keeps the company going.”  Apparently, one of his principles is that ” learning should be through a corporation, not through a government.”

Williams is also the author of a recent book of essays, How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham University Press), which I now intend to read.

You can find Williams’s essay on The Innovation Agenda at this link:


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