Why Is the Future of the University Never a University?

In August 2014, Graeme Wood wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “The Future of College?” The tease under the headline is: “A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he’s right?”

You don’t have to read beyond the tease to know that the “brash tech entrepreneur” really does not have a clue about what the “essence” of higher education actually is.

Perhaps lectures are an increasingly outmoded pedagogical method. But then, again, aren’t other “brash tech entrepreneurs” trying to sell MOOCs as a revolutionary “innovation,” and MOOCs are nothing more than digitally dressed up and delivered lectures. So, perhaps, it is not the lecture-method itself that is objectionable but the fact that there are no “entrepreneurial opportunities” in faculty who lecture on site.

Likewise, “football games” may be both a focal point for the deep emotional connections that many people have to certain universities, even beyond their alma maters, and, at the same time, an illustration of the ways in which universities have lost sight of their missions. The increasing expenditures on and, for all but the top-tier athletic programs, the institutional subsidizing of intercollegiate athletics are contributing to making higher education less affordable for many students. But, the tech entrepreneurs cannot have it both ways: that is, they cannot point to the athletic programs as a waste of institutional resources and, at the same time, promote intercollegiate athletics by sponsoring bowl games and by making gifts to build new facilities with their corporate names and logos on them. Recall that the stadium in which this year’s Super Bowl was played is called University of Phoenix Stadium.

Let’s pause, then, and consider the implications of that. The University of Phoenix has consistently generated almost 90% of its revenue, the maximum allowable by federal statute, from federal aid to students. So the University of Phoenix Stadium is very clearly a taxpayer-subsidized stadium, even though unlike stadium constructed with more transparent and often controversial taxpayer support, it may appear to many, if not to most, taxpayers to be a privately funded project.

In any case, the “brash tech entrepreneur” clearly believes that “tenure” and “research libraries” are extraneous. Why tenure? Well, that suggests a long-term institutional commitment to a professional workforce—to workers who have demonstrated a commitment to continued productivity. This system of employment provides the great advantages of institutional stability and continuity, which may come at the cost of protecting some faculty whose productivity drops off but which enable institutions to earn reputations that are the main measure of their worth—reputations that are symbolically represented in “ivy-covered buildings” for a reason, because it takes as long as it takes ivy to grow to earn a such an institutional reputation. For this reason, the “red-brick” universities that multiplied in the “baby boom” years, including my own university, have been chasing after—and are still chasing after—the up-and-coming faculty and the signature programs, as well as the outward manifestations, of institutions with well-established reputations.

This whole model is antithetical to the tech industry, in which companies are established and die, absorb and are absorbed, with a rapidity that has never previously been seen in any industry. Likewise, the tech industry creates products that have forced us to radically reconceive the notion of planned obsolescence. Most hardware and software has a peak shelf life measured in months, and the release of the “next generation” of products seems increasingly to be timed to just past the peak of the current products. The intent seems to be to maximize sales by trying, as much as possible, to eliminate the valleys in a “normal” product cycle.

In this industry, most employees are as much “throw-away” items as the products themselves. And I am not just talking about the largely overseas production employees, whose existence is something out of a dystopic novel—Sinclair Lewis’ The Jungle synthesized into Orwell’s 1984. Everyone in research, design, and marketing is desperately looking for that one “big idea” that will make them a quick fortune, because the industry thrives on the incessant infusion of youthful talent. This means that, for most employees, the window of opportunity to make one’s mark and one’s fortune is very narrow. There is a reason why one does not ever see articles that focus on people retiring at actual “retirement age” from the tech industry, and it is not just that the industry itself has a relatively short history.

The subject of this profile in The Atlantic is Ben Nelson, the founder of the Minerva Project, who was not quite 40 when this article appeared. In contrast, it is very rare for the president of a university to be younger than 50. And there are many reasons, beyond bureaucratic inertia, why the presidents of very few universities are not “young” and “brash.” The graduates and the research and scholarship that universities produce are meant to have a long shelf-life.

It is actually antithetical to the purpose of colleges and universities—that is, it is academically and fiscally unsustainable for colleges and universities–to appear and disappear, to absorb and be absorbed, in the manner that tech companies are “transformed” in endlessly repeating cycles of “creative destruction.”

All realms of human endeavor can borrow profitably from other endeavors. The ways in which one industry has responded to an opportunity or an issue can often inspire parallel innovations and solutions in another industry—in even a very different industry. I am very resistant to the idea of calling higher education an industry, simply because doing so reinforces the worst corporate conceptualizations of what higher education actually is or ought to be, but I do accept that, as the most innovative and volatile sector of our economy, the tech industry can be the source of fresh thinking in higher education about both what we might attempt and what we might best avoid.

But the tech industry is absolutely not a model for higher education because it is the exact opposite of higher education in almost all of its most fundamental aspects. A college or a university education is simply not not anything even remotely close to what a smartphone is, no matter how sophisticated the technology in the smartphone becomes.

Indeed, higher education would benefit from avoiding, rather than adopting, the model that has dominated corporate America for the last half-century–a model of which the tech industry is simply the most recent and rapacious manifestation. In this model, conglomerates relentlessly “diversify” their holdings, have no long-term commitment to most of those holdings, and actually hasten the demise of many of those holdings either by wringing unsustainable profits from them or by mismanaging them due to a lack of any expertise in the industries that they are part of.

In such a corporate model, all of our institutions except for the most elite universities will become nothing more than Corinthian Colleges on a somewhat longer plan of obsolescence. And given the shelf life of most tech products, “longer” is clearly a more euphemistic than a strictly denotative choice of words.

That’s what it means if Ben Nelson is right. And if that’s what it means for our institutions, someone should be compelled to make a much more thoughtful and less “brash” assessment of what it will mean for the students being educated within this radical reconception of higher education.


3 thoughts on “Why Is the Future of the University Never a University?

  1. As a side note, remember that I write from the perspective of a K-12 teacher who has on occasion (one in particular) had pieces posted on this blog at the invitation of Aaron Barlow. We are seeing a similar problem at our level. For starters, much of what is driving educational policy presumes that students are far more standardized than they are in reality. Such an approach is a reducto ad absurdum of the entire notion of the cohort approach to education. When we are moving testing to Kindergarten!! in the name of College and Career readiness, we are distorting the natural excitement of learning. Having worked with computers beginning in the mid-1960s for several decades before becoming a teacher, I think back to punch cards and the caution not to “fold, spindle or mutilate.” Our educational policy does all of those things to the minds of our young people, not merely to their detriment but to the detriment of our economy and our society.

    We see the further distortion of education from two sources – high tech and hedge funds/Wall Stree. First high tech. We have now have state requirements of students needing to complete “Virtual” courses as a requirement for high school graduation. The testing for Common Core, whether it is the Smarter Balanced consortium or the PARCC Consortium, is done on computers, requiring an increasing diversion of resources to the companies providing the hardware, the software, and the services. The biggest single player in Education policy never himself graduated from college and went to an elite private school in Seattle, but bloviates about standardization by comparing students to plugs for electric appliances. Yes, I am talking about Bill Gates. Why he should be given credence just because he is a billionaire is beyond reason. Here I note that as a Certified Data Processor still and formerly as a Certified Systems Professional I am far more qualified to talk about his business (and his software was historically buggy) than he is to talk about my profession as a teacher. Far too many of the players in education are funded by Gates through his foundation, along with funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation.

    As for the financial side of the distortion – what we are seeing is a distortion of what should be a public good – K-12 public education – into investment opportunity through the chartering laws in various states, federal legislation that leads to an increase of charters without requiring any meaningful controls for quality, and tax regulations that allow ostensibly non-profit entities running chains of charters to transfer almost all funds to for-profit educational management entities. On the one hand such charters will claim to be “public” for purposes of funding but then deny that they are public when it comes to transparency and oversight.

    Industry (especially high tech) and finance have both been successful in making fortunes for some people. They have been equally “successful” in destroying the economic future for an increasing percentage of American families.

    Martin, your critique is very much on point. My reason for offering this comment is to place it into a broader context of all education. Businesses of all types and the politicians they fund need to realize that the purpose of education in a liberal democracy (which is the technical political science term for our form of government, so conservative Republicans need not hyperventilate at my use of the term) is only partially to prepare people to be contributors economically. It is far more important to prepare them to be participating citizens. It is not the job of schools and colleges to TRAIN for business and industry that does every thing it can to avoid paying for the public services which actually allow business and industry to flourish.

    I spent 20+ years working with computers, the majority of that in the private sector. I had another few years in the private sector not working with computers. I have served in the military, and am completing my 19th year as a teacher. There is no doubt that education in this country at all levels is under siege. It is long past time for educators to speak out to the larger audience of America on behalf of their profession. We are seeing that in the pushback against the insanity of teaching.

    When I wrote my first piece for Academe, about why I chose to leave teaching in 2012 by accepting a buyout and retiring – in large part because of the distortions of education by policy makers who did not really understand it – I warned people that you would soon enough be seeing the same phenomena in higher education. Certainly the proposals of the Dept. of Education under Duncan make that clear. So do the policy initiatives of some state legislators: think here of what is happening at U of North Carolina. Think also of the distortion of academia by funding from people with an agenda: petroleum barons who want “research” that “proves” there is no anthropogenic global climate change, or financial barons funding departments of economics which only consider the Chicago school’s approach and ignore all the evidence of the failures of that approach, most clearly demonstrated in the financial collapse of 2008-2009.

    I hope my words are of some value on this topic. Thanks again Martin for your astute commentary.

    Ken Bernstein
    National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher (who this year is teaching AP Macro and Micro Economics)
    2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher
    2014 Claes Nobel NSHSS Top Ten National Educator

  2. Pingback: The Presumption of the Technocrats, Redux | The Academe Blog

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