Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
Many thanks for this insightful, sharp, critical, and forward-looking essay!
There is a fundamental irony here: for institutions whose rhetoric is so explicitly future-oriented (especially regarding the lives of individual students), their day-to-day decisions and actions are decidedly not. As Escrigas points out, “Universities play a key part in shaping civilization and thus bear a significant intergenerational responsibility,” but most institutions do not behave in ways that reflect an understanding of, or concern with, that basic fact.
Importantly, though, there are significant numbers of people working within them who do get it, care deeply, and are eager for transition. The question of interest to me is how can that energy be cultivated and channeled effectively to drive meaningful institutional change.
Having worked primarily at small liberal arts colleges, I have seen up close how institutional machinery gets dispatched (or not) in response to near-universal problems (increasing expenses, competition, specialization) and through the tendency (especially at schools who have to work hard for enrollment) to be highly reactive to market pressures (e.g., increasingly fixed and narrow views about desired specialized majors and expected career outcomes). As a significant driver of institutional trends, perceived market demand is an important entry point in making the larger change called for here.
Thinking systemically about this raises questions about what prospective students and their parents think and where their ideas are coming from.
A complex, long-term problem like this must be approached from multiple angles and scales. In addition to the author’s and respondents’ suggestions, I would add the following:
- The importance of leadership: To reach the necessary tipping points, institutions need strong leaders who can think holistically, who can articulate this new vision clearly, and who are adept at establishing the structures and processes necessary to realize it. In most cases, business-as-usual structures are not up to the task.
- A clear and consistent message: With help from leadership, other representatives (students, faculty, and staff) need to be able to articulate this revised vision of higher ed to other audiences.
- Vehicles for delivering big ideas: Teachers need practical tools for more easily conveying some of the most important ideas underlying this higher calling. The Big History Project is a great example; also needed is a common language for talking about and studying human-environment relations and social change—a project I am currently working on—and other crucial concepts.
- Changing perceptions about higher ed: Given the power of the market, it is important to think about where and how to intervene earlier in the development of people’s perceptions about what college is for. This means thinking about ways to influence the messages going to and coming from high schools and middle schools, guidance counselors’ offices, politicians’ educational platforms, and higher ed consortia to frame (and reframe) their collective mission, and more.
This may seem like a daunting set of considerations, but, in addition to direct changes in curriculum, knowledge structure, and goals, any effective strategy toward the great transition in question will require these kinds of far-reaching system-wide efforts at multiple levels.