[Below is a piece by me recently published in the most recent issue of Presidential Perspectives]
Although it has been nearly a half century since Alvin Toffler’s seminal book Future Shock warned us about being under-prepared and overwhelmed by “too much change in too short a period of time,” that cautionary advice remains useful and instructional, especially in our field of higher education. To revise philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation about the past, those who do not create the future are doomed to resent it.
Clearly, disruptive transformations are already underway or looming on the near horizon – a few seem to be fairly predictable, but many (by their very nature) are not. Our academic journals and scholarly publications have been filled with the challenges that currently confront higher education. There is no need to belabor them in detail. It is a litany that most of us know too well:
- Rising tuition costs, significant student debt and declining government support
- The growing impact of MOOCs and other technological advances on traditional educational models, offering the apparent advantages of low-cost delivery but (so far) lacking any widespread validation through measurement of learning
- Increased scrutiny and demands from the public and policymakers about graduation rates, economic outcomes of our students and the mismatch of degrees and actual skill sets needed for employment
- Expanding globalization that exacerbates the market demand for intellectual resources (faculty and researchers) while the supply side is lagging
As we grapple with these transformational factors, it is difficult to know how best to react. Race ahead and confront them aggressively? Wait for the smoke to clear and proceed cautiously? Succumb to paralysis by analysis?
While we are optimistically reminded that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of the two ideograms “danger” and “opportunity,” it is the positive side of human nature that encourages us to focus on the latter and downplay the former. But, in truth, they are equally pertinent when it comes to the future of higher education. These are exciting times, but they are also unsettling times. I cannot casually declare that every one of these problems before us can be solved at our respective institutions by keen analysis, dedicated leadership and a slew of highly paid outside consultants.
Some – possibly many – of these gathering clouds are going to rain down on us and most of us will be getting wet, to one degree or another. Clayton Christensen, the noted Harvard Business School professor credited with popularizing the notion of “disruptive innovation/technologies,” has dramatically projected that in the next five years higher education will be in “real trouble” and within the next 15 years, more than half of our American universities will be facing bankruptcy.
Unduly pessimistic? Even alarmist? Quite possibly. And there is always the possibility that we may be placing too much emphasis on Professor Christensen’s “disruptive” predictions. Then again, it is difficult for anyone to present a convincing case that higher education is well positioned to face the disruptive challenges that are at its gates. Many of us in leadership have, I suspect, quietly wondered in our darker moments if we are now selling the educational equivalent of buggy whips?
I would like to offer a modest shift in our mindset that can serve us well during this period of higher anxiety in higher education. If it is not a solution, but it can serve as a remedy and help insulate us from that future shock of mounting challenges, escalating changes and sweeping transformations.
No, it is not a novel way to generate additional revenues, or a startling procedure to improve graduation rates by 20 percent in a single semester. It is an adjustment in attitude.
Can we adjust our attitude in a way that will help us become more innovative?
I sincerely believe that we can. Further, I would suggest that attitude may be one of the most valuable tools with which we have to work. Our attitude plays a significant role in determining how we react, how we respond and, ultimately, whether we prevail.
Let me begin by pointing out what our attitude should NOT be – that is, four possible reactions that I have observed in too many of my colleagues (and, occasionally, in myself) when it comes to these challenges:
- Ignorance – This is exemplified in the phrase “When did that happen!?” It is rooted in the premise that everything is moving too fast now, and it’s all too complicated to deal with. Yes, it is fast and complicated. But we are smart and resourceful. If we are unaware of these things, it is because we choose to be. Let’s keep up
- Arrogance – “We have been doing this our way a long time, and we know best.” It is the very nature of disruptive innovation that not only do we NOT know best, we likely don’t know at all until it happens. Let’s keep that in mind.
- Victimization – “Why are they doing this to us?” This is not paranoia – these transformations are not imagined – but they are not personal and hand-wringing won’t change them. Let’s keep our perspective.
- Panic – “We HAVE to do something! Anything! And quickly!” Unfortunately, the “something” often turns out to be building another climbing wall in the Rec Center or adding a degree in Game of Thrones that students can earn on their smart phones. Let’s keep calm.
Those are exaggerations, of course. But they do reflect the potential pitfalls awaiting us when we under- or over-react.
Instead, we must move toward a higher-education version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s celebrated “Serenity Prayer.” In our case, the revised mantra might be:
Grant us the serenity to accept the disruptions we cannot change,
The courage to improve the things that we can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
That will provide the stability to endure what must be endured and, when necessary, the impetus to move ahead with conviction and creativity.
The good news underlying all this apprehension about changes and transformation is that none of these issues – current or predicted – appears to find serious fault with the intrinsic value of higher education. Instead, these are shortcomings of the delivery system, cost of the business model, pedagogical method, output and outcomes. In that respect, it is not the noun higher education that is under fire but the verb – how we are educating.
So, as we confidently recite our Serenity Prayer and move forward, what direction do we head?
I believe our core mission should serve as the guiding light.
Make no mistake, the core mission is not what we would like to do or even what we hope to become. The core mission is what we are obligated to do to remain relevant to the community and our stakeholders, whether that is developing a workforce, creating intellectual capital, engaging with the community directly or any of the various combinations of those enterprises.
Today, we have about 5,000 institutions of higher learning and, in my experience, far too many of them are ambitiously envisioning a different future than their current reality. Two-year community colleges want to become degree-granting four-year schools. Four-year schools want to add graduate programs. Teaching-based colleges want to expand into research institutions. Research institutions are striving to achieve Tier One status. Basically, who we want to be appears to be different than who we are. This continuing and widespread drift away from the core mission is troubling. Clearly, a university cannot be all things to all people, but many continue to try.
We must always take a long, hard look at what we are doing and evaluate what our real-world options are, but we must do so while remaining totally committed to the core mission. That commitment is not an excuse to avoid changing. The core mission remains constant, but the manner and methods we use to achieve it may change.
Change is the one constant in this equation. No one is entirely sure what these changes will be and what they will bring. But one thing feels certain – higher education tomorrow will not look like it does today. As educators and leaders, we have an obligation to be as effective as we can be right now, but we have an even greater responsibility to look ahead and be prepared. So, it is absolutely crucial for an institution to know, first, what its core mission is and, second, what its particular value is within the overall educational framework. Those who do will persevere. But if the answer to either question is not crystal clear, it will take much more than an attitude change to help.