Chill Out at a Tailgating Party

John SenerBy John Sener

I’m tempted to say “see my previous commentary on this topic” — this article (Philip E. Auerswald’s “First Newspapers, Now Universities: It’s Transformation Time,” Washington Post, 8 June 2010) is similarly annoying. But I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s the form or the substance which is annoying, or both. (I think it’s both.)

First, the form. The article’s next-to-last paragraph seems reasonable enough at first glance:

What all of this means for leadership in higher education is that while resistance is futile, obsolescence is far from assured. The coming transformation in higher education will be gradual, and it will be incomplete. Many of today’s elite institutions will not only survive, they will prosper. Other institutions that clearly define, measure, and communicate the value they bring to individual students – and not just to society as a whole – will prosper. As for those whose strategy is to repackage past glories as a vision for the future on forlorn trips to bankrupt legislatures, [it won’t work] . . .

Why then create such cognitive dissonance by covering a plausible conclusion with an attention-grabbing, contradictory, absurd coating? “Prepare to say goodbye” to universities? “Learning is still in for today’s students, but school’s out”?

Dr. Auerswald needs to follow his own advice and “deal with the world as it is – rather than as we would have it be.” Or better yet, chill out at a tailgating party. No need to say goodbye to those just yet – in fact, the truly big news these days at land-grant universities is the impending Great Re-Shuffling of the big Power Conferences, which are comprised mostly of APLU members to whom Dr. Auerswald addressed his remarks. Colorado to the Pac-10? Nebraska to the Big 10? Texas, Oklahoma, as many as five other schools to the Pac-10? Kansas and Kansas State left out in the cold as the Big 12 dissolves? Big news of big changes driven by – you guessed it – big money. Specifically, the Big Ten’s lucrative TV sports contract and the drive for more TV dollars from big city markets. But the Big Ten also has a curiously academic requirement for sports conference membership: membership in the Association of American Universities, of which all 11 Big Ten schools are a part. So joining the Big Ten would also be a feather in the University of Nebraska’s academic cap.

That’s the reality of the world as it is. But Dr. Auerswald acknowledges as much when he says “many of today’s elite institutions will not only survive, they will prosper” – so what about the road ahead for universities as his speech envisions it?

So, to the substance. Basically, I think he has identified many of the road markers, but his directions are faulty. Students are going to stop showing up (“trend 1”) to college because – they’re already not showing up to class? When did that become a straight-line extrapolation? “I’m going to skip class today, and – hey, maybe I’ll just skip college altogether.” Um, I don’t think it works that way. Ah, but the money issue. It is true that college has become far less affordable for more American families (“trend 2”), and APLU has written reports on this topic for some time. But banks never were the prime source of education loans (“trend 3”) so this part of the argument hinges on whether or not the federal government will not have enough “to make the difference,” whatever that means. I’m guessing there will be a slow slippage at most; no tipping point here.

Will these first three trends mean that students will start looking for a quality education at a price they can afford (“trend 4”)? It’s not clear whether this statement is simply ignorant or an intended slap at community colleges, which are conspicuous by their omission. But let’s go along for a moment and say that there could be a parallel trend of students looking for “quality education at a price they can afford” at not-so-elite universities rather than, say, looking to go to tailgating parties at a Big-12-soon-to-be-Big-10-or-Pac-10-or-SEC university.

Not to worry; competency-driven, global businesses will be at their side: “As the global corporate world refines its systems to assess competencies directly, rather than relying on the often imperfect signal conveyed by the embossed letters on a college degree, the true tipping point for collegiate education will arrive.”

In other words, the same old argument in a new package: education will become business-driven.

Since Dr. Auerswald offers no evidence for this time-worn argument, I won’t bother either – except to say that universities are not going away anytime soon because they are a lot more complex and fill a lot more purposes than simply job training and certification. We have seen this naivete before (“learning is still in for today’s students” – I’m still chuckling over that one – you mean those same students who are skipping their classes more frequently? – There’s a resolvable disconnect here, but you won’t find any answers in Dr. Auerswald’s article), and we will see it again. But, at least the speech grabbed our attention for a while . . .

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