University Leaders Beginning to Flex Their eMuscles

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

The Future of State Universities conference, held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dallas, yesterday and today, attracted some very powerful people, including college presidents and provosts, public higher education leaders, and noteworthies such as WICHE president David Longanecker, Arizona State University’s Michael Crow, U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha J. Kanter, Clayton Christensen, Britain’s Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard, former U.S. governors Jeb Bush and Jim Hunt, Education Secretary Arne Duncan (via video), and Salman Khan. But what makes this conference “unusual,” says Doug Lederman, is the sponsor, “Academic Partnerships, a for-profit company that works with public universities to build, market and support online academic programs” (“An Unusual Conference,” Inside Higher Ed, 10.7.11).

The commercial shadow over a conference to decide the future of public universities was not lost on the commenters, and one in particular caught my attention. Titled “Self-importance on Display,” it was presumably posted by Bob Kustra, President at Boise State University (10.7.11). Here’s the full comment:

As President of Boise State University, I received an invitation to attend and promptly threw it in the circular file. Even though a strong supporter of online education, I couldn’t imagine what I would learn from a collection of self-important, traveling higher ed barkers who could really be more effective back on their own campuses rather than preaching from Olympian heights and a few has-been’s from the governmental world.

I was particularly disappointed to see former Governors Hunt and Bush hawking for one particular company in this online business instead of sponsoring a conference without the obvious payoff to one company. It’s no wonder higher education is in the shape it is when so many who could be solving problems on the ground feel compelled to hang around expensive hotels to talk to each other in person. Those who believe in online education should have practiced it and conducted an online conference. Bob Kustra

The last sentence, “Those who believe in online education should have practiced it and conducted an online conference,” is the point that impresses me most. The fact that a university president is underscoring this obvious irony is an indication that at least some education leaders are beginning to understand the democratizing potential — the democratizing mandate — of the web especially when the discussion is about our nation’s public colleges and universities. The exclusiveness of face-to-face conferences and workshops becomes increasingly incongruous in light of technology that promises inclusiveness.

We’re also beginning to see signs of separation between public and private interests in higher ed. In “We’ll Take It From Here,” Steve Kolowich says that Saint Leo University, Florida, “may be at the front edge of another trend — that of universities that, having made the transition to online education, are dropping their for-profit partners and taking over themselves.” In Saint Leo’s case, the private sector partner is Bisk (Inside Higher Ed, 10.4.11).

If this truly is the beginning of a trend where higher ed leaders are feeling increasingly e-empowered, what are the implications?

It was, after all, just a matter of time before administrators began to realize they no longer needed to rely on outsourcing and could do just as well if not better on their own — for less, no less. However, as administrators increase their control over the future of instructional technology (IT) on their campuses, they’re faced with some critical decisions.

One is whether to replace an outside IT source with a similar inside organization. If they’re not careful, they could end up building a more permanent in-house version of what was once out-house. Picture a whole new department on campus with new buildings, offices, etc. and a new layer of administrators and staff to fill those buildings — all for the purpose of IT. This scenario might very well end up costing more with less to show for the expenditure.

Thus, ousting outsourcing is only the first step in what has to be a well planned move toward greater independence and sustainability. Administrators need to bet on a change process that will take many years rather than a year or two. They need to be wary of a massive and costly bureaucratic response to what is really a longterm pedagogical issue. This means that they need to count on the fact that teachers will become increasingly tech savvy over the coming years and won’t need the expensive IT handholding that passes for much of online instruction today. Change will be gradual, occurring through attrition, with netgens gradually replacing retiring teachers, and through the slow but certain technological growth of current teachers.

This is an exciting time for higher ed, especially when its leaders are beginning to let go of private sector supports. The danger is that they will all too quickly latch on to other supports — in essence trading one dependence for another — before they can learn to feel comfortable standing on their own two feet.

3 Responses

  1. Dear Jim

    Surely, efforts to bring “outsourced” online education capabilities “inside” runs counter to a major advantage of online education – that it doesn’t need to be limited by institutional boundaries and the resources contained within any one institution. It’s not surprising that traditional institutions would respond to the challenge presented by open networks by trying to reign them in – corral! contain! confine!. The sensible response to this strategy? – “Don’t fence me in!”.

    Mark McGuire

    • Mark, your comment, “a major advantage of online education [is] that it doesn’t need to be limited by institutional boundaries and the resources contained within any one institution” says it all. Most administrators in educational settings confuse control with leadership and don’t understand the qualitative difference. Thus, “Corral! contain! confine!” becomes policy and all hope of teacher empowerment and innovation are eliminated. A measure of this control is the IT department. At one end of the spectrum, it is closed, and at the other, it is open. At the open end, the department works with staff to empower them; at the closed end, the only power is the IT department.

  2. So one interesting idea is that of sheep. That is the people who go to the conferences thinking that the conferences people know all of the answers and who pay them big money to be “educated”. Often the big conference providers are promoted to push the resources of the groups who contribute to their conference, and who exhibit in their
    exhibit hall. Then there are the people who are what I call the educational entertainers. Sometimes the keynote speakers are quite entertaining . sometimes they are educators of note but it is a cut throat business and so entertaining people , even though most of them have NEVER taught is key for the process.

    Then there is the hill walk. There are great things to be accomplished going to the hill. I had never heard of it mainly because I am from DC.
    My friends from other states educated me that you go to the people who represent you , make an appointment , and go talk with them.
    The hill walks are sometimes organized by the groups to help the politicians learn about educator from those of us who go to Washngton, it is an interesting visit if you have never done it and there are things to be gained.

    The New York Times reports on this kind of collaboration. EDUCATION
    Free Trips Raise Issues for Officials in Education

    Free trips for officials in Education to various countries.

    The article is interesting , but it is just one of many perks that school officials can get. I am sure that many of you can think of perks that are
    obtained if one buys a certain curriculum, or is able to demonstrate
    schools that work using good projects. So the world of education
    exists in a kind of ideational scaffolding somewhat fueled by money
    and influence. Maybe it was never different. Maybe I am naive.

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