Where higher education should be more professional

Here, there, and everywhere, I was hard on the wave of “education-interrupted” books that popped up during the early to mid-decade.

I’m talking about books like DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out by Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education by Jeffrey Selingo and Kevin Carey The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the Worldwide University.

There are numerous others. These are ones that have been written in good faith by people who had a genuine interest in the educational mission of higher education, rather than seeking to use higher education as a vehicle for funneling large sums of public money into private hands, or simply for kill a sector they consider hostile to their political project.

My criticism was rooted in a couple of key differences.

First, and perhaps most important, was that I had an overwhelming belief that a shared fundamental thesis underpinning these books—that there was a technical revolution on the way to fundamentally change teaching and learning—was obviously wrong.

Because of my front-line experience teaching the gen ed course types that still make up a significant portion of the college experience and the exact courses that would need to be discontinued if higher education were to change, I knew that MOOCs and so via So-called personalized learning would not have proven itself as an acceptable alternative to traditional education without also defining what should qualify as a university credential.

(Defining credentials to fulfill what technology was capable of was actually my deepest fear, having seen how defining what makes writing proficient in the five-paragraph essay destroyed writing education.)

My other major objection was rooted in my dispositional conservatism and my belief that college and university institutions as collective enterprises are inherently important for reasons beyond their role as bearers of credentials. They are what Cecilia Orphan and Kevin McClure call in a recent article about Change: The Higher Education Magazine“reference institutions”, which serve as centers of employment, activity and economic opportunity for people living in the community.

As I argue in my book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The future of public higher education, education is rightly seen as “infrastructure” rather than simply a commodity. Even if a disruptive technology appeared that provided a good enough alternative to the current system when it comes to the accreditation function of postsecondary institutions, we would have to be very cautious about what would be lost if these institutions ceased to exist.

I have been somewhat heartened by the acknowledgment of many after the period of COVID lockdown that these institutions are perhaps more important than we have given them credit for, and that they are indeed worth preserving and even improving. Whether or not we will achieve this is an open question, but we hear far less talk about disruptions and higher education these days.

A clear subtext of all those books was essentially, given that these institutions are not going to change, what else could arise that would preserve the educational mission without carrying all the baggage?

But that baggage – the decentralization, the principles of faculty autonomy, the high level of change – is a significant part of what makes higher education institutions so important and enduring. That baggage is what keeps truly disastrous things from happening, like the example of 2012 at the University of Virginia, when a panicked board of visitors fired university president Teresa Sullivan because some board members believed that Sullivan was too slow to jump online on the education/MOOC bandwagon that was pulling out of the station with Harvard and Stanford in the lead. The board specifically cited Sullivan’s “perceived reluctance to approach school with the underlying mindset of a corporate CEO.”

Pushback by faculty and the wider campus community led to the reinstatement of Sullivan, who ended up serving through 2018, leading the institution through a successful revamp of its general education curriculum that was fully implemented right away after the end of his mandate.

While I believe my criticisms of those books have proven well founded, there is one area where I have become more sympathetic to the general criticism of higher education as institutions that are too hidden and should really take into consideration the adopting some methods that might sound more like “business” than “academia.”

Don’t get me wrong, the central thesis of Sustainable. Resilient. Free. argues that institutions should be significantly less business/operations oriented to drive tuition revenue and much more focused on the mission of teaching and learning. I’m not here to argue that colleges and universities should be run like a business, because that’s already happening, to their detriment.[1]

But… if we refocus the activity of institutions away from revenue generation and towards mission, we can see some areas where a more professional approach would do some good.

One of those areas that could embrace a more professional/entrepreneurial spirit is teaching and learning, where the pace at which (good) businesses can move and the mechanics of (good) businesses[2]they have to identify and nurture talent and provide resources to support that talent, they are superior to academia.

Let’s start with the next question about identifying talent and providing those workers with the resources to keep doing their best and innovating.

When it comes to teaching and learning, academia couldn’t be worse in terms of structure and practices. As we know, the corporate structure of academy admissions has almost no bearing on the quality of teaching and learning, and with the growing addition of faculty, it has created an arbitrary divide between faculty who have access to material resources (such as time and compensation) that help you prioritize this important work and those that don’t. Even worse – yes, worse – those who Do having the resources to devote to effective and innovative teaching are not judged on the quality of that work.

It gets even worse than worst. In positions where teaching and learning should be the core of the work, many institutions deliberately engage in a practice of “churn-out” the faculty. Consider nearly every “visiting” position in the country, or Harvard’s truly astounding practice of limiting their faculty/fellows/et al. up to a maximum of eight years of employment.

As James Rushing writes Daniel al Chronicle“Fellows who meet that threshold, regardless of academic performance or academic performance, cannot be renewed.”

According to the business “logic” of academic institutions, this makes sense, as leaving positions vulnerable to dropout gives schools budgetary flexibility.

But from a corporate business practices perspective, it doesn’t make sense to have a standard policy to fire the most experienced and skilled employees once they hit an arbitrary mark on a calendar.

The working structures of academia combine the worst of all worlds.

The practice of teaching and learning within academia is also hampered by not being professional enough. This point was explained to me by Robert Talbert on Twitter earlier this week.

He wrote“Higher education students need to treat innovations in teaching how (good) companies treat innovations: talk to users, create/deploy a minimal usable product, then iterate. Gather data and adjust along the way. But don’t wait for a critical mass to set in.”

Reading Talbert’s observation, I was struck by the irony that this is actually how I have been able to run my courses, as an ongoing experiment, semester after semester, to improve my pedagogical practices, mainly because I was outside the academic guild as an off-tenure instructor.

Modesty thrown out the window, pedagogy embodied Writer’s practice it’s a superior approach to teaching writing than any other resource I’ve encountered in the entirety of my nearly 20-year teaching career. Pedagogy is further enhanced when employed by an instructor who has the freedom to edit and adapt the material to suit their constituency.

If I were in the academic guild, I know I could design a study that meets the peer review parameters and demonstrates the effectiveness of the approach, and if I wasn’t one of the victims of the churn, I could do exactly that.[3]

But for Talbert, this shouldn’t be necessary, nor in the realm of teaching and learning is it desirable. In another tweet in the same stream of thought, he says: “I think higher education people, mostly from academic backgrounds, are reluctant to do or say anything until there is a comprehensive enlightened review and several published studies that validate it. That’s fine in some spheres, but it isn’t too cautious to teach” (emphasis mine).

I know that my writing pedagogy works for me and works for others who come from a similar place in terms of underlying values. That peer-reviewed study that I could in theory do is unnecessary when the proof of effectiveness is right before my eyes in terms of the work students produce and what they articulate about their own experiences.

Still, it’s frustrating. There is tremendous energy around innovations in teaching these days, but that energy is stifled by the academic atmosphere in which it inhabits.

That said, when it comes to how higher education works, if I had to choose between the binaries of a corporate culture of “move fast and break things” and the much slower-changing nature of academia of the status quo, I would say at the same time status quo.

I’m not sure why we have to choose between those binaries when we know there are other possibilities in the world. Many instructors are defying constraints to do outstanding and innovative work, including Robert Talbert.

How do we create an academic framework that uplifts and disseminates these ideas for the benefit of students?


[1] The problem is that business (education income) is inconsistent with mission (teaching and learning). These things are in constant warfare.

[2] Let me point out the “good” part of good businesses here. I am well aware of the damage that companies do to their workers in the name of profit, but there are good and sustainable companies. I’m talking about the differences in structure in how these issues are presented in academia versus business.

[3] I know almost exactly what it would be like, in fact.

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