Sunday, October 23, 2011

It Has Always Been About Jobs

Another reflection of the difficult economic times we face is the reinvigorated debate about the fundamental purpose of higher education. The debate, which is both internal and external, frequently takes the following line. On one side are those who argue that higher education’s primary goal is to provide students with the knowledge, critical thinking capabilities, and communication skills to empower them to be informed and engaged citizens. The other side advances the claim that, especially in the current economic climate, the primary goal of higher education should be to prepare people to be productive participants in the economy. Simplistically, do colleges and universities exist to prepare students for jobs, or for some other purpose? That’s a fair enough question, one that is certainly on the minds of many students and parents, and a question that clearly can be framed or recast in many complex and nuanced ways.

For land-grant universities like the University of Rhode Island, the answer is, I believe, that our purpose has always been to prepare our students both to be good citizens and productive economic contributors. The Morrill Act of 1862 states: “…each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance, of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life (emphasis mine).” I think the intent is clear – universities that were to be designated as “land-grant” institutions were to educate in order to produce citizens, drawn from the working and middle classes, to be productively engaged in the nation’s economy. The emphasis on “agriculture and the mechanic arts” is important to note: these were the sectors of the economy where the majority of Americans worked.

The University of Rhode Island is charged, as are all land-grant institutions, with providing both “liberal and practical education” to our students. This clause is a cogent example of the highly innovative vision for public higher education laid out in the Morrill Act. It is every bit as relevant in the 21st century as it was in 1862. But the importance of providing both liberal and practical education has perhaps never been more evident. More so than at any time in our past, the modern university’s role is to prepare students for jobs and entire careers that do not yet exist. To succeed we must continually rethink and redesign our academic programs to insure that the content and techniques we teach are as up to date as possible. We must also insure that every student is provided multiple opportunities to acquire the essential reasoning, communication, quantitative, language, social/cultural, and learning skills that are indispensable for success in the global economy.

America certainly needs more students to major in disciplines associated with science, engineering, and technology. At the same time we need to remember that many of our graduates build very successful careers based on majors in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. I am convinced, regardless of their programs of study, that engaging students in research, scholarship, and creative work will simultaneously enhance their undergraduate education and prepare them uniquely well for “the several pursuits and professions in life.” Students need to move outside of standard learning environments, whether it involves physical or virtual classrooms, and into research laboratories, field sites, studios, companies and non-profit organizations, or many other environments where they can be confronted with problems that have not been previously solved, or asked to create something new. In my judgment, the University of Rhode Island and America’s other land-grant research universities should seek to provide such learning opportunities to all of our undergraduates. By doing so we will not only prepare them for jobs, we will prepare them to create new jobs.

Friday, October 7, 2011

We Have Met the Enemy - and It's Not Us

Even casual readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education have likely observed that, accompanying the severe financial constraints faced by many public colleges and universities, serious, and at times acrimonious, debates have arisen over how budgets should be balanced. Often it seems that the most highly charged debates are those internal to a campus.

Discussion and debate about the priorities and direction of an institution has long been characteristic of academic culture. It is a desirable and necessary characteristic, a consequence of academic freedom and shared governance, and one of the important attributes of university leadership. Deliberation, consultation, and participation generally have been, and should continue to be, hallmarks of decision-making in higher education. Colleges and universities can still be accurately characterized as “conservative” in the sense that they respect tradition, believe that much can be learned from history, and are cautious about change. But it must also be acknowledged that the pace and magnitude of the changes currently facing higher education will require many of our institutions, especially public ones, to be more adaptable, flexible, and responsive. In short, to change more rapidly than our current practices and systems of shared governance can easily accommodate. And that can be discomforting, unsettling, and alarming.

Given the very difficult financial climate, the growing pressures related to affordability and access, and the pace of – and demands for – change, perhaps we should not be too surprised that internal discussions and debates occasionally degenerate into affixing blame and identifying enemies. Frequently, the divide that is created separates faculty and administration. The rhetoric used is familiar. “Administrators are only interested in adding lines to their resumes, expanding their domains, and pandering to influential external constituencies.” "Faculty are calcified, reflexively resistant to new ideas, and non-productive.” Admittedly, there may be some truth to both caricatures, but less than many think. The substantial risk associated with indulging debate along such lines is that it distracts everyone involved, and higher education’s many stakeholders, from the real issue.

The real issue is cogently presented in a “Discussion Paper” on the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) website entitled: University Tuition, Consumer Choice, and College Affordability. Although slightly dated (2008) its principal findings are probably still sound. This APLU paper examined the financial climate of public colleges and universities and assessed the principal factors driving tuition increases for public institutions. The two main points I want to emphasize are the following (taken directly from the paper, but reversed in order).

Public university tuition has increased because real per student appropriations have declined. This finding appears again and again in serious examinations of the causes of public university tuition inflation…Overall cost per student has been constant. Tuition increases have been just sufficient to offset reduced state subsidies, but not to increase public university budgets.”

“One of the most robust findings in the research literature is that the real cost per student in public higher education is not increasing….Cost per student has remained constant because revenue per student was constant; funds were not available to increase expenditures further. Public university managers have been highly effective at controlling costs; indeed they were compelled to be, given the resources available.”

These are obviously general statements, but accurate (at least in 2008) for public higher education as a whole. At the University of Rhode Island our increased revenues from tuition and fees have offset steadily declining state funding over the past decade and permitted us to make increased investments in financial aid as we endeavored to maintain affordability. There have been few, if any, significant increases in revenues to do just about anything else. If my many conversations over the last two years with other university presidents are representative, then this has been the case quite broadly. At many institutions, revenues have not kept pace with enrollment growth. At URI, and all but the most well endowed public colleges and universities, reallocation is the dominant mechanism to provide funding for growth or new initiatives. Continuous reallocation can be healthy, but also can be stressful.

So, what are we to do? The first step is to recognize that neither non-productive, ossified faculty, nor overly ambitious, self-promoting administrators, nor any other part of the academic enterprise is fundamentally responsible for our current difficulties. The “enemy”, as it were, is tangible but diffuse: the lack of understanding among Americans of the critical importance of investing in public higher education. China understands this, as do many other countries that are aggressively seeking to increase higher education opportunities and university-based research. Nearly everything associated with higher education, from state appropriations to Pell grants to federal research support, appears to be increasingly at risk for disinvestment in the U.S. This is not just the “enemy” of higher education, but also the “enemy” of economic recovery, of opportunity, of innovation, of growing the middle class, and of building a more just and equitable democracy. Combating this “enemy” is where all of us who care about and understand the value of higher education should focus our collective efforts.