Education

Why Can’t Higher Education Change?

From a former colleague: Why is academia so conservative, risk averse, hidebound and deeply unwilling to make the changes necessary to serve students in the contemporary world, all the while claiming to be searching for new models for addressing the needs of our students in a fast-changing world?

If higher education had a New Year’s resolution, it would be this: “This year we are going to really change. We are going to take risks, create a new model and keep up with the world around us.” This reads like an auditor proclaiming they “aren’t going to live by the rules anymore,” a historian vowing to “live in the present” and the like. Why? Because the systems, traditions and practices valued so deeply—and essential to change—are also the ones that frequently pose barriers. These include tenure (leadership), shared governance (process), community and tradition (buy-in), the financial model (resources), and oversight (accountability). It is not the fact of their existence that’s problematic, but how they are currently employed.

Tenure (leadership). The American Association of University Professors provides a statement on academic tenure. It outlines its purpose by saying in part, “Education and research benefit society, but society does not benefit when teachers and researchers are controlled by corporations, religious groups, special interest groups, or the government.” While an essential and worthy principle, we must question whose ideas and views are being protected in the first place.

The American Association of University Women provides some eye-opening statistics about the disparity of tenure between men and women and people of color. The problem with tenure (relative to change) isn’t tenure itself but who is awarded tenure. Unless institutions can address the barriers to tenure for underrepresented groups; hold tenured faculty accountable for discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace; and combat implicit bias in the tenure process, there is little hope to create the change necessary to serve students in the contemporary world. A group with differing perspectives and experiences sees a need for change more urgently than a homogenous group accustomed to power and privilege.

Shared governance (process). The AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities explains, “The statement is intended to foster constructive joint thought and action, both within the institutional structure and in protection of its integrity against improper intrusions.” But what if the improper intrusion is the system itself and how it protects the past in unanticipated ways? When was the last time your institution looked at committee structures, roles and responsibilities, and workflows? Each institution must question if its campus is utilizing shared governance purposefully—“Is shared governance at our institution an overengineered, filibuster-like system loving debate more than the outcome?” and “Do we spend valuable time and effort rehashing decisions already governed by policies and procedures previously determined via shared governance?”

Community and tradition (buy-in). In the face of potential change, how many times has it been said, “If we do X, the alumni will be angry and won’t donate!” For a sector that believes so fervently in data, the credence given to these anecdote-based statements astounds. The responsibility to do what is best for students rests with the faculty, staff, administrators and trustees. And with that responsibility comes the need to provide a persuasive and data-driven rationale for change. Every institution must create a climate of change that values innovation and improvement regardless of tradition.

The financial model (resources). To make change, take risks and be nimble, institutions require flexible capital—money to invest in new initiatives. However, most institutions lack funds, and constituents fail understand why this is the case. As reported by Jon Marcus for PBS News Hour in 2019, many Americans believe that state governments support state colleges and universities in great measure. Still, the truth is that state funding declined by billions over the previous decade.

While revenue from the government decreases, annual costs associated with unfunded governmental mandates and regulatory reporting and services, compensation and benefits (especially health insurance), and facility utilities and maintenance continue to rise. A more in-depth look at governmental support of higher education can be found in reports produced by the Urban Institute. How can institutions reverse the corporatization of higher education favored since the Reagan administration and ensure taxes support an enterprise so vital to the country’s future?

Institutions budget for maintenance and capital improvements, but do we budget and fundraise for change? It would be advantageous for advancement offices to promote opportunities for donors to establish innovation and change funds. Institutions could also create policies for unrestricted bequests to become quasi endowments to fund new programs.

Oversight (accountability). On the bedrock of higher education rests the sanctity of accountability. It is why we have faith in the work of our colleagues—the systems used to vet statements (scientific or otherwise) are sound. But when it comes to developing new programs, are the hurdles so numerous that it becomes a herculean task to cross them? In addition to institutional processes and accreditor standards, there are system and state processes. If you’ve never looked at your state’s process for changing or registering new programs, here are a few websites that provide insights (Ohio, New York, Virginia). The number of years to develop, gain approval and secure resources to start new programs is staggering. Significant reform of these processes is necessary if students are to be served more effectively.

A plethora of books about change management in higher education exists, and much more could and should be said. However, we should start with a critical look at the fundamental systems already in place that could be better utilized to foster innovation and create change. Thank you for asking the question.