The Factory Model of Higher Education

There are a lot of reasons for thinking that higher education has been on a wrong track for the last fifty years or so.   I have mentioned some of them here and here for example.  As I discuss in my book, current thinking about how to manage a university (particularly a large one) is driven by an industrial model.  It’s not an idea that I invented.  Fifty years ago, Frederick Rudolph, the great historian of universities, talked in pretty explicit terms about the “assembly line”:

On one assembly line the academicians, the scholars were at work; from time to time they left their assembly line long enough to oil and grease the student assembly line. . . . Above them . . . were the managers—the white- collared chief executive offi cers and their assistants. . . . The absentee stockholders sometimes called alumni, the board of directors . . . the untapped capital resources known as benefactors . . . the regulatory agencies and commissions in charge of standards.

You can understand how all of this got started at the turn of the last century.  The great benefactors of higher education were  industrial leaders like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.  They wanted the fairly chaotic system of schools, colleges and universities to establish ground rules.  What constituted credit?  How were students defined?  Where was their money going to go?  The only real models they had to rely on were the brand-new manufacturing models that valued high quality at low cost.  In these models, variance is the enemy.  These were the models that were imposed on American higher education.  We can still see their echoes in testing and accreditation bureaucracies.

But Carnegie-era industrial policy had no way of foreseeing the explosive growth that the last half of the twentieth century brought to American institutions.  I am not alone in thinking that 19th century industrial policies  are at a dead end in higher education.

The Prezi presentation at the start of this post, is an overview of how badly the factory model has led us astray over the last generation. Maria Andersen — a community college professor —  has been cannily accurate in her portrait of modern higher education practices, and I have become a fan of her analysis of the state of our systems.

There is no sound for this video clip unfortunately.  The clip below has sound but the video is pretty bad.  I don’t know what to tell you about how to watch these presentations.  If you have two computers you might consider using one for audio and the other for video.

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