“Slowly I turn….”: Academic Hot Buttons

Nothing like a hot button to get a conversation off on the right foot. They are sometimes understandable (poor Moe!). Academic hot buttons are interesting precisely because they are — at some level — irrational. Just mentioning some topics provokes a predictable and outsized reaction. It’s as if context doesn’t matter and facts can be brushed aside. These are not discussions so much as border skirmishes where the very idea needs to be vanquished as soon as it rears its head.

It was inevitable that Abelard to Apple would provoke “Niagara Falls…” moments. Here are my current favorites:

  1. Technology: You only have to say the word and to call down the wrath of purists who want to claim (a) you have lost your mind for wanting to replace teachers with grainy online videos, (b) there is incontrovertible proof that the current — that is to say the millennium old sage on a stage — method of organizing classes around lectures and exams is still the best, (c) accrediting agencies will rain down fire and brimstone at the merest utterance, or (d) you must be on the take from the evil For-Profit institutions. Not much room for discussion here. Never mind that a majority of university presidents now embrace both online instruction and the increasingly sophisticated online tools or the growing body of research that points toward the value of blended approaches.
  2. Business Model: “Student are not customers!” and “We do not make products!” are the enraged cries of some of my academic colleagues. Sometimes things spiral out of control so fast that I don’t have time to say, “Yes, but…” As in “Yes, but universities take money in, spend money, and if what they spend is more than what they take in, they go out of business.” As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the number of institutions facing insolvency as a result of ignoring business fundamentals is growing at an alarming rate. Student debt is now unsustainable. Public confidence continues on a 20-year downward path. Even if you firmly believe that putting “college” and “business” together in the same sentence is morally indefensible, you still have to make payroll next week.
  3. Homogeneity of university leadership. This one is tougher because I have so many friends who are presidents. “We are not all cut from the same cloth!” and “I say what I say because my institution is [insert positive characteristic here].” is their response. As Clark Kerr pointed out a generation ago it’s not only training and culture that matter here. The inaugural addresses of university presidents are largely interchangeable. Their view of the challenges facing higher education is uniformly out of sync with the general public. For example: a recent Pew poll found that while the majority of Americans feel that a college education is increasingly unaffordable and not doing a good job, nearly 80% of college presidents think they are doing an excellent job.

I’ll keep track of the reactions of my colleagues and let you know what the trends are.

I will have something to say soon about the value of courses in the liberal arts and humanities. I can almost hear it now:

“Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch…”

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