Comment and Review

cheap data collection


The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the future of universities was absorbed earlier this year into several other councils–a mistake, in my view, since none of the other councils have institutional focus–but several of the white papers live on. This one on the privacy issues inherent in learning analytics generated some interest in 2012, but the big data aspects of higher education seemed like an abstraction to many council members. Over the past year it has started to loom large (see here and here, for example).  I happen to be a big fan of analytics.  Data from the 700,000 students enrolled in Georgia Tech’s Coursera MOOCs have already had an impact on the quality of residential instruction. However, one of my day jobs is cybersecurity, which has made me sensitive to new technologies that have not paid sufficient attention to security and privacy. This white paper is a note of caution.

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Ivory Tower (1)
The Ivory Tower, a 2015 Sundance Festival film by Andrew Rossi, is a dramatic and unflinching look at the spiraling cost of higher education. Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times proved that Rossi can disassemble even complex enterprises, so that everyone can see the moving parts. It was a good warm-up for this effort. The similarities are striking.  Jay Hoberman said in his Village Voice Review of Page One: It’s a system at once efficient and cumbersome, ultra-modern yet quaint, that suggests nothing so much as a herd of dinosaurs, oblivious to the threat of impending extinction. And, like Page One, there is a blend of alarmism and genuine fondness for American higher education. Innovation–particularly technological innovation–plays the same role in higher education as it does in other industries that are being disrupted.  It is both the disruptor and the way to avoid disaster. If only leaders can abandon old assumptions.

Poster - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington_14

Good governance is a noble idea, but governing boards–trustees, regents, visitors–have until recently been generally regarded as entities residing outside the administrative org chart. Trustees–perhaps because they are generally not chosen from academic ranks–are regarded by faculty members as curious creatures with uncertain motives and powers. To the extent that they are regarded at all, they are given wide berth. I say “until recently” because there seems to be a growing movement to pit university administrators against their governing boards. Fanned by sensational stories about board intrigues, high-profile dismissals of college presidents, and clashes with powerful external interests, governing boards have all of a sudden become visible and controversial.

This is a happening at a time when standing outside the administrative org chart might be one of the few places to see what is really happening to an institution. The number of failed or unsustainable Institutions is rising, new technology is disrupting established business models, and the social contract with higher education is under pressure.  The American public believes that governing boards need to play a larger role, but boards–whose members are often boosters and donors–may not have the necessary skills to do that. It is a new era. Like Mr. Smith, governing boards that want to assert their power will make many people uncomfortable.  I think that discomfort is largely due to uncertainty about how governing boards want to operate in this new era. Old understandings about university governance have been crumbling, and CUNY Board Chair Benno Schmidt decided it was time to chart a new path forward.

Schmidt–a former president at Yale–and his Governance for a New Era Project has just issued a blueprint for governing boards. In the interests of full disclosure: I was a member of Benno’s project, along with sitting presidents, trustees, and other faculty members.

Our comments about the oversight responsibilities of trustees are not intended to diminish the responsibilities or powers of top institutional or academic leaders. The role of the chief executive officer is naturally crucial to the successful advancement of higher education institutions. And trustees must be able to rely on the president or chancellor in the development of policy and the operation of the institution. It is essential that chief executive officers be perceived as having trustees’ trust and confidence and that the flow of information be facilitated by the administration. Except in rare situations of crisis or in the selection of top administrators, trustees, who have final fiduciary authority, act through campus leaders who have day-to-day responsibilities for institutional management.

The signers of this document have come together to craft a bold new approach to governance— governance for a new era—recognizing that it is urgently needed if American higher education is to maintain the diversity and excellence that have for so long made it the envy of the world. We are a bipartisan group of diverse and independent leaders beholden to no organization in our participation in this governance project. Each of us might express these values in different ways, and we recognize and expect each institution to modify and adapt these principles to its own mission and culture. But the values we outline are ones that we all share and ones that we believe all trustees and all leaders in higher education must aggressively pursue, today and long into the future.

It is impossible for me to conceive of a path forward for American higher education that does not involve every component of an academic community jointly pursuing what the university’s mission. I hope the Schmidt report is read and discussed by faculty, administrators, and alumni.


In Spring 2014, the Association of College Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) commissioned GfK Custom Research to gauge the public’s perception of higher education and the role of trustees in shaping the direction of their institutions. It should not come as a surprise that the American public has become disillusioned with the direction that colleges and universities are taking, but the college governance survey is breathtaking in scope and offers a very interesting window on where the public thinks accountability lies.

Americans are worried about the state of higher education, and they believe boards need to take more responsibility. Nearly three out of four respondents believe boards should not allow their institutions to surrender to pressure to withdraw speaking invitations to controversial speakers. 89% of respondents believe college is becoming out of reach for the middle class. Nearly three quarters do not believe that students get their money’s worth. And an astounding 91% said it is the board’s responsibility to “take the lead in reforming higher education to lower costs and improve quality.”

Among the findings:

  • 62% of Americans believe higher education leaders are doing a fair or poor job to ensure higher education is worth the time and money. 44% believe that higher education leaders are doing a fair to poor job to ensure that students graduate with the skills and knowledge they need for citizenship and career.
  • Six in 10 say colleges and universities “are increasingly becoming places of intolerance and political correctness.” The public is split 49% to 50% on whether higher education leaders—including boards of trustees—are doing a good job to ensure students are exposed to a multiplicity of perspectives from across the political spectrum.
  • 81% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that all students should “take basic classes in core subjects such as writing, literature, math, science, economics, U.S. history, and foreign language.”
  • Fully 71% of respondents believe the tenure system “contributes significantly to higher costs and lower education quality in American colleges and universities.”
  • Nearly three out of four respondents believe that boards should not allow their institutions to surrender to pressure to withdraw speaking invitations to controversial speakers.
  • 89% of respondents believe college is becoming out of reach for the middle class. Nearly three quarters do not believe that students get their money’s worth.

It is popular within some Ivy Halls to downplay the importance of independent governing boards in academia, but according to the GfK poll, the vast majority of American think that trustees play a critical role in shaping the direction of their institutions:

And whom do the American people want to take the lead in reforming higher education? Boards of trustees. An astounding 91% said it is the board’s responsibility to “take the lead in reforming higher education to lower costs and improve quality.”


There is a renewed interest in experimentation and design in  education, and it is not just confined to campus planning offices and architectural firms trying to land the latest signature academic building project.  Earlier this year, The New York Times described  what happened when design icon Ideo was tasked with reinventing a failing school system in Peru.  About the same time, Jeff Sellingo talked about a Stanford project aimed at redesigning the undergraduate experience.

Reimagining the Undergraduate Experience: 4 Provocative Ideas – Next – Blogs – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

What emerged were four provocative ideas:

  1.  The Open Loop University
  2. Paced Education
  3. Axis Flip
  4. Purpose Learning

As university systems consolidate campuses, close redundant programs and re-think the need for residential instruction, the timing is perfect for serious design in higher education.  What is a regional campus, for example?  Does it have to look like the poor cousin of a nearby public research university?  Higher education is at the same inflection point  that the media industry was in 1995, the start of the Internet era.  It is naive to think that an evolutionary path will be any kinder to incumbent institutions than the Web was to newspapers.