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.

The July 7th edition of The Economist features this article on “How to Make College Cheaper.”

I wrote on this subject last summer (here and here, for example), but there has been much discussion in the news this year about the $10,000 undergraduate degree, so I thought it would be good to let you know that the ideas are still in play.

It is a concern that so much of the current discussion is driven by ideology.  I will have something to say about that in a later post.

I know a young woman who attends a very pricey public university that has plans to raise her tuition by another 25% next year.  It’s in one of those western states where the number of applicants far exceeds the number of available freshman openings.  You have to wonder what was going on in the alumni office when they were putting their quarterly newsletter together. It  proudly announced the latest institutional initiative, a million dollar branding campaign.

It would be one thing if it were a campaign to spread awareness of the university’s many great programs among prospective students.  It would even be all right to mount a a campaign to position the university as a driver of economic growth and social well-being for a balky state legislature.  But no, this was a branding campaign along the lines of  management book/landfill fodder classics like Why Johnny can’t Brand.  “It’s even worse,” said the father of the soon-to-be gold-plated sophomore.  His face was red and his hands were shaking as he shoved the alumni newsletter under my nose.

They are going to spend a million dollars — my dollars — on standard logos and common fonts.” No more nightmarish inconsistencies between physics and modern languages when it comes to business cards and PowerPoint presentations. And those press releases from the Athletic Director will now just have to rise or fall on their own merits. They won’t have serifs to hang onto.  Prospective employers will heave a sigh of relief knowing there has been no graphical hanky-panky in the registrar’s office when it comes to the forms on which student transcripts are printed.  Teams of litigators will have new weapons at their disposal as they fan out across the world to chase down the diploma mills that churn out thousands of knock-off degrees. As they cross the commencement stage, new graduates and their parents will be greatly comforted to know that every time their daughter is introduced from that day forward, the university’s branded,  descriptive tag line will have to be tacked onto the end, as in, “Meet Sally Smith who recently graduated from Western State University, the Mighty Blue Raiders, leading the force of change and innovation for the Rocky Mountains and beyond.”

OK, sorry.  I got caught up in the moment, but it struck me that a million dollar project to apply consumer product marketing tools  to a university that is raising tuition by 25%, closing academic departments, shutting down programs, and firing scores of staff was probably going to have some unintended repercussions. Marketing professionals would say it was not the best choice optics-wise. I remember thinking to myself: “This is maybe the dumbest use of university funds that I have ever seen.”

If you’ve seen my other posts (here and here for example) about college costs, you know that, optics-wise,  I am suspicious of any expenditure that does not add value to students. So I started to wonder about other really dumb ways that universities spend money.  I have a top five list.

  • An expensive “branding” campaign to standardize logos is at the top of the list.
  • Letting service units do research: Dormitories, IT facilities, bookstores, technology licensing, and public relations offices, are all service units. The problem is that mission creep results in an ever-expanding number of ever-expanding service units. No doubt inspired by institutional aspirations, they try to hire the best people.  Some of them have PhDs and academic career goals of their own, so they push very hard for a piece of the campus research pie. But, as we all know, university research seldom pays for itself. It is mission creep upon mission creep as service units with no academic mission whatsoever funnel resources into research programs.
  • Overhead forgiveness: Faculty members and research sponsors are equally suspicious of indirect costs on research contracts.  Professors see it as an unnecessary tax on their salaries, and sponsors confuse it with profit.  Both sides push to have it reduced or eliminated.  There are even federal agencies that make it a point to try to have it forgiven as they strong arm investigators into promising more and more for less and less.  Even full cost recovery does not pay the actual cost of research. Reducing or eliminating research overhead is an expense that robs the rest of the university, and is not a smart way to spend money.
  • Centralization: I once had a colleague — a fellow general manager — who effectively blocked any attempt to increase the size of his staff with “Where the f— do you think we are, General Motors?” It translated better back when General Motors was ranked number one in the Fortune 500, but it is nevertheless a good message today that administrative bloat is a dumb way to spend money.  The Spring 2008 issue of the UCLA faculty newsletter shows how bad it has become:

Over the past decade, the numbers of Administrators in the UC almost doubled, while the number of faculty increased by 25%. The sharpest growth took place among Executives and Senior Managers: 114%. Because Administrators command high salaries and benefits, any increase in their number higher than the expected growth rate for the University results in high costs: rough estimates of the costs of carrying extra administrators at UC range around $800M.

  • Entertain yourselves: We call it many things.  Networking. Teas. Receptions. Faculty meetings.  For most of the world, lunch means a five dollar sandwich from the cafeteria. At too many university gatherings, a catered buffet is the lure that induces professors to attend. Whatever we call it, the world sees it as a free lunch, and professors spend university funds to feed themselves at the drop of a hat. Long-time viewers of the NBC comedy series The Office know the drill.  If there’s a reason to entertain ourselves let’s do it:

Jan: You already had a party on May 5th for no reason.
Michael: No reason?! It was the 05 05 05 party…
Jan: And you had a luau….
Michael: …it happens once every billion years.
Jan: And a tsunami relief fundraiser which somehow lost a lot of money.
Michael: Okay, no, that was a FUN raiser. I think I made that very clear in the fliers, fun, F-U-N.
Jan: Okay, well, I don’t understand why anyone would have a tsunami FUN raiser, Michael. I mean, that doesn’t even make sense.

Paring the list down to five was not easy, and I am sure many of you have lists of your own.  What was number six? Well, Rutgers’ decision to pay Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi  (star of MTV reality show Jersey Shore), $10,000 more than the annual cost of attending the university was a real contender. It was $2,000 more than Nobel Prizewinning author Terri Morrison received.  It was a problem.  Optics-wise.

It’s one of my favorites. Tom Wolfe’s  June 8, 1970 New York Magazine article “Radical Chic: The Party at Lenny’s” is a dazzling piece of writing that never fails to alternatively enrage and inspire as layer by painful layer the dangers of “integrating new politics with tried and true social motifs…” are laid bare.  More than an essay, it’s a universal metaphor.

Everyone from the Black Panther anarchists who were guests in the Bernstein house (but apparently thought that his was the BERN-STEEN residence)  to Peter Duchin’s wife Charay (who bubbled “I’ve never met a Panther before–this is a first for me!”) comes away excoriated and diminished. Including Tom Wolfe.

My favorite passage is the brief exchange between Leonard Bernstein and Panther field marshal Don Cox:

“You can’t blueprint the future,” says Cox. “You mean you’re just going to wing it?” says Lenny.

It’s that way with every revolution, I suspect.  Events are set in motion. If they are dangerous enough, they attract attention and sometimes even smug support from fashionistas who cannot quite believe that outcomes are uncertain. Edupunk is like that. It’s an idea that sounds dangerous but somehow containable.  Flying close to that flame might actually be fun.

At least that’s what University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan probably had in mind when

In a bow to the “Edupunks,” Sullivan explained that Virginia is incorporating student habits into its pedagogy.

“Radical Chic” came immediately to mind when she explained that a bow can be as cheap and impersonal as a $500 check at Lenny’s dinner party.   It’s  not exactly the  Jeffersonian embrace that you might expect from an institution like Virginia:

“flash seminars” alert students to an edgy topic — no examples of how edgy — that will be discussed in a professor’s living room. To raise the hype level, only the first 25 students who show up are allowed to participate in this non-credit-bearing activity.

A colleague of mine put an even finer point on the comparison:

“bow”,”hype level”, professor’s “living rooms”, “edgy topics”– the academy domesticates  the “bizarre acts” of flash behavior, clueless to its naffness.

It should come as no surprise to those of you who saw last week’s announcement or have been following the plans that Richard Barke, Bill Rouse and I have for an open seminar on “Transforming Academia” at Georgia Tech’s Tennenbaum Institute that that I am winding up the year thinking about big ideas in higher education.

In fact, right after Georgia Tech announced the creation of a Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U), I started getting phone calls and email. “What’s the point?” one writer said. “Won’t universities change over the next 40 years or so?”  “What’s your vision for the 21st Century?” asked one reporter. “Here’s an idea that you have to look at,” said a colleague.  “It will change everything.”  The whole point of C21U is that over a hundred years, everything will change, and–from our vantage point at the start of the century–we have no way of knowing which ideas matter.

There is one thing that history teaches us: the ideas we think are important and radical  and chic today have almost nothing to do with how things turn out. I thought it was fascinating that the first questions I got about C21U were the ones that Arthur Miller and Barbara Walters were asking at the Lenny’s the night that Cox, Miller, and the other “funky, natural, scraggly, wild…” representatives of a new order stepped into polite society.

Would a turn-of-the-last-century gathering of influencers actually recognize the ideas that would shape higher education over the next hundred years? The New Year is an occasion for lists, so here’s one: What are the three ideas that shaped higher education–for better or worse– in the 20th Century?

Why only three? After all, higher education went through massive changes from 1901 to 2000.  But I would argue that these changes were consequences of three big ideas.

  1. The University as a Factory: The first massive increase in funding for higher education came from John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. They transformed American universities, but the great philanthropists were also industrialists.  They demanded that the chaos and debris of 19th century experimentation be swept away and replaced by fiscal and administrative discipline. The chaos was tamed, but the price was the creation of an institution that took in raw materials of a measurable grade and under the watchful eyes of managers and boards of directors produced graduates of a certain intellectual size and shape. Everything from standardized admissions testing, an obsession with measuring inputs, and a focus on classroom efficiencies to the layers of bureaucracy for administering an unwieldy system of accreditation stems from the demand of  philanthropic foundations that universities operate with factory-like discipline.
  2. The National Science Foundation: Before Vannevar Bush convinced Roosevelt and Truman to create a  taxpayer-supported, national version of the Carnegie Foundation, sponsored research played essentially no role in university operations. Over the next sixty years, the rate of  federal spending on university research rose nearly three times faster than the economy as a whole. NSF led the first explosion in federal funding, and it cause a shift in values at the nation’s universities that forever coupled scholarship with sponsored research.  The very idea of a research university was transformed in the process, and it soon engulfed the social sciences and the humanities in a new  multi-billion dollar industry that–in addition to the elite research universities–now reaches into the thousands of regional and community colleges whose missions have expanded to include research.
  3. The Multiversity: It was legendary University of California president Clark Kerr who observed in his 1963 lectures at Harvard that universities were no longer single communities, but had become the sometimes inconsistent homes to stakeholders who did not always share the same goals but needed to be supported and nurtured if the university in the 2oth century was to play the same national role that railroads did in the 19th century. Graduate and undergraduate education had to survive and prosper with medical and other professional schools, athletics, the arts and others. The idea of a multiversity coincided with the second great influx of money into higher education. Some say it was instrumental in the decline of the great public universities and the creeping missions of all institutions. At least in was the cause for abandoning forever the idea that money spent in the nation’s colleges and universities should end up in the classroom.

Nobody would have recognized these as the great ideas of the coming decades.  There would have been no Edupunk thrill in rubbing elbows with the bureaucrats who defined the “Carnegie unit ” or a future MIT dean who believed that scientific talent was a national treasure. The great institutions were as likely to be state universities–which were still small and wealthy–as private colleges.  Not one of the public universities on Raymond Hugh’s 1925 list of top 20 research universities is at the top of the  current U.S. News and World Report ranking of graduate programs. They were displaced by universities that did not even exist in 1901.

Before pulling out their checkbooks to support the new politics of higher education,  radical chic party guests would have wanted to know what the plan was. Clark Kerr would have told Lenny, “You can’t blueprint the future.”

Lenny would have been incredulous: “You mean you’re just going to wing it?”


One of the commercials broadcast during the NBC Monday Night  Movie on the evening of September 7, 1964 was a one-minute campaign ad for President Lyndon Johnson.  It began innocently enough with a child picking daisies and ended in the horrifying nuclear catastrophe that would be the inevitable result of electing Johnson’s Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.  Johnson’s voice intoned: “These are the stakes!”

The Daisy Ad was broadcast only once, but it was in the view of many historians the decisive factor in Johnson’s landslide victory. Goldwater was at the time a sitting two-term United State senator and the rock-solid leader of American conservatives.  He was a fierce opponent of Roosevelt-era programs,which he considered financially irresponsible, but he was by all accounts anything but excitable.  Nevertheless, the Daisy Ad defined Barry Goldwater as the man who would recklessly plunge the nation into nuclear war. It was a dramatic illustration of the ruination awaiting public figures who allow their opponents to define them.

The number of “These are the stakes!” portents of disaster for American Universities is on the rise. Everything from tenure to the economic benefits of a university degree seems to be under assault.  Richard Vetter, Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP),says that an economic nuclear wasteland is the price of ignoring the recklessness of American higher education:

The pell-mell investment in sheepskins is beginning to look an awful lot like something our economy has seen in real estate: a debt-fueled asset bubble. It might end just as badly.

How do American universities respond? Meekly. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, university leadership has been slow to recognize the direction and force of prevailing winds.  A common mistake in business and politics is to focus on the feel-good stuff that is ultimately valueless, and universities are making the same mistake.  The Chronicle reports that former MIT vice president John Curry told a gathering of heads of public universities to stop clinging to “worn out myths about campus strengths.” Curry told the group, “We like our stories more than the truth.” That leaves a vacuum for others to tell their versions of the truth.  It was devastating to Goldwater and it will be devastating to higher education.

The CCAP has in recent months published a series of highly critical studies of cost and value in American higher education.  I have mentioned some of them here. CCAP themes have gone viral in communities that are to all appearances unfriendly to the overall goals of higher education, among them the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.

It is no secret that conservative groups are increasingly cool to the idea of an academic meritocracy, preferring to view the inevitable hub-and-spoke network of influencers within the academic community as unfair to arguments and causes that would draw relatively few advocates on their own merits–a “liberal tilt” they call it. Now CCAP’s Matthew Denhart has published a study for the Heritage Foundation that argues for less federal involvement in higher education.

You see where this is going. Taking themes that are deeply troubling to the future of universities, like the overreaching of accreditation agencies, and constructing a “Picking Daisies” story about the politicization of higher education, the silence of university leadership becomes the Goldwater response to the doomsday ad. Here’s an example of the disconnect. On my campus, as on many others, there is still serious debate about the use of online education.  We cling to the worn out myths about the value of classroom attendance when overall enrollments are growing at a paltry 2%. The most recent Sloan Survey of Online Education reports that during that same period online enrollments surged by 21%.  I did not drop a decimate point. That’s a factor of ten difference. It sounds to me a little like debating the desirability of damp weather as a tsunami is approaching.

Among the Sloan findings: class differences caused by increasing selectivity and rising costs in traditional public universities are driving a new generation of students toward online learning in unprecedented numbers. The unresponsiveness of public institutions to obvious trends like these clears the way for anyone who wants to define higher ed. What are traditional universities doing in the meanwhile?  We argue about the effectiveness of increasingly baroque systems of ranking our own hubris-driven reputations, we fight tooth-and-nail against a level playing field for traditional and for-profit universities, we are able to argue with a straight face that college costs that have rise at twice the rate of health care costs are not really out of control.

The general public does not care about any of this.  It’s no wonder that they have tuned out pleas for more funding and are willing to turn their backs on a great engine of wealth creation in favor of just about any story that makes sense to them. Richard Vetter’s story is that traditional higher education is the Goldwater who threatens the innocent daisy-picking American public.  It doesn’t make much sense, but it’s better than the story that we tell.