Tag Archives: Charles Vest

Kalinga Raipur

I have in recent years — and for many different reasons — become a fan of Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind.[1] Pink has a compelling framework for thinking about value.  First, can what I am trying to do be done better (or cheaper or faster) by a computer?  Second, is what I am offering in demand in an age of abundance? Finally, can what I am trying to do be done more efficiently elsewhere?

As readers know by now, I am working on a WWC book about higher education, and  I have found that that the question of value is central to understanding where American higher education is going. Simply put, when there are abundant choices for university education, will traditional universities offer enough value to be able to withstand the coming pressure of a global marketplace?

Here’s why I am concerned.  In any market with growing demand and abundant choices, there are only three ways to win: have an unassailable brand, offer the lowest prices, or offer the most compelling value.  Even better is to be able to win with both price and value. There is really only a handful — 70 at most — of global brands in higher education, so for most of the 3,000 or so accredited colleges — let’s call this the Middle —  it’s a matter of finding the right balance between cost and value.  Universities are profligate consumers of resources, so it came as no surprise to read in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that 58 private colleges have now joined the $50,000 club.  Public universities are not far behind.  If I am right about winners and losers in global marketplaces, the institutions in the Middle who are at most risk had better get the value equation right.  The problem is that most of them don’t have a very clear idea of their value.

That’s significant because  half of the world’s population has joined the free market economies in the last fifteen years. For the most part, these are countries with rich educational heritage, that also understand the value of a well-educated labor force.  The market for higher education is bubbling as new and established players alike  scramble to figure out how to reach hundreds of millions of students:

But the demand for higher education is continuing to increase with more and more students wanting a higher education today than ever before. How can we bridge the gap between increasing demand and decreasing government funding for higher education? The only option is to tap the private sector to participate in the funding and provision of higher education. The process of increasing private participation in higher education has already begun with a few states like Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal having passed legislation to permit the setting up of private universities in their states. Indeed the private sector has been funding higher education in India for a long time, albeit on a very limited scale. The Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani in Rajasthan, which is funded and run by the Birla Group Trust, became an officially recognised university as far back as 1964. Other institutions like the Manipal Group in Manipal in Karnataka have been running private colleges since 1953 and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education became a deemed university in 1993. Many other self-financing colleges were set up in the early 1990s and a few of them have now become deemed universities.[2]

The problem for American universities is that, since  few of them understand their value to traditional students, the chances are slim that they will figure out what the millions of new students want. I can tell you that it’s not football. Nor is it finding ways to “dumb down” an American degree.


In fact the emerging markets are moving aggressively to close down storefront diploma mills.


To the extent that most universities in the Middle concentrate on classroom instruction, the business model of higher education is under tremendous pressure.  Although university level training and an aging population will continue to drive demand for classroom instruction, the experience of students in large, multi-section introductory courses is much worse than well-conceived and executed performances by world-class experts who have a passion for communicating their love of subject.

So if few instructors are equipped to compete with the zip of a star from ItunesU™ (see my Dancing with the Stars post) then how does the 21st Century university make itself valuable?  Universities must reinvent themselves as creative entities– and they must do it in a way that is smart public policy and is also economically sustainable.

That brings me back to Daniel Pink and what he sees as the elements of creativity:

  1. Design – Moving beyond function to engage the sense.
  2. Story – Narrative added to products and services – not just argument.
  3. Symphony – Adding invention and big picture thinking (not just detail focus).
  4. Empathy – Going beyond logic and engaging emotion and intuition.
  5. Play – Bringing humor and light-heartedness to business and products.
  6. Meaning – Immaterial feelings and values of products.

This is not a bad start for universities that want to redefine their value.   This was true in when the Medieval monk Peter Abelard  provoked his students to question orthodox thought, and it was true when Thomas Jefferson realized that a university education might result in peer groups that were specialized to the sciences.   Charles Vest realized that the value of an MIT education did not lie in the lectures and textbooks but in energy and intellect of the MIT community.   It is true that the most immediate way to experience a community is to live within it, but it is not the only way.   The technology of social networks and on line communities extends the reach of physical community beyond geographic boundaries.

To deliver on a vision like that American colleges and universities are going to need new leadership, because there doesn’t seem to be much  appetite for doing much more than nibbling around the edges.

[1] Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Riverhead Books, 2005


[2] Private Universities in India — Why? How? Education in India,

Even casual iTunes™ users know about iTunesU™, the increasingly rich video-taped course offerings from universities as great as Stanford and Oxford and as humble as the dozens of community colleges and adult education programs that make their curricula available for free downloading. I should have seen it coming in the spring of 2001 when Charles Vest – then president of MIT – paid me a visit at HP to tell me of his plans to make MIT’s entire course catalog available for download on the internet, but I was not thinking much about Higher Education as a market in those days.

Things changed in late 2002 when I started to draw a paycheck from a university and began to think hard about the fate of American colleges and universities in the 21st century.  What Chuck Vest predicted one afternoon in my Palo Alto office is now being played out in what I believe is the next economic bubble.  This is quite literally the collision of that half of the earth’s population that has in the last decade joined the free market economy with the inwardly focused world of  Americah higher education, which – unless there are some dramatic changes – is destined to be a marginalized bystander to events that it is ill-equipped to understand.  Here is the stark reality: enhanced technology means that the market for higher education now has many suppliers, and the  hundreds of millions of people who all of a sudden want a university education also find that they have abundant choices, often with lower cost and high quality.    In any market with abundant choices, the winners are inevitably those with compelling brands, price, or value.  There are about 3,500 accredited colleges and universities in the US, and, except for the handful (less than a hundred) who have global brands, most of them have not figured out how to deliver their value at an acceptable price.  In fact, an alarming large number of them cannot even articulate their value to the world that is rushing toward them.  That spells trouble. I will have much more to say about WWC and higher education in later posts.

I am working on a book on this topic so these problems are much on my mind these days, but an email message from a colleague prompted me write that there may be a series of smaller collisions rather than a single cataclysm.

There is a lot of criticism about the quality of iTunesU lectures and online courses.  Some criticism can be dismissed as an “innovator’s dilemma” confusion of the current state  — much of it admittedly primitive – of the technology with its disruptive power.  I find this criticism easy to dismiss because you can see quality of online instruction improving month by month.  Never underestimate the power of technology curves.  The more difficult question is how exactly the technology can replace a skilled human mentor who has ability to interact directly with her students.

Then two e-mails from my friend Dick Lipton showed up.  “Hit 7,000 page views today!” said the first one.  A few hours later: “We were number 20 on WordPress!”  That’s 20 out of roughly 3 million WordPress posts.  Dick is a world-class computational theorist, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and one of the best teachers I have ever known.  He is a star.  He has been blogging pure math for the last year at a website called “G̈ödel’s Lost Letter¨.  Not exactly the stuff you would expect to be in the top  .0007% of all of those posts about Michael Jackson, Death Panels, and the 2016 Olympics.  His latest series “Reasons for Believing P = NP” has been exceptionally popular, drawing hundreds of comments from experts, novices, interested amateurs, and a few cranks.  We have been collaborators for many years. Our offices used to share a common wall.  I know Dick’s voice when he is engaged with his students.  It has a distinctive rhythm and is louder when he is trying to extract a missing argument from a reluctant pupil.  It was the voice I heard when I read his blog, and as I thought about his 7,000 viewers it occurred to me that Dick’s seminar was no longer 10 or 15 graduate students crowded around a white board.  This is not an on-line lecture or an iTunes™ videos. I thought, “This is what the teacher-mentor relationship is like when the technology enables a classroom of 7,000 students.”  When there are abundant choices, students will choose this.