A Wolf at the Door of Academe

Peter Wood

A version of this article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on December 8, 2013.

The wolf at the door of American higher education is online instruction.  Traditional residential colleges hear it snuffling at the threshold.  They know they are vulnerable. They cannot compete on price.  Online is intrinsically cheaper.  They compete awkwardly on utility.  Online instruction is a more efficient way to convey knowledge and skills in a lot of fields.

The scratching of the wolf’s paws has done wonders to clarify the thinking of college leaders about what they do have to offer.  The educational advantages of being on an actual campus have begun to loom large in their imaginations.  So have the merits of professors who can give a human face to the pursuit of higher learning.  Some college presidents have rediscovered the ideal of an integrated curriculum that can be more than the sum of its parts.  These thoughts arrive, at times, with an air of desperation.   Does granddad’s old shotgun, consigned to the basement, still work? 

The trouble is that most colleges and universities have for a long time happily embraced and promoted the ideas that college should be evaluated partly by cost and partly by utility.  Americans have been taught by the higher education establishment to see college as “a good investment.”   And we have been endlessly reminded that “To get a good job, get a good education.”  The public has, by and large, accepted these pitches.  When surveyed by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, year after year students give as their top reason to attend college, “To be able to get a better job.” In the latest survey 87.9 percent said that. 

Which makes it hard for colleges to push back against the utilitarian logic of their new online-only and online-mostly competitors.  The possible push-backs fall into two categories.  Traditional colleges can claim (with some justification) that they are still better than their online rivals at getting their graduates placed in good jobs.   And traditional colleges can attempt to change the conversation by saying, in effect, a college education is not mainly about career preparation; it is about preparation for leading a good life. 

Pushing back against the wolf is, of course, not the only option.  There are plenty of lycanophiles who would like to see wolves roam freely not only in the precincts of Yellowstone Park but in the groves of academe everywhere.  Creative destruction is their abiding vision, and they see our older forms of colleges and universities as a herd of superannuated antelopes in need of a good culling. 

And then there are those, like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who have vigorously argued that colleges should make friends with and domesticate the wolf.  They argue the future of higher education lies in making online learning an integral part of the traditional college curriculum.  The wolf will happily take its place on the hearth and play tenderly with the children.  Christensen’s argument gains force from the many colleges and universities that have already created their own online programs or accepted online courses elsewhere for academic credit. 

On these matters I am more an observer than a partisan.  In any case, I have mixed sympathies.  The peril in which American colleges and universities now find themselves is a result of decades of complacency mixed with their willingness to exploit students financially and their eagerness to ensnare students in leftist ideology.  Weak academic programs have been oversold; students who lacked the requisite ability and motivation have been shuffled through; and the public has awakened to the reality that families, in many cases, have paid way too much for way too little.  The catchphrase for this is “the higher education bubble.”  But for the moment let’s stick with the wolfish metaphor.  Higher education has made itself the overfed prey of a ravenous predator.

I’d like to see colleges and universities recover their proper selves after decades of misdirection.  If the rise of online education promotes that spirit of self-reform, all the better.  But I also see merit in most of the forms of online education taken on their own terms.  They do some things extraordinarily well.  As it happens, liberal education in the traditional sense is probably not destined to be among those things, but that simply means we should prepare for a “disaggregation” of higher education. 

Not everyone is happy with the prospect of that disaggregation.  In my experience a great many academics have fierce loyalty to the notion that residential colleges and universities are first-tier institutions and online learning preys on those who don’t know better and gives them an inferior education.  In any case, a new genre of academic writing has begun to emerge, exemplified by Andrew Delbanco’s College:  What It Was, Is, and Should Be, in which scholars create a new apologetics for residential liberal arts education.

Professor Stan Altman in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York City has launched another venture along these lines.  Altman is director of “The Higher Education Innovations Project” that looks for “inexpensive and effective approaches in public higher education.”  The Project’s programmatic statement voices “doubt about the value of MOOCs as standalone solutions for the problems troubling us” but allows that “net-based resources” may “enlarge faculty capacities and expand classroom time available for discussion and collaborative learning.”  Altman’s diagnosis of what ails higher ed goes beyond the online wolf  at the door, but it isn’t hard to see its breath behind the Project’s focus on rising tuition, student debt, teaching values and creativity, reduced enrollments in the humanities, and commitment to excellent teaching.

These are all elements in the new effort to create a wolf-exclusion zone around traditional forms of higher education.  Values are back in; gradgrindian calculations of utility are out.  I applaud Altman’s initiative, supported by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation.  One of the Project’s realizations is a series of symposia on Higher Education Innovations.  I attended one of these in which the guest speaker was Thomas Rochon, the president of Ithaca College.

President Rochon explained what Ithaca College is doing to combat the wolf menace.  It was a pitch-perfect talk in balancing peril with measured confidence.  I went because the announcement mentioned that Rochon would be talking about his college’s new “core curriculum,” a topic of abiding concern to the National Association of Scholars. 

Some context:  Ithaca College is an expensive undergraduate college in upstate New York.  It was originally founded in 1892 as a music conservatory and some sixteen percent of its bachelor’s degrees are still awarded in music.  Its most popular degree program (18.5 percent of degrees) is communications.  Business, Health Sciences, and “Humanities and Science” covers the rest. The enrollment is 6,723.  Of considerable worry to President Rochon is that the college makes the U.S. Department of Education’s list of the top fifty colleges for highest net prices.  The net price (tuition minus discounts) for 2011-2012 was $31,811, which earned Ithaca the position of 48th most expensive college in the nation.

Ithaca is a respectable college but very few would place it in the top 48 in the country for the quality of its undergraduate education programs.  That presents an acute problem for the college administration.  It can try to curtail its prices, but it cannot expect to compete on price in an increasingly competitive market, so it has shifted to an attempt to distinguish itself on quality. 

Ithaca’s choice vindicates the value of having that online wolf at the door.  Its presence has wonderfully concentrated the attention of the college’s fractious faculty and made them willing to experiment with steps that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable.  Rochon describes Ithaca’s old curriculum as a “Noah’s Ark,” which contained a little bit of everything and nothing in particular.  Switching from Noah’s Ark to a tightly focused core curriculum, however, was not a practical option—even if that had been Rochon’s preference.  Instead, he corralled the faculty into creating a six-option set of alternative “cores.”  To call these options “cores” is, of course, debatable.  But leaving the semantics aside, it is clear that Ithaca College is paying a lot of attention to providing a form of education that cannot be replicated by the online alternatives.

It frames its new choices in the rhetoric of “perspectives” and “values.”  The college is still committed to giving students “knowledge and skills,” but the knowledge and skills are now promoted as part of an “integrated whole” that includes developing a sense of citizenship and a commitment to the public good.  The advantages of face-to-face community are extolled, as are faculty advising and mentoring, opportunities for service learning, and chances to study at “learning centers” around the world from London to Shanghai.  

Whether this will suffice to keep students coming to an expensive school in a rather remote place, I don’t have any idea.  But if I were in President Rochon’s shoes, I imagine I would emphasize the same things. 

President Rochon has launched this effort as part of a seven-year initiative (IC 20/20), however, that has the burden of a pretty uninspiring collection of six alternative “cores.”  They are: 

  • The Quest for a Sustainable Future
  • A World of Systems
  • Power and Justice
  • Identities
  • Inquiry, Imagination and Innovation
  • Mind, Body, Spirit

Three of these are straightforward re-packagings of leftist politics:  sustainability, social justice, and diversity.  How those actually play out in the courses students must take, I don’t know.  Possibly the courses are more substantive than the rubrics.  Rochon remarked that the “Identities” core is the most popular and that, while he expected the sustainability core to catch on, so far it hasn’t.  (I take that as one more sign among many that the sustainability movement is faltering under the growing burden of evidence that the global warming thesis has been grossly overstated.)

But rather than pick apart these six cores, I’d rather note that Ithaca College’s choice of these six illustrates how large a problem American higher education faces in trying to recapture the high ground.  Faced with the need to put forward an integrated, coherent, and cohesive curriculum that builds on the advantages of a face-to-face community, the faculty of this particular college chose a set of trendy clichés, redolent with ideological appeals.  It was perfectly within their reach to offer “core” organizing concepts that address some of the enduring matters of higher education.   They could have posed the question of the “old quarrel” between philosophy and the arts.  Perhaps that is buried in “Inquiry, Imagination and Innovation,” but it would be well at a college founded as a music conservatory to give it prominence.  They could have explored the question of finding the right balance between public and private:  a concern at least as old as Virgil and at least as fresh as the latest National Security Agency scandal.  They could have taken on the fraught question of what we owe to others beyond the dictates of power and the impositions of justice.

Ithaca College is surely on the right track in wishing to put forward the ideal of a college education as more than a semi-efficient way of transmitting a body of knowledge and a collection of intellectual skills from generation to generation.  And I am sympathetic to the challenge President Rochon faces.  He must persuade a faculty used to going their separate ways that they must give up a little of that intellectual autonomy to provide students with an attractive alternative to a Noah’s Ark curriculum.  They will, however, probably have to concede a lot more than they have with this initial list of “cores.”  They will need something that has some inherent intellectual power, not just a re-bundling of fashionable topics. 

If I were advising President Rochon, I would urge him to build with more wolf-proof materials.  I’m told bricks and mortar are more reliable than straw.  

Image: FlickrAlain Lusignan

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