Disruption: Advising the Next President

Peter Wood

                Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of the Office of National Intelligence recently spoke to a group of intelligence analysts meeting in Orlando about what lies ahead for the United States. He was previewing a report to be issued in December titled Global Trends 2025, which among other things warns about technological developments that seem likely to “disrupt” American life in the next seventeen years. The point of the report is that the next President needs to think about these things. 

                Meanwhile, the Chronicle of Higher Education this week published recommendations from nine prominent “higher-education leaders” to the next President of the United States. This has also resulted in a list of desiderata. It might not be entirely fair to compare the Fingar-in-the-wind predictions with the edu-pros’ wish lists, but let’s do it anyway. 

                The Chronicle, after all, was implicitly asking the edu-pros to take the long view. The U.S. President is not in charge of American higher education. The President can enunciate long-term national goals and foster programs that may prompt innovation at colleges and universities. But Presidents simply don’t have the tools to make colleges and universities do anything they aren’t already disposed to do.  

                If there was any doubt about this, it was cured when Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings tried to reform higher education. She formed a Commission on the Future of Higher Education, received a report that gave her the mandate she wanted for vigorous intervention, and then set about trying to use the accreditation system to impose a system of outcomes-based assessment on college programs. Her efforts were a bust, thwarted by a combination of accrediting associations, higher education advocacy groups, and ultimately Congress, which wrote an R.I.P. on Spellings’ reforms into the new 1,158 page Higher Education Act signed by President Bush in mid-August. 

                So what does the Office of National Intelligence see coming down the pike? And what do the Chronicle’s far-seeing educational leaders see in the offing? First the Intelligencers—who certainly aren't sticking their necks out very far. The six disruptive technologies they mention are pretty much already here:

Biogerontechnology involving technologies that improve lifespan.

Energy storage systems, such as fuel cells and ultracapacitors, would replace fossil fuels.

Crop-based biofuels and chemicals production, which will reduce gasoline dependence.

Clean coal technologies can improve electrical generation efficiency and reduce pollutants.

Robots have the potential to replace humans in a number of industries, ranging from the military to health care.

Internet pervasiveness will be in everyday objects, such as food packages, furniture and paper documents. It will also streamline supply chains, slash costs "and reduce dependence on human labor…"

                The list has no real surprises. But while we didn’t need the Office of National Intelligence to point out that people are living longer and batteries are getting better, it is reassuring that we have government officials trying to figure out the knock-on effects of developments that will alter basic economic and social patterns. 

                The Library of America has just issued its second volume of novels by the late science fiction novelist Philip Dick, who pretty much anticipated everything ONI has come up with.   I’d like to think that somewhere in outskirts of the nation’s capital, an intelligence analyst is cribbing from Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974).   By contrast, the Chronicle’s line-up of academic experts seem more like the characters in Martian Time-Slip (1964) who get locked in a time loop and keep repeating, keep repeating, keep repeating…

                According to them, the next President of the United States should:      

(Leslie H. Garner, Jr. president of Cornell College, in Mt. Vernon, Iowa)

“…stress the importance of higher education to sustaining democracy, enhancing the quality of national and international life, investing in the future of our economy, and expanding individual opportunity.”

“…deal with the issues of cost, access, and affordability.”

“…emphasize those issues that unite us…access and student aid…diversity”

“…speak the rhetoric of partnership.”

(Jonathan Alan King, a professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Sean Decatur, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College)

“…reject much of what the Bush administration laid out in the report from the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, especially the thrust to introduce standardized testing as a measure of college-level education.”

“…develop students' abilities to cross traditional boundaries and integrate data and knowledge from different sources in new ways.”

Foster “the ability to recognize what the key questions are…”

“…increase overall investment in higher education — not to spend precious funds on standardized assessments.”

(Mary S. Spangler, chancellor of the Houston Community College system)

“…focus national attention on the continued development of community colleges.”

“Some important areas include…college readiness…interdisciplinary curricula in the sciences…dual-enrollment programs…a broadened global perspective…increased engagement with the corporate sector…partnerships and consortia…adequate resources for institutions and students…”

(M. Lee Pelton, president of Willamette University)

“Sweep the ideologues out of the Department of Education who insist on one-size-fits-all accountability.”

“Provide incentives for elementary, secondary, and higher education to work together as a coherent and coordinated whole.”

“Provide incentives for higher education to fix its pricing structure so that all qualified students can afford to attend college.”

“Reinvest significantly in higher education, beginning with the community colleges…”

“In your first 100 days in office, assemble a group of the country's business and education leaders to figure out ways that local and state businesses can contribute significantly to continuous improvement in education.”

“…fix the health-care system.”

(Marlene M. Johnson, executive director and chief executive of Nafsa: Association of International Educators)

“…restore America's international legitimacy.”

“[Reengineer] the next public-diplomacy agency…”

“…ensure that students graduate with basic knowledge and understanding of the world and an ability to communicate in the world's languages…”

“…attract international students and scholars to be educated in the United States…”

“[establish] a national program to establish study abroad as an integral part of American undergraduate education…”

(James T. Harris III, president of Widener University, and Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania)

“…create a new compact among the government, higher education institutions, and their communities.”

“…encourage such partnerships by directing federal support…”

“…create a multi-agency federal commission designed to advance the social responsibility of colleges.”

“…a national summit on the civic responsibility of higher education…”

“…expand community-based work-study to engage more college students with their communities.”

(France A. Córdova, president of Purdue University)

“…encourage domestic students to concentrate in [science, engineering, technology, and math]”

“…[build] a national commitment to educate a competitive work force in an increasingly technical world…” 

                A few of these suggestions seem wholesome and even feasible. Many of them, however, seem tiresomely predictable and almost all of them stubbornly focused on the next five minutes. President Invest-in-the-Future (as opposed to the past?) Garner offers a glass of sugar water. Professor King and Dean Decatur plead with the President to kill a program that is already dead and buried. Chancellor Spangler wants to inflate the educational balloon with a few more lung-fulls of air into the community college system. President Pelton wants to invest in the future, kill the already dead program, and pump air into the community colleges…not to mention fix the health care system. Executive director Johnson will settle for no less than restoring America’s international legitimacy, a project to be achieved by funding more study abroad programs. President Harris and vice president Harkavy modestly want colleges that are already hell-bent on displacing academic study with community organizing to accelerate the transition of college students to full-time soup kitchen ladlers. President Córdova thinks it is time to teach college students more math and science. Better late than never. 

                None of these estimable leaders of higher education seem attuned to Mr. Fingar’s music. The breathtaking technological change that we are living through and which seems destined to disrupt at least some of our established social and economic patterns doesn’t come into view here. Should it? 

                At first glance it seems a pretty big stretch to think that colleges and universities should concern themselves with the results of stuff like the advent of “clean coal technologies” and “crop-based biofuels.” But then universities are already deeply invested in their own “sustainability” programs as well as in teaching sustainability as an encompassing philosophy. In that light, it wouldn’t seem wholly strange if just one of the edu-experts had asked the next President to offer leadership on how higher education should contribute national energy independence. 

                Robotic technology has already displaced large numbers of blue collar workers and is steadily eroding the base of jobs that involve any kind of routine action.   As a nation we seem to have responded to this displacement by encouraging an ever-growing percentage of students to seek a college education. Garner, Spangler, Pelton, and Córdova all strike this note. Yet it is far from clear that the economy will create jobs that will match the growing cohort of college-approximated students. Note as well that the ONI report foresees the Internet streamlining supply chains and reducing “dependence on human labor…"

                “Send ‘em all to college” is an evasion of what to do with the growing millions of students who finish high school with a thin grasp of basic math, faulty literacy, and no preparation in science at all.   Might we look to the President of the United States for a vision of how we will thrive in an increasingly mechanized society marked by a sharp division between the technologically savvy and a new underclass? 

                With perhaps the exception of Córdova, the edu-experts seem to take for granted that the U.S. President can best show his leadership in higher education by directing more and more government funding into colleges and universities. We have gotten used to the idea, I suppose, that higher education is somehow a federal function, although the primary federal connection is the now wobbly student loan system. It’s interesting that none of the experts raised the issue of how we are to sustain this system, or possibly replace it. We have already met a “disruptive technology” in this arena. The system of repackaging student loans as bonds has faltered and we are making do with an emergency measure that, in effect, allows the Department of Education to bail out lenders that are in trouble. I wonder whether any of the proposals put forth among these experts could be advanced without solving this basic problem. 

                But perhaps the largest silence among the experts is the technology of higher education itself. We all know that online universities are rapidly moving ahead, capturing more and more students and gaining more and more acceptance. Will they remain a secondary pathway for students seeking a workplace credential? Or will they break out and become dominant in mass higher education?   The next President of the United States should keep his eye on this, since it could be a far-reaching change. Consider, for example, how much of the U.S. economy is driven by university-based scientific research—an activity that could be jeopardized by a large-scale defection of students to on-line education. “Internet pervasiveness” as the Office of National Intelligence calls it, can’t be commanded to stop. We might hope for a President who can envision a way to reap its benefits without destroying some of the structures we count on. 

                I could fill in this picture some more, but I haven’t finished reading Philip Dick’s masterpiece, Through a Scanner Darkly, in which an undercover cop gets the unwelcome assignment of spying on himself. Self-scrutiny is a hard task, whether it is pursued by the National Intelligence folks or our higher education leaders. Those leaders, however, have offered up an especially thin set of recommendations to our next President. Higher education is faced with deep troubles in its finances, public support, articulation with labor markets, and modes of delivery. I’ll hazard the guess that by 2025, American higher education will have been “disrupted” far beyond the contours of our current system. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if we chose to shape that future rather than just wait for it to happen.

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