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Saving Higher Education

It’s no secret that higher education is in a state of turmoil—one might even use the word “crisis.”

College costs have risen more rapidly than the pace of inflation. Student debt is identified by some economists as the next economic “bubble;” whether the bubble bursts or not, the trillions of dollars owed are a huge drag on the economy. Universities are increasingly reliant upon (poorly paid) adjuncts to deliver basic courses. Legislators are demanding higher 4-year graduation rates, and at the same time reducing state support. Studies suggest that too many undergraduates are leaving school having learned very little.

Those of us who teach at the university level are painfully aware of these challenges, but I recently read a closely-reasoned essay published by David Stocum, a former dean of the School of Science at IUPUI, that connected these problems in a way I had not previously considered. The article, “Killing Public Higher Education: The Arms Race for Research Prestige,” is well worth reading in its entirety—a single column doesn’t allow me to do it justice.

The title should not mislead; the author’s basic critique is not that research is unimportant, but that—like college athletics—its purpose has been distorted.

“[T]he quest for research prestige and the quest for athletic prestige share many of the same features and values. They are both expensive, the subject of enormous hype, driven by rankings, and the star players are treated deferentially.”

This “arms race” for rank and prestige is part and parcel of the central element that Stocum identifies as problematic: the privileging of so-called “flagship” campuses to the detriment of other public educational institutions. Flagship campuses “bias their student population toward more economically-advantaged students. Such bias is leading to ever-increasing social and economic polarization throughout the higher education system.”

Stocum points to a variety of consequences of this privileging of flagships: a lack of autonomy and financial support for the “lesser” campuses, and an increasingly bloated administrative structure among them. But his most significant concern is that the flagship focus on research prestige devalues and discourages undergraduate teaching.

Stocum considers a number of proposed “fixes,” ranging from those he labels “tweaks” to more drastic measures like spinning off research and graduate education into independent think tanks. But he favors a thoroughgoing restructuring that would, in his words, eliminate the “caste system,” and allow each public institution to decide for itself what its research emphasis should be—something “mission differentiation” dictated by the flagships doesn’t currently allow. Most importantly, he insists that undergraduate education must once again become the core mission for all institutions of higher education.

It is important to emphasize that Stocum is not advocating abandonment or even a reduction in importance of the university’s research mission. (It would be ironic if he did, since he directs a research center himself, the Center for Regenerative Biology and Medicine at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.) As he says, “a university that emphasizes the synergy between research and teaching gives the best service to its constituents.” Instead, he emphasizes the need to differentiate between research excellence—which he wholeheartedly supports—and research prestige. It is pursuit of the latter which Stocum believes is distracting from the core purpose of higher education: excellence in undergraduate education.

One of the most important points of the article, in my opinion, is the observation that the university’s teaching mission has been distorted, and “today appears to be progressively more consumerist and vocational.”

This point deserves an article of its own. If we are to restore the promise of higher education, we need to understand the importance of learning for its own sake–learning that includes history and science and literature and the arts, that includes teaching students what the best minds have thought about human existence.

Job training is important, but it is not the same thing as education.

Schools of Public Affairs—like business schools, law schools and medical schools—are professional schools—“vocational” in nature. But as anyone who teaches in these graduate programs can attest, the students who come to us with the most well-rounded and in-depth undergraduate educations are those who show the most promise. They are better able to integrate their professional training into an informed worldview, and better able to cope with the ambiguity and complexity that characterize all professional practices.

There’s an old saying to the effect that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. Higher education is indeed being bruised and buffeted by forces beyond academia’s ability to control. We can whine about the unfairness of it all, or we can take advantage of the crisis to rethink our mission(s) and re-evaluate our priorities. We can “go back to basics” and distinguish between a credential attesting to possession of a particular set of skills, and a diploma attesting to possession of an education.

Can our increasingly bureaucratic universities meet the challenge? The jury is out.


Author: Sheila Suess Kennedy is a Professor of Law and Public Policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.


Image courtesy of http://www.sfcc.edu/career_services/education_and_training.


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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