I must admit I’ve considered the events at UVa to be a side show—one of those fascinating, high-profile diversions that come along in higher education from time to time. As one who accepts the growing irrelevance of the Research I universities to the key issues facing the nation (now THAT would be a good topic for a future blog post), I am alternately amused and irritated by the undue attention that the periodic soap operas of presidential firings attracts.
From what I’ve seen over the years, the best job in higher education is “fired Research 1 university president.” Since many presidents negotiate tenured faculty positions as part of their compensation package, the job security is great, plus the pay is pretty sweet too.
But I digress. The real reason I try not to take these things seriously is that it is impossible to know what is really going on. The reasons for Sullivan’s dismissal are known only to the direct participants—and even they may not know exactly what is going on. It’s fun to speculate, but generalizing from these incidents is dangerous.
Then I read Kevin Kiley’s piece in today’s Inside Higher Education, and I think he nailed on the head why this situation may be a bit different. Here’s what he said:
“In some sense, the board’s vote on Tuesday will be a referendum on the speed of the changes the university will undergo over the next few years. That decision, given U.Va.’s prominence among research universities, particularly public flagships, could reverberate through the sector.
In her statement Thursday, and in previous statements about Sullivan’s resignation, Dragas took issue with how the president approached change at the university, saying U.Va. needed “bold and proactive leadership.” “The bottom line is the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be,” she said in her statement Thursday. That statement contrasts sharply with one Sullivan made to the board Monday, at the meeting in which the board considered the appointment of the interim president.
At that time, Sullivan accepted the mantle of “incrementalist,” saying that slow change with campus buy-in is “the best, most constructive, most long lasting and beneficial way to change a university.”… Most in higher education, particularly faculty members, would agree with Sullivan about the pacing of change. But an increasing number of boards and outside parties, as well as some members of the academy, say that universities should be acting more quickly to address the changes they see on the horizon.”
Kiley has neatly summarized two opposing views of the best way to approach change in higher education, and I see these two approaches reflected in how people work for constructive change in the sector. In some ways, Lumina is trying to steer a middle course—moving to develop and expand new models of higher education delivery and credentials, for example, while engaging faculty and others in the academy in efforts to improve instruction and student supports.
We will continue that approach, but events at UVa show that the pace of change is accelerating and even venerable institutions like the University of Virginia are feeling the pressure. At some point, incremental approaches will not get us where we need to go. Many in the academy do not accept the need for change. That, too, will need to change.
The blog of the World Economic Forum has a fascinating post by John McArthur about the use of goals to drive global efforts to reduce extreme poverty. The UN set Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to focus global anti-poverty efforts, and they are now working on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to build on their success. And by all accounts the goals HAVE been successful—rates of extreme poverty (income of less than $1.25 per day) have fallen across the globe since 2005 and there is genuine optimism they could fall to zero by 2030.
Of course, we have used a goal for higher education attainment to focus our work at Lumina, and we believe it has helped focus the national discussion as well. The lessons learned from the UN’s use of goals are very similar to ours — for example, they cite the need for goals “to be established in absolute rather than proportionate terms.” That has been our experience as well—a goal of 60% attainment is more powerful than one to “double the numbers,” although both are better than no goal at all.
According to McArthur’s analysis, the UN development goals have been effective in large part because they are ambitious, simple, long term, and quantifiable. However, one big challenge for strengthening them in the next round is addressing the “messiness” of data and indicators. We can certainly relate to that problem!
We have not come across very many examples of the use of goals as a way to focus efforts across a wide range of actors, including policymakers. Considering the wide range of stakeholders in higher education, and the highly decentralized design of the U.S. higher education system, traditional top-down approaches don’t work. But the same is even truer when you consider driving action to reduce poverty across the globe—the range of stakeholders and conflicting agendas is immense. That goal setting has proven itself to be an effective approach in this context is very revealing.
The Tulsa Metro Chamber wants higher attainment rates for Oklahoma to become a key strategy in weathering future economic storms. Lumina’s Dewayne Matthews delivered the keynote address at the chamber’s State of Education luncheon presenting research on the growing demand for skilled workers with high-quality degrees and credentials. More »
Udacity is the new startup co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who taught the famous free Stanford course on artificial intelligence that enrolled 160,000 students, and David Stavens. Udacity plans to develop and offer free on-line courses, and has launched with $5 million in venture capital. How do you make money giving something away? Apparently they don’t know and at this point aren’t really concerned. If they can enroll several hundred thousand students – something that really can’t be ruled out given their track record and resources – there are lots of ways to make money, including by matching employers to successful completers of their courses.
But I hear you asking: “Thrun’s first class – the one that got all the publicity – was equivalent to a Stanford course, and at that time he was a tenured full professor. Why would anyone sign up for a course from a new startup with a funny name, and why would employers believe the course was of high quality?”
Staven’s answer is in this statement: “At top universities, the rigor of the classes is guaranteed almost entirely by the faculty teaching them. Since Udacity has distinguished faculty who also teach at top universities or have impressive records in industry, we feel the classes are comparable. The rigor of classes at most universities is guaranteed by the faculty, not by some process within the university. As long as Udacity continues to attract outstanding teachers, we can be comparable to great universities.”
This is a stunning statement. Do we really know so little about what quality education is and how to recognize it in students? I suspect most people would find Staven’s statement logical and even obvious, but I find its implications disturbing. To offer high quality educational opportunities to all who need them, there must be a better way to assure the quality of learning.
Suddenly, a lot of people are taking very seriously the notion that quality higher education can be free. Through the open courseware movement and the publicity attached to Stanford and MIT’s free courses, college courses are starting to be seen as just another form of content. One might think it would be difficult to build a sustainable business model out of producing something that others are giving away – especially if you’re a college or university trying to compete with free courses from the likes of MIT and Stanford, but of course that hasn’t been the case. Open courseware has operated on the margins of the higher education system because students could not get credits or degrees for courses completed.
However, open courseware appears to have reached a breakout point with the publicity about the Stanford artificial intelligence course that enrolled 160,000 students, with 23,000 completing. The feature of the Stanford course that made it unique (and may have driven the enormous interest) was their announcement that they would award a certificate to students who completed the course.
More or less simultaneously, and perhaps in response, MIT launched MITx, which promises to award certificates to students completing courses and credentials for completing defined sequences of courses.
So now we have Coursera, which launched with $16 million in venture capital and has signed up five elite institutions to offer free courses. Their ambition is bold, as stated in their vision statement: “We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.” According to the business press, Coursera’s business model is based on charging either students or employers for validating the learning of students obtained through their courses. Udacity, co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who taught the Stanford course, is another startup in this space.
Of course, MIT, Stanford and the rest are not dummies – they know the true market value of what they are selling lies in the degree, not the course content. It’s the recognition that one has actually completed those courses and mastered what they teach that matters in the marketplace. Which is why the new approaches of open courseware providers to grant some sort of certificate, credit, or credential is so interesting.
Yesterday, I was interviewed by Timothy Homan, a reporter from Bloomberg for a story on the Census Bureau’s release of data on higher education attainment. The article, Americans with College Degrees Climb to Record as Hispanics Gain, reported that 30 percent of Americans now have a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education, which is a new record. The Census data also highlighted that this milestone was reached in large part because of gains made by Hispanics in educational attainment. The Bloomberg article made the point that this increase in attainment is connected to a fundamental shift toward higher workforce skills – a shift taking place in the U.S. and other advanced economies.
My quote in the article spoke to how this shift is affecting individuals: “People are getting the information they need to understand that they really need post-secondary education to have a viable middle-class life. Jobs that give them any realistic shot at economic security come from education beyond high school.”
The Census data shows once again that people with higher levels of education make more than those without, but also pointed out the growing relationship between education and employment. In this economy, that’s probably even more important.
The Census data is worth checking out, but a more complete picture will emerge from Lumina’s new report A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education, which will be released on March 27. That report includes higher education attainment rates for every state and county in the U.S., along with the top 100 metro regions. A Stronger Nation also describes higher education attainment in the context of current economic trends, and shows how the U.S. can move more aggressively to increase it to the levels the nation needs.