The assault on The Academy continues – this time in an op-ed commentary by Dr. Robert Zemsky, another person generally regarded as a nut case by The Academy, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. What is the latest barbarian at The Academy’s gates saying?
The history of American higher education is well supplied with reform movements that have gone nowhere. Despite fervent calls for change in a number of areas, most often issued by a commission with an impressive masthead, nothing much happens – or worse, the only visible result is hurt feelings and a hunkering down by the college leaders on whom change depends.
Of all the groups I have dealt with over the years, higher education is the most resistant to change, which may seem counter-intuitive given that The Academy is supposed to be all about thinking the great thoughts. But it is about precisely that – thinking, not changing.
Like outside reformers, state agencies cannot prescribe change (unless they are prepared for a long, exhausting battle) but must create the conditions that make change possible… The nature of the academy sucks the air out of piecemeal reforms.
More than anyone in West Virginia higher education over the last few years, I was involved in those lll-ooo-nnn-ggg, exhausting battles with the Death Eaters and have two observations. First, don’t focus primarily on trying to build consensus from within The Academy. You’ll accomplish more by hitting your head against a wall repeatedly. Second, you really can create the conditions that make change possible – just look at how West Virginia’s community college system has been transformed over the last 5 years (a subject for some future blog posts, I suspect).
… and most important …
The problem, as the economist Richard Vedder and others have noted, is that the classic rules of supply and demand apply at best imperfectly to higher education. In a market so awash with federal money—for research support, for grants and loans to students and parents—competitive pressures aren’t sufficient to change the system.
That’s the real issue: there is little change – and tuition costs are going through the roof – because The Academy is very well insulated from the effects of the market. In my experience, the two higher education groups most receptive to change – academic research and community colleges - actually prove the rule. Why? They are expected to be entrepreneurial and address real-world concerns. If they do not, their “business” models do not work very well. Over time, we will follow the money … and thus gain a better understanding of higher education’s strengths and weaknesses.