Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Sky IS Falling, Dammit!

Ok, maybe that title was just to get your attention. 
The sky is not falling, but there are ugly signs of a of a huge storm building off higher education's coast. Some of my colleagues at the University of Washington Tacoma don't see it, laugh and suggest I'm Chicken Little. But John Hennessey, president of a cute little place called Stanford, agrees with me and recently said "There's a tsunami coming," regarding the change that will be forced upon higher education in the digital age. 

MOODY'S just entered the conversation by downgrading higher education to a negative rating. How can society make it any clearer to us that, like any living organism, we have to adapt and grow and change to survive in the new age in which we find ourselves? 

Young people, unmoved by our love of tradition and ritual, are weighing in with an incredibly dark sense of disappointment. They too offer predictions of failure regarding our ability to see ourselves through this coming storm. Nathan Harden's recent essay, The End of University as We Know It, was so depressing I had to read it in parts. 


The thing that is most disheartening is that these entities outside higher education have taken over the conversation and now may certainly shape the outcome. Because of our silence, our stuck-ness, and our unwillingness to change, society is changing its ideas about us. We squandered centuries of goodwill and wonder why we're feeling besieged.

Sadly, this is happening not from inability to innovate, but from simple hubris. As the world changes, HE proudly refuses to talk about what we must do to prepare ourselves and our students. We're happy as we are; teaching as we always have; researching as we please. We've got it handled!  

Except for the world beating at the gate suggesting...we don't. The cost, relevancy, value, and meaning of an education today are being questioned. Higher education must respond. We must talk about transformation from the inside to meet the challenge of educating "as many students as possible, as well as possible, as affordably as possible," as Harden says. If we don't change, we will BE changed.

WE have to make a case for what is worth preserving and also acknowledge what we are clinging to simply because we hate change. There are so many insulting rules and regulations against new practice, lowering cost, or increasing engagement at my university, my head spins. Tradition is protected and change is fought and innovators questioned every step of the way.  

We have a problem, reflected in the Moody's rating and the noise growing outside our gates. We know that. The cost of an education is too high and too many students are going into debt that they may never pull themselves out of in getting their degree. Too many students are not completing, disappointed and in debt. We have to be sympathetic to this problem, we have to be creative in helping them achieve more affordable and meaningful education, and we have to do it while preserving what we hold dear and valuable. 

WE have to fight for equal access to education as it becomes once again more the right of the elite and a struggle for the less advantaged. And it seems we have to do it while frightened, stressed and stretched to our limits.

Batten down the hatches; we can do this!

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