You are here


Big Ideas: The Administrator's Bookshelf

Advocating for change in higher education
University Business, September 2012

If you want a comprehensive view of the world of higher education, look no further than your local bookstore. Every month sees a wave of releases by administrators, scholars, analysts, and more focusing on the current state—good and bad—of higher education. We’ve chosen to highlight here some of the more interesting titles that have arrived at our offices. You’ll probably notice a common thread of thought among them. All the books below advocate dramatic changes to the very nature of higher education, and in many cases, they don’t just suggest change, they demand it. As one book notes, “Talk of change is not change.” These books are meant to provoke you and make you think. Some are recent releases, some are hot off the presses. We think that all of them deserve a space on your bookshelf.

The Sustainable University: Green Goals and New Challenges for Higher Education Leaders

Edited by James Martin & James E. Samels; JHUP, 2012; 352 pp.; $45

There’s little doubt that “sustainability” has become an overused term in recent years, one that has passed from movement to marketing. But the editors of this book suggest that its underlying philosophy and practicality is still important for colleges and universities.

Based on more than 200 conversations and interviews, UB “Future Shock” columnists James Martin and James E. Samels suggest that there’s still a long way to go before “sustainability” truly becomes part of the fabric of higher education. Part of the problem, they write, is the wide disparity in access to “green” sources for food and energy. What may be successful for one may be impractical for another. While some institutions pride themselves on supporting local farmers, for example, others are situated far from any local food source.

“Institutions’ abilities to source local food, generate clean, renewable energy on site, or get employees to commute using alternative methods are influenced significantly by their local contexts,” they write. “That said, institutions are also working collaboratively to overcome those local constraints by advocating for sustainability policies locally and nationally.”

In a series of case studies and examples, the authors conclude there is, ultimately, no common path to sustainability success. However, administrators and community partners can work together to find the solutions that work best for them.

The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out

By Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring; Jossey-Bass, 2011; 513 pp.; $32.95

When you’re the first at something—and remain successful—others invariably try to emulate your success. As the premier institution in the United States, Harvard University can be said to carry the DNA, or the fundamental organizational traits, of higher education that other universities try to copy. But it has taken Harvard nearly 400 years to evolve to this point. As a result, “the Harvard model, which was not fully understood by the many institutions that have copied it, is now unsustainable for all but a few,” the authors write.

On the other side of the scale are institutions that are not so much imitative as they are innovative. For them, creating a university started with a blank slate. In between are institutions that successfully blend the two qualities—universities that embrace innovation while respecting historical strengths.

Clayton Christensen, the father of the theory of disruptive innovation, and Henry J. Eyring, the advancement vice president at Brigham Young University-Idaho, examine the successful traits of each of a dozen institutions. These case studies demonstrate Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation applied to a higher education environment. They draw strategies that can be adopted elsewhere, all toward the goal of finding innovative, less costly ways to deliver on their education promises, and thus, changing the DNA.

Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education

Edited by Andrew P. Kelly and Mark Schneider; The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012; 344 pp.; $45

After years of efforts to improve college access for anyone who wants it, the logical follow-up—and the one that is in the sights of those who demand accountability—is college completion.

Only about 60 percent of students who pursue a standard degree at a four-year institution complete the program within six years. The rate at community colleges is worse, with only about 30 percent earning associate degrees within three years.

Finding ways to convert access to success is the focus of this book. It features essays from administrators from two-and four-year colleges, as well as executives from organizations that work within higher education.

The driving mission in higher education these days is a change from access to success. The completion agenda has taken root in this country, not always to the approval of the contributors to this book. Many express their concerns that the goal set by President Obama to increase the number of graduates by 8 million in the next decade is overly ambitious. But to do so, colleges and universities must be prepared to make policy and operational changes that may be outside the norm, but will increase the chances of completion.

The chapters in this book examine a number of strategies that may help. Financial aid, for example, is reconsidered not just as a way to get into school, but to stay in school. A pilot program tying financial aid and additional support to students’ academic performance has had enough positive impact on completion that it is being expanded to six other states.

Also considered is the expansion of non-degree certificates, which one contributor claims is the only way to meet the Obama administration’s ambitious goals.

Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning

By José Antonio Bowen; Jossey-Bass 2012; 352 pp.; $36

Technology has made enormous inroads on education, of that there can be little argument. While e-learning, rich media classrooms, and the like have become fixtures of education, José Antonio Bowen believes educators should rethink the emphasis of technology over discourse.

In this thought-provoking book, Bowen asserts that technology can be better used outside the classroom to provide students with background material, rather than inside the classroom. Classroom time can then be devoted to discussing that material in context as well as debating various viewpoints, or what Bowen refers to as “naked” face-to-face contact with faculty.

Hardly a Luddite, Bowen isn’t opposed to using technology in teaching. In fact, the first part of the book covers technology for information delivery and assessment, and even discusses the idea of using video game design as a model for college curriculum. (It’s a fascinating notion.) But it’s what happens after technology has done its part that concerns Bowen. “Technology gives us access to more and better content, communication and assessment, but technology by itself does not create engagement,” he writes. He believes a more valuable approach is to let technology provide the content and let the lecturers (without PowerPoints) and students tie it all together.

Bowen says technology is most powerfully used outside the classroom, and, when used effectively, can produce students who are prepared for intellectual discussion—the kind that leads to true learning and not rote memorization. But Bowen doesn’t stop at merely making the case for taking technology out of the classroom. He also offers practical advice to faculty on how to compensate for the missing technology with improved lecture styles and techniques.

Riptide: The New Normal for Higher Education

By Dan Angel and Terry Connelly; The Publishing Place, 2011; 270 pp.; $20

We often say in these pages that although higher education institutions may not be businesses in the strictest sense, they must think like businesses. Businesses depend on satisfied customers to grow. The authors say that higher education’s “fall from grace” stems from an ignorance of that fact and an adherence to an obsolete model. For many years, colleges—especially the elite schools—relied on their long-established reputations as hallowed halls of learning, where students should feel honored and privileged to attend. That model served higher education well, if not always equitably, for many years. But it also blinded institutions to the idea that reputation alone wasn’t enough to remain on top when other schools began to compete for the best and brightest. “We’re talking about a different kind of competition,” write the authors, “the kind that happens when customers of any enterprise wake up to their power to shape the product they are buying. Up until recently, higher education considered itself relatively immune from this kind of customer-driven market force.”

The book offers a “way forward” to help higher education become the public-serving, sustainable, cost-effective enterprise it ideally could be. From practical strategies (we must do much more to support community colleges) and sometimes radical notions (it’s time to re-examine the power and influence that athletic programs hold over the institution), there is much here to spark debate. And that’s a good thing.

Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies

Edited by Diana Oblinger; Educause, 2012; 400 pp.; free as e-book, $19.95 for hardcopy edition

At the heart of this book, edited by Educause President Diana Oblinger, is the premise that information technology is a game changer, with heavy emphasis on “information.” Most technology adaptations used for learning at least have the capability to capture information about the user. Whether it is a website, a computer program, or even a mobile device app, important data can be recorded.

In much the same way that websites such as Amazon or Netflix can “learn” your book and movie preferences, this user data can help course designers and technology publishers adapt their products to support optimum learning outcomes. It’s learning on your own terms.

Likewise, game changing often involves stepping outside the comfort zone, and applying lessons from programs that have proven effective. In a chapter on public-private partnerships, for example, the point is made that the traditional college model—designed to accommodate the 18-25 year old student in a residential setting—is not applicable to many non-traditional students (who now outnumber traditional students). They can turn to the for-profit schools for guidance in learning how to accommodate this changing student demographic. “Many institutions have discovered that moving outside their core expertise is extraordinarily difficult. ... However it has become clear that programs ranging from adult education to online learning require a radically different ‘product’ to be successful.”

The case studies in Game Changers cover a variety of education initiatives, from the open learning model of SUNY, Empire State College to Indiana University’s e-text initiative, and demonstrate how each is designed or can be improved to reach more learners, more effectively, and with greater impact.

First-Generation College Students: Understanding and Improving the Experience from Recruitment to Commencement

By Lee Ward, Michael J. Siegel, and Zebulun Davenport; Jossey-Bass, 2012; 176 pp.; $40

America is and always has been a melting pot of people and cultures from around the world. What that means is that we’ve now reached a period in our history where the largest segment of the college-age population is made up of those who are the first in their families to attend college.

But there doesn’t seem to be strength in these numbers. In fact, although first-generation students make up 51 percent of all undergraduates, they are less likely than their peers to earn degrees. At two-year schools, the problem is worse, where the research shows that first-generation students are significantly less likely to persist into a second year.

First-Generation College Students examines the cognitive, developmental, and social factors that affect first-generation students, and offers a variety of practices that can be employed in full or in part to help these students succeed academically.

We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education

By Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh; Palgrave Macmillan, 2011; 216 pp.; $85

Another approach to the idea of reinventing education, We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education goes hand in glove with co-author Hersh’s 2006 book Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk.

Both of the titles highlight the decline of higher education­, but this one carries the challenge for both education critics and saviors to put up—or shut up. “Talk of change is not change,” write the authors.

Keeling and Hersh plead for a return to true learning as the primary focus and singular mission of higher education. But to achieve that will mean deep and fundamental changes throughout higher education. “It is both as simple and as difficult as that,” they say.

“What we must do is clear: we must completely rethink higher education, with no exemptions and no exceptions, and replace the dangerous assumptions, policies, and practices that have allowed the consumer and competitive pressures to overwhelm both academic mission and common sense with strong commitments to learning as the first and most important priority.”