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Fixing the higher ed system requires a balanced approach

Education leaders must weigh benefits of collaboration versus uniformity
University Business, July 2013

Recently, I participated in a meeting of Oregon college presidents that explored ways to streamline educational offerings and create efficiencies based on one another’s strengths. Though together we arrived at similar conclusions, the strength of America’s higher education system is found in its diversity of approaches. To be truly effective, we must also be distinctive, offering a wide set of alternatives to our students.

Echoing President Obama’s call to increase college graduation rates, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state legislature have set a goal that 40 percent of the state’s adult citizens will hold four-year college degrees by 2025. This was the impetus for our meeting, the first such gathering in 35 years.

Call for collaboration

As leaders of Oregon’s public and private nonprofit universities, we face significant challenges in meeting the governor’s goal. These include dramatic reductions in government support for higher education, especially at our public universities. We struggle with continued inadequacies in our nation’s public school systems. Higher education is under attack by cynical, uninformed public figures who, without real evidence, cast aspersions on the quality of post-secondary education in this country and question the benefit of a college degree.

All of us share a calling to give our students transformational experiences, benefit our communities with the power of ideas, and foster the problem-solving skills that lead to a more robust economy. We can help do this in part by coordinating programs and sharing resources.

Inclusive approach is key

In Oregon, most discussions about higher education center on public institutions, but independent colleges have a significant role to play. One fifth of the state’s students are enrolled at independent colleges, and a full quarter of Oregon students obtain their degrees from smaller schools like Linfield College. These smaller schools boast the best retention and graduation rates in the state, and our inclusion in the discussion laid the groundwork for stronger working relationships.

Efficiency is just one goal

The meeting also demonstrated that in striving for efficiency, we may endanger several of American higher education’s fundamental strengths: diversity, quality and academic freedom. In particular, we heard a strenuous call from some participants for uniform curricular offerings during the first two years of college. Proponents of standardization asserted that we must take tough political positions against faculty, who often favor a roster of diverse courses and a variety of methods. Conformity, they argued, will ensure easier transfers from one school to another, save money, and encourage higher degree-completion rates.

Some years ago, I met Professor Josef Jarab, a Czech dissident who rebelled against Communist doctrine and was fired from his university only to be elected as its rector following the Czech revolution. Jarab recently spent a semester as scholar-in-residence at Linfield College, and came to my office with a question that troubled him a great deal.

“I spent much of my career fighting against a centrally planned curriculum that ordered us what to teach, what to write, and what to think,” he said. “Those of us who led Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution were inspired most of all by America and its fundamental belief in academic freedom.” Jarab was dismayed by the push for uniformity in the U.S. system of higher ed, exclaiming, “Now, without a struggle, you are proposing to give up what we spent our lives to win?”

Collaboration is a worthy goal. Economic realities mean we must streamline and share resources to sustain our model of higher education. Coordination is essential if we are to meet our goals of a more educated citizenry.

But my Czech friend was right. Too much uniformity will detract from the very quality that makes our colleges the envy of the world. Efficiency shouldn’t be our only goal. As stewards of higher education, we must move forward with wisdom, seeking the middle ground that will help our students thrive.

Thomas L. Hellie is president of Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. He serves on the boards of the Council of Independent Colleges and the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities, and previously served as vice-president for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. 

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