You are here

On Topic

Robert Zemsky makes case for big higher ed changes

New book looks at breaking the roadblocks to real change in higher education
University Business, October 2013

Open any newspaper these days and you’ll see variations on the same critiques of higher education we’ve heard for years: spiraling costs, unequal access, ineffective teaching, and so on. And you’ll hear politicians demand greater accountability, while they threaten greater funding cuts. Yet little ever changes.

In his enlightening new book, Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise (Rutgers University Press, 2013), Robert Zemsky examines why. It begins with a frank assessment of the biggest obstacles to change, which he puts in historical perspective so we understand why they persist.

Zemsky, a professor and the chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, then presents a list of the events that must take place—in concert with one another—if there ever is to be meaningful change.

I saw an article in which you were quoted recently. The headline was: “Higher education is headed for a shakeout, analysts warn.”

Yes. As long as I keep predicting it, someday I’ll be right. I’ve been saying that for three decades. But I’m up against what people in Las Vegas call the “money bet”—betting with the house that higher education will change little, if at all.

You make that point in the book. Every administration that comes into office wants to put its stamp on education, and educators just wait it out because they know there will be different rules.

Take the current trust as an example. I can’t believe this administration, filled with smart, caring people, has decided a report card and some external incentives are going to produce change. This is the classic example of treating the symptoms instead of the disease.

Let’s suppose we really do punish institutions for low completion rates. How do you get better completion rates? Admit different students. That’s what’s going to happen every time. For an administration that promotes opportunity, it’s got a plan out there that will actually shrink opportunity, because they never took on the black box. They just leave the black box alone and twiddle with the dials on the outside. And that’s just not going to work.

Let’s look inside that box. You say changing higher education is a faculty responsibility, yet most faculty don’t believe change is either necessary or inevitable. Why?

The easiest answer is if you take us as a whole group, we’re not persuaded that change is necessary. And while that may seem silly given everything that’s happening around us, nonetheless, we just aren’t persuaded that change is necessary. Conversely, there’s the line of thought that “it may be necessary but I’ll retire before it happens.”

That seems to be a really deep-seated belief among lots of faculty members. What troubles me is we ought to be leading the charge instead of sitting by the sidelines. And, at the moment we are sitting by the sidelines. Now, the other problem is that if you get any group of faculty together, most of them won’t even agree on what students need to know to become educated.

That was the crux of the “A Nation at Risk” report in the ’80s. Curriculum is “an often incoherent, outdated patchwork quilt” of learning. How did it get to this state?

I have a way of explaining it that seems to resonate in some circles. Can you imagine owning a restaurant in which all the patrons could order anything they could imagine, and all the cooks could cook anything they wanted to cook and still had an economic model that works? The answer is no.

But this was the enshrinement of choice over the last 40 years. Faculties didn’t have to agree on anything because everybody could teach their own thing. And that’s really what happened.

“A Nation at Risk” talked about it as did the AAC [now AAC&U] report “Integrity in the College Classroom,” so this is nothing new. This has been going on for 40 years, quite literally. But nobody really thinks about the consequences.

You know, I’ve been having some nice reactions to this new book, but one of the reactions is: “I never thought about it that way, Bob.” I just smile. I don’t know what to say other than, “Well, I think it’s time we think about that now.”

We need to really take stock. If we don’t, we can’t change the trajectory. We have to understand the trajectory, and what our points of leverage are, and then change it. This isn’t a blame game. It’s just a moment for recalibration.

In some respects, the problems with curriculum have been going on for so long without any intervention, they’ve become ingrained.

Right. Let me just add, it’s not just without intervention. It’s without discussion. It’s hard to imagine, but faculties don’t talk about this much. They worry about teaching load or they worry about faculty slots. That’s what faculty discussions are about. They haven’t been, for a very long time, about the learning process.

Your book offers a 20-point checklist for change. What are some of the key points?

There are four fundamental areas to address. First, you absolutely need faculty leadership. And to think you are going to do this without the faculty, you are going to have a diminished higher education.

Second, right now all the economic incentives from the institutional point of view are rewards for first-time enrollment, not for completions. But if we said, “No, we’re going to have economic incentives that reward completions instead of first-time enrollment,” what would you do?

Well, you would change student aid. One of the more radical suggestions I make is to just do away with the voucher system we have now and replace it with a reimbursement system for cost and performance. That’s what they are trying in healthcare. It has done better than most people thought it was going to.

Third, you’d stop having the accreditors being the compliance police. They are not well funded, well organized, or well suited to that perspective.

And fourth, we really need a national dialogue that the president and his principal colleagues lead—not making speeches, but actually organizing a process of discussion. It’s not something to try and get done in a year. You are going to take four or five years to get it done.

The national dialogue is something, as you point out, that they actually do in Europe.

Yes. I keep saying we should look at what’s called the Bologna process, where all the stakeholders—the universities, the education ministers, the faculty, and students—from 29 countries were brought together to create a common standard of education. In this country we would have the presidents, the governors, and the faculty, including the faculty unions.

What we don’t really have are organized students in this country, which is just as well. I’m not for that. The convenient authority would be the federal government, because it is spending $190 billion a year on the enterprise.

Could that happen here?

Not right now. This is a country that wants to shout at each other rather than discuss things. What’s going on in Congress is really symptomatic of what’s going on everywhere. Everybody is looking for a way to cut down the opponents as fast as possible.

And with the kind of dialogue I have in mind, that doesn’t work. If you’re really going to have a national dialogue, people have to lower their voices and stop playing the blame game. And that’s very hard to imagine in today’s political circus.

One thing you didn’t address is the whole “arms race” of athletics and how it impacts higher education.

In my last book [Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education] I said athletics was on my “do not touch” list because we don’t know what to do with it. We don’t really understand the role athletics plays, and it’s very complex. But if you are a liberal arts college president, athletics is terribly important if you are going to have male enrollment. It’s that simple. You have to talk about these different roles that athletics play in different institutions.

There hasn’t been a discussion that sorts that through. I recently worked with an athletic conference—I won’t say which one—in which the presidents are all well-meaning and they want to do the right thing, but they don’t really want to spend more than two hours a year with each other worrying about the subject, even though they were all members of the same athletic conference. It just doesn’t have traction that seems to work. I’m not altogether sure why.

Your book was finished in the summer of 2012, just before the rise of MOOC-mania, so they aren’t mentioned. Do you think they live up to their hype?

No I don’t. MOOCs are a piece of nonsense. They don’t have a business model. There’s no way to have 40,000 students in a class and track who’s learning, who isn’t. If you really look at who is enrolling in most MOOCs, they are educated, near retirement people.

Yes, the technology works, and faculty are learning how to make it work in a way. But I think massive online is a fad. I’m always fascinated about this discussion of the flipped classroom, because what does a flipped classroom really say? Do your homework before you get here. That is so old-fashioned as to be unbelievable. But that’s all the flipped classroom is: “Read the book. I’m not going to lecture you on the book. You read the book and then we’ll talk about it.”

But that’s less curricular choice, more well-formed curricula, more working in cohort models. There’s a whole series of similar things that would really help fix education. But first we have to get rid of the notion that education is all about individual choice.