Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Can Democracy Upset the Structures of Higher Education?

I am just back from AACU's annual conference in Washington DC. I had high hopes for it, since its core focus was to be about the civic mission of higher education--something I've been passionate about for a long time.

The conference was disappointing--the talk of civic mission hasn't changed much since the 1980s when service-learning exploded in American higher education, and the examples of best practices were tame in comparison with the challenges--cost, access, mission drift, outmoded approaches to leadership, public skepticism about the value of a college degree--that face higher education.

(There were two bright spots: Eboo Patel's call for interfaith dialogue as an act of civic learning, and a few sessions on the intersection of creativity, entrepreneurship, and the arts.)

I've been reflecting on the causes of my dissatisfaction, and I think they come from a single concern.  Higher education will have to change radically to respond to the challenges I listed above.  The question is what will drive the change?  To be too simple about it, there are three potential impulses for change.

  •  Some campuses will change piecemeal, program by program, in response to seemingly discrete forces in the market.  Nursing programs, for example, will offer more Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees because there is a shortage of nursing faculty, because accrediting agencies demand it, and because healthcare providers need to find cheaper ways to provide care.
  • Other campuses will change wholesale in response to powerful outside forces--governments, big organizations, and corporations. We can already see the impact of this source of change in state higher education budgets, legislator critiques of "degrees to nowhere", and the impressive rise of for-profit institutions.  In some ways AACU's efforts to shape change fall here, as it tries to link its effort with the White House and other powerful national/global organizations.
  • Still others will harness the power of democracy as the source of change, in the same way that democracy is changing governments, organizations, and the social sector.
Of the three sources of change, the third is both the most inspiring, most in keeping with the tradition of higher education in the US, and the rarest.  And here is where my dissatisfaction lies.  For while civic engagement has changed courses, created centers, and influenced mission statements, almost no campuses have become radically different because of it. There have been no significant changes in tuition because an institution got together with its constituents and planned a new way to fund the institution.  Campuses haven't found ways to provide more access because real people have demanded it.  New majors aren't the result of crowdsourcing, assessment isn't based on public ratings, etc.

The thing that makes democracy powerful is not that it gets things right.  Democracy is powerful because it holds out hope that the people who are effected by decisions, systems, and structures, have the experience to identify problems, the wisdom to respond to those problems, and the humility to know that there is no solution to big problems, only an on-going commitment to trying to make things better. So we will know if we have found a way to a democratic future for higher education when we see more instances of programs, structures, curricula, systems, and whole institutions changing as a result of sustained engagement between the campus and its communities.  And until then, conferences like AACU's will continue to disappoint.

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