Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Retreat at Illinois: Stifling Innovation

By Richard Vedder

Last summer, in the early days of CCAP, I wrote enthusiastically about a new program at one of my alma maters, the University of Illinois. Energetic new president Joe White proposed starting a for-profit on-line university to better fulfill the historic "extension" mission given to land grant schools like the U of I under the Morrill Act. In the long run, profits from the venture could subsidize other educational activities on the university, or so it was argued. The for-profit status of a separate corporation would allow the new venture to avoid all the hassles, the long delays, the administrative morass, etc., that pervades modern university life. It would be unique for a major state university to experiment aggressively with the for-profit model. I was impressed that White proposed the idea.

Fast forward a few months. The faculty at the University have mobilized strongly against the idea. They want to control curriculum, the staffing of courses, etc., etc. They are furious at the for profit idea --what a nasty notion, trying to behave like the greedy capitalists whose efforts have funded the U of I, but who are viewed with contempt by many faculty. Joe White, facing campus turmoil, is forced to back down. Now the program will no longer be a for profit model. The faculty and some trustees have won --and what might have been a novel approach (called Global Campus) to offer a high quality international on-line program at very low cost is likely to end up resembling other programs of taxpayer subsidized institutions. The faculty do not want competition, do not want to have cheaper labor outperform them and make them look bad, etc. So they have fought, and won.

There is a lesson in all of this. Changing the culture of existing institutions is nearly impossible. While I am all for strategies, such as bribing faculty, to try to effect a culture of innovation and receptivity to change, I think most of the dramatic new innovations will come from institutions created from scratch outside the rubric of existing universities, private or public. We should spend some more of our effort deciding what such institutions might look like, how they can be financed, and how we can remove inane barriers to entry that prevent their growth. New competition from the outside might force institutions like the U of I to begin to change their ways. We now teach the same way Socrates did -- but with Power Point. We need to consider new paradigms -- separating teaching and research functions, perhaps separating the socialization and learning functions of universities, changing the funding mechanism, etc. Joe White had a great idea. Perhaps others unfettered by the conventions of a 13th century model will pick up on President White's good idea.

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