Monday, April 27, 2009

Goldie Blumenstyk and Plato on Universities

By Richard Vedder

Goldie Blumenstyk has a great piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 1 issue: "In a Time of Crisis, Colleges Ought to Be Making History."

Goldie's piece echos a theme of mine, and, for that matter, Plato's ("necessity is the mother of invention.") A time of adversity, economic downturn, is as much an opportunity as a challenge. Economic imperatives should stimulate college's rethinking their role. Some of the thinking could be moderately radical but still fairly conventional: offering three year bachelor's degrees, getting out of low enrollment graduate programs, moving to interactive, computer-based instruction that is both cost effective and educationally at least the equal of current methods, getting out of non-academic pursuits like lodging and sports entertainment. Some of the innovation could truly be radical --moving to a Wikipedia type open source university at very low cost, or moving to certifying competence by examination independent of courses studied.

Goldie's point is that not much is happening. Apparently there is some shake-up at Cornell, with a lot of rethinking of programs and a dictate to reduce costs significantly. Some schools, such as Carnegie Mellon are coming up with some interesting new instructional approaches (e.g., the Open Learning Model). And throughout the country, schools are doing some staffing reductions, putting brakes on explosive salary increases for senior administrators, etc. But much of it reflects a view "let's trim our sails a bit until this passes, and then we can resume our old ways."

America is facing huge financial strains. Our Social Security/Medicare system has an unfunded liability measured in the tens of trillions of dollars, equal to almost one-third the wealth of the U.S. --including the human capital component. The Obama Administration has embarked on a policy of reckless deficit spending that is going to imperil future generations. The notion that our extremely costly health and educational systems can continue indefinitely on their highly inefficient ways conflicts with these realities, and the thought we can simply grow our way out of any problem seems problematic, particularly given the anti-growth policies proposed in Washington.

Why are universities relatively immobile in the face of economic pressure? Because they have been isolated from mainstream America, protected and subsidized in an extraordinarily inefficient manner, with little inclination or incentive to change. The incentives are NOT there to be efficient, innovative, lean and mean. It is time to change that, so Goldie's lament can be appropriately dealt with.

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