The change that is taking place in higher education right now is fascinating to watch. There aren’t many century old institutions that you get to watch go through dramatic transitions. The newspaper industry is well into a transition and it could offer great insight for us in higher education. The recent commentary in the Chronicle by Byron P. White, “Take it from an Ex-Journalist: Adapt or Die ”, put it into better perspective for me. Today many in higher education do admit that change is coming, however, the time line is seen as distant and the actual change is minimized. Is higher education an industry that fits W. Edwards Deming’s advice given to the auto industry as competition was on the horizon, ”It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” The world is embracing new digitally driven options that challenge our existing higher education process. This change is not dependent upon higher education’s permission nor it’s demise.
So do we deal with this impending change by dabbling around the edges of the debate? The few institutions that are rolling the dice of transition to a new model are generally motivated by desperation. Most of us are just talking about what this change might look like. And that talk focuses heavily on the high visibility topics such as course delivery, student success or the rising costs. Look at the conversation generated around the MOOC phenomenon which is just the evolution of the online course delivery debate. Most have missed the point, MOOCs are not a threat to higher education but MOOCs are creating the disruption that in turn is exposing our weaknesses. We need to deal with our weaknesses but by no means is there an inevitable doom. I would rather assume that we could come through this time of change stronger then ever.
What are our weaknesses? This is where we get into trouble. Higher Education governs themselves by non authoritative committees. Decisions are made to insure the good for the most, least amount of change and with minimum risk for those deemed responsible. What I am saying here is that even if we know what our weaknesses are it would be rare to announce them with detail that could lead to a solution. We tend to just try harder but there are exceptions. At every university it is easy to identify those who are capable of making a difference. They happen to be the most respected faculty or staff at the institution. But wait, most respected who possibly have solutions should be in leadership. No, it doesn’t always work that way. Remember, avoiding change carries the ultimate trump card. So those who could lead have generally tried only to retreat out of frustration. This cycle has continued over time validated by the guiding principle of Academic Freedom.
Again, what are our weaknesses? I think the major weakness is our lack of understanding or acceptance that the higher education business model has changed. The model we know and love has provided a valuable product desired and required for success. There was no competition because we controlled the primary ingredient, “information”. But the Internet has changed that, thus providing an alternative path to success. This does not mean that our path is diminished, it just means we have competition. I think this relates more to the competition the auto industry faced rather then the newspaper industry. The US adapted and built competitive automobiles by taking advantage of technology. Unfortunately the newspaper industry is competing against technology. But the critical step is to acknowledge the threat.
I do believe higher education will be stronger then ever. Yes competition will probably eliminate the weak, but that will mostly be the result of poor business practices. Those of us moving on will have new opportunities to improve our rankings. Higher education must continue to offer the foundation that fits the community it serves. We focus on the development of the mind, body and soul but we also fine tune our academic product to meet customer and market demand. And we neutralize the threat from technology by embracing it. The threat to higher education is the avoidance of change.