Why Academics Don’t Address Academic Reform

My youngest son, Kevin, is easily one of the 10 brightest and most capable people I have ever met. That is saying a lot from a guy whose circle of friends and contemporaries includes Chuck Yeager, Dennis Hayes (inventor of the PC Modem), Bob MetCalf (inventor of Ethernet), and Roger Felice (the original drummer for the BeeGees). Point is, he is a really capable guy, who is spending his days at the moment saving toward his first house and working on his doctoral degree in higher education.

It is not easy for us to be father and son, because we tend to be much alike. Also, he is more liberal than I and I am more conservative than he. I am, of course, reminded of the famous quote (attributed to Winston Churchill, who never said it), that, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” But the truth is that we generally believe in and want the same things, so very often our arguments are of the “The sky is blue.” “No, you fool, the sky is light blue!” variety.

He has courage as a man – he takes on topics that may not be popular, and studies things that mere mortals might not easily embrace. But he does them out of passion. Also, he is a writer, a lover of life, and pleasantly amenable to other points of view (mine possibly excluded!) So when he posted a short piece on why academics are not engaged in the issue of how best to reform academia, I paid attention. Read it, and read it again, and gave it serious thought. Wished I still smoked a pipe, so you could see the smoke curl around my bald head as I pondered it.

The basic question is this: while nearly everyone from legislators to entrepreneurs to the media seem to have strong opinions on how best to “fix” the perceived failures of our higher education systems, the people who are directly involved in said higher education are curiously silent. As he so succinctly puts it, “I’m not arguing that higher education scholars are completely absent. Higher education academics are absolutely doing policy and reform-related research, but, in my opinion, and as is often true of academe, the research is not nearly public or accessible enough – especially given how critical this conversation has become to the future of the enterprise.”

I have, as usual, an opinion. Based not on dogma or doctrine, but on observations on corporations and governments that I have worked with over my too-many years. And it is my opinion that academics are not well represented in the educational reform movement simply because they have risen through the system AS IT EXISTS TODAY. They are the beneficiaries of this educational system, and as thus they can’t see anything that is wrong with it. In every system there is bureaucracy, even in the most daring and disruptive corporations. Over time, any manager who rises within an organization inculcates that organization with attributes that are far above any hope of reality. Or to put it more simply, academics are not prone to engage in discussions of the failures of higher education and the potential fixes because (a) they can’t believe that the system that elevated them is broken; and (b) they therefore don’t have a clue as to how to “fix” it.

Yes, there are exceptions. No, most academics are not the pointy-headed, unrealistic, hopelessly liberal bunch of socialists that some conservatives seem to delight in painting them. But the reality is that even the best of managers in an organization (and I would argue that academics and tenured professors are the “middle management” of academia) are incapable of effecting change within their own organizations because they are the products of those organizations. Change almost always comes from without, not within. Change management is an issue that the business world struggles with every day – with little success.

In the corporate world, I could point to literally thousands of companies that have been trapped by their own management – from Blackberry to Microsoft, and from General Motors to MCI. It is not that these organizations were victims of “disruptive technologies” or even innovation. They were victims of their own adherence to belief in the systems they helped to create. Labor unions are suffering from it now. Government agencies are likewise in for a rude awakening in the years soon to come.

My point is that if there is something in higher education that needs to be reformed – and I am not yet convinced that there is – the reform will not come from the acolytes of the existing bureaucracy. It will come from the students who wish to use their acquired knowledge in an effort to improve themselves, and the generation of parents who wish for their children to do at least as well as they did. Will that mean changes to academia and curricula? You betcha. I, for one, foresee a split of philosophical pursuits from technical and trade pursuits. Medical and dental schools will confer differing degrees than schools specializing in literature, romance languages and gender studies. I am not suggesting that the latter are irrelevant or unimportant – they are neither. But they are different, and perhaps need to be treated differently in the academic monolith.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I took an undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa, where we universally sneered at our counterparts in Moo U. – Iowa State University, where we used to joke that farmers sent their kids to learn how to drive a tractor. When the recession of ’81 hit, we stopped sneering. Framers who could drive tractors commanded decent jobs, whereas the philosophy majors took any jobs they could get. Texas U and Texas A&M went through similar revelations.

My point is that in academia as in business, change will not be driven by the acolytes, or the pundits, or even the legislators. It will be driven by the consumers of the higher education products, who will have very differing needs. Liberal and conservative. Hard science and hard liberal arts. Psychology and Physics. All are legitimate, all are needed, and all will ultimately be driven by the people who actually pay the tuition and attend the classes. Don’t sneer at any degree until you see how it is used. And in truth, psych majors often make the best salespeople a company could ever hope to hire.

Of course, I do not have to defend my thesis before those academics who are invested in the existing system. I need only appeal to the court of public opinion, which is much easier to please.

And in that, my son, I wish you luck and a terrific thesis. Or, if not that, a good job when you graduate!




P.S. It is still “light blue,” dammit!


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