Solutions to a Crisis?

By | January 10, 2013

newsomeToday’s Chronicle of Higher Education contains a blog post entitled, “Finally, a Path Toward Solutions to the Crisis in Higher Ed” by Jeff Selingo, the Chronicle’s Editor-at-Large, reporting on a meeting held Tuesday at UCLA in which various California higher education luminaries – featuring the ineffable presence of our Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (that’s him on the left here) – discussed “…how online learning might help the state’s cash-starved public colleges increase access.”  After the buildup (“Gavin Newsome hardly ever looked at his phone?”), I thought that there might have been some substantive exchange. But then we came to the report of the exciting, hard-hitting conclusions to the meeting:

“There is no one solution.”

“We need more research.”

“What is higher education?”

As I proceeded to comment in response to this post, that sound like nothing so much as the conclusion to the old “prepare three envelopes” joke. I hoped that their lunch was at least something better than the usual rubber chicken (or the vegan alternative) – then something at least might have been salvaged from the exercise.

In the course of a rather scathing response from another reader, I undertook to elaborate this summary reaction. These aren’t bad recommendations; the problem is that that they don’t really get us anywhere, since they could equally well have been defined with as much moral force and content if all the attendees had spent the day playing bocce ball. Who would ever really say that there was “just one solution”? Of course “more research is needed”; there ALWAYS is (what’s needed is GOOD methodologically sound research, rather than what all too often emerges as a research agenda from these bureaucratic love-feasts.) And yes, I damned well do think we have a pretty good idea “what higher education is. So I’m glad they had a good feeling after sitting around a nice UCLA conference table all day, but I would have hoped for something more here.

All I’m suggesting is that it would help if meetings like this actually engaged the substantive issues in higher education, rather than sitting around trying to “minimize bad designs.” All too often, what we have is a group of bureaucratic top managers deploring what anyone not part of the club has to say. Those managers may be administrators, but they can also be representatives of the entrenched tenured faculty structure, and even on occasion students carefully selected to present a properly sanitized version of what management wants to hear. The article did not say whether there were representatives of the mightily beleaguered for-profit university group present, or whether there was any substantive dialogue between the representatives of the three main California administrative bureaucracies (UC, CSU, and community colleges) and the emerging MOOC group. Somehow I doubt that the tolerance of the higher education establishment for these alternative perspectives is notably limited.

I’ll be offering some further thoughts about these higher education policy alternatives in columns shortly. But overall, I found the results of discussions reported here to be distinctly underwhelming. If that’s all they can do, then the participants deserve all the vegan-rubber-chicken-analogue they can scarf down.