How Many Pundits Can Dance on The Grave of a College?

I remember an early 1990’s encounter with a university president who had an interesting take on higher education: He pointed out that there are really only a few institutions that have existed largely in their current form since the latter part of the Middle Ages: Some German breweries, The Catholic Church, and Higher Education.

I never bothered to fact check him, because this was casual conversation, not a historical treatise he was publishing, and anyway, I understood what he meant: That higher education had survived all that time, and his presumption was that we must be doing something right, despite all the hand-wringing about how resistant to change we are, and how slowly things move.

I suppose I could have pointed out–if I had wanted to be pedantic–that the German breweries were really the only ones who survived while competing and making a profit (don’t quibble here because I know where you’re going and we don’t argue about religion on this blog) because not-for-profits are generally less burdened with competitive forces, and there probably never was an incentive to enter the space, even before Gordon Gekko made profit the raison d’être.

I remember being moderately annoyed with the comment, because I think change is good, and I too, think we need to move faster.

Thus, in many ways, I don’t disagree with the core argument of the pundits. You know who they are: The professors, the politicians, the journalists, the everyperson-on-the-street. I don’t need to name names. They all have their ideas about how higher education can change, how it should change, how it must change, and how it ought to change. They’re not always wrong. They’re often on the outside, looking in, whence facile conclusions are easy.

But they’ve been singing the same song for a long time: Colleges are too bloated with administrators, their offerings are outdated, they charge too much and the ROI is too low, they are offering something that’s useless and only considered valuable because of conventional wisdom and precedent, they need to move online, MOOCs are the trend of the future and no one should have to pay for education in the 21st century, there will be a rash (a rash, I tell ya) of colleges closing any day now, and of course, my favorite, EVEN HARVARD <fill in the blank>……

Higher education is important, of course, and we all should be interested in its survival and its evolution. I’m interested in the safety of nuclear power plants, too, but having never actually worked in a nuclear power plant, I usually refrain from pronouncements about how to be effect those outcomes.

It’s hard to tell the pundits that yes, some of higher education’s weakening position is due to self-inflicted wounds. As I wrote in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece recently, “The ecosystem of American higher education today is like an aging baby boomer who has never exercised: Years of neglect, ignored warnings, and doing things we know we shouldn’t do may finally be catching up to us.”

However, it’s even harder to tell the pundits that part of the problem is a massive disinvestment in higher education by government no longer interested in seeing it grow; a real effort by colleges to expand access to those who have never been able to afford it; a simultaneous shift in demographics that changed both the size and shape of the population to include more people who are not destined by birthright to to go college; and a massive increase in income inequality that exacerbates everything. Facts, it seem, make the opinions of pundits less sexy, less inflammatory, and less likely to be accepted by the uninformed. There is no blog for “The Fact-tempered Pundit.”

And to concede a point, yes, it’s true that our inability to change quickly contributes to all of these problems. At one university where I worked, the chair of the trustees told faculty he wanted a strategic plan from them in three months, to which a faculty member replied, “I could revise a course in three months, but not do a strategic plan.”

Up until now, most pundits have been pretty wrong about everything. A few colleges have closed (like they have every year for the last 50), and we’re likely to see more before fall. We’ve gone online, with varying success. But until I’m told otherwise, I don’t have any recollection of any pundit predicting that the real problem was that colleges couldn’t survive an economic collapse brought on by a world-wide pandemic. I’ll be happy to issue a correction in the paragraph below if I’m wrong about that.

[ the correction will go here if it happens]

Now, of course, it seems some of the other predictions might come true, not because of any prescient observations any pundit has put forth, but rather, due to an unanticipated and unprecedented-in-our-lifetime occurrence.

Does that count as a win? Because I don’t think that’s a win.

Don’t tell that to the pundits. I get the sense (and maybe this is just me) that they’re actually–dare I say it?–happy that this is happening. Because they feel vindicated, like they’re finally, at last, after waiting all these years, right about something. See, I told you all these things were going to happen! The implication of course, is that now you should be more likely to believe the things they say in the future, I suppose.

And I think that’s sad.

Last night, before I went to bed, this tweet popped into my head.

Maybe the most American thing is the need to be right, to win the race, to get to the top. And in this time, when we should be supporting and encouraging and helping each other, that thing rings hollow and leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Do better.

By Jon Boeckenstedt

I am currently the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University; what you see here is solely my opinion, and does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of anyone at OSU.

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