Fast and Furious

The German polytechnic universities of the 19th century were the model and the genesis for the power and explosion of the U.S. land-grant universities in the 20th. What’s required of universities in the 21st century will be as markedly different as the changes that occurred in U.S. higher education between 1795 and 1895 and were mirrored again between 1895 and 1995.  Universities evolved from parochial outposts that had more in common with monasteries then with the “multiversity” espoused by Clark Kerr near the end of the last century.  Kerr was the motivating genius of the University of California juggernaut that is still revered by many as the benchmark for public higher education domestically and internationally.

The Internet, social media, ubiquitous access to structured learning opportunities and corporate forces at work in the ecosystem of higher education can be lamented, derided, criticized, and painted as crass interlopers onto university campuses, but they are here as surely as Dick Clark and American Bandstand captured the imagination of a nation of progeny of WWII veterans.  Only a jiu-jitsu approach will work.  Business and industry drive the bus when universities insist on measuring education as muscle, might, and money.  And the breakdown of for profit universities is demonstrated in the ineffectiveness of learning organizations lacking the wisdom and passion of educators and leaders who understand its purpose.

A fresh 21st century model that holds the individual learner at the pinnacle of the pyramid is needed.  The 20th century model born in the 19th century chokes responsiveness.  Universities will flourish as they meet the changing needs of contemporary students.

It is not selling out as too many fear, but recognizing the evolution of higher education as Darwinian in its pervasiveness and equal in force to the change recorded in each of the last two centuries. In California, according to the LA Times, new degree programs are being configured and old ones discarded. Consternation and fear rightfully inhabit such actions. But, with evolutionary growth some programs excel, and others are expelled. The California State System recently added 29 programs, but simultaneously eliminated 17.  This is the ebb and flow, the organic give and take, of a responsive organism guided by educators with a passion to serve students.

And all should heed the relentless shifts.

And to the cautious holders-on, these new programs are not all mindlessly driven responses to crass self-interest roughly referred to as training rather than education.  New programs in social studies of various kinds, and writing, flourish along with information technology, public safety, and healthcare related pursuits in high demand fields where the need for compassion and intelligence are real.  The assumption by too many is that practical programs don’t provide a general education for students.  This is poppycock. The likelihood of an intellectually charged, inquisitive, reflective adult is not diminished by studies in areas that demand technical competence of one kind or another.  Likewise, the wisdom of an “educated human being” is not guaranteed in the study in or of classics.

People become educated when they work with enlightened faculty and staff who are passionate about what they do, who serve a greater purpose of connecting thinking and doing and who find personal and intellectual utility in a diversity of pursuits from art appreciation to zoology.

The conservatism of too many universities and those who populate them clings like a damp cloth to a mode and purpose of learning that died at the turn of the century. It gaspingly grips for life support and diminishes invention in U.S. higher education. The conservatism drives up costs while undermining effectiveness that educators, students, families and seats of commerce crave. New models of engaging students are essential.  Just ask the over-indebted, under-employed graduates who clamor for work clutching a certificate that guaranteed much a century ago, and little today, too frequently even lacking the loudly but emptily trumpeted “holy grail” of an enlightened life.

And here is the conundrum.  Institutions that seek a fast and furious means to transform learning organizations may find a few solutions, but the costs will be high: The fallout out from Corinthian Colleges collapse is painful evidence.  On the other hand, numb persistence in romantic notions of what used to work causes a slow but equally final demise: universities are closing.

Fast and furious?  No.  Instead universities as learning organizations must seek new ideas, recognize a changing environment, evolving demographics and expectations, and try new approaches intended to produce educated human beings.

Reflective and responsive organizations are the order of the day and they are located somewhere between Detroit and Corinth.

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