Too Big To Fail, Too Big To Maintain, Too Sluggish To Respond



Ninth in a series on public/private higher education

Senator Bill Brady’s legislation, SB1565 for changing the nature of higher education boards in Illinois, will be difficult to endorse:  Large government organizations loathe change. George Will observed it’s not so much that organizations are “too big to fail” but that they are “Too Big To Maintain.”

The status quo becomes the goal for all large government bureaucracies, and it dominates university thinking. Students don’t need the status quo. They are hampered by it.  Curricula and approaches to teaching and learning have remained substantially unchanged for 1,000 years. The oldest is The University of Bologna .  There is a baby in the bathwater and we better find it and pitch the rest.

Why don’t universities offer courses on weekends, and in the evenings, and all summer long, and in a combined framework of on-campus and online instructional settings?  Each of these modest scheduling modifications could change the nature of American higher education. In testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Veronique De Rugy identified the challenges, and “the unhealthy marriage between government and interest groups,” drives costs up and innovation down.

Academic Impressions, identified four small colleges that thrive in a “disruptive” environment.  The universities are largely free from oversight beyond their own boards. They exist in various settings. They break the molds of the whining and complaining that black-magically transform innovation into calcification. St. Leo University, Bay Path University, Brandon University, and Lynn University are all entrepreneurial, private, growing, and student serving.  They are not too big to maintain, they are not too big to fail, and they are agile, not sluggish.

These four “little-engines-that-could” pay attention to students, faculty, and mission – their collective “interest group.”

Additionally, and this is where many large universities in contemporary environments fail, they experiment. Arizona State University is moving forward dancing lightly around complex challenges. Michael Crow, the president, attracted national attention when he teamed up with Starbucks to provide Starbucks employees an opportunity for an accessible, cost-conscious Sun Devil degree. No matter the long term results, it is a worthy experiment.

ASU has DNA that is similar to General Motors’ Institute, originally established in 1919.  GMI became Kettering University in 1998.  It changed from an arm of GM to a free standing, not for profit institution at the same time.  It is now ranked 14th nationally among universities of its type by US News and World Report.  Kettering, unapologetically, trains people in applied disciplines where jobs and productive careers are available.

Its evolution demonstrates responsiveness to a changing world, changing students, changing faculty, and changing concentrations of commerce and industry, both nationally and internationally. In short, Kettering experiments.

An aversion to risk infects public universities.  But leadership starts at the top.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has committed $500 million to prop up research at Texas universities, and one aspect of the proposal is to work diligently to bring Nobel Laureates to the state.  Some say, “What about us who have loyally labored, are we chopped liver?”  Here is an economic truism: when the whole enterprise is elevated by the pursuit of excellence and attention to quality, so are each of its members.

I can hear the retort, “But, Texas is rolling in dough, they can afford this.”  Maybe. But, just maybe, leadership, enterprise, a freer market that recognizes accomplishment and excellence rather than the status quo is the cause for “Texas to be rolling in dough.”

Responsiveness and agility create organizations that positively challenge the people who populate them. If Governor Abbott tries to micromanage the hiring of excellent scientists, the experiment will fail. If cronies are placed in the position of developing intellectual capital, rather than proven performers, it will be a bad joke. If protection of a position becomes central to the process, rather than the generation of ideas, the whole effort will go off course.

Leaders and boards must have the intellectual and political discipline to let the organizations work, and to keep the politics in the Statehouse. This in part is what guides my hope in the discussion in Illinois that will be fueled Senator Bill Brady’s SB 1565.

An experiment it is. Illinois is gasping for the air of innovation in higher education, and everywhere else.

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