The early part of the 21st century has rapidly shown us much about our changing world. It has taught us that the 20th century problem-solving models will not suffice in the new era. As a professor and leader at four institutions, I have witnessed and experienced the truth of this new reality’s impact on higher education. At no time in the history of postsecondary education has the need for attention to the dramatically changing environment, demographics and aspirations of the greater public been more important than right now.
New models of higher education are emerging whether we know it or like it. It is essential for all involved in colleges and universities, in any way, at any level (the public, students, faculty, staff, elected and appointed leaders) to develop new ways of offering educational opportunities to an increasingly heterogeneous student body that makes up the more accessible global community—customer service on steroids. The frayed old models from a former era of university work and purpose, lecture notes yellowed around the edges, textbooks with dated material produced to generate large profits and small royalties which contribute to the ever-increasing costliness and indebtedness that follows drive many would-be beneficiaries of the university away. The consequences are dire for American higher education. Too many watch in a state of learned helplessness, hands haplessly in their pockets as enrollments fall.
The necessitated changes should include how we prepare and select faculty and academic leaders. The model I experienced was simple. I believed I would take from the “Ivory Towers” something the world needed and deliver it to students as a “Holy Grail.” The Ivory Towers have fallen for many reasons, not the least of which is an information/knowledge revolution. At Princeton, William Cooper Procter’s 1883 gift allowed for Proctor Hall to be built. It may be the original “Ivory Tower,” named so for Proctor’s lifetime affiliation with Ivory Soap— the stuff of myth and legend. Society now questions the value of the academy. The general public may have more confidence in Ivory Soap than in higher education.
Universities are partly to blame. We have not seen ourselves and those we serve as partners in the educational mission. We have not believed we need to be students of the people, communities and regions we serve. We always see the people who study at our universities as students of ours in a one-way transaction. The result of such academic arrogance is a kind of closed-mindedness. Universities have lost touch with those they serve. We do not exist to serve ourselves or our intellectual purposes. Instead, we serve students, and when we serve them well, the educational mission of any university is fulfilled. We lose touch with the people we serve because we believe we know better than what they want and need. Today’s university’s leaders, faculty and staff should be stewards of the regions they serve.
According to Inside Higher Ed, “Some 80 percent of faculty members with a Ph.D in the U.S. are trained at 20 percent of universities. So found the team behind a new study on faculty hiring and retention patterns at Ph.D. granting institutions.” These researchers warn that the academy “is characterized by universally extreme inequality in faculty production.” The “Ivory Towers” continue to train most faculty the same way they were trained. Understandably, faculty bring many of their views from these universities to places where they work and teach. It is accepted and why they are hired. It is also self-perpetuating, according to Noam Chomsky, a rebel with a cause. The “Mayonnaise Jar” worldview generated in places like Alameda County, CA, Ann Arbor, MI, Madison, WI, Champaign, IL and Cambridge, MA, is dangerous to the future of higher education in general. It is as if academic leaders and faculty come to locations as “intellectual missionaries” with the idea they will “save” those who attend. This view leads to distrust of universities, according to a Politico commentary by Evan Mandery following the Supreme Court ruling on Harvard’s Affirmative Action program. Mandery also authored Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.
The future of higher education can be bright if the culture and people we serve are incorporated and considered essential partners in the learning equation. West Texas A&M University is a regional research university striving to serve the students, families and communities of the Panhandle region. A key to our success will be to listen, work alongside and learn with and from the region’s populace.
We are working hard to understand and appreciate our home and how WT can better serve. We cannot and will not wait for other universities to decide to change.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.