The future for higher education will be the best of times and the worst of times, to borrow from Charles Dickens. Whether individual colleges experience the “best” or “worst” will depend on their ability to stay true to their values – and the greater values of higher education as a whole – in the face of neoliberalism¹, commoditization, and isomorphism². Commoditization, in this case, refers to some degree programs becoming so much alike (isomorphism) in the minds of prospective students, that price is seen as the only differentiator, as in “how cheaply can I get this degree?” Neoliberalism privileges market principles over all else, including traditional ethics; market principles become the ethics, or the criteria for decision making. What maximizes wealth and efficiency is “good” (Fish, 2008). An academic neoliberal perspective situates students as consumers, degree programs as revenue generators, and faculty as disposable costs. These are the three most contentious and perhaps complex issues challenging campus leaders today.
“This formidable combination poses an unrelenting dilemma: how does an institution prioritize generating enough revenue to sustain and thrive, without selling its soul to the whims of a fickle market?”
Academic freedom is the soul of every higher education institution, and what distinguishes academic institutions from any other type of organization. Yet tenure and faculty governance, structures meant to safeguard academic freedom, are increasingly expensive to maintain. Temptations to sacrifice some of this “soul” lurk everywhere – from over-controlling yet lucrative public-private partnerships, to a decision to increase faculty-student ratios or hire more adjunct faculty, to the reallocation of resources from the classroom to digital marketing.
Some campuses, too fearful or stubborn to adapt, will see all of these opportunities as threatening. The inconvenient truth is that these strategies are, in many cases, necessary to resuscitate institutions trapped in a fading 17th century model. Without a way to openly address these circumstances, institutional paralysis will result with demise close behind. But it’s not just the circumstances that can threaten the soul of institutions; it is also how decisions are made, often quickly, valuing expedience over consultation. More and more often, faculty are being left out of strategic decision making. Faculty and administrators need to work together to navigate financially sound pathways that reconcile an unforgiving pressure to provide value with the preservation of fundamental educational values.
The future will go to the agile campus. An agile campus shifts these challenges from an “either/ or” issue to a “both/and” dialogue. It will include all faculty (tenure/ contract-based; full/part time) in meaningful decision-making in some capacity. Its faculty in turn will recognize the very real financial pressures facing their campuses, and thoughtfully engage with these pressures – that may not directly impact the classroom – in mind. But no one institution can do all of this on its own. An agile institution will choose, discerningly, to partner with governments, foundations, and the private sector, in creative ways that align with and enhance its existing core values. Perhaps most significant in shaping its future, an agile campus will eradicate any and all disincentives to cross-disciplinary collaboration within a school or institution.
Similarly, barriers that obstruct access to learning, such as time, space, and outdated pedagogy, will be removed. In particular, the agile campus will offer learning both onground and online, fostering a single ecosystem in which students and faculty work and move fluidly between modalities depending on their needs at the time. And, it will reduce the traditional rigidity of both undergraduate and graduate degree trajectories. Faculty will replace the two year curricular block (the GE curriculum, the major, the master’s degree, etc.) – and I mean the structure, not necessarily the content – with more curricularly coherent learning modules. Students will be able to place in to these revised degree programs with advanced standing, based on demonstrated knowledge and skills, reducing the cost and time required to degree completion. The faculty and students will create a sense of community in this learning ecosystem, producing life changing connections and experiences.
Surviving institutions will have neutralized the threat of commodification by enacting their values, demonstrating value, and eliminating cost as a barrier to participation. They will have inverted the commoditization game – by neutralizing cost, their unique identities, not price, will be what attracts students. They will, through restructured curricula, partnerships, collaboration across the higher education system, advocacy on behalf of students, and effective stewardship of resources, create ways for any admitted student to attend, regardless of need.
Successful institutions will not sell their souls, but they will, through creative and perhaps even challenging collaboration, emerge as a community and with a stronger sense of identity. This will be hard work. Creating agile, sustainable campuses will take some give everywhere. But the alternative is a certain decline in access, quality and affordability, if not also in the sheer numbers of institutions. And to anyone pontificating what that “give” may look like in their own department or classroom, I turn again to Dickens: “It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done”.
1S. Fish, Neoliberalism and Higher Education. The New York Times: Opiniator, 2009 https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes. com/2009/03/08/neoliberalism-and-higher-education/
2P.J. DiMaggio & W.W. Powell, The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American sociological review, 147-160, 1983
Melora Sundt is the Chief Academic Officer for Noodle Partners, a service provider supporting universities as they develop great online programs. Prior to joining Noodle Partners, Dr. Sundt was a professor of practice at the USC Rossier School of Edu – cation, and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Drug Evaluation and Re – search (CDER) at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Before partnering with the FDA, Sundt was the Executive Vice Dean for USC’s Rossier School of Education, and chaired the design teams that cre – ated USC Rossier’s blended MAT@ USC, Global Executive EdD and EdD in Organizational Change and Lead – ership programs. Sundt taught for more than 20 years in USC Rossier’s Doctoral programs and chaired more than 100 dissertations. She blogs regularly about teaching online, organizational change, and preventing sexual assault. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.