Thursday, January 14, 2010

3. The Problem

Why? We've all grown up very proud of America's colleges and universities – for generations, regarded the best in the world. Almost all of us here are the proud products of that system – one in

which my friend, Frank Rhodes, now president emeritus of Cornell University, once quipped, provides the "finest hand-crafted education that money can buy," carrying on a 900-year-old tradition of university education.

Looking back, many politicians admit that they should have invested more in higher education when the economy was good and they had the opportunity, but the economy is now bad and they don't have the money.

But the blame doesn't fall solely on shortsighted politicians. The hard reality is that as other sectors have reengineered and reinvented their operations (wringing out costs while still maintaining and improving the quality of their products and services), the education sector hasn't fundamentally changed its teaching model of students learning at the foot of the master.

Colleges and universities have been among the most staunchly change-resistant institutions on earth. Change and innovation are simply not part of the Academy's DNA.

Or as my colleague Steve Portch from the University of Georgia has observed: "We have found it easier to change the course of history … than to change a history course."

I fear another cycle of inaction.

States, faced with a continued jobless recovery won't be providing needed funding for higher education. Worse, next year they'll have to make up for the lack of one-shot federal stimulus money.

Higher education, buoyed by finally having a president "who gets it," will continue to hold steadfast, hoping for more funding.

As a result, the recovery will be slow, not providing enough revenues to governments to make needed investments to better educate more Americans.

This vicious cycle will continue …
but in the 21st century knowledge and innovation economy …
and the harshly polarized politics we see today …
the undereducated will not have the needed critical thinking ability to
stem social as well as economic decline …
and the result will degrade from vicious cycle to death spiral.

I know this is as "downer" of a message – and I like to think of myself as an optimist – but this death spiral scenario raises thoughts of one of the Academy's own: Albert Einstein. In my decades of working with faculty, I have found that academicians love to sit and "admire" a problem, wallowing in a certain learned helplessness.

(continued ➛)

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