The Future of Higher Education

PFP: Thoughts on the future of Higher Education.

Most of the class readings this week discussed how faculty have changed rather than how institutions have evolved in recent years.

What’s different today? Just a few major factors: knowledge production and dissemination (there are new methods, technologies, and venues for publication); resources (institutional, state, and system-wide budget cuts); increased competition for grant funding and different funding sources; longer lead times for getting published (in top-tier journals in many disciplines and by university presses); increased pressures for transparency and accountability; and a ratcheting up of expectations for all faculty, including teaching, research, service, and, at some institutions, outreach. On the personal side, there is increasingly a 24/7 expectation for faculty work and accessibility to students. Furthermore, the new norm for faculty with partners is the dual-career household; few faculty members have a spouse or partner who stays at home to raise children. (“A New Generation of Faculty: Similar Core Values in a Different World” By Cathy A. Trower)

Mark Taylor writes; “GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).” For Mark Taylor’s entire op-ed piece, see:
Taylor writes that the way to combat this shifting and hostile landscape is a six step formula:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

I agree with Taylor. Here’s more in this direction:


2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

I am hesitant to jump on board here,simply because of the position such restructuring could place faculty in.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.

Yes! And beyond institutions! Here are a few examples:
The Appalachian Studies Association
Highlander Research and Education Center

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text.

Yes… and. If the process of a dissertation is simply to make a book for which there is a market, sure, change the traditional dissertation. However there is a traditional+ stance where the dissertation is a process, an act of learning in itself. Perhaps we should appreciate the process more than the product in this case.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained.

This suggests a more substantial shift which I am interested in; valuing other knowledge/s outside academe.


Students APS/RLCL 1709 on a class trip.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change…

The system—creating precarious, underpaid, overworked adjuncts with little to no time to work on their own research—would be irresponsible and unjust to act this way… or at least that is how I understand the implications of this point.


I recently had this conversation with a faculty member who expressed experiencing value in “required” courses. This was interesting to me… while I understand the sentiment “you need to do something you don’t want to do… because that’s life” I was also surprised. I would like to think that ALL topics could be covered and would be covered even if the educational situation was collaborative, self-directed and interdisciplinary. For instance, if you are interested in building a space shuttle… your also going to have to learn to read and write clear directions. Perhaps you would miss out on a class about post-modern poetry, but the skills would still be required.

I think there needs to be a radical new understanding of education versus certification, between learning and testing. Higher education needs more empirical, place-based projects and student led independent initiatives. I also believe we are taking steps to get there. If radical reform is possible… this is the place for it to happen.


This entry was posted in Future Professoriate S15 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply