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The Soul of A New University

President of Teachers College, Columbia University

The New York Times, Monday March 13, 2000

In ”The Education of Henry Adams,” describing his college experience under a curriculum that had not changed in several decades, Adams said he had received an 18th century education when the world was plunging toward the 20th. In a space of just a few years, education had fallen 200 years behind the times.

Today’s pace of economic, social and, above all, technological change has put higher education in danger of falling behind again. And this time, pressures from outside are likely to force those of us who shape the academy not only to adapt our institutions, but to transform them.

In the decades after World War II, higher education was a growth industry. Governments around the world, eager for better educated populations, supported it with few questions asked. Today it is a mature industry, and in return for continuing support, through direct funding, grants and student aid, government is asking a good many questions. How much should faculty teach? What’s the appropriate balance between teaching and research? How much should it cost to educate a student? Should we have lifetime appointments for faculty? Why aren’t graduation rates higher? Why does it take students so long to graduate?

Once higher education could simply add new activities to the old, but the current wisdom is that it must do more with less. We in academia must figure out what is really critical to us and what we are willing to give up.

Not all of these choices will be ours alone. Our students, as well as our governments, have changing expectations. Information economies require higher levels of education and more frequent education. More of the new student body may be part time, working and older.

I asked some students in this new breed what relationship they wanted with their colleges. They told me that it should be like the relationship with a utility company, supermarket or bank — their emphasis was on convenience, service, quality and affordability. This group is going to gravitate toward online instruction, with education at home or in the workplace.

The rise of online education and other new technologies has enormous implications for all of us. Textbooks are dying. We’re moving to learning materials that can be customized for the students who are in our classes. There won’t be any excuse for those of us who are still using yellowed notes to teach our courses year after year.

An article in an airline magazine last year said that travel agencies of the future will show customers virtual trips, letting them see, by computer, the hotel room they’ll stay in, walk the beaches, see the restaurants. The time is coming when colleges and universities will do something similar: instead of telling students about 15th-century Paris, for example, we will take them there. And when a student can smell the smells — which must have been putrid, walk the cobblestones, go into the buildings, how will a stand-up lecture compete?

It is possible right now for a professor to give a lecture in Cairo, for me to attend that lecture at Teachers College and for another student to attend it in Tokyo. It’s possible for all of us to feel we’re sitting in the same classroom. It’s possible for me to nudge (via e-mail) the student from Tokyo and say, ”I missed the professor’s last comment. What was it?”; have my question translated into Japanese; have the answer back in English in seconds. It’s possible for the professor to point to me and my Japanese colleague and say, ”I want you to prepare a project for next week’s class.” If we can do all of that, and the demographics of higher education are changing so greatly, why do we need the physical plant called the college?

Many countries built systems of higher education based on propinquity, trying to build a campus in easy proximity of every citizen. How long will it be before nations ask why they have so many campuses? How long before they ask higher education to request new technologies, not new buildings? This is where growth of the private sector in higher education comes in.

In the United States alone, higher education is an industry with revenues of $225 billion, and that is causing the private sector to look at postsecondary education as a potential target for investment.

One corporate entrepreneur recently told me: ”You know, you’re in an industry which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and you have a reputation for low productivity, high cost, bad management and no use of technology. You’re going to be the next health care: a poorly managed nonprofit industry which was overtaken by the profit-making sector.”

An amazing phenomenon is the for-profit University of Phoenix, which has all the appropriate accreditation and is traded on the stock exchange. It would like to reach 200,000 students within the next decade and is already online with more than 6,000. It has thrown out most of what higher education does traditionally, using mostly part-time faculty. Class syllabuses are uniform and prepared every few years with help from industry professionals and academics in the field.

Phoenix is the nation’s largest proprietary institution, and entrepreneurs around the world are watching its example. Investment firms are developing higher education practices. Venture capital groups are starting to put money into higher education enterprises. I recently saw a list 30 pages long, single-spaced, of for-profit firms that have entered higher education internationally.

Not long ago a questioner at a conference asked what my biggest fear was. I answered: ”I think in the next few years we’re going to see some firm begin to hire well-known faculty at our most prestigious campuses and offer an all-star degree over the Internet. So they’ll take the best faculty from Columbia, Oxford and Tokyo University and offer a program at a lower cost than we can.”

A top-notch professor on our campus touches a couple of hundred students a year. The lower-paid online professor may touch thousands. The economics is not in our favor.

After the speech, a fellow came up to me and said, ”Who told you?” I said, ”What do you mean, ‘Who told me?’ This isn’t rocket science.” He said: ”We’re doing this. Who leaked?” The simple fact is that we’re going to see an increasing number of these enterprises.

The biggest danger is that higher education may be the next railroad industry, which built bigger and better railroads decade after decade because that’s the business it thought it was in. The reality was that it was in the transportation industry, and it was nearly put out of business by airplanes. Colleges and universities are not in the campus business, but the education business.

The trend is a convergence in knowledge-producing organizations: publishers, television networks, libraries, museums, universities. The head of technology at a large publisher told me recently, ”We’re not in the book business anymore.” When I asked what business he was in, he answered: ”We’re in the knowledge business. Our big focus now is teacher education. We’re using television and we’re using computers, and we’re in thousands of schools. We want to put our brand name on professional development for teachers.”

The ”content people,” he went on, ”are on staff, not at universities.” As for credits and degrees, ”we’re working on that,” he said.

In the years ahead, every knowledge-producing organization will begin to produce similar kinds of products. Those of us in higher education have a small amount of time to stop and think. What is the purpose of higher education? How shall we continue to accomplish it? Not to answer these questions is to make a profound decision, by default, about our own prospects for the future.