Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Fall of the Faculty: impressions and extensions

Ginsberg’s The fall of the faculty: The rise of the all-administrative university and why it matters, serves as a sounding board for a larger discussion about the roles of academic and administrative parts of the university community and ultimately the value of a university education. We have a good idea of what the all-administrative university might look like, but what would the “all-faculty” university look like and how would it function as we pass further into the 21st century?

Graphic of cover of the book, The Fall of the Faculty.
This graphic is not open
content.  I am using it
under terms of fair use.
I am going to start with a little warning. This is a long posting and is perhaps a little self indulgent and rambling. During the past few days I read The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg, and although I recognized during my reading that it has merit, I did not care much for its presentation. I am not reviewing the book. Although I read the book completely, I did not read it thoroughly enough to write a review or with the intent of doing so. I am just providing some of my impressions about its execution and its principal messages, while also recognizing the importance of the topics Ginsberg addresses in general. I would like to acknowledge that, to a lagre extent, I have glossed over the root causes and attitudes that have created conditions fertile for the corporate-university, which I find intriguing.

A Matter of Style

First here is the frustrating part. While reading the book, I definitely got the impression that virtually all maladies at the University can be traced directly to administrators. Although lip-service was paid to the occasional good administrator, and Ginsburg acknowledged that all members of the faculty are not equal contributors to the academic community, and some (the worst of the faculty lot) are even administrative collaborators, for the most part all of us were thoroughly archetyped. Following from the American Western, in this book everybody wears black or white hats or might as well. University administrators are bad guys or buffoons and are grouped together as deanlets and deanlings. The administrators have “staffers” who are not all bad, but probably have no place at the University while serving the ambitions, waste, and bloat of administrators. Full-time faculty are clearly good, while adjuncts could be better, and most students are good as well... even if the students are athletes... unless they play basketball or football on Saturdays, in which case they are "big dummies."

That is the part of the book that drove me absolutely crazy - the presentation. These very simple messages were repeated and repeated almost to the point of being useful triggers for a college drinking game. As in, Ahhh, he wrote “administrative bloat,” again - take a drink. There were times while reading the book it felt as if I were having a picnic near a construction site. It would be great without the background noise. So, why did I start and finish the book? Like the construction site picnic, you do it because your sister's homemade potato salad is so good that you endure the incessant and predictable jackhammer in the background, sometimes the overall story in a book is good enough to suffer the presentation style. (By the way, I like spending time with my sister absent her potato salad, but that does not complete the analogy.)

Word Cloud from 
Picking up the book was kind of convenient. Although I have owned the book for some time without reading it, I was inspired to do so because of a reference to the book in the OER Foundation’s Open content licensing for educators seminar (#OCL4Ed). During the first session, the facilitators asked a question about whether teaching is a “profession” or a “vocation,” which generated a lot of interesting discussion. Early in the discussion, a thread titled “Fall of the Faculty / The All Administrative University” was started by a colleague from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver, BC. I made a few comments in the thread and decided to pick up the book and read it.

Before going on, a sense of fair play and respect for whoever might read this demands full disclosure. Although I have never boasted a deanlet or deanling title, I have served a number of universities in administrative and “staffer” capacities. My last few titles have included director, executive director, CEO, and now DVC and CIO. I have also taught in the classroom and online for nearly 20 years, but always as a contingent member of the faculty - sometimes full-time and sometimes part-time, but in any event, I have never faced the rigours of the tenure track.

Some Good Points, But...

Now, back to the book. Yes, I thought that it was overly cynical and overly relied on stereotype and hyperbole, yet I absolutely sympathise with Ginsberg’s substantive messages. As an administrator I have seen, participated in, recognized, and actively resisted many of the managerial pathologies associated with the all-administrative university; excessive meetings, a preoccupation with strategic planning, retreating, empire building, and a host of other activities that are not “teaching” or “research.” In addition, the author’s principal points about
  • the value of a liberal education,
  • the erosion of academic freedom,
  • the importance of tenure, and 
  • the politics of manipulation used to gain “university” ends,

resonate well with me, even if in the book the causes all lead predictably to the same place - the administration, and the implication that there is some sort of conspiracy at hand. That as a group, administrators are systemically plotting together, perhaps across institutions a quiet coop. What did not resonate with me was the oversimplification of an exceptionally important topic.

Unlike A. Bartlett Giamatti in A Free and Order Space, who very eloquently frames the interplay of academic and administrative functions at the University in terms of “the academic mission,” Ginsberg seems to be more interested in setting the stage for a confrontation in which academics and administrators are pitted against one another. Even if the intent was good and the art was bad, Ginsberg should have had the sense to not over-generalize. Once again, unlike Giamatti, who spoke specifically of Yale, Ginsberg is all over place, applying his standards from elite private universities, to liberal arts colleges, regional public universities, and community colleges. In my opinion, the net was cast far too widely and it weakened his overall argument. It is not fair or I think intellectually honest to use examples of administrative activity and organizational structure from a community or regional public college to make a point about the “all-administrative university” from his personal exposure to some pretty elite private traditional research universities.

Once again, I am frustrated because the topics of university cost structures and relationships between full- and part-time faculty and administrators with each other and with students in relation to the institution’s mission are of critical importance. And they represent issues and challenges that need to be addressed with mutual respect, putting our key stakeholders first.

Accuracy and Clarity Would be Nice

One of the main arguments in The Fall of the Faculty is that administrative staffing has grown more rapidly than faculty staffing, resulting in misdirection of limited funds. There is no question that administration (management, staff, and clerical support) at Universities has grown. And there is no question that managerial and administrative staff have grown at a higher rate than have faculty. And there is no question that popular reporting of this has been... unkind and sometimes confusing. For example, in a recent article in the Economist titled Not what it used to be: American universities represent declining value for money to their students, Roger Geiger and Donald Heller (who are not the authors of the article) of Pennsylvania State University are quoted to say,
...that since 1990, in both public and private colleges, expenditures on instruction have risen more slowly than in any other category of spending, even as student numbers have risen. Universities are, however, spending plenty more on administration and support services (see chart 2).

Chart 2, Plenty of padding, non-faculty professional employees per 100 faculty members. In 2009 there were approximately 98 non-faculty professional employees per 100 faculty members
Please note that this graphic is not open content.
I am using it under terms of "fair use."
Chart 2 is titled Plenty of Padding and it refers to numbers of employees not spending as is stated in the quote. The units of measurement do not match reducing the value of the chart. In addition, it provides a vague (not specific enough) reference to “The Department of Education; National Center for Educational Statistics.” Furthermore, I am not sure if the terms “college” and “university” are being used interchangeably in this article. I simply have no way of knowing. This seems like just plain sloppy work on the part of the Economist. Back in the classroom this type of reference, absent a citation, would have earned the author a lecture on the importance of helping your reader know what you are talking about, allowing the reader to fact find, and the ethical nature of applying appropriate attribution standards. That said, I would have given the author a “do over” with the opportunity to clear up some of the inconsistencies.

Regarding Chart 2 above, I have no idea where the data is coming from (a link to the source would have been helpful). According to the US Department of Education, Center for Educational Statistics, Advanced Release of Selected 2012 Digest Tables, in 2009 the number of non-faculty professional employees per 100 faculty members was 69.5 rather than the 98 (or so) represented in the Chart. No, I am not arguing that nearly 70 non-faculty professionals per 100 faculty is a good number. I am just suggesting that the coverage of higher education in popular mass media sources is not well done and perhaps can be a bit misleading. Besides the numbers themselves are pretty slippery. The majority of non-faculty professionals are characterized as “other professionals,” the numbers represent all types of post-secondary schools, and there is some dynamic that needs to be recognized between the growth in professional employees and decline in non-professional employees. In addition, many colleges and universities are outsourcing some of their administrative functions, so the effort and cost is not reflected in the employment figures. If one just considered executive, managerial, and administrative professionals, which seems to be where Ginsberg concentrates, the number drops to 16 administrators per 100 faculty, which may still be excessive. But just for clarity, I would like to point out that according to data provided in the Advanced Release of Selected 2012 Digest Tables in the US between 2001 - 2011,
  • there was a 24.57% increase in all university employees,
  • executive, managerial, and administrative staff increased by 86,608 employees, representing 57% growth,
  • faculty staffing grew by 410,432, representing 36.9% growth, and
  • the number of student enrollments increased by 31.81% during the same period of time, so
  • faculty ranks more than kept pace with student enrollments from 2001-2011.

Once again, I am in no way suggesting that these numbers are good or appropriate. In fact, I am not even sure what the numbers mean relative to the purposes and missions of the sector and individual colleges and universities. For example, what would these numbers look like if we started including the faculty and enrollment numbers that are common in MOOCs; that is, when some universities start using MOOCs as part of their regular curriculum and offerings?

Obviously Ginsberg has no control over the way popular media reports on higher education. I do not mean to infer a connection between the Fall of the Faculty and articles like those in the Economist. I wanted though to point to the fact that the issues being discussed are politically charged, the data require subtle treatment, and popular media is frequently not the best place to turn for accuracy and clarity.

Are Some of the Things we are Doing Valuable?

I think though that the numbers as they stand can be put into some perspective. Although I have no data to support this, I do believe that we have seen a reshaping of staffing at many post-secondary institutions not just more of the same-old. Once again, this is just common sense, but when you consider the changing demographic that we are serving across the sector, the push to increase access, and the growth of distance education, we can see increased needs for student and faculty support in at least the following areas.
  • information technology
  • learning design
  • student counseling and advising

Remember, in 2001 a small number of institutions had institutional learning management systems, never mind electronic library and research resources, ePortfolios, social media, and other digital assets that are now considered just part of functioning in the 21st century. The number of non-traditional and adult learners and those studying at a distance was much smaller and was concentrated at relatively few colleges and universities. Most institutions have built infrastructure and resources to accommodate the growing populations of returning and remote learners. Is this right, are these good investments? It depends on the type of school you are considering, the institution's commitment to access, and its self-identity. Perhaps, as Ginsberg clearly states, it is not right for Johns Hopkins University. Regardless though, reliable technology-based systems are now an expectation. As an undergraduate I remember spending more than 2-days leading into each semester standing in lines to register for courses. We would line-up hours before the faculty member would show up at their designated classroom, so we could sign-up and get into their course. I can't imagine that many of the faculty felt this was good use of their time either. Now registration takes seconds to execute. Faculty time is spent advising the student and supporting academic development, not managing a queue. It takes a team of technologists to support these very helpful administrative systems, and they were, for the most part, absent before the 90s.

How about the All-Faculty University?

I would like to acknowledge though that I think the real points of Ginsberg’s book are most weakly made in terms of finance and staffing. I think that that they are most strongly made in terms of control and governance of the academic enterprise and the assumptions that we make about the purposes of the University. Ginsberg’s point that academic freedom is critical to the purpose of the University and that without tenure, there is no academic freedom is powerfully made. I do see that tenure is under siege both within and outside of the University. I see few university administrators clearly articulating the value of tenure and academic freedom, while articulating the practical importance of a liberal education as the University pursues its mission.

At the end of the day though, even though I was frustrated, the Fall of the Faculty struck a chord. Kudos to Ginsberg for providing solutions. In many ways, he is suggesting that we return to the old ways. Rebalance the roles of administrators and faculty. I think that this is an excellent suggestion. It is perhaps a recommendation that is not practical for every post-secondary school to follow, but it clearly has a place in the incredibly diverse landscape of higher education. In reality we have seen the manifestation of the “all administrative university” with the rise of the for-profit chain university. I don’t think that many of us liked what we got, but like Ebenezer Scrooge we did get a glimpse at a potential future. In response, why not build the “all-faculty university,” and see how that goes in our current environment and as we prepare for the mounting challenges and opportunities of the 21st century? It would be better to not have to build one from scratch, but by the sounds of it, there are not many universities available that have not been infected by the administrative virus. Perhaps though some universities will give a fair hearing to the idea and come back home. Perhaps some exist and we need to learn from them. I am sincere about this. I would like to see a college or university that followed in earnest the values and priorities that Ginsberg has promoted in his book and I hope that there is still a place for it in the spectrum of post-secondary education. It would even be better if it were affordable, appealed to students, contributed to the common good, and we knew if it was delivering on its promise.

Legitimate Concerns and Questions

Finally, I am going to return for a minute to my last posting, Why have we failed ourselves as we have failed our student-athletes? I wonder if the behavior described in the Western Oklahoma story is a bellwether for more traditional research universities. Ones whose missions play more to seeking truth, engaging in discovery, and effecting the common good than career and workforce development and meeting remedial student needs. In the Need 3 Quick Credits to Play Ball? Call Western Oklahoma article Lisa Greenlee, Western Oklahoma's vice president for academic and student-support services made an effort to provide assurances of continued curricular integrity at her college, insisting that she
"...will not oversee something that isn't of high quality. ... It won't happen under my watch," she says. "If you knew me and our administrative team, we go to great lengths to ensure that what we're doing has rigor and quality. 

"If that means hiring someone full-time whose job is to make sure that every class is not substandard, or to make sure we integrate technology to watch students as they take exams, that's what we will do."

Would we not legitimately expect, as Ginsberg clearly would, that the person ensuring that a class is not substandard be the faculty member? Would we not expect this as a student or a parent? I am guessing that different people would respond to this question differently, but I think that it strikes at the larger question raised in the Fall of the Faculty. It is the type of question that ought to be discussed openly and civilly. It is the type of question that needs to be framed in terms of institutional mission, alongside the expectations that are being placed on the sector and the expectations we have for different types of colleges and universities in different parts of the sector.

OER foundation

Open content licensing for educators #OCL4Ed (2012.12)

Digest of Educational Statistics 2011

Chapter 3: Postsecondary Education

Advanced Release of Selected 2012 Digest Tables

Table 257. Employees in degree-granting institutions, by sex, employment status, control and level of institution, and primary occupation: Selected years, fall 1991 through fall 2011 

Table 198. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2011

Not what it used to be: American universities represent declining value for money to their students

Chart 2: Plenty of Padding

Why have we failed ourselves as we have failed our student-athletes?

Need 3 Quick Credits to Play Ball? Call Western Oklahoma

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Why have we failed ourselves as we have failed our student-athletes?

The recent attention that Western Oklahoma State College has received for its 2-week online accelerated intersession courses provides an opportunity for universities to reflect on their purposes and the obligations they have to their students and faculty.

When I started writing I felt that this posting would be a bit of a diversion, but now I am not so sure. I think that we could extend the relevant points about our treatment of student athletes to any student. David Wicks’ (@dwicksspu) recent tweet drew my attention to an article in the New York Times by Kevin Carey titled Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable? that I found very interesting. Carey’s article was based on one by Brad Wolverton appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education a while ago, which was titled Need 3 Quick Credits to Play Ball? Call Western Oklahoma. Unfortunately there was no opportunity to share thoughts in the NY Times and the Chronicle article was 3 weeks old so the discussion has obviously gone stale. Now, I am left with this short posting.

The story covered in these articles resonated with me because it points to what seems to be a lack of accountability, sense of purpose, and reflection at some institutions that really should know better - our traditional research universities. The background of the articles is pretty simple. There has been a bunch of student athletes attending reputable national research universities who have been taking 2-week online courses from Western Oklahoma State College and are earning 3 “easy” and cheap credits. The articles focus on how such courses can keep a prized player on the “field” and away from academic ineligibility. Kevin Carey smartly outlines the problems with accreditation and the credit hour, which are topics that deserve and have gotten plenty of attention. Wolverton poked a bit at the major groups involved in the story including accreditors, athletes, the NCAA, Western Oklahoma State College, and the schools accepting credit.

I am taking the time to write this because this story strikes at what I think is a very serious integrity issue and a missing element in the dialogue. I reviewed the 60+ comments following the original Chronicle article and a few dozen others following related articles and although a lot of interesting comments were made about the integrity of college athletics, Western Oklahoma State College, and regional accreditation agencies, there was no real dialogue about the responsibilities that we have as academic communities to our students. When I refer to our students, I am thinking about those whom we have admitted into our academic programs, invited to participate in our community, and have pledged to serve as if the university will function as their alma mater. These students represent one of the principal purposes of our universities. The fact that some students are gifted athletes and have been awarded athletic scholarships, does not make them second-class students.

Just because a credit bearing course issues forth from an accredited school, and is ready for transfer, does not mean that the University is obligated to accept it. I would argue that it is the responsibility of everybody at the University from the registrar, to the student’s academic advisor, to the athlete's coach to review the credits and to ensure that the credits equate to those offered at the home campus and that the institution offering the credits has a pattern of doing so with integrity.

Judging by the following quote from Wolverton’s article, there is not only a pattern at Western Oklahoma, but the pattern is well understood and apparently accepted by university professionals charged with caring for the student’s development.
It's not just the speedy credit that appeals to many players. According to dozens of academic advisers, athletes, and coaches, Western Oklahoma offers some of the easiest classes around. One Division I football player who reads at a fifth-grade level completed a three-credit health class in three sittings, his academic counselor says. Other students struggling to stay above a 2.0 on their own campus have landed A's and B's from Western Oklahoma—all in the academic blink of an eye.

Although perhaps I should not be, I was astonished by what I read as it represents a profound lack of integrity at the universities accepting credits, a disservice to the public, and a truly horrible lack of respect for the students involved. It is my belief and sincere hope that this is not “best practice” or acceptable practice at our universities, yet I am left wondering why there was not much evidence of outrage directed at the universities accepting the transfer credit. Although I have read that as a result of Wolverton’s article the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges has committed to investigate western Oklahoma State College, I have not read anything from the universities that have accepted credit or who have actively referred their students to Western Oklahoma 10-day intersession courses.

I am not defending Western Oklahoma. I am not sure that there is anything to defend. After visiting their web site, I cannot discern any Western Oklahoman secrets that were unveiled by the stories in The Chronicle. Descriptions of their programs are open and easy to find, they describe their accreditation and governance, their faculty are listed, their purpose and mission are clearly stated, and so forth. I do not see any evidence of deception or misrepresentation on the part of Western Oklahoma State College. If there is any misdirection, it has to be happening at the students’ home institutions where apparently, at least for these students, the fact that the credits are from an accredited college is good enough for transfer. There was no felt need to review the courses for quality or for curricular coherence, even though everybody understands the pressure these young adults feel to remain eligible to perform in their school colours. Even though we know what these same pressures have done to mature professionals and we know the consequences. No flags were raised, no special attention was paid. Now if these credits were awarded for courses offered by their research intensive destination university would the courses be better, have more academic rigour, or be taught by more qualified faculty? I am guessing that they might be, but for one reason or the next that has not seemed to matter.

As mentioned above, these reports strike a chord. In my past few posts I have outlined which characteristics separate the “University” from other higher education institutions. The characteristics are complex and point to rather lofty purposes, but little of it matters if the universities themselves do not practice with integrity and care for their principal charges; students and faculty. Unlike suspending a professional athlete who breaks team rules or commits a crime, keeping a college player off the field due to academic disqualification is not a punishment, it is an obligation that an academic institution assumes when it admit the student. It is an opportunity to care for the academic needs of a student. The obligation is about setting priorities and about making good on our commitment to care for our students. It is also about respecting the integrity of an institution meant to seek truth above and beyond all else, and to which thousands of faculty have dedicated their scholarly lives. After all, without the students and without the faculty, we are left with athletes, coaches, and administrators. In this way we could shed some of our obligations.

A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.

-Newman, John Henry

Thursday, 6 December 2012

How do we know if we have a University or not?

Universities are unique organizations whose purpose is to pursue truth. As such they have characteristics that distinguish them from other types of institutions of higher education. Understanding the purpose, nature, and characteristics of universities will help students select among different types of schools and will help policy makers and legislators understand the implications of their actions.

After asserting in my last post that we should impose some rules about what types of education organizations can include “University” in their names, I built a little rationale for why we should protect the use of the term “university," and I asked how we should proceed. I was really trying to operationalize a way to address the more general question of, What is a university and what should we expect from one? I think that if we are going to build some discipline around what we call a university, we should at least think about the basic characteristics.

I will admit too that I have been a little motivated by the $10,000 Platform article that appeared in Inside Higher last week. It outlined some of the similarities among the higher education reform efforts in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin. I have included below links to short articles treating higher education reform in Ohio and Colorado as well. All of the efforts seem to revolved around cost cutting measures and performance-based funding. My growing concern is whether some of the Universities in these states will remain so after they receive the benefit of reform. It struck me that articulating what a university is, might help folks understand if they really want a university or not.

Before writing any more though, I do want to say that I am not presuming to define what a university is in any general way. I am just trying to make the point that the University is something and that it is different than other things like trade schools, career colleges, high schools, seminaries, medressas, polytechnics, military academies, science academies, institutes, liberal arts colleges, and such. If you disagree with the characteristics I list below, please chime in, make recommendations, improve my thinking - no worries. In addition, I am not trying to define any of the characteristics that I have listed below. I am just trying to provide descriptive illustrations that might be useful for our purposes.

I think that for an institution of higher education to include the word “University” in its name, it should have the following characteristics. It will certainly have many other characteristics, but there should at least be evidence of the following:

Universal Knowledge
The University ought to be a place in which it is possible to explore universal knowledge, in which intellectual resources are available across disciplines to address systemic discovery, teaching, and learning. That is, a University is a place in which scholarship contributes to and benefits from the constellation of disciplines that constitute the collective of human knowledge at that point in time.

Academic Freedom
The American Association of University Professors has a great resource on Academic Freedom that covers a range of topics, case law, and provides some detail on the evolving interpretations of academic freedom. At the very least we can use the following as a touchstone.

"institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition"

Practically, academic freedom needs to be supported through and reflected in shared governance, research, the “classroom,” and in public life. Academic freedom is complemented by a system of responsibilities that are exhibited through the behavior of faculty. Assuming the responsibility is not a punishment or a trade-off, it is a condition of being part of a community of scholars whose principal objective is to seek the truth - the purpose of the university.

Community of Scholars
Being part of a community and being a scholar has meaning. Scholars, of course practice scholarship, using scholarly methods in pursuit of truth. I am going to cheap-out a little here. I love Wikipedia, and I am going to quote directly from it on the topic of Scholarship because it is pretty accessible.
Scholarly method or scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public. It is the methods that systemically advance the teaching, research, and practice of a given scholarly or academic field of study through rigorous inquiry. Scholarship is noted by its significance to its particular profession, is creative, can be documented, can be replicated or elaborated, and can be and is peer-reviewed through various methods.

As a member of a community, the scholar has a responsibility to maintain integrity in the community, become expert in its methods, and uphold standards of scholarship. And, as a member of the University serving on a faculty there is also a responsibility to prepare others for and welcome others into the community.

Teaching, Discovery, and Service
I am going to suggest that teaching, discovery, and service or practice are essential activities within the University. They do not need to be equally balanced, but none can be trivial either. Each should be represented in the institution's mission, coherent with its values, evident in its practice, its hiring policies, and evaluation systems. There ought to be evidence that teaching, discovery, and service are actively and meaningfully supported by the institution, and expected of every scholar.

I think that the purpose of the University is so important that it should have its own category. I think too that it is worth mentioning that although no systems or practices should impede the search for truth, and many should be designed to facilitate the search, the University does do things additionally. For example, Universities may in addition to searching for truth, simply teach some skills.

I think that this is enough for now. Institutions that do not possess the characteristics listed above, may be very good examples of what they are, but they are not Universities, and probably should not be representing themselves as such. I am not yarning-on about this to be a jerk, so much as to create a point of reference. If in the name of efficiency, policies are passed that change the characteristics of a university, they may become a good college, but may no longer be a university. If a prospective student sees “University” in the name of an institution, that learner has a legitimate expectation that the school will at least possess the characteristics listed above. The same holds true for the tax payer who is investing in their public "University." It is my feeling that it is all that goes into the pursuit of truth coupled with dissemination and teaching that separates Universities from other types of education providers and many other types of organizations more generally.

$10,000 Platform, Inside HigherEd 
Wikipedia: Scholar 
Colorado creates master plan for improving higher education

John Kasich’s New Higher Education Funding Formula: Results Equal Funding

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Would a universty by any other name smell as sweet?


I am suggesting that we impose some rigour about what types of education organizations that include “University” in their names. I believe that there is a valid argument for creating some clarity around what is and what is not a University and a University Education. The argument might be stilted, but I think that where it leads us is worth pursing.

I mentioned in my first post about this “project” that I wanted to use Latent Pattern Transmission as a way to write down and expose some of thinking on a variety of topics and hopefully generate some feedback. The topics would principally be about higher education and the nature of the University. I also mentioned that some topics would likely “fall flat,” and I think this might be one of those. That said, I want to get it out there, even if it lacks coherence and produces the affect of pettiness, which I began to feel as I started writing. I am happy to be school on the topic.

In short, I am suggesting that we impose some discipline (rules) about what types of education organizations can include “University” in their names.

Yeah, I know that on the surface this is not the biggest problem we are confronting, but I believe that it would be helpful if we could all be much more clear about what is and what is not a University and a University Education. It is hard to do in part because so many different types of higher education providers call themselves “Universities.” I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It has always gotten a bit under my skin that the University of Phoenix and American Public University share names with the University of Massachusetts and Penn State University. I do not mean to be calling out these 4 institutions and have no intention to offend. In fact I named these four institutions because I feel that they are among the very best of their kind that have also exhibited a commitment to serving adult learners studying at a distance. That said, I have always felt that the grouping does not convey the general differences and similarities among the institutions. The source of my agitation is not because I honestly believe one group is better than another, but because I believe they are fundamentally different.

My smoldering feelings were re-stirred a few weeks ago when I read Alison Byerly’s Formerly Known as Students in Inside Higher Ed. Byerly provides what I think is an eloquent treatment of some of the qualities, relationships, and dynamics that make for being a teacher and a student, which are terms that Byerly thinks are important and should not be misused. She makes her point by examining how these terms are used in MOOCs and provides a call for clarity and rigour in the use of terms.
Finally, it is important to recognize that what distinguishes a "course" from a set of lectures -- regardless of which is face-to-face and which is online -- is the difference between a mere broadcast of information, and a mutual commitment by teacher and student to a pedagogical relationship that is supported by a larger curricular structure and institutional mission.

It seems clear that the spaces, formats, and media in which higher education is offered may change radically in the coming years. We will certainly need to adjust our terminology to keep pace with these changes. We must not lose sight, however, of the central axis around which all education revolves. Classroom walls may disappear as predicted, lectures may go the way of the dodo bird, but what will still define education is the presence of (a) a teacher, (b) students, and (c) a set of agreed-upon goals that they work toward together.

As stated above, I am sympathetic with the sentiments Byerly is expressing. I do think that we need to maintain some clarity and some rigour in how we refer to important parts of the educational and academic enterprise. Along the lines of Byerly’s quote above, terms like teacher and students are important. Are the roles that participants referred to as students and teachers similar enough in MOOCs and traditional courses to share the same name without qualification? For example, should we adopt a parallel nomenclature that refers to MOOC Students and MOOC Teachers? Perhaps they are called something else entirely, like Student = Participant and Teacher = Facilitator. Perhaps changing the language we use to describe the teaching and learning roles will get us to a more focused and productive discussion. Also along the lines of Byerly, clear use of important terms does not imply that the terms are static, it just implies that they are consistent and accurate.

I offer the same question about about the nature of the large bucket of organizations that we call “University.” I recognize that the sector is quite broad, and that organizational diversity is a strength, but it feels as if the term has become so vague that it is meaningless. In fact, I think that it has become worse than meaningless and has created the possibility of misrepresentation.

I am going to offer up a few thoughts about why we might want to be more rigorous with how we apply the term University and name education institutions.

What’s in a Name

Unless the point is to be deceptive, the name of a thing should accurately communicate what it is. It should serve to clarify meaning rather than create ambiguity. As different types of educational organizations are designed to meet different needs and have different capacities, it is important to communicate something meaningful in the name.

Education is a Complex Topic

Learning is an intensely personal and value laden pursuit. It is important that learners have every opportunity to identify and select education organizations that best fit their needs. Different types of organizations will meet those needs differently. Many prospective learners are unclear about the nature of different types of education organizations and what they have to offer. This may be particularly true as the education access agenda grows and millions of under-served and first-generation learners are gaining access to higher education. This coupled with the fact that educational options have grown dramatically during the past few years provides too many opportunities for confusion without calling different options by the same name.

Clarity for Prospective Students

Identifying and selecting a way to achieve educational and learning goals can be really hard. In addition to the thousands of accredited colleges, institutes, academies, centers, and universities in the US, there are international options, non-accredited providers, alternatives that guide self-study like MOOCs, and unsupported learning projects. In addition, prospective learners have an array of needs and desires that different institutions have different capacities to meet. To the extent to which it is helpful to know the difference between what a University will offer and a career college will offer it is a good idea to name them accurately. For example, if a learner is interested in the straightest path from registration to employment, they may be disappointed with the typical university curriculum and may not take advantage of undergraduate research options and the like - while a career college is likely to do the trick. That said, if the student is looking for a more broadly conceived education that perhaps has less emphasis on learning purely for utility, than an institution that is a university, in more than just name, may be a better choice.

Clarity for Policy Makers

It is equally important for policy makers to understand the differences between what different types of education providers produce. The more clarity, the more likely that smart policy will be developed, funding will get where it needs to go, with the outcomes most desired. Based on my discussions with various policy makers and policy influencers, I would suggest that there is a lot of confusion caused by grouping traditional universities like UMass, with other types of universities like the University of Phoenix. With this pairing, the unique purposes and strengths of each tend to be lost. UMass becomes a bloated academic bureaucracy that has more interest in responding to “academic questions” than producing graduates that contribute to the work force, while the University of Phoenix becomes a diploma mill that harvests unsuspecting students and cheats the government out of financial aid dollars. Neither of which are entirely accurate or fair characterizations. Appropriately framed, named, and understood, they are institutions pursuing their missions supported and regulated within a realistic policy regime.

Clarity for News Providers

News providers, particularly from traditional establishments, have influence over public perception and opinion. A more defined use of the term “university” would create less confusion about the subjects that are being treated. Many reporters, writers, and editors, who have not covered higher education for an extended period of time or been an active part of the sector as a practitioner are not fully acquainted with the difference between institutional types and do not spell out their assumptions or definitions in the stories that they write and news that they report. I think that a good starting point is to ensure that when we refer to something in the formal media, there is some clarity about what is being referenced.

Once again, as I was writing this I started to reflect on what I was saying and thinking and felt that perhaps it sounded like I was being overly protectionist and resistant to change. After all, what does it hurt if we don’t worry too much about the distinctions between liberal arts schools and trade schools, or Cousera and universities, or universities and seminaries, after all they all provide education, right? I started questioning my motives and started wondering if this topic deserves any attention (or the time that it takes to read this). Was this just a personal peeve? After some thought, I am still a little undecided, but I think that if the discussion helps create some definition of what we expect of institutions that call themselves universities (and by extension education organizations that call themselves other things) we may be able to provide clarity in ways that rankings, catalogues, and lead aggregators do not - even if we all still share the same name.

Will changing names really address the issues we face? Probably not, but if we decided to pursue this we are forced to ask ourselves, What is a university and what should we expect from one? In doing so, I think that we will start addressing some of our most challenging issues.

So how might we proceed?

Formally Known as Students