9.9.06

THE MONASTERY NO MORE. Retired DePaul University president Rev. John P. Minogue asserts, The 20th Century University Is Obsolete.
The transformation of Higher Education Life Forms on the distribution side of knowledge is even more dramatic, evolving a new species that concentrates simply on distribution of currently available knowledge.

This new species features a small core of knowledge engineers who wrap courses into a degree to be distributed in cookie-cutter institutions and delivered by working professionals, not academics. There is no tenured faculty, no academic processes; the sole focus is on bottom-line economic results. These 21st century institutions are not burdened with esoteric pursuits of knowledge; rather, they focus on professional degrees for adults that have a fairly clear market value for a given career path.

The exemplars of this new species are the for-profit universities, which are cutting their teeth on the weakness of the 20th century universities. Though new at the game, in a few years they will be capable of hunting with lethal success. This new species is market-driven. Its key survival mechanism is the ability to rapidly evolve to new environments and to position in the market. Since they do not carry tenured faculty, they can rapidly jettison disciplines of study that do not penetrate market. Since they do not have academic processes, they can rapidly bring to market programs that can capture market share.
I take exception to the characterization of scholarship as "esoteric." Sure, there might be some people who want to stay one refinement ahead of Jean Tirole in the repeated chain store game, but there might be some value in understanding the logic of amnesties for illegal immigrants or perhaps in assessing the claim that Smokestack America gave its steel industry away by modernizing lethargically.

That there is a niche for "cookie-cutter institutions and delivered by working professionals, not academics" does raise the possibility that the traditional liberal arts curriculum is not for everybody, but that's a problem in allocating resources among types of education and training, not an argument for the obsolescence of the traditional university. (The institution that tries to be a little bit of everything is not so much obsolete as it is confused.)

The column is also a bit confused.
Still, these once elegant life forms persevere, but for reasons having nothing to do with innate capability to embrace change. Instead, at the undergraduate level it is the instinctual and perhaps irrational desire of many parents to see their children prosper in a traditional liberal arts environment, and so their willingness to spend inordinate amounts of money for education.
Instinctual or irrational? The first rule of economics research is, "Assume people are acting in what they perceive to be their best interest." Sometimes it's rational to participate in a positional arms race. (Yes, I hammer this point a lot. There's a bit of Grant, or is it Soviet doctrine, in the way I choose topics to post on. My suggestion that the access-accommodation-remediation-retention model is contributing to the U.S.-News driven positional arms race is gaining traction. I propose to fight it out on this line and all that.)

In addition, traditional universities have benefited from some serious slack in the evolutionary rope. The Industrial Age required a few knowledge workers and a lot of folks doing heavy lifting, whereas the Knowledge Age requires vast numbers of educated workers. Almost overnight, this has led to a massive spike in global demand for education, with motivated consumers increasing perhaps 100-fold. What was the privilege of a few has become the expectation of all.

But global supply falls far short of meeting demand. With a population of 295 million, the United States has only 15 million active seats in the higher education classroom; China, with a population of 1.2 billion, has 2 million seats available; Brazil, with a population 170 million, has 2.5 million seats available.

This imbalance between supply and demand has creating a robust market for all providers. Suppliers of higher education simply have to dip their nets in the water to catch students. There is not yet the fight-to-the death competition for market share, and inefficient institutions have received a short reprieve from their evolutionary fate. But at some point, as with all markets, a saturation point will be reached, with supply outstripping demand — perhaps in 5, perhaps in 15 years. When this inversion occurs, those life forms with the required flexibility to quickly adapt to a fiercely competitive environment will survive and the others will fade from memory.

Autistic number-crunching. There is more than one way to adapt the technology to the workforce. With that kind of upside potential the problem the conventional universities face is that of neglecting their core functions in order to become more like the cookie-cutter certifiers. (Wasn't the point of the government's primary and secondary schools to do that certifying?) Rev. Minogue misses that completely.

So what will be demanded of 20th century universities to survive when market supply reaches or exceeds demand? As in every market, those producers that have driven efficiency into their production system and responsiveness into their market positioning have at least a change at surviving. But the challenge is daunting because the 20th century university is trying to play serious catch up in new markets — adults, women, diversities, the under privileged — while using the same mentalities that allowed them to attract the 18 to 25 year old male.

As with IBM, which played in the personal computer market, but really lived in the mainframe business market, there is no fire in the belly of 20th century universities for these new markets. These institutions have not changed the way they go about their business to serve these new markets; and if there has been some change, it has been accompanied by the widespread grumbling of the faculty: Why do we have to teach at night? Why do we have to teach at multiple campuses? Why do we have to provide support services in the evening? Why do we have to teach students who aren’t educated the way we were? Why do we have to schedule classes so students can maximize their employment opportunities?

Let's boil that down to a single question: Why is DePaul bent on becoming a Pauline community college? I'm listening to the Northern Illinois University publicity during the game, which stresses the opportunity to learn from a world-class faculty and interact with a wide variety of students. A voice-over suggests Northern Illinois is becoming "the university of choice" just south of the Cheddar Curtain. Note what's missing: precisely the access-accommodation-remediation-retention stuff Rev. Minogue's colleagues are troubled by. (And justifiably so: he's informing them in so many words, "You may have been hired to do leading edge research and teach college-ready students. But you are now to retrain as special education teachers." And he calls the desire of parents to have their kids prosper in a traditional environment irrational?)

The comments that accompany Rev. Minogue's column will reward careful study.

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