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Saving Universities From Extinction No Easy Task


by David E. Goldberg, founder of ThreeJoy Associates, Inc. and co-author of “A Whole New Engineer” 

collegeUniversities are as outmoded as buggy whips.  The cost and value of a college education is increasingly in question or under attack, public university budgets are being slashed, and traditional colleges and universities are challenged by new forms of educational institutions and by students and parents who increasingly just say “no.”  Even the research mission of the university is being challenged by independent researchers with easy access to expert information and good ideas.

 Here are some controversial ideas on why universities are so dysfunctional, and also some recommendations regarding how universities can adapt, survive and thrive:

Five Crucial Problems that Threaten University Education with Extinction

1. Universities produce dull experts, not unleashed originals.

The university was created as an assembly of experts in 1088 with the founding of the University of Bologna.  This operating system worked well through the better part of nine centuries, but the quality revolution, entrepreneurial revolution, and information technology revolution create a vastly different world from the one mid-20th century.

Today we seek to educate the next Steve Jobs and other unleashed originals, those who can integrate different kinds of thinking, experience, and imagination in creative ways.

2. Universities are powered by a mix of faculty ego and institutional status seeking, not intrinsic motivation or love of learning.

Universities are set up as specialized bureaucracies to support and celebrate faculty stars who are paid largely to build their research reputations and increase the university’s status.  In this environment, students oftentimes receive scant attention and short shrift, even though increasingly, students pay for the privilege of the faculty-university, ego-status trip.

3. Universities rule through hierarchy, judgment, and fear, not democracy, respect, and love.

The main organizational examples at the founding of the university were (a) the military and (b) the Church.  Key aspects of these models were embedded in the organization of university, which continues to rule by demanding conformity and obedience, largely through the shame brought on by harsh judgment, and fear of punishment.

4. Universities charge and waste large amounts of money, yet find it impossible to cut programs or slash costs.

Universities charge students large tuition amounts (that grow considerably faster than the rate of inflation) to attend universities with little cost accounting and almost no cost control.  The dirty little secret of university finance is that undergraduate tuition fees subsidize faculty research.  This is hidden by significant flows of Federal research funds to universities (mainly in the sciences and engineering), but these monies almost never pay for faculty salaries during the academic school year, and teaching represents only a small fraction of faculty members full-time work commitment.

5. Universities are stuck in the dark ages, underestimate the need to change, and misunderstand both what and how to change.

The 11th century design of universities, with upgrades in the 19th century to further emphasize research activity and after World War II to feed at governmental troughs, leaves the university in a precarious state. The business model is ready for a fall.  Worse, university leaders believe that leisurely and modest reforms of content, curriculum, and pedagogy, promulgated through the existing bureaucracy will save the day.

These five problems are not sustainable.  Harvard innovation expert Clay Christensen suggests universities are already undergoing significant disruptive innovation by for-profit universities, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and other eLearning innovators and innovations.  Continuing on this course risks relegating a once-great institution to the dustbin of history.

Without change, universities as we now know them will continue to lose market share, they will continue to lose public funding, and their role in both the education of our young and the creation of new knowledge will continue to diminish.

Five Actions to Rescue Universities from Extinction

It doesn’t have to be this way. But universities need to get serious about change right now, and they need to learn what to change and how to change in a hurry.  A key to this awareness is the understanding that the changes are, in part, brought about by technological change, but the changes are not themselves technological.  To rescue and sustain great universities will require deep emotional, cultural and institutional transformation.

1. Train faculty to shift from “I know” to “I trust.”

The university is an assembly of experts much as it was in 1088. An expert is one who on some narrow subject can say “I know” and then tells what he or she knows to others.  This worked in 1088 through the 20th century, but to transform existing universities to ones that generate large numbers of unleashed originals, knowing must be better balanced with a large dose of trust.  Faculty trust begets student courage bets to unleashing and initiative by students begets students who become effective autonomous, lifelong learners.

Key practice:  To facilitate the difficult shift from knowing to trusting, faculty can be taught key noticing, listening, and questioning (NLQ) skills in cost effective deep faculty development training.

2. Create respectful spaces for growing micro-cultures of service and care.

The culture of ego and status is widespread in universities, and Harvard change management expert John Kotter suggests that transformative changes can only come about through the creation of a parallel “dual operating system.”

Key practice:  Create educational incubators, innovative working groups, and other respectful structured spaces for innovation (RSSIs) to allow micro-cultures of service and care to emerge and be nurtured.

3. Empower students as central actors in the learning enterprise.

Students are often treated as passive, unmotivated, largely incompetent actors in a hierarchy powered by harsh judgment and fear; it should come as no surprise then that students acquiesce to the demands of this system.  When we treat students as active, motivated, and competent, they respond in this other way.

Key practice: Providing students with sharp soft skills training early in their education in an environment designed around recent results in positive psychology and self-determination theory leads to student-centered and student-led, education transformation that is both scalable and sustainable.

4. Make change an institutional priority by directing resources to it.

Universities do not lack for resources; they simply assume that all past activities should be sustained at earlier levels, and that new funding is required for anything new.

Key practice: The emotional rescue of the university is not expensive.  Getting faculty to trust increasingly courageous and active students is cheap and remarkably simple and human, but it is not easy.  Start now with willing students, faculty, and resources.

5. Structure change efforts to both insist on innovation and respect governance.

Administrators who move to change fast and furious are at risk of faculty rebellion, and yet innovation left to faculty governance is likely to fail on NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) ground (“Reform is great.  Just don’t change my course”).

Key practice: The key to cutting this Gordian knot is to undertake change efforts on using pilot authority.  Innovation is permitted, oftentimes in an RSSI or incubator structure (see 2 above), using volunteer faculty and students in a pilot of limited duration and scope.  Following the pilot period, faculty votes are taken, usually in a vastly different emotional and political setting than the start of the change process.


david-goldberg-authorDavid E. Goldberg, Founder of ThreeJoy Associates, Inc., emeritus professor of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Distinguished Academic Partner of Olin College is co-author of “A Whole New Engineer“.