Change in Higher Education? Presidents speak!

The Chronicle of Higher Education released a report on university president’s views of innovation and change in colleges and universities.  Titled The Innovative University: What College Presidents Thinks About Change in American Higher Education, the report is a little unsettling.  One page reads in big bold letters:

“These are hardly the best of times for American higher education.”

That’s it.  Those are the only words on that entire page.  As if the stark realism of the statement wasn’t enough, the message was amplified by the sentence’s solitary position on the page.  To provide some support to this damning statement, the report shares data that outlines the current reality facing most institutions of higher education. Enrollments are down.  Net revenue at most institutions is flat or falling.  Businesses are questioning the quality of the graduates college produce, saying they lack basic skills such as problem solving, communication skills and adaptability.  Families are questioning the investment of a college degree. The report was clear.  These are dark days for Higher Education in the United States.

But the report wasn’t intended to be a pessimistic outlook on higher education.  Instead, it was outlining the need for innovation and change.  The report included data from surveys sent to university presidents of four-year public and four-year private, not for profit colleges and universities.  Over 340 university presidents responded to the survey and they provided a frank perspective on the innovations emerging on college campuses and the critical drivers of change.  While most university presidents reported that higher education provided a great value for students and that American higher education was still one of the best systems in the world, they also identified real need for change.  Only 2% of presidents who responded felt that the current system works well and did not require any disruption.  Contrast that with 67% of presidents who felt that massive or moderate amounts of disruption was needed to meet the needs of students.  While most of the presidents recognize technology and cost cutting as the primary drivers for innovation, almost half believe that teaching and learning should be the primary emphases for driving change on campus.  This is reflected in the types of changes the presidents see as valuable. For instance, most of the presidents were hostile about MOOCs but saw great promise in hybrid and blended learning. They saw value in adaptive learning systems and in competency based programs.  They believed technology that could foster student interaction and engagement would have a large positive impact on higher education in the future.  In comparisons with the “economies of scale” disruptions to higher education (like MOOCs), the presidents clearly were more interested in innovations that could directly benefit student learning and change the traditional modes of instruction.  Although I was a little surprised that more presidents didn’t recognize the value of open education resources, but that might be due to some “guilt by association” with the open nature of MOOCs.

According to the presidents, economics plays a large role in change on campus but the main drivers of change on campus are politicians.  Over half of the presidents responding saw politicians as the primary influence for change on campus followed closely by business leaders.  When asked who should be leading change initiatives, almost 80% of the presidents identified faculty members as the main innovators and agents for change at their institutions.

While the dire statistics on the present state of American higher education was unsettling, I found the report to be an encouraging window into the minds of university presidents.  Despite economic issues, most university presidents recognize that teaching and learning should be the main factors influencing decisions and recognize the emerging innovations that have students and their learning in mind.  They also recognize that, despite political influences, faculty are still a powerful driver of change.  Faculty work directly with students and have a great deal of control over how students are taught and assessed.  With this critical role in students’ lives, presidents believe that faculty should be in the driver’s seat for innovative efforts. These student-centered perspectives makes me tremendously optimistic about what the future holds for our colleges and universities.

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