Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities

Rivalry with Ivy Leaguers and for-profits is harming the 'squeezed middle', discovers Charles Middleton

October 20, 2011

"Fate" is such an interesting word. It grabs your attention and makes you a bit nervous about the future. Richard DeMillo's use of the word in the title of his challenging book on the future of US higher education suggests that we are in for trouble. And soon. The book's premise, with ample examples of institutional practices and beliefs to sustain it, is that while US colleges and universities enjoyed a stellar period of growth and excellence in the 20th century, that supremacy is not only threatened by institutions in other countries but is certain to erode in the 21st.

For purposes of analysis, DeMillo separates the enterprise writ large into three parts. A small group of 70 or 80 (he uses both figures) elite private and a few public institutions at one end of the spectrum, a growing number of nimble and consequently well-resourced for-profit institutions at the other end, and a vast number of "universities in the Middle".

The essential analysis is that those in the middle have lost their way either by pursuing strategies designed to make them more like the elites, or by inattention and unresponsiveness to the changing needs of today's students when compared with the for-profits, or frequently both. In short, we are stuck in a "failed model" that is "destructively competitive, needlessly expensive, hierarchically regulated" and full of "self-satisfied but rigid methods" ill-suited to the needs of the new century.

It's a dilemma worth pondering. I found particularly compelling the argument that we are following an industrial model wherein efficiency compels the creation of rigid, lock-step curricula, in which majors are focused on the interests of the current faculty and offer limited options, and degrees are sustained because - well, because we have always offered them. In the process, resources that could be put to better advantage for our students chase after activities undertaken by better (read more diversely) funded elite institutions.

Institutions in the middle cannot keep pace, but they keep trying. In so doing, they become increasingly irrelevant to the emerging needs and aspirations of the state and local communities they were created to serve. University presidents come in for specific criticism, largely because the author sees us as unimaginative and lacking in boldness. However, he believes we have good company in the academic faculty who, over time, have followed a well-trodden path developed in European universities centuries ago of faculty-centrism on all matters of importance to academic life. We have overextended our resources, using money we generate from our students, either directly or through generous government subsidies, to enhance the reputations of institutions and individuals. We have thereby disconnected ourselves from the communities that we need to serve while mostly making little real progress in joining the elites.

The outcome of following the "envy model", says DeMillo, is that these "incremental paths lead to collapse". Some might quibble about aspects of this analysis, but in these stressful times it is difficult to argue against the broader conclusions. DeMillo also brings to bear what he learned in his stint as a transformational dean at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has done the work he thinks others must emulate if their institutions are not just to survive but to prosper.

The best part of this book is its call to action. The metaphor is Apple (see above for the meaning of the metaphor of Abelard the professor, rather than the suitor of Heloise) and it is plain. It is a new conception of higher education in which institutions that value "universal access, open content, and reliance on new technologies" to teach their students who are now the focal point of the endeavour, will prosper. This is the model of the "New American University" as envisioned by Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, and a handful of others, some of whom are deservedly praised here.

Of many advantages that accrue, including peace of mind in not having to try to keep up with the Joneses, is that universities in the middle regain their importance to their primary clientele and do so with less cost and higher quality of intellectual challenge. The context for determining excellence shifts. Asking "how are we doing given what we were created to do?" leads potentially to a different set of actions than "how are we doing compared to Famous University elsewhere?"

This book will provoke debate. Presidents and trustees would do well to ponder the set of 10 rules for the 21st century set out in the final chapter. They seem pretty smart to me. Define your value and then become an architect of the delivery of that value to your students and your community. Survival may well depend upon it if you are in the middle.

Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities

By Richard A. DeMillo

MIT Press, 336pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780262015806

Published 28 October 2011

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