Interview - Threefold path to new American enlightenment

US higher education will crash if it does not tackle three big problems, Robert Zemsky tells Chris Parr

August 29, 2013

“There will be a diminishing in the number of research universities, an assault on tenure that would be bloody but successful, and universities will look like burnt-over districts.”

This is the bleak picture that Robert Zemsky paints of the future of higher education in the US if it fails to change the way it operates. But the chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, a long-established and well-respected expert on US tertiary education, claims to have the solutions.

His latest book, Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise, does exactly what its title suggests. It details precisely how the US can set about solving what Zemsky says are three of the biggest problems with its higher education system: the incoherent nature of the curriculum, the resistance of the faculty to change and the ineffectiveness of the federal government.

“It’s like the checklist an aeroplane pilot goes through before he can take off. Changing two out of the three things on my list isn’t going to work. We need to do all three simultaneously,” he tells Times Higher Education.

“US higher education is in a mess. We really can’t bring our costs under control; we still don’t have the completion rates that we ought to have; we aren’t taking advantage of the power of new technology; and universities are losing their standing as enterprises of value and worth. These are the same issues that have been around for 40 years.”

It is this inability to adapt that most concerns Zemsky. Indeed, he even admits to feeling “embarrassed” at the number of times he has been interviewed over the years making recommendations that would shake up US higher education, only to see them make “almost no impact at all”.

“I am nicely respected, and my books are very well read. People know who I am. But things haven’t changed and I’ve been saying things should have changed for 30 years,” says Zemsky, who spent two decades as the founding director of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, one of the US’s major public education policy centres.

In Checklist for Change, his seventh book, he pulls no punches, tackling each of the three identified problem areas. He starts with the academics themselves. “One of the first chapters is called ‘A Faculty Encamped Just North of Armageddon’. We know change is coming – we can see the chaos just over the horizon but we’re still sitting this one out,” he explains.

Attack on tenure

“Some of this is caused by a professional resistance to change on the part of union leadership,” he continues, “but I think more broadly, faculty just aren’t persuaded that they know what to do. They don’t want to make the mess worse, so they’re waiting.”

They wait, he says in the book, despite being well aware that the lives of other professionals have been “uprooted by…new technologies and new forms of financial management” and despite the fact that they have seen “public appropriations for higher education dwindle and in some cases slashed”.

The “attack on tenure” mentioned in Zemsky’s vision has already begun. Since 1975, the percentage of professors in tenured positions has fallen from about 45 per cent of all teaching staff to less than a quarter, and there are signs that the situation is worsening. In one example, the American Bar Association, which has historically offered accreditation only to law schools that offer tenure track positions, in August provisionally accepted plans to drop this requirement.

“At my institution alone, most people with academic qualifications are not tenured – they are on research staff, or on just pure teaching assignments,” Zemsky says.

The federal government also comes in for criticism. Previously a “disinterested source of critical funding” that helped to ensure that US higher education and research maintained its position of global supremacy, Congress, the White House and the Department of Education now weigh in with “their own notions of how to make higher education more accountable”, the book claims. “The message to colleges and universities is direct: if you take the money, then you must do things my way.”

With the government providing more than $130 billion (£82.8 billion) a year in direct grants and loans to students and their families, federal financial input cannot be ignored. However, to access federal funds, universities must comply with an increasing amount of government regulation – another factor that the book says has tended to “freeze current practices to the point of thwarting the changes that most reformers have thought necessary”.

Unintended consequences

“The big problem is that the federal government is now so fractured politically that it can’t do anything. If the government cannot be a leader because it cannot make political decisions then there’s not a lot to be hopeful about,” Zemsky says. “Also, its approach to higher education wastes a lot of money and has a lot of unintended consequences. For example, we are trying to take students who are not really prepared for college and get them through without dropping out, but we have a financial aid system that says you cannot use any aid for remediation.”

In this context, remediation means equipping those students who start university without the skills required to complete their degree with the tools that they need to stay the course. One of the book’s more controversial checkpoints recommends a possible solution: the introduction of a three-year baccalaureate degree.

As well as reducing the cost of a degree to families and students by a quarter, Zemsky says that if the funding model continued to allow undergraduates to access federal aid for a four-year period but complete their degree in three, universities would be able to slash dropout rates by ensuring that students who require remediation could access it in their first year.

“Let’s leave the four years for student aid in place and, if you don’t need remediation, then you have a year left of eligibility for when you want to go on to postgrad study, but if you do need it, then you’ve got the first year to get yourself remediated. That would be much more efficient, and have big results.”

The third of the book’s problem areas is the curriculum. In addition to his proposal for a three-year degree, Zemsky believes that the content of US university courses requires serious re-evaluation.

“We teach a curriculum that is like an endless buffet, which isn’t economically feasible any more,” he says. “Students can put together courses in an almost random order and that doesn’t work.”

Instead, a “designed curriculum” is required, rather than one that has evolved “slowly and largely piecemeal, often reflecting pressures that emerge and then recede”, with no faculty member taking responsibility, resulting in courses that “seldom, if ever” test whether a student has achieved the intended educational goals.

Zemsky believes that this could be his final book, bringing to an end a four-decade writing career. “I kind of think I’m done now, unless something big broke loose and we got change moving, [then] I would write again.” The problem is, he says, that such change seems highly unlikely.

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