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How to Save Higher Education from Itself 

New book argues that U.S. universities need to abandon tenure, faculty governance and devotion to US News & World Report College rankings.

Eleanor J. Bader Dec 1, 2023

It’s not surprising that over the course of the last few decades confidence in higher education has plummeted. As enrollment fees have continued to ramp up — according to the Education Data Initiative, the cost of tuition (adjusted for inflation), has increased 747.8 percent since the 1960s — many folks have begun to question whether the hype that a college degree is essential is actually true.

Brian Rosenberg, president emeritus of Minnesota’s Macalester College, now a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, agrees that a modicum of skepticism is warranted. In “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It:” Resistance to Change in Higher Education he parses the orthodoxies that govern higher ed and describes small ways to make the academy more responsive to faculty, students and communities.

Rosenberg makes many good points. Nonetheless, he underestimates the value of faculty governance.

First, the positive. Rosenberg is absolutely right that posturing for prominence in the US News and World Report’s annual college rankings is a waste of time and resources. He’s also right that administrators overvalue faculty publications — articles that typically appear in obscure niche journals that have a miniscule readership — over teaching. And he’s right that a business model has taken hold of college boards, perverting the actual function of colleges and universities. This, he writes, has shifted focus from ensuring student exposure to the liberal arts to ensuring a financially-stable bottom line.

Rosenberg insists that decisions about the future of universities should be based on what’s best for the students. 

What’s more, Rosenberg slams reliance on lectures, with students as passive receivers of information, over seminar classes where students are expected to be active members of a learning community.     

They’re good points. Likewise, his observation that in Republican-led states, “higher education has become a frequent and visible punching bag, not because it is among the most pressing problems in the state, but because it is among the most inviting targets,” is spot on. “For a Party that has become increasingly reliant on the support of non-college-educated voters, attacking college is a relatively low-risk, high-reward move,” he writes.

Indeed. Additional topics are also covered, offering a provocative peek into other thorny issues. Take faculty governance. Rosenberg questions why only full-time faculty have a say in institutional decision making. After all, he asks, shouldn’t secretaries, counselors, librarians, maintenance workers and adjuncts have a say in the everyday affairs of the institution that pays them? Shouldn’t they, rather than high-priced consultants and outside law firms, have a chance to voice concerns, suggest innovations and plan for the future? 

Despite these queries, Rosenberg is impatient with governance procedures. His account of endless meetings that repeatedly tread the same ground will resonate with anyone who has spent time listening to colleagues drone on. But this is tricky turf, and he straddles a fine line between limiting faculty contributions, respecting them and stifling them. Small wonder that excluded staff typically bristle when changes happen without their input.

Then there’s tenure. While Rosenberg notes that tenure makes it difficult to fire incompetent professors, it also makes it difficult to get rid of the many old white men who have held academic power for decades. “Freezing departments, specialization, and individual faculty members in place for decades is making it agonizingly difficult for institutions that are facing powerful headwinds and calls to diversify to respond with much more than symbolic change,” he writes. “And almost lost in the incessant battles over tenure is the question that should be top of mind for both faculty and administrators: What is best for students?” 

It’s a good question, a fair question. But shouldn’t job security be the gold standard for every worker, with clear procedures for removal of those who can no longer keep pace, or who no longer want to? 

Still, Rosenberg’s focus on students is refreshing. That said, there are many questions about the future of U.S. higher education that he avoids; not the least of them is how we can stop universities from operating like hedge funds, make them more affordable to diverse students, and once again inspire a love of scholarship that is not tied to purely vocational outcomes. 

Perhaps this is intentional and Rosenberg is leaving it to others to follow up and do this needed work.

Either way, it is important to note that he remains guardedly optimistic. “Even with all its flaws, higher education does far more good than harm,” Rosenberg writes, “engages in many effective practices, and changes countless lives for the better. But if we were willing to think seriously about transformational change … it could provide more benefits to more people more consistently and avoid what looks increasingly like a bleak future for many institutions.”

“Whatever It Is, I’m Against It:” Resistance to Change in Higher Education
By Brian Rosenberg
Harvard Education Press; 224 pages
September 2023

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