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Partially Disrupted Universities

Partially Disrupted Universities

As I look at some key aspects of our current draft strategic plan, and also reread some recent literature on higher ed, I am struck not by the need or desire for total innovation (which is what some of the disrupt language suggests) but on the demanding combination of old and new goals. So a few thoughts on the more subtle challenges involved.

Take the current shape of our strategic plan. It has a number of goals, but two that are particularly relevant here are the highly conventional and ambitious desire to become a fuller player as a research university, and the intention of maintaining an inclusive growth strategy predicated in part on continued tuition accessibility. The first goal is something we’ve been working on for years, as we strive to enter the ranks of the recognized Big Boys. And I believe in it deeply: it expands Mason’s role in contributing valuable new knowledge in a variety of fields and it enhances educational value (if properly organized) not only by helping us attract top faculty, but also in providing research-informed teaching and study options for students, even undergraduates.

But instead of combining this goal with the equally conventional goal of trying to become more and more selective in our recruitment of students (the conventional, predisruption goal), we talk instead about rapid growth, about pride in letting qualified students in rather than bragging about how many we turn down and so on. The result is another (in my opinion) highly desirable goal, but one that doesn’t fit as cleanly with research aspirations as a more conventional statement might. The incompatibility is not complete: we’re not talking about lowering admissions standards (which have risen over the past decade) or admitting marginal students. I think the research goal indeed compels us to be even more selective at the PhD level (with resources to match). But the idea of simultaneously building a higher-powered research university while attending to accessibility and diverse learning paths for undergraduates is unquestionably demanding, requiring a diversely talented faculty – more diversely talented than a more harmoniously conventional set of goals would require.

The budget tension is obvious: the research part will cost us money, to hire additional faculty and to provide the budget match for what we hope will be rapidly increasing external funding. Doing  this while reaching out to diverse students and keeping tuition reasonable will be no small trick.  It can be done, but it’s not the easiest combination for the future. Or alternatively: reaching out to more and more students might be easier if we just focused on higher teaching loads and some new educational delivery systems, through which per student costs might be driven down. But this is not what we’re talking about either.

Again the point is that we hope to have our innovation cake with some clearly conventional frosting, or vice versa. We’re not throwing away all the old standards, but also not rejecting the demands of our altered student demographics and economics. It’s the combination that counts.

I had occasion prior to an upcoming panel to reread Jeff Selingo’s intriguing recent book, College (Un)Bound. Here, at first blush, is an unabashed appeal for innovation, for the failure of existing higher ed systems in terms of costs, learning outcomes, the whole nine yards. And lots of appeals for innovation, particularly on the technology side but also through imaginative uses of demonstrations of competence, career based credits, and so on. Yet, toward the end, there’s a much more conventional appeal for more opportunities for undergraduate research, study abroad, critical thinking – educational goals that many of us have been working on for quite a while; and goals that, frankly, suggest some real budget demands, rather than clear paths toward major savings. The point is not to slam the book, which is valuable in part because of its ambitious effort to combine old and new; but rather to point out that even many innovation advocates (quite properly) have trouble giving up older – dare I say it, liberal educational – goals.

Maybe we can have more fruitful combinations if instead of dividing into bold/new and defensive/traditional, we recognize that most of us are in fact striving for a blend, where complexity will outweigh easy consistency.