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Introducing US Higher Ed

Introducing US Higher Ed

I have occasions still to help with presentations to visiting foreign groups, most commonly Chinese, and it occurs to me that the results raise some interesting topics. First, of course, is the question of what aspects of higher education to pick, when this is the subject requested. I’ll offer my recent choices, but I am really interested in other options. Assume you had an hour for a discussion, including translation time and a real question and answer period: what themes would you want to highlight? Again, my own choices follow, but I am very much open to suggestion for the future. After that I’ll turn to apparent visitor response, which is where a second set of issues comes into play. And of course in both categories – choice of topics and assessment of impact – there is a familiar mixture of pride and embarrassment: the focus is not currently as clearly positive as one might wish.

I pick five topics. First: the lack of a central higher education system nationally, and considerable decentralization even in many states, plus the large private component. The results include great diversity, possibilities for creativity, possibilities for incoherence. Second: the current funding decline in the public higher education sector. Third, the related current, and recurrent, discussion of what higher education is for, whether we measure by first jobs obtained or by wider and more liberal criteria of career preparation and citizenship. Fourth, the ongoing furor over the impact and potential of new technologies, the idea of disruption, the interest in experimentation but also some apparent partial false starts like the MOOCs. And finally, the role of global factors in curriculum, interuniversity alliances, overall orientation.

I think these five topics work fairly well, though of course there are other options. I deliberately include the funding issue, though it exposes some real warts in the current system, because it is so important and because I always believe that a critical presentation of things American works best for a visiting audience, accustomed sometimes to more superficial and cheerleading approaches.

I get some limited sense of audience response, qualified of course by the constraints of translation, time available, and often a desire also to raise some more specific questions about how Mason operates.

I never have any reaction on the funding issue, perhaps because it seems so strange or contradictory to the widespread assumptions of American advantages in higher ed., perhaps out of simple courtesy, perhaps because the contrast with the effort to become more competitive back home is so great. But I hope some of the visitors wonder how public disinvestment in US higher education was decided upon, how it is tolerated even as the economy perks up a bit, or whether American governments actually have found better investment options for the future. But again, embarrassed as I am at this aspect of our current situation, our visitors give it a pass. I just don’t know what they register on privately.

Not so on the issue of organization and policy. No sweeping questions here, no opportunity to consider some of the potential downsides of the lack of system or the widespread American assumptions that more government, particularly more federal involvement, would be a bad thing. But lots of specific comments do shine through, including some surprised questions, about university autonomy in deciding on faculty positions, on promotion, and on other issues of this sort without direct outside intervention and control.

Visitors often resonate as well to the importance of discussing the purposes of higher education. Many Chinese educators are also discussing the limitations of extreme pragmatism, the desirability of more liberal and critical components, so discussions here often identify some real common ground.

The same applies to the issues of technology, including the MOOCs, where many visitors may have assumed that the United States had somehow already developed a successful formula but where we can actually identify a series of questions and uncertainties that are readily shared across national systems. I do make a specific point about our interest in revisiting the lecture system, and how more participatory classrooms strike Chinese students, and this can provoke some good interactions as well.

Of course there’s wide and easy agreement on the importance of greater global outreach – after all, that’s partly why the groups are here. But I do discuss the extent to which American universities have to decide on their own degree of global commitment, amid again the lack of central policies along with considerable parochialism. We don’t usually have time to comment on this potential comparison with China (just think of the current differences in foreign language emphasis), and I spend a moment also on the specific importance of higher ed links between our two countries amid other potential tensions. So though we could go farther on this one, it allows a positive note to end on.

But of course, as with the choice of topic options in the first place, there is always room for debate and speculation. I think the visitors find the topics mostly useful, to some extent provocative – but I wish I knew more about what reactions they trigger, what if anything lingers as they move on to the next offering.