The book every change agent in higher education should read

Shoot me if I ever begin a presentation with a slide that says: “The world is changing”, followed by some brilliant insights on the impacts of globalization and social media, and concluding with a call for dramatic change in higher education. Fact is, the world has always been changing. And universities, sluggish and monolithic,  have always struggled to respond and stay relevant – relevant enough, that is, to continue to attract the support of trusting taxpayers and hopeful parents.

But what interests me more these days is the role that higher education plays, intentional or not, in preservation, in holding onto things that seem to matter – not just texts and

John King Books in Detroit

John King Books, Detroit, MI. Do visit if you get the chance.

artifacts, but customs and culture, ways of being and doing – in the face of so much pressure to change.  In this current era of rapid transformation around us, I find myself thinking more and more of the comfort of campus, its predictability, and how we decide what we’ll preserve, for better or worse.

And so it was serendipitous that I would discover, on a recent vacation to Detroit, in amongst the one million volumes contained in the four vast floors of  John K King Used & Rare Books on West Lafeyette Blvd., an inspiring collection of essays on the future of American higher education.

The preface, entitled “Higher Education in a Time of Accelerating Change”, sets the stage:

“There seems today to be a worldwide consensus that the traditional system of higher education does not meet, any longer, the educational needs of a more and more rapidly changing society. University students – anyway, undergraduate students, who are the great majority – are not now receiving as good an education as they have a right to expect and as society needs to give them in its own interests as well as in theirs. Members of university faculties are suffering from a tension between the demands of teaching and the demands of research. It seems to have come to be beyond human capacity to meet both demands adequately if teaching and research continue to be practiced on traditional lines.”

The book goes on to describe an “Agenda for Higher Education in the Innovative Society” that calls for colleges and universities to do the following:

  1. Restore the status of teaching.
  2. Reform the undergraduate curriculum — through new technology and interdisciplinarity.
  3. Expand to year-round operation to accelerate degree completion.
  4. Improve institutional planning.

Of course, the academy will succeed in these endeavours and the remainder of the book is dedicated to predictions, written by distinguished academics and administrators, of what the American campus will look like some 12 years down the road. Among the many promising forecasts for the future are some on student retention and success:

“The college will expect almost all students to succeed and will reflect these expectations in the attitudes of faculty, the assumptions of counselors and the tone of materials about the college…. No president will dream of telling a freshman class to look to either side of them because one of each person’s neighbors will not be around in June.”

Won’t that be wonderful when we have eradicated the sink-or-swim attitude that pervades many of our institutions today?

Student residence will no longer be viewed as peripheral to the academic enterprise, but rather vital to students’ full intellectual development. And campus architecture will reflect this commitment:

“Colleges will long since have abandoned the notion that prison design is a valid prototype for dormitory design. The typical dormitory of an earlier day, with its ranks of identical cells marching in double file down a long corridor, will not disappear…but the old pattern will seldom be followed in building anew.”

Technology, the authors suggest, has great potential to extend the impact of higher education beyond the classroom:

“[New technologies] mean the voice of distinguished lecturers from any place in the nation or in the world, when immediacy or simultaneity are important to instruction, can be brought into an active learning situation, amplified and heard by individuals, small groups, large classes or multisection units of courses….It will be possible to present and/or record discussion among specialists on different subjects, even though they are widely dispersed.”

Where can I get my hands on this promising picture of the campus of the future – this utopian vision where we have rectified our mistakes, changed our wicked ways, responded to public and government demand and created a campus that respects and celebrates undergraduate learning – you ask? You’ll want to use excerpts for your next funding proposal, no doubt.

I’m afraid you won’t find the book on Amazon. If you’re combing the shelves, look for a hideous jacket design, featuring the title of the book in a typeface designed in 1936 called Futura Black. But I’m not sure you’ll find it in any bookstore, even if you went to John K King on West Lafayette Blvd in downtown Detroit. Because I bought the only copy.

The book is called Campus 1980. It was published in 1968.

Yup. We’ve been talking about the same issues, the same “crisis” in higher education, for over 40 years, and probably much longer. And despite more than four decades of pressure to restore teaching to its rightful place, to use technology to our advantage, and to produce capable, ethical, responsible and employable young graduates, we’ve preserved much of the same ways of doing things that prevailed in 1968. And we’re still gathering at conferences to hear presentations that start with slides that pronounce: “The world is changing.”


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