Recapture the global imagination

‘The whole world is going to university’ is the cover story in the March 28 issue of The Economist. In the special report ‘Excellence v Equity’, a series of articles examines the current state of global higher education beginning with a thumbnail summary of its’ history to date:

“The modern research university, a marriage of the Oxbridge college and the German research institute, was invented in America, and has become the gold standard for the world. Mass higher education started in America in the 19th century, spread to Europe and East Asia in the 20th and is now happening pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa.”

According to the report, we question of the value of university today because of the tension between research and teaching, and between excellence and equity.

Why the tension between research and teaching? Why are these written about as if they were mutually exclusive activities?

Let’s look at it from the perspective of the work and compensation. A tenure track faculty member is rewarded for research and publications. The percentage of compensation dependent on teaching is only a small part of his or her package. So where would you put your effort? You set your priorities on advancement and compensation.

The skill set of a researcher is not always the same as a great teacher. It’s the rare faculty member who can combine the talents  of research, emotional intelligence and public speaking. On a large research university campus you can probably name 10-20 and these are the classes students place at the top of their list.

To address this, universities spend significant effort working with aspiring faculty who serve as teaching assistants to help them develop their  skills in public speaking and curriculum development. In many cases you are forcing a size 12 foot into a glass slipper.

The tension comes from the culture where teaching and research are not equally valued.

Why can’t we have ‘master’ teachers exist next to researchers in a partnership that clearly articulates research results, identifies ‘real world’ applications and motivates students to dig deeper?

There are many articles and opinion pieces that have circulated recently confirming the belief that adjunct faculty are viewed as ‘second-class’. This is not healthy for an institution advertising itself as ‘world class.’ A university benefits from a faculty that is diverse and combines research with practical application.

The second point of tension identified in the article is between excellence and equity.

How do we determine excellence in higher education? How are we to compare institutions?

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker magazine in 2011, ‘The Order of Things: What college rankings really tell us.’ In it he tries to demystify the college ranking system. And he finds “There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution – how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students.” He finds the ‘proxy’ measures used by U.S. News to be lacking. He is particularly critical of comparing universities with missions to serve a wide range of students to those who are more selective. “Rankings are not benign. They enshrine very particular ideologies, and, at a time when American higher education is facing a crisis of accessibility and affordability, we have adopted a de-facto standard of college quality that is uninterested in both of these factors.”

The larger consequence of this process results in employer recruiting behavior that targets graduates of the most highly selective universities, ignoring the potential candidates who might be a better ‘fit’, congratulating themselves in annual reports for their ‘elite’ candidate pool.

How we value higher education is about how we value the people in a university community: faculty, students, administrators and alumni. Leaders in higher education should step back an reevaluate what it is that makes their community unique. Have the courage to ignore the ratings and compete with the talent and resources they have to articulate a clear vision of their place in society. Create a place of work, study and research that anticipates global problems and is situated to be the first responder with solutions. Recapture the global imagination.

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