Karen Hitchcock: Higher Education at a Crossroads

Dec 6, 2012

Vartan Gregorian, the highly respected head of the Carnegie Corporation, is championing the convening of a national commission, established by the President, which would, in his words, “work on the challenges facing higher education” and which would include all sectors of postsecondary education  -   public and private, two-year and four-year  -   in an inclusive discussion of how our nation’s diverse system of higher education can best serve the needs of a more global and more technology – driven society.   Be it in terms of completion rates, or participation in STEM disciplines, or preparation for high-tech jobs, the U.S. is falling behind its global competitors.   When our nation’s high-tech businesses need to outsource some 50% of their available jobs to other countries given “gaps” in the preparation of our nation’s young people, it is clearly time for an in-depth analysis of our nation’s system of higher education.  This so-called “skills gap” should be a wake-up call to all in our nation’s institutions of higher education.  There is something, I would argue, fundamentally flawed in the approach we are taking as we seek to prepare the workforce so essential to our nation’s future prosperity.  

In a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Lundquist, Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment Management at our own Sage Colleges, made the very important point that the time had come for truly innovative thinking; for moving beyond current paradigms and traditional pedagogies and to use the occasion of such a presidential commission to engage, in his words, “in candid, intentional future-think, [with participants] bringing the substance of their experience to the table while leaving the comfort of the familiar at home.”  He goes on to cite cost, content and value as the most critical concerns facing our nation’s institutions of higher education.   I would add to that list, responsiveness.   How responsive have our colleges and universities been to major demographic shifts and profoundly altered ways to gain knowledge?  How attuned are they to the changing workforce needs of globally-connected, technology-driven industries? How responsive have they been to these ever evolving demands on our nation’s industries?  How responsive have they been to our vastly altered global context?

The kind of presidential commission being suggested by Mr. Gregorian will succeed only to the degree that its members can, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “think anew, and act anew.”  It must, as pointed out by Mr. Lundquist in his commentary, recognize that we are at the point, “when [just] trying harder doesn’t work.”  Our track record over the last several decades has not been good.   We in academe have been slow to acknowledge a profoundly altered context for learning.  We have been reluctant to experiment with new pedagogies and new curricular content. We have too often failed to acknowledge the critical role our universities and colleges play in meeting societal needs.   But, if the proposed presidential commission can be populated by people of creativity and foresight, people willing to “think anew,” it may well produce results which will profoundly affect the future of higher education in this country.  There should be nothing sacred in the commission’s discussions --  not current curricula, not current modes of content delivery, not current timelines for degree completion, not current roles played by the different sectors within higher education, not current approaches to certification and accreditation  --  nothing should be outside the scope of the commission’s discussions.  If such openness and candor can be achieved, the proposed presidential commission could well gain the prominence and historic significance its proponent’s desire.

The commission’s success will also be determined in large measure by a diversity of perspectives.  Mr. Gregorian rightly suggests a broad and inclusive membership of “educators, business people and civic leaders.”  And I strongly agree with him that it is long overdue for a discussion of how the various segments of the higher education system can best interact to create seamless, challenging and effective educational pathways for our students.  It is in this area that I feel innovation is both necessary and possible.  Cost effective, high quality educational programs, tailored to the needs of our students and their future employers should be our goal.  Fully utilizing all segments of our educational system (public and private, residential and on-line, two-year community colleges and four-year colleges and universities) in creative and productive ways will enable us to fulfill this goal, even as we reclaim our nation’s global leadership in higher education.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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