The following opening year comments and critiques offered by Dean of Science, Michael Roberts, has caused quite the stir at Coastal. In particular, his assertion fellow Coastal academics are “MEANT to be in ivory towers,” left listeners bewildered and in disagreement. The term “ivory tower” is entirely pejorative, describing a place where self-proclaimed elitists isolate themselves from those they feel are unworthy of access. This results in “impractical often escapist attitudes¹” producing practices that are disconnected from everyday world experiences and are insensitive to racial and socioeconomic differences. Many felt Roberts’ belief an “ivory tower” is something colleges strive for not only exemplified the problem with said isolation, but reflected the problematic elitist and separatist climate on campus.
College of Science – Intro Talk 8-14-14
Dr. Michael H. Roberts
In my prepared remarks today, I want to talk briefly about some challenges that we face – not just us here in the College of Science at CCU, but more generally in higher education – However, I will bring these concerns and challenges back around to what we all do as part of this University and hopefully generate a discussion that may be useful as we look forward to the next few years here at CCU.
The first thing I will say, and this is probably obvious to many of you, but in spite of our good fortune here at CCU this is a difficult time in our economic sector; a time of great change in our world of higher education. If you look at headlines in the Chronicle of Higher Education, you will see reports of these changes: The headlines: “For twenty years Crisis and Change have been the rule”, “There is a deficit of opportunity”, “Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly”.
While many things can cause change, there are three extrinsic factors that often lead to rapid transitions, if not revolutions in societies. The first is the popping of a bubble – speculation leads to a serious miss-match between cost and value. Examples include the dot-com bubble of the ‘80’s, the housing bubble of a few years ago, and even the “tulip mania” of 1637. A second extrinsic factor driving change can be a demographic shift. An interesting historical example is the end of feudalism in the 1300’s. Due to the Black Death, and the resulting population loss, labor became an extremely valuable commodity and the economic system was dramatically altered. A third factor can be a technological innovation – a new way of doing things sweeps through an industry – assembly lines, transistors.
An interesting thing we currently face in Higher Education, is that all three of these potential industry-changing extrinsic factors are occurring at the same time. A Bubble – I think we all know that tuition costs are rising. Now there is nothing wrong with raising prices as long as the perceived (and actual) value of your product rises along with the cost. However, the increase in student loan default rates might suggest that the value of our “product” – an educated student – is not worth as much as we think – students are not being employed at the level necessary to repay their investments. A miss-match between cost and value may indicate a bubble is about to pop.
Demographics – there has been a change in the number of students heading to college. In the decade looking forward there is estimated to be a 10% increase in the college-bound population. This may seem just fine, except that over the past decade, looking back, there was a 27% increase in this population. So our rate of increase is dropping, just as new players in the higher education arena are expanding (in the past decade there was only a 10% increase in non-profit enrollment while for-profit enrollment increased 230%). As a consequence, we may be heading to a demographic “crunch”.
Innovation – I am not that concerned about the arrival of MOOCs and the expansion of on-line learning. However, the advent of “badges” and “competency-based-education” has the potential to dramatically change our educational business model – from one where time is the constant and learning is the variable, to one where learning is the constant and time is the variable. This change may dramatically alter how higher education works and provides its services.
All these three changes occurring at the same time (bubble, demographics, innovation) – each of which alone is capable of destroying an economic sector – worries me deeply, and sometimes keeps me up at night as I reflect on the fact that most university business models are completely unsustainable. Keep in mind however, that I am a strong advocate of what we do as educators, and from previous comments I have made here at these meetings, I have the utmost respect for our role as the defenders of a 1000-year-old tradition in our society… and I don’t let worry paralyze me too easily.
To extend the above, a further worry I have is that our nature as academics is to comfortably live in ivory towers. But I don’t mention this solely as a pejorative. We are MEANT to be in ivory towers; it is how we do what we do – and we do it very well. By isolating ourselves from the “outside” we are able to bring together bright thoughtful people in a distinct physical space. By doing so, both faculty and students learn to create novel connections and create bridges between ideas and disciplines that might not occur in more structured learning environments. The creation of these random and novel connections is what makes our ivory tower such a rich place for students and faculty to learn together and generate the ideas and frameworks that will allow new ways of looking at the world – and thus solve many of our challenges. However, there is a problem of living in the ivory tower if we turn too inward and consciously avoid seeing the challenges, and avoid changing in response to what we see.
With all this as introduction, I want to move in a more positive direction and present a note of hope. It is my contention that there are a few additional things that are occurring around us, that may allow us to delay, or even prevent, our day of reckoning.
First, there is a strong need for education. As I have mentioned at each of our first-year orientations this summer, the pace of change in our society today is such that there is a strong need for continued education and life-long learning. A thousand years ago, if you did things the same way your great-grand parents did them, you would be OK. One hundred years ago, if you did things the same way as your parents did them you would be fine. However, today if you simply rely upon the techniques and skill sets of your older sibling you may be in trouble.
So, society today is characterized by a HUGE need for continuing education – and our universities are uniquely positioned to do that. Second, the “flattening” of the world, and the opening of global markets, has created multiple opportunities for expansion – and Dr. Domke-Damonte will be talking later this morning about how you can participate in CCU’s expanding global initiatives. Third, and finally, if you look at what often drives change in society it is often technological innovations – and as a College of Science we are not just a passive responder to the things that drive change, but we can be a driver of that change – or at least be close enough to the change to see it coming well before others do.
As a consequence, the reason we explore new programs and new initiatives here in our college is not simply to say “us too” as we compare our program offerings to others in the state. We see new educational opportunities and then we act on what we see. The reason we have Humanities Dean Dan Ennis looking at non-traditional credit-bearing and tuition-generating programs is to open up new opportunities for potential students – and create new revenue streams. The reason I have been spending my time working to create the “Conway Innovation Center” downtown is to expand public-private partnerships to leverage the intellectual capital of CCU, HGTC, and the community to yield more funding opportunities.
So, while in one respect this is a challenging time for higher education, I think we at CCU, and in the College of Science, have always thought creatively about what we can do as we served our local community – and as a consequence, while holding on to the value of our bucolic ivory tower, we also are fully aware of how we can do things differently. This combination of tradition – and forward-thinking – will ensure our successful future.
Over the upcoming year we will be reviewing and revising our five year-plan to see if it matches today what we thought we needed to do when we started the process a few years ago. If asked to serve on the planning committee, please think seriously about an affirmative response. But even if not asked, there will be ample opportunities to make your voice heard. Make sure you bring your thoughts forward, to me or to others, on what you feel we can do to continue to make the College of Science the exemplar of the quality education that students receive at CCU.
In closing, thank you for all that you do for the college, the university, and our students … and welcome to the Fall of ‘14…
¹ “Ivory Tower.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ivory tower>.