For Innovation to Occur, Colleges Need a Big Push, Scholars Say

June 03, 2010

A diverse array of scholars gathered here on Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute for a conference on "Reinventing the American University: The Promise of Innovation in Higher Education." There is, of course, no shortage of material on that theme, but the speakers at Thursday's meeting gamely tried to say something new.

The structural incentives within higher education "seem to push against innovation," said Dominic J. Brewer, an associate dean and professor of urban leadership and education at the University of Southern California. "They seem to push toward mimicry."

That theme ran through the conference's first two panels: The structure of higher education makes it difficult to improve the quality of teaching. But the speakers did not always agree about which structural factors are to blame for the purported institutional sclerosis. Some pointed fingers at faculty-governance systems, which they said slowed down the pace of change. Others blamed regional accreditors for being too inflexible about, for example, standard models of credit hours.

Missing Incentives

In a draft paper written with William G. Tierney, director of Southern California's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, Mr. Brewer argued that because most government subsidies for higher education are tied to enrollments, there is little incentive for colleges and universities to improve their graduation rates or other student outcomes.

William F. Massy, a former vice president of Stanford University who now works as a consultant, said that colleges need to become much more sophisticated about measuring the teaching productivity of their departments and the quality of student learning. (In his own conference paper, he sketches a proposal for how to do that.)

"The key thing at the systems level is that top-level people need to insist that campuses make these changes a high priority," Mr. Massy said. "I don't mean 'encourage.' I mean 'insist.' It's only when presidents and provosts start talking about this at every stage within the institution that we'll get it done."

Mr. Massy singled out for praise the new health-sciences program at the University of Minnesota at Rochester. (He has served as a consultant there.)

"What they have done is to turn the box upside down," Mr. Massy said. He praised that program for embracing instructional models that are based on cognitive-science research, and for structuring its faculty in a way that rewards teaching more than disciplinary research.

But the Rochester program is also old-fashioned in some ways: Its students all live on the campus. They are expected to form intense bonds with one another and to follow a fixed curriculum for two years, as in a traditional liberal-arts program. In those respects, the Rochester campus is at odds with the enthusiasm for distance education and for radical redefinitions of the credit hour that was sometimes voiced at Thursday's conference.

A Less-Educated Faculty

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a professor of economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, offered a rather gloomy analysis of changes in the faculty profession.

Outside of elite research universities and liberal-arts colleges, Mr. Ehrenberg said, most institutions of higher education are likely to see a "de-skilling" of faculty jobs in the coming years, as fewer instructors will have Ph.D.'s.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that the quality of education will go down, if there's more effort put into the selection, evaluation, and training of instructors," he said. "But it will have an adverse effect on the research that undergraduate students get to do."

Two speakers dissented, in part, from the basic premise that there is too little innovation in higher education. Jack H. Schuster, a professor emeritus of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate University, said there is plenty of experimentation at American colleges; he expects higher education to be substantially transformed within the next decade.

And Candace Thille, director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, said the problem is not a lack of innovation but a failure to carefully study the experiments that do take place. Thousands of college instructors make good-faith efforts to improve their teaching, she said, but there are usually no resources for evaluating or replicating those innovations.

The conference was organized by Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector (and a columnist for The Chronicle); Andrew P. Kelly, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and Ben Wildavsky, a senior fellow in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. It was supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.