From the conference podium at the Four Seasons hotel in this Dallas suburb, a parade of speakers laid out the dire social and economic challenges facing the nation and the need for a radical change in how colleges operate and educate students.
In the hallways, attendees at the conference, billed as "The Future of State Universities," agreed that public colleges face a daunting array of hurdles, including shrinking state appropriations just as they need more help to pay for rising enrollments of low-income, first-generation college students. But the culture of higher education is not known for its ability to change quickly, they said, in part because of stringent accreditation standards and stubborn attitudes of some faculty members.
The two-day conference is being sponsored by Academic Partnerships, a company that works with public universities to expand their use of online instruction. In a series of highly polished video presentations, distance education was touted as an affordable key to expanding college access. The hosts for the conference are two former governors, Jeb Bush, Republican of Florida, and James B. Hunt Jr., Democrat of North Carolina.
Mr. Bush said policymakers value the public mission and value of higher education, but require more accountability from colleges at a time when state revenues are so scarce. And nearly all successful organizations learn how to become more effective and efficient over time, he said.
Randy Best, the company's founder, is on the board of Mr. Hunt's foundation, and Mr. Bush works as a paid consultant for another of Mr. Best's companies, the Whitney University System. Mr. Best said the conference is meant to start a conversation and create a "receptive environment" for the technological changes that are "inevitable" in higher education
Thursday's speakers, who included the former British prime minister Tony Blair and Salman Khan, founder of the collection of online tutorials called Khan Academy, also advocated for an expansion of distance education as one answer to higher education's struggles.
But they were just as adamant that higher education requires a major attitude adjustment. Universities are operating on a 19th-century model and resting on the laurels of their 20th-century successes, Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, told the roughly 200 attendees.
Campus leaders who think their institutions are living up to the demands of 21st-century America should take a more critical view of themselves, said Mr. Crow: "If you think we're performing well, then basically you're enjoying your image in the mirror."
Higher education has been trapped by the thinking that universities must choose between being large and being elite. Some institutions, he said, must choose to try to be both, by innovating the instructional model and allowing access to a broad range of students. Technology can be used to foster the culture of innovation, said Mr. Crow. For example, starting next semester, faculty members at Arizona State will be able to offer courses in less than a semester. Instead, the length of some courses will be based on how quickly students can master the subject, he said.
The goal of that measure, Mr. Crow said, is not just to save money but to help more students succeed. Arizona State is one of the nation's largest universities, with an enrollment of more than 72,000 students. More than 83 percent of the freshmen who entered the university in the fall of 2010 returned for their sophomore year.
While audience members didn't disagree with the challenges, they said the pace of change was too slow and hampered by resistance from faculty members and the all-too-reflective nature of higher education.
Carol J. Rychly, acting vice president for academic affairs at Augusta State University in Georgia, which enrolls about 7,000 students, was one of the audience member. She said public universities are sometimes constrained by the requirements of accreditors, such as standards for faculty credentials and the amount of time that instructors must be in contact with students.
Also attending the conference was James E. McLean, dean of the College of Education at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He said that sometimes the faculty members' resistance to change prevents institutions from potential innovation.
"Faculty are like dinosaurs," he said. "They don't like to change."