On the Nature of Change in Higher Ed (Part I): A Guest Post By Judith C. Brown

November 9, 2011, 10:09 am

Lecturing in a Medieval University by Laurentius De Voltolina (14th Century). Courtesy of

Today’s guest blogger is Judith C. Brown, who has been a professor of history at Stanford, Rice, and Wesleyan universities. At Rice she also served as Dean of the School of Humanities and at Wesleyan as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. As a professor emerita at Wesleyan she continues to work on issues of higher education and of history.

Prompted by contemporary debates about the worth of a college education in today’s labor market, she decided to publish her reflections on  the state of higher ed following Paul Krugman’s column “Inequality Trends in One Picture,” (New York Times, November 3 2011).  Her essay will appear in Tenured Radical in three parts.

When dealing with change in colleges and universities, it’s good to recall what Machiavelli said in The Prince: “. . . one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new system of things . . . .” This is particularly true in higher education because of the unique relationship these institutions have to various constituencies ─ faculty, students, administrators, boards of trustees, state and federal governments and the general public.

Colleges and universities have been around for centuries, so one sometimes hears: why change something that’s endured for so long? Many alumni think certain things should never change (e.g. the curriculum, a college’s social clubs and institutions); many faculty members think some things should never change (their contributions to college or university governance, their role in educational issues, and a thousand other issues from the scheduling of courses to the design of a university’s brochures); many students think some of the things they wish for should never change (infinite flexibility in course options and the availability of high-quality but inexpensive food at any hour of day or night); most parents, governments, and the public think some other things should never change (the price of going to college), and so on. When everyone is the university’s “owner” (See Henry Rosovsky’s delightfully titled, The University: An Owner’s Manual, 1991), change is much more difficult to accomplish (See ch. 1 of Ronald Ehrenberg’s Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much, 2002), and it is infinitely more difficult when the organization has existed for many decades or centuries.

Yet universities must change with the times, especially when social conditions are changing rapidly, else they will not survive or not survive in a form that would be appealing to the best students and the best faculty, with the result that we might not attract either one. By the last half of the 18th century, for example, some of the most prestigious English and French universities had become creaky, tradition-bound structures, impervious to change, and teaching an outdated curriculum in ways that were irrelevant to the great ideas and scientific breakthroughs of the times. They continued to function, but they did not nurture, indeed they missed, the big revolutionary changes of the last half of the 18th century. When one thinks of the Enlightenment and the revolutions spawned by it, one does not think of Oxford, Cambridge, or the Sorbonne, but of Scottish and German universities, as well as the members of the “republic of letters” outside of universities, with the revolutionary crowds in the streets of Paris and other cities towards the end. In the early 19th century, it was in the relative “backwater” of the German universities as well as in the newer universities of Europe, where imagination and flexibility with regard to change were able to flourish, that we see the beginnings of the modern research university.

Are we in that kind of turning point in American higher education?

[Go here for Part II.]

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