The topic of our conversation was the relationship between the two focal points of her work: scholarship and teaching. She’d been digging into the subject with some energy and, after careful examination of both internal evidence like teaching evaluations and external studies with larger data sets, had concluded that in fact there was no positive correlation between traditional measures of research productivity and effectiveness in the classroom. (This conclusion has been confirmed
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The topic of our conversation was the relationship between the two focal points of her work: scholarship and teaching. She’d been digging into the subject with some energy and, after careful examination of both internal evidence like teaching evaluations and external studies with larger data sets, had concluded that in fact there was no positive correlation between traditional measures of research productivity and effectiveness in the classroom. (This conclusion has been confirmed many times since.)
This is of course a big deal, given the firmly held belief, particularly at research-intensive liberal-arts colleges like Macalester, that excellence in scholarship and excellence in teaching are mutually reinforcing. That belief informs everything from hiring practices to tenure decisions to salary increases. It lies at the heart of the way the college describes and thinks about itself.
We decided that this was a subject of enough interest and importance to be worthy of a broader discussion within the faculty. Neither of us expected rapid or dramatic change, but the first step toward improvement of any kind seemed to be consideration of the evidence. We scheduled a voluntary town-hall meeting at which the director would present some of her findings and lead a discussion, and ahead of that meeting I sent a letter to the faculty that including the following questions:
Have the expectations for scholarly productivity at Macalester grown to the point where they are distorting the professional development of our untenured and some of our tenured faculty and are working against other interests — such as teaching, advising, and course development — that we recognize as critically important? Have we moved closer to a university model and further from a liberal-arts college model of the teaching/scholarship/service balance than is healthy?
No surprise: Things did not go well.
The response at the town-hall meeting was mostly hostile, though not so hostile as the subsequent comments over email or in hallways. I was accused by one faculty member of trying to “turn Macalester into a kindergarten.” Even those less hostile to the findings simply ignored or dismissed them. Not only was there resistance to change: There was resistance to talking about change. Simply raising this subject was seen by many faculty members as an assault on the values of the college.
After a couple of weeks of intense pushback, the director and I independently reached the same conclusion: It wasn’t worth it. Given all the day-to-day pressures of running the college and serving our students, we simply did not have the energy to engage in a debate that was likely to inflame the faculty and ultimately lead nowhere.
If maintenance of the status quo is the goal, higher education has managed to create the ideal system.
I dwell on this story not merely because the irony of defending the role of research by ignoring the research on the topic is exquisite, but because it is emblematic of a widespread problem within higher education. The resistance to anything like serious change is profound. By “change” I don’t mean the addition of yet another program or the alteration of a graduation requirement, but something that is transformational and affects the way we do our work on a deep level.
Ours remains a realm in which the decision by the Cornell University Department of English to change its name to the Department of Literatures in English constitutes controversy. Among the top 10 “most innovative” universities on U.S. News & World Report’s 2022 list are such radical actors as MIT, Stanford, and Purdue, which says a good deal about how narrowly innovation is imagined in this space. Virtually any administrator or faculty member who begins with an idea for transformational change will eventually reach the same conclusion about the battle: It’s not worth it.
For years I have pondered the question of why an industry so widely populated by people who consider themselves politically liberal is so deeply conservative when it comes to its own work; why scholars whose disciplines are constantly evolving are so resistant to institutional evolution; why colleges and universities that almost always speak in their mission statements about the transformative power of education find it so difficult to transform themselves; why virtually no fundamental practice within higher education — calendar, tenure processes, pedagogy, grading — has changed in meaningful ways for decades, if not centuries.
These questions are regularly asked, but the most common answers are not sufficient. Faculty tend to blame bureaucratic administrators; administrators tend to blame stubbornly entrenched faculty; many outside higher education tend to blame pretty much everyone having to do with the enterprise. The answer, as is so often the case, lies in the structures, practices, and cultures that have developed within higher education. If maintenance of the status quo is the goal, higher education has managed to create the ideal system.
What is it about higher education that has for so long prevented transformational change? Why do even institutions on life support fail to go in radically new directions? And is there anything that can be done about this?
Real change is clearly necessary. Of the nearly 4,000 two- and four-year postsecondary institutions listed by the National Center for Education Statistics, perhaps 100 might be described as largely immune to the current and future pressures of the marketplace. The rest are faced with challenges to both their financial and their educational models that might be different in kind but are dauntingly similar in seriousness.
The economic challenge can be explained in terms that are complicated or simple. Since I am by training an English professor, I will opt for simple.
1. The cost of providing the services at a traditional college or university is very high and has risen for decades more rapidly than inflation or the cost-of-living index.
2. At all but a handful of institutions with enormous endowments, revenue from students funds the majority of that cost.
3. There are not enough students who are both willing and able to pay the full cost of higher education.
4. There are not enough students, period.
Cut through all the graphs and economic data and the problem is straightforward: When the service you provide costs more than people are willing and able to pay for it, when you are unable to lower the cost of that service, and when the number of your potential customers is shrinking, you have what one might describe as an unsustainable financial model.
Colleges have typically responded to financial pressures in two ways: by cutting things and by discounting the price. Let us consider the cutting approach, which generally follows a template: “The economic and demographic headwinds are strong; we are moving proactively to make our college/university more financially sustainable; even though we will be offering fewer things with fewer people, this is all about improving the student experience; we are not — really and truly — in a state of financial exigency.” I understand the need to put forth such narratives, but they can result in contortions in reasoning that are truly remarkable.
Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota — a typical example of an at-risk institution — announced in 2022 the elimination of 11 majors and 13 full-time faculty members with a statement asking itself: “How can we best prepare our students for work, for a life of ethical service, to pursue the greater good and the truth in all things while answering their questions about meaning and purpose?” Among the impacted programs are English, history, music, and (yes) theology. The emphasis going forward will be on business, technology, and the natural sciences. This is, to say the least, a novel way of preparing students for lives of meaning and service, though it sounds more palatable than the truth: We hope to survive by shifting resources away from the arts and humanities, which students are abandoning in droves, and into business, tech, and the sciences, where we might find a place in a highly competitive market.
In 2014, Hiram College, in Ohio, deeply in debt, eliminated majors in art history, music, philosophy, and religion and added sports management and international studies. It calls this approach “the new liberal arts.” Or, I should say, The New Liberal Arts™. Reader, they trademarked it.
Even small cuts can generate an outsize response.
The campus and alumni response to these cuts follows a pattern as formulaic as the announcements: shock; grief; outrage; protests. Sometimes a vote of no-confidence, sometimes a threat to withhold all giving. Not infrequently, when met with this wholly predictable reaction, the cuts are reduced or entirely reversed, leaving one to wonder what sort of response these administrators and board members expected. The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point made national news in 2018 when it announced a plan to eliminate 13 majors. Drama ensued. After reducing the number of proposed eliminations to six, Stevens Point ended by eliminating ... none — which neither addressed the long-term budgetary challenges nor entirely placated the community, which remained angry that the plan had been proposed in the first place.
The announced cuts at Saint Mary’s and Stevens Point would be a very big deal, but even small cuts can generate an outsize response. When I arrived at Macalester in the fall of 2003, the college was one of a handful in the Midwest to have a varsity Nordic ski team, though the team had very few members (nine, I believe) and was very expensive to maintain. Based on the recommendation of an athletic director concerned about his budget, I announced that Nordic skiing would be converted to a “club sport,” a more appropriate status given its size and cost. This was, in other words, not even a cut, but something more like a downgrade.
This announcement managed to inflame not just the Macalester campus but, as far as I could tell, the entire Nordic skiing community in the United States. Three hundred emails later, I had been accused of everything from undermining Nordic skiing in America to threatening Macalester’s standing as a liberal-arts college. (Imagine if Twitter, Facebook, and Change.org had existed in 2003. My presidency would have been very brief.) I did stand firm, but I also received an early lesson on the difficulty of taking anything away from a college community.
Consider, for example, the lecture, which has ruled the classroom for hundreds of years. Scott Freeman, a biologist at the University of Washington, traces the history of the lecture back to 1050, when universities were founded in Western Europe. The evidence that lectures are an ineffective way of teaching is both voluminous and incontrovertible. As Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist and one of the pioneers of the “flipped classroom,” puts it: “It’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have [the] data” about its weaknesses — yet lectures in classrooms large and small, in person and over Zoom, remain very common.
An analysis of more than 200 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods led to the conclusion that “approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation.” In other words, learning by doing is more effective than learning by listening. I would not go so far as to say that the lecture should suddenly vanish altogether, but isn’t the topic worth at least a faculty meeting or two?
In 2012 Harvard Magazine laid out the case against the format in a piece about Mazur that was titled, rather optimistically, “Twilight of the Lecture.” More than a decade later, the sun is little closer to setting.
Another feature of higher education that could do with an update is the academic calendar. During my decades as a student, teacher, and administrator, I’ve been associated with six colleges and universities, and at every one the central work — teaching students — happened at full bore for two-thirds of the year. (To be fair, this is not the case at many two-year and some four-year institutions.) Of what other essential industry is this true? Imagine if hospitals or supermarkets or the postal service took a pause in January and another from June through August. I never did get over the strangeness of walking into Macalester’s $50-million arts complex in the middle of July and finding the lights off, the air conditioning on, and, sometimes, not a single other person in the building. Occasionally I would cross paths with a solitary faculty member working in an office or a small group of middle-school students participating in a summer arts program. Our $40-million recreation center was used in the summer for activities like cheerleading camps and sports academies, which never involved Macalester students and brought in very little revenue. I cannot think of another industry that makes such inefficient use of an expensive physical plant.
The most compelling reasons the sector needs to change are not economic but pedagogical.
Because shutting down for three months in the summer is not sufficient for most colleges, many also take a long winter break. At Macalester students are off from mid-December to late January. Once upon a time the break was used for J-term courses, but in the early 1990s the faculty voted to eliminate those courses but elected then — and has elected ever since — not to alter the calendar, which falls under their control. The result is that classes are taught for fewer than 30 weeks a year, just enough to meet the minimum requirement for accreditation.
The interruption of teaching in the service of research is regularly justified on two bases. Research universities in particular are essential drivers of innovation, and faculty are therefore fulfilling two roles: teaching students and advancing society through the creation of knowledge. This argument is powerful when it comes to the STEM disciplines, but it moves onto shakier ground when applied to most fields in the humanities. Try as I might, I cannot convince myself that the world is a better place because I published a book on Dickens’s Little Dorrit — though it did help me get promoted — nor can I convince myself that writing that book was more valuable to society than teaching my students to write and to read carefully and to appreciate the power of literature.
The second justification is that productive scholars make better teachers. There are great and not-great teachers; there are great and not-great scholars. Those categories do not overlap in any easily predictable way, yet at the most elite colleges and universities, and even at many that are not so elite, we simply pretend that they do.
The strongest arguments against the typical calendar are both financial and educational. The simplest way to reduce the cost of a four-year college degree would be to make it a three-year college degree, and this could be accomplished rather easily by expanding the length of the academic year. There is nothing magical about either the four-year degree or the requirement of 120 credits, both of which are based more on tradition than on evidence of efficacy, and neither of which is the norm in places like Britain, Germany, and in parts of Africa.
One can argue that the credit requirement is tied to the expectation of breadth as well as depth, at least in liberal-arts education, but it is more difficult to argue that these credits must be spread out over four years interrupted by extended breaks. Previous attempts to offer a three-year degree have been met both with resistance from faculty, who were concerned about academic rigor, and with a lack of enthusiasm from students, who seemed to want the full, four-year college experience. A recent project led by Robert Zemsky and Lori Carrell called “College in 3” is working with 13 institutions to pilot a three-year degree, though it is too soon to determine whether the rising cost of tuition will increase the appeal of the shorter time to completion or whether the effort will gain broad traction with faculty, students, or chief financial officers.
In the longer run, nothing much will change about desires for higher education — so demand will return to normal. Nothing much will change about the cost of delivering higher education — so supply will return to normal. Online instruction might grow as a niche product, but for most purposes human contact is superior. In a few years, college finances should be back to their usual state of at least getting by.
“At least getting by”: less than inspiring and, for more and more colleges, an iffy proposition in the medium and long term. Startz seems wrong about demand, unless increased demand for elite colleges and decreased demand for everyone else is considered “normal,” but he seems closer to right when it comes to the financial model (little changed) and the mode of instruction. The pandemic years are more likely to be viewed by traditional colleges as an interruption than as a permanent shift in direction. Stanford University’s John C. Mitchell worries about what he sees:
Two years after the burst of energetic innovation and unexpected discovery, my biggest frustration is that most colleges and universities, including my own, are turning their backs on all we learned. Remote work is strictly regulated. Online teaching is out. Innovations like active or mastery-based learning, long known to experts in education, are falling by the wayside as old habits return all too easily. Transformation is nowhere in the vocabulary. Most importantly, there are no broad efforts by college leaders to codify what we learned or leverage the resourcefulness, ingenuity, empathy and understanding we gained by powering through the pandemic. It’s as if we spent two years building the foundation for a new future, only to abandon it for the familiar discomfort of a system widely in need of reinvention.
In Mitchell’s own department at Stanford, computer science, final exams were eliminated during the remote pandemic year, then came back, in person, the following year; small, regular quizzes, or “concept checks,” were added during the remote year, then discontinued; a revise-and-resubmit policy was instituted during the remote year, then discontinued.
One would be very hard-pressed to find a traditional, in-person college that has announced a permanent shift to more online or asynchronous instruction or one with a physical campus that has decided to rely less on its buildings. Most of the revisions to the academic calendar that were made during the pandemic — summer sessions or divided semesters — are being reversed. Students are back to taking graded examinations. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The pandemic years are more likely to be viewed by traditional colleges as an interruption than as a permanent shift in direction.
Even with all its flaws, higher education does far more good than harm, engages in many effective practices, and changes countless lives for the better. But if it were willing to think seriously about transformational change, let alone to initiate it, if it were willing to examine its own ways of working as carefully as it examines many of the disciplines within its curricula, it could provide more benefits to more people more consistently and avoid what looks increasingly like a bleak future for many institutions. The industry seems at the same time both to acknowledge and to ignore this reality.
Inside Higher Education’s 2023 survey of college and university presidents is head-spinning. Almost 80 percent believe that their institution will be financially stable over the next decade at the same time as 72 percent believe that their “institution needs to make fundamental changes in its business models, programming and other operations.” Three-quarters agree that the “perception of colleges as places that are intolerant of conservative views is having a major negative impact on attitudes about higher education,” and 59 percent agree that “public doubts about the affordability of higher education are justified.”
The threats seem to exist everywhere but on their own campuses. Kevin R. McClure, who studies and teaches about higher education, notes somewhat gently that these presidents are “perhaps operating more on hope than on strategy.” Rick Staisloff, whose firm consults with dozens of colleges and universities, views the survey results with concern: “If the opinions expressed here were true, higher education could continue doing what it is doing, the way it is doing it. ... I would not advise any president in the United States today to carry their current model forward as is.” And Paul N. Friga, who also consults with many of these colleges, notes with some bewilderment that “there still seems to be this feeling that ‘we’ll just get by somehow.’” For some of these institutions, that might end up as a sad but appropriate epitaph.
This essay is adapted from Whatever It Is, I’m Against It: Resistance to Change in Higher Education, out this month from Harvard Education Press.