Professors love to trash tech talk, not least in the pages of The Chronicle. In 2020, Justin Reich, author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education, ridiculed Silicon Valley’s repeated declarations of a new “dawn.” Last year, Kevin Gannon punctured the canard that “disruptive innovation” must come from outside the academy, and focused on the innovative teaching that happens within our institutions. Back in February, Laura Wolf-Powers urged skepticism toward innovation districts, suggesting that their promise of “synergistic” social improvement is an alibi for profit.
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I’m guilty too. In a book I co-authored with John Marx in 2018, we could not resist swiping at ed-tech’s “mock revolutionaries” for their historical shortsightedness and unrealized messianic fervor.
Schadenfreude has its blind spots, something François Furstenberg’s recent entry to the genre, “Higher Ed’s Grim, Soulless, Ed-Techified Future,” makes particularly evident. The essay rushes to add “skills” to the list of ed-tech buzzwords right-thinking professors should deride. That’s a mistake. In fact, the growing interest in certifying marketable skills presents opportunities for faculty members, should we choose to seize them.
But first, some context. Furstenberg’s pretext is the late-March resignation of Jason Wingard as president of Temple University. Ham-fisted union-busting tactics, among other troubles, precipitated Wingard’s downfall, but he was controversial in certain professorial circles before that. Wingard’s 2022 book The College Devaluation Crisis: Market Disruption, Diminishing ROI, and an Alternative Future of Learning decried higher ed’s status quo; more recently, he penned an alarmist Inside Higher Ed op-ed, “Higher Ed Must Change or Die,” prescribing corporate partnerships, entrepreneurial investments, and alternative ventures as the necessary medicine.
Writing earlier this year in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Matt Seybold, a literature professor, bashed Wingard as a spokesperson and sentinel of “the Frankensteinian mollusk of private equity,” equal parts “vampire squid” and “silicon octopus.” If the referents aren’t quite clear, the rhetorical target is plain enough: Wingard hangs out with monsters.
Why wouldn’t faculty welcome advice on how better to define and promote the value of our degrees?
Furstenberg carries on in a similar vein, presenting Wingard as the champion of a sinister “program” with widespread administrative and private-sector support. And although Wingard has resigned, Furstenberg warns, his ideas may well “continue marching across the landscape of higher education like zombies, transforming the content and purpose of curricula in the image of our post-industrial, financialized moment.” For Furstenberg, Wingard’s book is evidence of a broad conspiracy to upend higher ed. “The book advocates a turn away from traditional curricula toward alternative pedagogies that emphasize marketable skills,” Furstenberg writes. “The future it sketches teems with business-minded academic reforms, outsourced course content, and the substitution of high-cost human teaching with cheaper technological alternatives.”
Before you rush to the barricades to beat back the Frankenstein mollusk-cum-zombie apocalypse, you may want to take a deep breath. In tone and in argument, Furstenberg encourages a misprision that serves no one. He expects readers to be scandalized by a discovery that could surprise only the most cloistered denizens of the Ivory Tower. It’s true! Ed-tech companies, policymakers, and education reformers of various stripes are working to develop a standard vocabulary of marketable skills. But feasting on our brains is not their objective, no matter what you might hear. In fact, professors have everything to gain by co-opting their agenda: Embracing skills may be the least disruptive way for us to remind an increasingly skeptical society of our value.
Or consider an “Associate Account Manager” job posting at EAB, a higher-ed consultancy. In this role, based in Richmond, Va., one would work “with internal teams and partners to execute direct marketing strategies for student recruitment initiatives.” A bachelor’s degree is a basic qualification, but so are a range of skills: “Effective communication and teamwork skills,” “Organization skills with a proven ability to meet conflicting deadlines,” and proficiency in “Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.” Ideally, candidates would have a “concentration in Marketing, Advertising, Public Relations, Business Administration, or related field.”
Look at entry-level job ads like these and a pattern emerges: Employers express relative indifference with respect to undergraduate major, but relative precision with respect to required skills.
Job seekers hoping to certify their skills have a lot options, many of which do not involve traditional higher ed. The Credential Engine registry now tracks over 1 million credentials from nearly 60,000 providers. Those who have been in the work force can convey their skills by referring to what they’ve done in their career to date, making tangible their skills by describing their projects and responsibilities. Certification comes in handy, however, when landing a first professional job or switching to a new line of work. If someone hasn’t had the chance to work with Adobe Creative Cloud professionally, how can they develop and demonstrate that skill? There’s a learning program and certificate for that, through Adobe.
Some reflexively skeptical faculty members see any attempt to bring higher ed more closely in line with current financial realities as a sneak attack on our sector’s heart and soul.
Major employers like Delta, GM, Google, Apple, and IBM have begun to drop the bachelor’s-degree requirement altogether in favor of skills-based hiring, a worrying trend for those of us who work in higher ed. A recent report by Matt Sigelman and Jeffrey Selingo for the Burning Glass Institute suggests that colleges can do more to re-establish the influence of their credentials. They can, for instance, break the BA into “smaller, usable credentials.” They can revise general curricula regularly to ensure up-to-date skills are part of the emphasis. They can offer microcredentials in high-earning fields like data analysis and project management, something the University of Texas and CUNY systems are already working on.
Americans’ confidence in the value of higher education continues to shrink while interest in alternative credentials grows and demographic shifts intensify funding pressures on our already stressed institutions. Why wouldn’t faculty welcome advice on how better to define and promote the value of our degrees?
Some reflexively skeptical faculty members see any attempt to bring higher ed more closely in line with current financial realities as a sneak attack on our sector’s heart and soul. They are allergic to conversations about “return on investment” and yearn for a time when public funding buoyed the enterprise. Reductions in the percentage of college costs paid for by taxpayers, increases in the student-debt burden assumed by students, rising costs, and increased competitiveness among colleges are all part the current higher-education mess. Faculty are right to look askance at “solutions” like the College Scorecard, which encourages students to choose schools and majors based on questionable predictions about salaries upon graduation. Still, at the same time, we should remain sympathetic to students’ desires to make their way in a world where earnings matter.
Faculty resistance emerged quickly. In his famous 1918 book The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, Thorstein Veblen derided the “captains of erudition” who led the turn-of-the-century academic expansion: they “traffic in merchantable instruction,” he scolded, and compete with one another in the same manner as department stores. Although such critique has since flourished, it has not succeeded in fundamentally altering the college-value proposition. Expectations regarding who should go to college and who should foot the bill have shifted in the past hundred years, but the notion that a college degree should yield a “better” job has remained widespread.
An enormous, Rube Goldberg-esque apparatus sustains the college major.
All of which is a good argument for why modern-day humanities professors might want to certify that their students are gaining skills in “collaboration,” “communication,” “analysis,” or even “product management.” These are all in-demand skills with which liberal-arts majors equip their students. With a bit of foresight and methodical attention, they might do an even better job of it. In any case, faculties refreshing their majors should explicitly certify skills using language the job market understands. This small change would also make it easier to explain the value of one’s field to increasingly skeptical parents and students.
When I directed the film and media studies program at the University of South Carolina, from 2016 until 2018, all chairs and directors in the College of Arts and Sciences were asked to prepare lists of occupations to which our majors might lead for inclusion in promotional literature. “What can I do with this degree?” was seen as a primary concern of prospective students and their parents. Most of us labored to convey that our majors opened onto possibilities more various than a short list of job titles could suggest. I suspect the effort satisfied no one. Students and parents brought their own ideas about what specific majors were good for, and those keen to test their preconceptions were unlikely to rely on our brochures for advice. The language of skills, however, might have offered a way out of the morass. For one thing, it would have pushed all parties — parents, students, and faculty members — to think about the requirements of an actual job search.
Critics of skills perceive this sort of suggestion as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When it turns out that some of Wingard’s ed-tech allies see value in liberal-arts training but perceive a problem communicating that value, Furstenberg leaps to proclaim an “irony” and paints Wingard as a “human-resources technocrat frustrated that colleges won’t label and sort their graduates into preferred, maximally efficient categories for placement.” Hyperbole is the servant of polarization. A less Manichaean approach might note that the technocrats and reformers, like many professors, find it easier to see the value in liberal-arts degrees than today’s students, and that better labeling could help students see what we see.
Paranoid refusal serves no one. Our system of higher education, including its many ancillaries, is more complicated and more open-minded about its future than some reflexively cynical professors can appreciate. No doubt, these are challenging times. But those hoping to help higher ed extend its unique, valuable, and multifaced societal role would do well to rise and seize the opportunities of the moment — as opposed to defensively mocking them.