Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise by Robert Zemsky

Checklist for ChangeWhen I was a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, Bob Zemsky constantly reminded my classmates and me of two important things to remember when writing research papers or dissertations. The first was to show the reader the evidence; making statements or conclusions based on flimsy evidence was not a pathway toward graduation or a means of building a successful academic career post graduation. The second piece of advice was to weave your evidence, reason for research, etc., into a story. The latter piece of advice was especially difficult for someone with a quantitative bent, but Dr. Zemsky insisted that there are far too many research studies that sit on a shelf gathering dust because the writer/researcher has failed to capture the attention of the reader. Told well, a paper can stimulate further discussion and research in the field and for the researcher. In his recent work, Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise, Professor Zemsky’s abilities to weave research into an interesting narrative shine brightly.

Perhaps the best story in a book of stories is included in the author’s first chapter entitled “Trapped in an Ecclesiastes Moment.” Zemsky writes about being invited to speak at a conference of university officials in the late 1980’s and sharing the stage with another Robert, Robert Reich, the economist. He relates a tale that Mr. Reich told at that conference about a date in October 1987 when he was invited to speak on the Today Show. When asked if the stock market was due for a correction, Reich supposedly responded, “of course, it could happen any day now; indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it dropped 500 points today.” Well, the market fell 500 points that day (equivalent to a 2800 point fall today according to Zemsky) and Reich said his phone didn’t stop ringing for the next six months. Everyone wanted his thoughts about what would happen next. Reich pointed out to the audience, that what no one asked him was whether or not he had predicted a 500-point drop in the past. If they had, Reich reported, he would have had to tell them that he had made a similar prediction every Monday morning for the previous three years. Bob Zemsky uses Reich’s story to tell his own, that for three decades, he (Zemsky) and others have been predicting that American higher education is about to change because of rising costs, unequal access, confusing curricula, etc. During those three decades, the money bet has been that higher education won’t change.

Zemsky writes that there are three lessons that he learned from the inability of colleges and universities to “control costs, provide broad access, and place teaching and learning at the center of the enterprise.” Lesson 1 is that U.S. institutions of higher learning are not changing slowly and deliberately. They’re “stuck where they were in the 1980’s; unable to control costs and locked into a competition for students.” Lesson 2 is “when it comes to changing higher education, those who matter most are not listening.” Lesson 3 is that one or more dislodging events are required but that “reform will not come to higher education until and unless the federal government becomes an active sponsor of change.”

The author writes that Checklist for Change is a summative narrative of what has to happen if higher education in America is to change. As only a master storyteller can do, Bob Zemsky writes about the landmines that have blown up every reform element from the 1980’s to the present. He presents broad-based industry statistics as well as case studies from four different institutions. Zemsky examines current higher education reform efforts that may serve as the impetus for change. From the evidence presented in the first nine chapters, he presents a checklist of the twenty principal changes that must occur as part of the change process.

A book review should never attempt to summarize a book as artfully written as Checklist for Change and I won’t attempt to do that here. In the chapters presenting the evidence for Zemsky’s final checklist, there are few groups who escape criticism for their role in the current higher education situation. Whether it’s faculty (Chapter 2), Federal Student Aid as designed by Congress (Chapter 3), Department of Education regulations (Chapter 4), the curriculum (Chapter 5), or the course based production function (Chapter 6), Zemsky does not mince his words or criticisms of policies, attitudes, anachronisms, institutions, and higher education leadership indifferences that have led to the current state.

Dr. Zemsky’s checklist is organized into several components. The first five items of the checklist belong to the faculty and are described as: (1) Relearn the Importance of Collective Action, (2) Put an End to Rhetorical Excesses, (3) Empower a Different Kind of Faculty Leader, (4) Recast the Faculty Staffing Table, and (5) Make the Academic Department the Unit of Instructional Production. The next items on the checklist relate to the curriculum and are described as: (6) Commit to a Designed Curriculum, (7) Substitute Competencies for Seat Time, (8) Explore Learning Pathways and Cohorts, (9) Offer Credit by Examination or Demonstration, (10) Develop a Three-Year (90-Credit) Baccalaureate Degree, (11) Invest in Learning Management, and (12) Establish a Credible Testing Regime. Changes to Federal Student Aid comprise the next items and are described as: (13) Provide Incentive Funding to Institutions for Graduating Disadvantaged Learners, (14) Make Students Enrolled in Remedial Education Programs Eligible for Pell Grants, (15) Make Institutions Active Players in the Student Loan System, (16) Establish a Federal Regulatory Environment Distinct from Accreditation to Oversee Federal Student Aid, (17) Change the Timing and Flow of Federal Student Aid Dollars, (18) Fund a National Testing Regime Documenting Undergraduate Learning, and (19) Establish a New Federal Agency Responsible for Monitoring Institutional Compliance with the Rules and Regulations Governing the Disbursement of Federal Student Aid. The final checklist item is assigned to the Federal Government and described as: (20) Facilitate a National Process of Continuing Improvement in the Nation’s System of Higher Education.

Bob Zemsky writes early on in the book that part of the purpose in writing Checklist for Change was to create a summative book, bringing together all the observations about higher education change that he has recommended during his career. The second explanation for writing the book is that there are less than a thousand people who can influence change in American higher education. The checklist was created with them in mind, assuming they are able to put the interrelated concepts into practice over the next decade or so. It would be interesting to send all of Congress a copy of this book before the next higher education reauthorization, particularly if you thought that the members would actually read it.

While the checklist sounds simple, the underlying data supporting some of the recommendations are extensive and in some cases, complex. It is also important to note that Zemsky does not recommend that each of the checklist items is mutually exclusive but rather designed to be interwoven. For example, redesigning curriculum (6) and establishing testing regimes (12) could be interpreted as initiatives that would restrict access. At the same time, providing incentive funding to institutions for graduating disadvantaged learners (13) and make students enrolled in remedial education programs eligible for Pell Grants (14) are incentives that offset the possible negative consequences of setting a bar on competencies and learning outcomes.

I highly recommend Checklist for Change to anyone involved in higher education leadership, higher education policy research, or higher education change. If you have a particular interest in change in higher education, I suggest reading it twice. The narrative constructed by the author will provide you with a thorough background and evidence grounding in the topic areas as you read it the first time. Reading it a second time will allow you to think about the change recommendations in the Socratic style that Dr. Zemsky’s writing imparts.

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