Higher Education at a Crossroads

This week, I had the opportunity to attend the American Council on Education’s (ACE) annual meeting in Washington, DC.  The theme of this year’s conference was Reaching Higher, but the underlying theme seemed to be “the winds of change are upon us.”

Sunday’s session for presidents and chancellors had the following topics:  Vision and Change at BYU-Idaho: A Model for America’s Colleges and Universities, Information Technology:  Seize the Day, and a luncheon at which Terry Hartle, SVP of Government and Public Affairs of ACE spoke about the pending Department of Education regulations regarding Credit Hours, State Regulation, Gainful Employment, Accreditation, and Misrepresentation.  Later in the day, Yale’s President Richard Levin spoke about “Why Colleges and Universities Matter.”  I also attended a session hosted by Stan Ikenberry, former president of the University of Illinois and ACE, and George Kuh, Professor Emeritus of Higher Education at Indiana University Bloomington and the founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), regarding assessment and ways in which institutions implement it.

Having the conference in Washington provided some benefits.  Eduardo Ochoa, Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education was an unscheduled speaker at the luncheon and provided a few comments regarding the administration’s position regarding higher education and reminded the group that he had served as a provost at Sonoma State University.  He also stated that he was unable to provide a statement about three of the issues because of a lawsuit against the Department.  Terry Hartle’s major points were that the industry can regulate itself and does not need increased federal regulation at a time when there are many changes occurring as well as innovations required in order to remain competitive.

Rick Levin’s lecture provided three main points:  (1) the basic research principle of our universities is a driver of our nation’s growth and healthcare improvements, (2) the diverse array of higher education institutions provides an education to a broad workforce, and (3) our colleges are the principal avenue of upward mobility for our citizens.  President Levin is an economist and unabashedly stated that his lecture had an economic focus although his sincere comment that “the most profound consequence of higher education is that it improves the soul” was not economically based.

As one of a number of presidents invited to attend the session on assessment, I was pleasantly surprised about the depth of discussion.  Our comments were recorded by a researcher for a project sponsored by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and all of us participating received the prerequisite Institutional Review Board (IRB) disclosure.  Assessment has been an interest of the accrediting bodies for the last ten years or so, but usually is not a topic about which college and university presidents are conversant.  The group representing a variety of institutions ranging from public research universities to private liberal arts colleges to an online university.  All the presidents in attendance were focused on the measurement of learning outcomes at their institution.

Many years ago I took a course in oral history at Duke.  Interviewing people who participated in a historical event years after the event took place gave me an appreciation for the fact that reporters write about an event from their perspective which may not be the perspective of the participants.  While some of the lectures and panels at this year’s annual meeting have been discussed in articles published by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, those articles are related to specific topics.  As a somewhat regular attendee of ACE’s annual meetings, I observed a difference through the statements of the speakers, the questions of the participants, and the general tone of the conversations at the social events.  Usually, the major determinants of change in any sector are the market or the government or both.   This year may be the year where a need for change is finally recognized by the entire sector.

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