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George Reed
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George Reed

A retired U.S. Army Colonel, George Reed is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership Studies within the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

Don't fight the fossils

Q: How would you assess the leadership of college presidents in embracing new technology and innovative teaching techniques aimed at reducing costs, improving quality and reengineering higher education? What leadership steps would you recommend for them?

Someone recently asked me what the biggest difference was between teaching in the military system of professional education and in a civilian institution of higher learning. I quipped that in the Army a decision marks the end of discussion and the beginning of action while in civilian academia, a decision merely signals the beginning of a debate.

Our colleges and universities are notoriously impervious to sweeping change--and that's not always a bad thing. Bright ideas must eventually garner the support of a skeptical (and often tenured) faculty that serves as an effective error-correcting mechanism.

At their best, faculty are more concerned with long-term quality and rigor than cost and efficiency. Accrediting agencies, collective bargaining units, faculty governing bodies, trustees and even state legislatures all can serve as powerful anchors to change. It is ironic that universities that are the incubators of such big ideas can be themselves so seemingly impervious to change.

Yet universities do innovate. They just tend to do so at the margins of disciplines and through centers and experimental programs where the faculty and institutional norms have not yet ossified. In large complex mature organisms like universities, it is helpful to use a geological metaphor: Change takes place only after intense pressure over a long period of time.

My recommendation to university presidents is to devote their energies to finding and supporting the innovators within their institutions rather than exhausting themselves by fighting with those who are recalcitrant. Power plays in the contemporary university setting are often instinctively met with opposition. Enough power is distributed throughout various entities in the system that top-down forced change is usually short-lived. It may take more time and effort than in some other contexts, but good ideas can and do not only take root but gain fervent support.

My favorite presidents and administrators are those serial entrepreneurs who celebrate the past without being captured by it. They are ever vigilant for good ideas and find resources to support them. They are organizationally adept and wise in the ways of wielding power softly and patiently. Through their actions they gain trust and confidence, in part, by tirelessly articulating why a particular course of action meets the deeply held convictions of organizational members. They cannot and do not please everyone, but they do garner a critical mass of support.

Universities are good places to listen and learn and therefore leaders of such institutions would do well to spend more time receiving information than transmitting it. That is just good advice for any leader.

By George Reed

 |  May 25, 2010; 6:24 AM ET
Category:  Education leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Whenever I read or hear someone's comments about "learning to think clearly and critically," my immediate reaction is acid reflux or worse. If college administrators were hauled before a judge who had them injected with truth serum, then asked each of them how they had come to choose their profession, I'm sure most would answer quite clearly and critically with the same candor as Willie Sutton: "That's Where The Money Is."

Posted by: extoere | May 26, 2010 6:54 AM
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JFV123 is right about promoting online courses as government policy. At my work we can "attend" company meetings online with one window to watch the presenter and the other window to see the video projector or whiteboard. It is actually a better experience than attending in person since most questions are submitted ahead of time. What if the government stopped giving loans and grants, but purchased 1000 or more courses outright to put online 40-70 full majors in different fields, along with the downloadable textbooks? Would $2 million for the course and $1 million for the textbook be sufficient? Probably. So for $3 billion upfront and less than $100 million a year for the servers (or a fraction of what education costs) our country could launch a full-throated competition with universities by promoting online education that was run by the Dept of Education or the Library of Congress. American and foreign students could take the lecture classes this way for nearly free. Of course the testing would have to ensure learning was taking place, and the courses would have to transfer toward regular degrees. Then having colleges also promote online learning would help those institutions move into the post-Google age where they no longer have any sort of monopoly on information. Most courses don't change much every decade, so once purchased the online material would remain relevant a while. This would give college and university presidents the challenge they need to bring their reluctant money-wasting institutions into the cost-effective modern era - and undo the inflation caused by previous Federal subsidies.

Posted by: DMBicksler | May 25, 2010 10:23 PM
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College is expensive because the government subsidizes it. Ditto for health care. Ditto for housing. Triple dittos for public K-12 education, which is not merely subsidized but entirely gov't-funded. Quadruple (quintuple?) dittos for the defense industry.
Any time the gov't subsidizes or pays for something, its cost tends to rise more quickly than inflation. It doesn't necessarily follow that gov't therefore shouldn't be spending money in that area. Some things (e.g., defense) ought not to be privatized under any circumstances.
But we should at least realize what is going on. If we give the gov't carte blanche to fund an area (because it is "critical"), then costs WILL skyrocket, guaranteed, simply because they can.
The FAFSA calculates one's "expected family contribution" (EFC) based solely on only a few variables like CURRENT salary and CURRENT savings. If you are just barely making ends meet for decades, and then get a sizeable raise the year before your kid enters college, you get the same EFC as someone who has made that much for the last 20 years, but never saved a dime of it.
Even worse (and more to the point here), your EFC is the same REGARDLESS OF THE COST OF THE UNIVERSITY. So of course (duh!) kids aren't going to pick the cheapest school. It doesn't pay, so why make the "sacrifice?" They will pick the school with the nicest dorms, best food, snazziest classrooms, most-wired campus, biggest-name professors, winningest sports teams, etc., all of which cost big money and raise the cost of higher education.
Imagine if we purchased cars in this way! What do you think would happen to the price of cars (and the expectations of drivers), if you only had to pay the EFC, and somebody else paid the rest?

Posted by: dmm1 | May 25, 2010 4:42 PM
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Colleges have gotten fat, dumb, but never happy, because of government subsidies.

As a result, college costs have skyrocketed faster than healthcare costs. Unlike healthcare, college is no better than it was fifty years ago. Life expectancy has risen steadily, unlike student performance during the same period.

You create change by not subsidizing waste. Then people change to survive.

- Tax unused endowments. This will help funnel contributions to colleges that deploy their capital instead of sitting on it.
- Make it an antitrust violation for colleges receiving federal fundng to require students to live on or near campus. This is an illegal tying or bundling arrangement that is illegal for other industries. Room and board costs as much as tuition in many colleges. This burdens poor students.
- Require all colleges that receive governmemt funds to offer reasonable opportunities to earn full e-learning degrees. This will eliminate the barrier to all qualified students earning a degree from the college they choose instead of colleges rationing limited spaces. Limited spaces are obsolete. This will alleviate tensions between socio-economic groups competing for the artifically scarce spaces at "brand name" coleges, thereby increasing racial, ethnic and class harmony.
- Require colleges receiving government funding to allow students to buy courses they want to develop skills they want instead being forced to buy courses they don't want or need. Again, this is an illegal tying or bundling arrangement that is illegal for other industries.
- Subsidize only student loans and scxholarships for electronic learning courses. If you want the country club aspects of college, pay from your own funds, not taxpayers. In we did this, current government subsidies to colleges would be sufficiemt to pay full tuition for every student in the country for an e-learning degree.
- Allow professors to set up their own e-learning networks to compete with colleges by prohibiting restrictions in contracts.
- Prohibit professors from assigning their own books to students without oversight. Text books are a huge expense and professors are profiting from their students by charging rip off prices for ther own books.
being reuired to buy their books.
- Require colleges receiving government funds to ensure that most books are available through all the most widespread e-learning platforms at reasonable prices.

Colleges that learn to adapt to these changes will grow and prosper. Colleges that do not, will die. You produce great university leaders when there are severe consequences for not having great leaders. Until then, college faculties will continue on ther merry way eating off the fat of a land where the population is growing poorer and less educated each year.

Posted by: jfv123 | May 25, 2010 2:53 PM
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While cost saving is a worthy goal, when you cite military "education" I suspect that it would be more correct to call it training. A close relationship between college students and faculty members is necessary for students to learn to think clearly and critically--things that the military doesn't promote. Talented educators hard to find and therefore expensive.

Posted by: whb21 | May 25, 2010 2:44 PM
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