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Abelard to Apple

Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities

Richard A. DeMillo
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Abelard to Apple
    Book Description:

    The vast majority of American college students attend two thousand or so private and public institutions that might be described as the Middle--reputable educational institutions, but not considered equal to the elite and entrenched upper echelon of the Ivy League and other prestigious schools. Richard DeMillo has a warning for these colleges and universities in the Middle: If you do not change, you are heading for irrelevance and marginalization. In Abelard to Apple, DeMillo argues that these institutions, clinging precariously to a centuries-old model of higher education, are ignoring the social, historical, and economic forces at work in today's world. In the age of iTunes, open source software, and for-profit online universities, there are new rules for higher education.DeMillo, who has spent years in both academia andin industry, explains how higher education arrived at its current parlous state and offers a road map for the twenty-first century. He describes the evolving model for higher education, from European universities based on a medieval model to American land-grant colleges to Apple's iTunes U and MIT's OpenCourseWare. He offers ten rules to help colleges reinvent themselves (including "Don't romanticize your weaknesses") and argues for a focus on teaching undergraduates. DeMillo's message--for colleges and universities, students, alumni, parents, employers, and politicians--is that any college or university can change course if it defines a compelling value proposition (one not based in "institutional envy" of Harvard and Berkeley) and imagines an institution that delivers it.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29850-6
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    It was only midmorning, but the September heat had already slowed the ordinary comings and goings in the hotel across the plaza from the Dallas headquarters of the O’Donnell Foundation. Newly arrived guests paused long enough in the air-conditioned lobby to search for the registration desk, or perhaps for a colleague awaiting their arrival, before moving deliberately on. Mary Alice and I were early for our scheduled meeting with the foundation’s executive director, and we unwisely decided to pass the hour at the Starbucks next door, sweltering in a line that stretched out the door and into the Texas sun....

  6. I Great Visions to Lure Them On

    • 1 Are You Teaching This Summer?
      (pp. 3-12)

      Academics believe deeply that the public does not understand the daily life of a university professor, a belief that is amplified by an innocent conversation starter at neighborhood social gatherings: “Are you teaching this summer?” University professors always seem to be busy in the summer, when classes are not in session and the most conspicuous activities on campus are related to landscaping. It is a question that betrays only an innocent fascination with a somewhat mysterious occupation. What an academic hears in the question is a hint that hours spent outside the classroom are hours not well spent: what else...

    • 2 A World of Subjective Judgments
      (pp. 13-22)

      Nowhere is Daniel Gilman’s influence on universities more evident than in the central role that faculty members play in operating the university, a principle calledfaculty governance. Virtually all academic affairs in American institutions are conducted through the work of faculty committees, and much of that work consists of senior professors evaluating their colleagues—at peer institutions as well as their own—for promotion and tenure. University tenure—the granting of a permanent appointment that can only be revoked foreconomic exigency or moral turpitude¹—is a difficult concept for academic outsiders to accept. It is awarded after a lengthy...

    • 3 The Smartest Kid in Class
      (pp. 23-32)

      David Baltimore was thirty-seven years old when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. He was at the time the youngest Nobel laureate in history, but his prodigious talent had also attracted attention at an early age. His autobiography credits a summer internship—at the celebrated Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine—for his early passion for biology.

      He was still in high school that summer. In the middle of his undergraduate years at Swarthmore—a time when even the brightest science students are struggling with differential equations and molecular biology—Baltimore attracted the attention of George Streisinger, a...

    • 4 The Twenty-First Century
      (pp. 33-38)

      From 1994 to 2008, Georgia Tech’s tenth president, G. Wayne Clough, led the transformation of his alma mater from its traditional role as a good, but undistinguished regional engineering school to its current stature as a national and international powerhouse, ranked seventh nationally among all public universities and eighth in a global ranking of technical universities. Achieved mainly on the strength of a strategy for developing its research capabilities, the university’s evolution largely ignored its role as an undergraduate institution until quite late in Clough’s tenure. Then Georgia Tech began to behave strangely. It endowed chairs in the humanities, invested...

  7. II An Abundance of Choices

    • 5 It Takes a Lot to Get Us Excited
      (pp. 41-64)

      The business model for American universities is under assault, virtually guaranteeing that prosperous twenty-first-century institutions are going to look and behave differently than their predecessors. Most observers agree with the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability that American universities are in for dramatic change:

      America faces a growing crisis in public postsecondary education, as an unprecedented fiscal meltdown plays out at a time of growing consensus about the urgent need to nearly double levels of degree attainment. Instead of taking steps to develop an investment strategy to reduce access and achievement gaps, we are moving in the...

    • 6 The Computer in the Cathedral
      (pp. 65-80)

      This is the story of how it became a policy of the federal government to encourage universities to divert funds from education to support an industrial policy that was not otherwise sustainable. Anyone who doubts the willingness of a modern research university to spend whatever is required to keep its “martyrs and heroes” focused on the creation of knowledge needs to spend a few hours in quiet contemplation of the cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, that is devoted to it.

      The north campus of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) is tucked into a garden that lies on one end of Avinguda...

    • 7 Do No Harm
      (pp. 81-92)

      Clark Kerr’s multiversity is a multicultural society, so it is not surprising that outside the chilly supercomputer data centers, lawyers and administrators who have never set foot in a modern physics or biology lab compete furiously to build—with the help and encouragement of the U.S. government—other monuments to institutional ambitions that have little to do with education. Sometimes those ambitions are financial, and at a faculty-centered university, naked finance is confusing. It affects the ability of American universities—with their machinery for innovation that is the envy of the world—to compete effectively when there are suddenly abundant...

    • 8 The Factory
      (pp. 93-104)

      The structure of mainstream American universities was decided in the early twentieth century, well before the great influx of students to public institutions, pressure for academic specialization, and growth of research that shaped higher education after World War II. No other modern enterprise has been as untouched by changes in markets, demographics, and economies as the American institution of higher learning.

      At the end of the American Civil War, shortly after the passage of the Morrill Act, barely sixty-three thousand students were enrolled in widely scattered colleges and universities. University attendance was rare: only 1.3 percent of all 18- to...

    • 9 Disruption
      (pp. 105-122)

      The president of a major research university once showed me an email message that he had just received from an alumnus:

      I don’t care about academics at all. And I don’t want you to spend any of my money on it. Theonlything I care about is winning football games. And if you can’t get that right, I am not giving you another penny.

      It was not an unusual letter, he told me, and it depressed him. Despite the doubts of some, most presidents think that intercollegiate athletics is a positive force for the university—a front porch that...

  8. III A Better Means of Expressing Their Goals

    • 10 The Value of a University
      (pp. 125-136)

      There is an ancient pattern that governs academic institutions. Modern colleges and universities are essentially unchanged since medieval times. Contemporary academic regalia replicate the formal social attire of professional guilds and civic societies of thirteenth-century Europe. The administrative structure of departments, deans, and rectors has been handed down intact from the masters at the University of Paris who were divided into faculties on the basis of disciplines. Medieval universities conferred degrees with contemporary-sounding names, like Bachelor, Master, and Doctor. The idea of a curriculum—and even the name “liberal arts”—comes directly from the required courses of study at the...

    • 11 Of Majors and Memes
      (pp. 137-158)

      It is not always a pretty image, but college professors spend a lot of time thinking about how to chop knowledge up into pieces. Most of the time, the result is a new course or two, a change in exam schedules, or, rarely, a new major degree program. Most Americans know what acollege majoris, although most people would not be able to tell you the difference between a major in psychology and one in cognitive science. By the same token, most Americans understand that there is a difference between an Associate of Arts degree from the local junior...

    • 12 Threads
      (pp. 159-168)

      Computer science has been a recognizable academic discipline for a scant forty years, but it is already a model of academic innovation. It remains today one of the most popular undergraduate majors. Published curricula and current practice identify core concepts and skills, many of which are highly prized by employers. But for a brief period beginning around 2001, it appeared possible that computer science might actually disappear as an academic field of study.

      Undergraduate enrollments and degree production in computer science have shown a dramatic up-and-down pattern throughout the past twenty-five years (see figure 12.1), but in early 2002, some...

  9. IV Abelard to Apple

    • 13 The Stardom of Leonard Susskind
      (pp. 171-182)

      Physicist Leonard Susskind is an unlikely rock star. At once gruff—he is the son of a New York plumber and once thought about entering the trade himself—and engaging, he speaks with a matter-of-fact economy about quantum mechanics, the most perplexing of physical theories. Susskind is one of the small band of inventors of string theory—an ambitious, complex, and controversial mathematical explanation of how certain subatomic particles are bound together—but it is his lectures on more basic subjects that draw the most attention these days.

      In Stanford lecture halls, he roams the stage, sipping on coffee from...

    • 14 Unkept Technological Promises
      (pp. 183-198)

      The walls of Galileo’s classroom at the University of Padua are lined with ancient documents. University officials have preserved his podium. There are no whiteboards or blackboards, but the room has been outfitted with a portable screen and a projector that can be connected to a computer. The Hall of Ancient Documents at the University of Padua is in every way a modern classroom.

      Technology has had remarkably little impact on classrooms, which for the past millennium have consisted of spaces for a teacher to stand, facing rows of seats for students. Chalkboards did not make a classroom appearance until...

    • 15 A Substitute for Deep Reflection
      (pp. 199-214)

      If a small, public, liberal arts college in rural Virginia seems like an unlikely twenty-first-century technology battleground, then Jim Groom is an even more unlikely battlefield commander. Groom, who in 2006 gave an identity to his cheery brand of academic anarchy by calling itEdupunk, works at the University of Mary Washington, on a campus tucked into a rolling hillside near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Looking a little like one of the punk rock musicians whose penchant for reinvention of musical form inspired the name, Groom wants to “blow up college as we know it.” His boss knows about Groom’s subversive ways...

    • 16 The Process-Centered University
      (pp. 215-230)

      It is time for American universities in the Middle to take the mentor-protégé relationship seriously. Since the time of Peter Abelard, the role of the instructor has been to offer expertise and inspiration while students offer an audience and a kind of immortality. The role of the university as an institution in this relationship has been debated for hundreds of years. That role has oscillated wildly between loose associations—based on nationality and self-interest—and today’s corporate enterprises. Exactly where that oscillation should stop is a debate that occurs only rarely, and the outcome of that debate is not yet...

    • 17 Hacking Degrees
      (pp. 231-240)

      There are two ways to look at the future that I have sketched in this book. The first—which I do not advocate—is that universities in the Middle had better pay attention to online instruction and other delivery technologies because they will have an impact on cost, access, and bottom-up choice. I discount this point of view because it places no burden on institutions. It is an approach that has been tried over and over again with dismal results: automating the production of things that are not sought after is a path to becoming an effective producer of obsolete...

  10. V The Long View

    • 18 The Laws of Innovation
      (pp. 243-258)

      When it is written, the story of American colleges and universities in the twenty-first century will note that they became strong at a time when there were comparatively few choices in higher education. When faced with competition, some institutions reinvented themselves, but most of them clung to the belief that change, if it came at all, would be gradual. They seemed to be helpless bystanders as their value was quickly eroded by newer—often more agile—institutions. It is not a new story.

      The pattern repeats throughout history: institutions that become inwardly focused, self-satisfied, and assured of their central role...

    • 19 Just Change My Title to “Architect”
      (pp. 259-268)

      For three spring days in 2009, Nam Suh and Arizona State University president Michael Crow sat shoulder to shoulder at a conference table in the village of Glion, perched above the Swiss resort town of Montreux, and considered their respective roles on the global academic stage. They were among the twenty academic and industrial leaders who had been invited to attend the 2009 Glion Colloquium on Higher Education. The topic was “Universities and the Innovative Spirit,”¹ a good match because they are both innovative men, and like innovators everywhere, they are not afraid to take risks.

      Suh’s plan for the...

    • 20 Rules for the Twenty-First Century
      (pp. 269-284)

      An American university is an institution that conjures images as individualized as the experiences of the students who pass through its classrooms. As I write this, I am looking at a print hanging in my study, Marisa Range’s 250 Scenes of Princeton in Blair Arch. It is a composite image of smaller photographs: a satellite dish here, a porticoed entry there, and in the middle, a stained glass rendering of the university flag and shield above a scroll bearing the Princeton motto: Dei sub numine viget (“Under the protection of God she flourishes”), which is a fitting motto for the...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 285-286)

    The Antioch College story came up at dinner one evening. I was visiting the chair of a well-respected department at a large land-grant college in the Middle—near the top of the Middle, but struggling like most public universities with budget cuts that threatened to reverse gains in research stature made during the last ten years. At the end of the story, he said, “That’s not our problem. We are at capacity. There is no way we can absorb more students.” I asked if there were more students that could be admitted, and he said, “Sure, but they will go...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 287-300)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 301-310)
  14. Index
    (pp. 311-320)