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How to Reform from the Ground Up

Fixing higher education won’t come from top-down government mandates, but from grass-roots innovation.

By Jane S. Shaw

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November 10, 2009

As a reformer constantly in search of winning strategies, I have moved from a “top-down” to a “bottom-up” agenda over the past year. That is, I believe in on-the-ground experimentation and trial and error rather than dictates from on high. My reform agenda is decentralized, multi-faceted, and a work in progress.

Recent meetings of such groups as the Philadelphia Society, the State Policy Network, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have revitalized my discovery process. Innovations cropped up at all the meetings, in both formal sessions and private conversations.

I’ll list some but, first, here’s what I mean by decentralized solutions.

Let’s not call for federal mandates for “learning outcomes,” or even national testing standards. Rather, seek models of academic excellence and innovation around the country and replicate them.

Let’s not depend on narrow input-based ratings to evaluate colleges. Rather, give better information to parents and students, who will judge schools on many more dimensions than a newsmagazine can.

Let’s not pass laws demanding ideological diversity (although the state has the right to do so with public universities). Instead, work with students to identify insightful courses and honor the professors who teach them.

In a marketplace, there are no single “best” solutions on which everyone agrees. We search for what we want, which may be quite different from what our neighbor wants. The consumer is sovereign, and that should be just as true in the education marketplace as in the shopping malls.

Egad! I’ve just alienated most of the professors reading this essay. Few of them see the student as a consumer, but, rather, as an unformed mind in need of stretching and shaping.

In fact, I agree with those critics. Students are not merely consumers. I’m indebted to the Pope Center’s Jenna Ashley Robinson for making an important distinction. Prospective students (with their parents) are consumers as they shop for a college. When they arrive on campus, they become those unformed minds in need of guidance. Faculty become their guides (and that’s one reason for consumers to choose carefully beforehand).

My list of newly discovered ways to improve higher education follows, loosely divided into five categories.

1) Empower students and alumni.

To begin with, students are ahead of the reformers. As the Pope Center’s Jay Schalin recently reported, at UNC-Chapel Hill student groups are sponsoring intellectual debates that offer the open inquiry so frequently missing in classrooms. For example, in October, the Christian Apologetics Club sponsored a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Bart Ehrman over the existence of God (attracting 1400 people), and the Carolina Students for Life sponsored a debate over abortion.

Today, many student organizations challenge ideological orthodoxy. These include: Students for Liberty, Young Americans for Liberty, the Network of Enlightened Women, Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, Youth for Western Civilization.

And there are alumni. At Dartmouth, Bucknell, William and Mary, and Colgate alumni have been trying to counter the leftward tilt on campus. They should continue to fight! At one university, alumni are addressing the decline of the core curriculum by creating their own—one that students could voluntarily adopt. That approach is a bolder version of the Pope Center’s project of informing students about the best general education courses and sections.

2) Shed light on what’s good and bad on our campuses.

Along with others, the Pope Center has exposed higher education’s financial excesses and ideological boundaries for years. Now, the State Policy Network is applying its tools for government transparency to state universities.

Representatives of SPN groups recommended posting such publicly available information as:

    •Salaries of state university administrators and faculty
    •Graduation rates (some are abysmally low)
    •Instructional costs
    •Administrative costs (often greater than instructional costs)
    •Tuition increases (including trends over the past ten years)
    •General education requirements

These get people’s attention, says Stephen Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center—especially salary and tuition information.

3) Develop alternatives to current institutions.

In 1999, the Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Massachusetts, proposed applying the concept of charter schools—semi-autonomous public schools—to the college level. Massachusetts has now done that with its Maritime Academy and Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In return for less money from the state, these schools are free to set their tuition rates and admissions standards (and keep their tuition revenues).

ACTA’s meeting, held at George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, introduced another alternative, presented by James C. Rees, president of the organization that supports Mount Vernon. Dissatisfied with insufficient scholarly attention to George Washington, the Mount Vernon Ladies Society is building a research center similar to the presidential libraries that are now de rigueur for recent presidents.

Mount Vernon’s expansion reminds us that we don’t have to rely on the traditional university for scholarship. Many popular historians are outside the academy already. Perhaps humanities research will move off-campus, the way that policy research moved to think tanks in the 1980s.

Indeed, alternatives to the state university and the traditional college are all around us, and one thing that reformers can do is write about them. For example, for-profit schools now enroll nearly ten per cent of all students. Small, single-focus colleges can teach students at lower cost and provide a rich experience. And there’s always the option of getting a job (and facing reality four years early) rather than attending college.

4) Support faculty.

If I were to select the one project most likely to break up today’s academic rigidity it would be the BB&T Foundation’s program of grants on the morality of capitalism. The foundation, headed by John Allison, has given such grants to 60 colleges and universities. They usually include a small but bold requirement: that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged be included in a course and that all the students in the program be given a copy of the novel. One doesn’t have to be an Ayn Rand devotee (I am not) to recognize that widespread knowledge about this book will create a tectonic tremor ripping through the socialistic assumptions of the academy.

More modest steps are also being taken. James Ceaser, Harry F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, has designed a course called the American Political Tradition. Tired of the narrow irrelevance of much political science scholarship, Ceaser developed a course (“for students, not professors”) that defines democracy, introduces the ideas behind the nation’s founding, explains the role of the Constitution, and reviews American political movements. He has begun to export this down-to-earth course to other schools.

That desire coincides with the Pope Center’s support of a project to design an introductory economics course to address the notorious economic illiteracy of today’s youth. We hope to see it exported throughout North Carolina and perhaps the nation.

5) Light a fire under trustees.

Speaking at ACTA’s annual roundtable meeting, Emily F. Durso, until recently chair of the board of trustees for the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), described the transformation of that troubled public institution.

Faced with dismal graduation rates, the board hired a new president and told him to end open enrollment, set minimum standards, raise tuition, and create a separate two-year community college for the students who are unprepared. All that has happened.

Few board members will experience a crisis-is-opportunity moment like the one that hit the UDC board. But board members should at least ask questions. So another idea bubbled up in conversation—why not bring a group of smart, potentially outspoken trustees together and help them build a “speaking up” mindset? Help them become the seeds of a revolution.

These ideas, while disparate, have a few things in common. They don’t require a broad consensus to be implemented, they don’t require new laws, and they don’t require much administrative cooperation. They just require “small platoons” (to use Edmund Burke’s phrase) of concerned and committed people. And at all the meetings I attended, I saw many of those. My new agenda was confirmed: We can build "from the ground up."

 


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