Yesterday, the students at CU Boulder held a mock funeral as if all of higher ed is dying. They constructed a coffin and many protest signs with ingenious commentary like "higher ed is too young to die". They will take their demonstration to the state legislature in Denver later this week in hopes of turning the tide against the students who are drowning in soaring cost increases.
Over the past week, I've been reading the best book ever by a college President: Saving Alma Mater: a rescue plan for America’s Public Universities by James C. Garland. I gained a lot of new insights into the reasons that legislative funding is declining, costs are soaring and innovations are getting shot down. Garland agrees with my own writing about the business model in higher ed being broken. Yet he understands why it cannot be fixed better than I have. In the book he proposes the elimination of state subsidies, the distribution of state funding as scholarships to students and the introduction of competitive pressures into the decisions of public colleges.
I especially enjoyed Garland's understanding of faculty committee incompetence, inevitable conflicts with administrations and the impossibility of any college President fulfilling all of the position's responsibilities. He opened my eyes to the huge cost and predictable avoidance of tough decisions that are endemic to participatory decision making. All these details speak to problems with academic bureaucracies, administrative hierarchies and subsidized enterprises.
James Garland is optimistic that a change to a competitive business model could revise decision making, priorities and spending within a public university. He sees private universities as far better managed and worth emulating. He anticipates the end of state subsidies will force the faculty to agree to cutting weak departments, degree programs and faculty members. He hopes the empowerment of students to "vote with their wallets" will improve the quality of teaching, relevance of course requirements and utility of capital expenditures.
I am more convinced, however, by his thorough explanations for the declines in the present situation. It seems more likely that stagnation, stubbornness and self pity will predominate the varied reactions among faculty and administration as they face their deteriorating situations. See students marching with a coffin on their shoulders on the local TV new last night seemed like a perfect picture of the prognosis for higher ed in the coming decade.