Does the Higher Education Remain a Boom or Become a Bust?

March 29, 2020 7:27 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Awake! For the silhouette at dawn in the bowl of Night,’Has flung the Stone that propels the Stars to Flight:

And Lo! Hunter of the East has caught, ‘the Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light!'(Omer Khayyam of 11th century of Persia/Iran, the mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet of quatrains)

The “short!” answer is that higher education could remain a boom, so long as a [private] university or college could reinvent itself to address today’s shortcomings so it could be well poised to minimize its challenges tomorrow. The pre-requisite here is to acknowledge but not be bogged down on glories or failures of the past. Easier said than done, this requires at its pinnacle, a most effective and inspiring team of visionary leaders from within and without who possess tripartite credentials and relevant acumen. The administrative team integrated with the Faculty Governance team must work together tirelessly, collegially, collaboratively, transparently and transformatively. The faculty must review and revamp the curriculum, optimize its delivery mode, and assess its expected learning outcomes and student success. Offering novel career track programs and a research, scholarship and leadership service, is a must. Such a tall order can only be fulfilled if and when a university becomes sustainably solvent, led by its top leadership. Cutting and reducing academic budget lines is reactionary and demoralizing. It is, hence, only through expanding revenues (enrolment and endowment) and higher national rankings, while maintaining high spirited faculty morale, that all forces can coalesce around the panoramic goal. Otherwise, another wave of faculty-staff-student-alumni despair, leading inevitably to institutional demise.

A liberal arts education has yielded a fulfilling life for hundreds of millions, advancing society and humanity in the U.S. and globally, since the 19th century. We might even go further and boast that a liberal arts education has laid the foundation for the institution of the middle class worldwide. Thus, a standalone liberal arts education has and continues to serve its purpose of laying the foundation for the generation and propagation of progressive ideas as the pillars of modernity, liberty, reform, democracy, self-empowerment, fraternity and sorority, empathy and humanity, aesthetics and literati, morality and ethical values, equality and equity, secularism and humanism, civil society and civic duty, and’. active citizenry. Nonetheless, in most career fields liberal arts is still necessary but not necessarily sufficient. ”Fast forward to the 21st century, when a robust liberal education must be complemented with appropriate professional/technical training and experiential learning in order for a student to succeed in a chosen career path. Simply stated, it is no longer sufficient for a student, let alone a professor, to simply read voluminous facts and regurgitate them to others, but rather to know how to apply and advance knowledge towards an economic and-or societal enterprise. In fact, it is such dual college preparation that has served as the most effective path for socioeconomic mobility while helping to advance society as a whole. Although such achievement has by and large provided middle class sustenance for college graduates, thereby enhancing their standard of living compared to that of high school graduates over a lifetime, its future today seems uncertain when compared to the past century. Increases in net tuition and student debt, combined with decreases in expected annual earnings and lifelong wealth accumulation, as well as uncertainties in employability and employment security, are just a few of the realities on the minds of students and their families when they consider their prospects.
It is against such a historical backdrop that the vision, mission, strategies and functions of higher education must be transformed to address today’s realties and not get hung up on its contribution to the past. This requires an alignment of student and employer needs in terms of scope, cost-benefit, and pedagogical and instructional innovative modalities as impacted by technology. Students’ [lack of] preparation and their [high] aspirations and instantaneous positive feedback expectations, the employees’ expectations from their hires, compliance with regulations and oversights for standards, and economic and demographic shifts, are undergoing fundamental paradigm shifts. Above all, aspiring quintessential professors should more than ever adjust to remain lifelong initiators, innovators, learners and contributors of new ideas so as to impart and empower students.

Moreover, as college costs, especially for private institutions, have disproportionately increased, the Return on Investment (time and funds), i.e., ROI for each graduating student, as well as one’s lifelong preparedness for frequent career changes, be it mostly contract and per diem based against the dwindling traditional 9-5 jobs, has merited higher education to realign its priorities with the institution’s optimal human, financial and technological resources.

Skyrocketing overhead costs for highly skilled human, intellectual and technical resources and physical infrastructure, but above all for the disproportionate number of exorbitant executives has further exacerbated the challenges faced by private universities. And, as if these challenges were not enough, the acrimonious nature of joint faculty governance has undermined the otherwise still common mission. Although some of these challenges could in part be offset by outsourcing business service sectors within a college that are not crucial for direct daily student or faculty interactions (e.g., procurement and book-keeping, legal, development, marketing and branding, HR), the dilemma still remains far more serious than that which is portrayed on the surface.
‘More specifically, universities and colleges have traditionally been administered for the most part by rising tenured faculty or staff with relevant expertise, scholarship and prior professional acumen. More recently, however, institutions are increasingly administered by past corporate executives and externally recruited semi-retirees demanding sign-up bonuses and housing, corporate level remunerations, annual bonuses, tax-deferred compensations, gratuities and golden exit parachutes. What is ironic is that after much hoopla, what is expected of these new “elite gypsy” executives by the Board of Trustees (BOT) and faculty-student-alumni does not fully pan out. Most executives might be well intentioned and a few succeed; nonetheless, many neither have the stellar teaching and scholarship portfolios to fully understand their pivotal roles, nor do they possess the style, tact, wit, and personality to wave the magic wand to address challenges faced by higher education. Hence, with no substantive strategy for expanding revenue (enrolment and endowment) they instead keep preoccupied by micromanaging, establishing task forces, presiding over meetings, and exhibiting on smoke screen short-term tactical progress and cost cutting through programmatic consolidations and terminations, divisional and campus closures, etc.; they do so while blaming the faculty at-large, the true essence and the most crucial stakeholders, as the scapegoat or sacrificial Persian lambs per se.”All in all, a state of apathetic malaise and despair then allows mediocrity to eradicate meritocracy at the risk of endangerment and demise to the institution as a whole. If you have witnessed this scenario and suffered from its consequences, rest reassured that you are not alone since this scenario has unraveled itself in many universities and colleges nationwide. In addition, the stagnant side effect of all this has been a destruction of career development and financial incentives for accomplished tenured professors beyond their first ten years of service. Consequently, most senior faculty, especially those with in-demand professional acumen, endeavour into lucratively satisfying ventures beyond their university’s minimal role. Even the most effective administrative team cannot remain successful for too long, unless it works collegially with the faculty governance body collaboratively, transparently, transformatively, and responsibly. Is it not concerning for everyone, especially a university president, and its BOT, that while the faculty in universities and colleges have served as the beacon of initiating new ideas and crashing them with old ideas in their crucible of tinkering to synthesize de novo solutions serving society and humanity, that they are not taken seriously so they sit on equal par at the same table with administrations to set forth in motions solutions saving their own institutions?!

Notwithstanding, out of the nearly 4,300 postsecondary institutions in the U.S. alone, one third are public and state run, one third are private nonprofit, and less than 1,000 are “for private” corporate institutions; further, approximately 1000 in the 4,300 cohort have student enrolment of less than 800. So, only 1,400 are accredited as the primary suppliers of 4-year graduates and evaluated by U.S. News & World Report and by federal and state governments, and with public oversight. Half of the 4,300, the “for-profit” corporate institutions as well as those lesser tiered with fewer than 800 students, are most vulnerable due to financial and management challenges. With that in mind, it must be noted that less than 100 of the 4,300, albeit mostly from the latter two more vulnerable subcategories, face serious financial and/or leadership challenges. However, the number of institutions facing consolidation, merger or closure every year, mostly from the bottom 2,500 corporate and very small colleges, amounts to 25, or less than 1 percent of the 4,300. The key question for top brass administrators is why not aspire to remain among the sustainable majority as above?

Mass data mining and analyses demonstrate that prospective students, especially those attending the lesser third (III) or lower tiered colleges, prefer and in fact need face-to face and hybrid instructional settings (online is preferred more by adult working or unemployed professionals). There are many programs especially at (non-STEM) Masters level, where online is far more adaptable. Even the III Tiered nationally ranking comprehensive universities still require offering a wide array of academic majors, including those with modest number of majors, while small departments offer respectable numbers of liberal arts/gen ed. and relevant courses to other majors. As such, aggressive medium to long term growth in revenue streams is far more meritorious and crucial than short term self-defeating and frankly faculty-student demoralizing programmatic cuts, which in the long run undermines the credibility and the very existence of a national comprehensive university.

Nonetheless, short sighted budget cuts with no substantive increases in [enrolment] revenue streams and endowment, has led to an intensifying clash of ideas and approaches between the faculty and administrations. Meanwhile, some universities grapple with the external appointment and swift departure of executives from dean to president levels, while in other colleges when such executives fail and cannot hastily check out, they simply lean back and become lame ducks with exorbitantly lucrative salaries and perks; meanwhile again, the common expectations of the BOT and faculty/students and staff, remains unfulfilled.”Paradoxically, in lieu of the lack of a far more aggressive enrolment and endowment strategy, administrators for the most part, resort to restructuring through [academic] programmatic and location consolation, contractions, or even terminations to exhibit on paper that the bottom line has (creative accounting) improved in the short term. And as they may rhetorically pitch for novel initiatives (with minimal or no initial investment) such as graduate, health/education/business and STEM, online and hybrid programs, many lead to long haul vulnerability of an institution as a whole, since they were not well researched, benchmarked and marketed. If and when a BOT does not truly exercise their fiduciary responsibilities nor do they themselves make substantial donations and/-or continue actively participating in fund raising enterprises, an institutional vulnerability is more seriously exacerbated (read recent legal and qui tam court actions: Federal Government US Attorney General vs. Duke and Caldwell Universities). The BOTs must far better recognize their fiduciary role that encompasses their proactive oversight of assessing the effectiveness of the administrations for adhering to legal and ethical practices, building institutional endowment, ranking and image, and to set goals for the annual expense increase that is commensurate with revenue increases. ”BOT members as the role models for volunteerism, altruism and philanthropy setting the tone for alumni, must donate a substantial lump sum to join the Board and must continue such contributions throughout their lives. They must serve gratis as ambassadors for their alma mater to secure the same from alumni and other potential philanthropists and donors, while opening employment doors for graduates. The time for BOT members to socially get together in their exclusive club, feeling good while they rubber stamp pro forma anything a university president asks for, is far from over.

It is no longer sufficient for ordinary administrators in private institutions in particular, to keep lamenting about the myriad external predicaments (demographics, tuition differentials with public colleges, lack of student preparedness or interest in college prospects, competitions especially with public colleges and universities) and past institutional shortcomings so as to rationalize their own inabilities or ineptitudes. The overarching question for stellar, inspiring and empowering executives of a resounding third tiered university is to demonstrate their successful performance for expanding recruitment (number of students and NTRs), endowment/capital campaigns, grants, and enhancement in national ranking and stature which collectively measure fairly well against the top one third of their institutional peers of the same common tier.

As for higher education of the future, one pair of shoes does not fit all students. Subject to one’s ultimate goal of mastering a professional discipline, anchored on and complemented with a robust liberal arts education, a graduate must become proficient and succeed personally, professionally, and societally; this requires a synergistic and symbiotic approach to determine an appropriate ratio of classical lectures, flipped classrooms, hybrid and online education, and case-based and/or team-based and hands-on learning outcomes. In much the same manner that a bottle of red wine may cost from $10 to $100 dollars, higher education requires varying tuitions and fees, subject to the cost of instructional delivery, the demand for a specific discipline by prospects, employability and return on investment. Irrespective though, the need and merit for experiential learning on-, and off-campus such as work study, RA/TA, on campus part-time jobs, cooperative, internships and externships, or even apprenticeship opportunities for up to a year and in conjunction with one’s formal college education is more of a crucial necessity than a luxury. ‘

Simply stated, in today’s increasingly complex life and work environment, it is pivotal for prospective and current employees to not only possess relevant professional and technical skills and self-continuing education acumen, but to also be problem solvers and product developers. They must also be effective visionaries, thinkers, strategists, planners, communicators, techno and quantitative savvies, team members, enablers and leaders. In such venues, it is inevitable to ensure the appropriate use of technology to deliver instruction, as well as to assess learning objectives, expected outcomes, and post graduate success. Monitoring, optimizing and managing such a large plethora on an institutional dashboard is a must. As raising a child takes a whole village, facilitating and safeguarding a student to succeed in college education, career and life, needs an entire Campus community, for which the role of professors remains the most crucial but not all conclusive. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the online instructions necessitated, it would be interesting to follow how this alone might for good or bad, revolutionize the future of higher education, let alone our way of lives.

In sum, out of the few hundred tier III private universities and colleges in the nation, only those with visionary, competent and inspiring leadership, who could sustainably transform and enhance the institutional mission, strategy, identity, ranking and stature and by strengthening and expanding enrolment, endowment and revenues, can make their institutions survive in the 21st century. At its pinnacle, hence, it is inconceivable to assume that this is achievable without substantive participations of the faculty through a genuine mutual commitment to “effective shared governance”. Epitomizing, liberal or libertarian, there no joy that could surpass to speak truth to power, so a college of a nation remain on the righteous path of perpetual enlightenment. ”Disclaimer. Views expressed herein, inspired and reviewed by peers, are of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institution.
Acknowledgment: Editing contributions, especially by professors CA, WT, EFG, and GFi, is appreciated.’Please send in your comments and critiques via drahni@optonline.net . We intend to publish this “Opus Magnus!” in a high impact higher education periodical soon.

Now the Spring New Year of Reviving old Desires,
The Thoughtful Soul to Solitude Retires:
Where the Enlighted Hand of Moses on the Bough,
Puts out, and Jesu from the Ground Suspires (ibid.)

About the author. David N. Rahni has served as a professor of (bio-electro-analytical) chemistry for over three decades at Pace University, where he concurrently serves as the faculty council chair. In the past, he has in tandem served as adjunct professor of environmental law and founding director of the environmental science graduate program. As a Fulbright senior research scholar, David has served as a visiting professor at the Universities of Denmark, Oxford, Rome and Florence among others. With per diem consultancies or visiting affiliations at IBM, Pepsi, Ciba/BASF, and Biosenors, Inc. he has continued to serve as adjunct dermatology professor at NY Medical College since 1995. ┬ęcopyright 2020

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This post was written by David Rahni

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