Innovation and Imagination Needed in Approach to Higher Education

Alas, survival is the siren call of administrators. But for most public colleges financial support was not an issue in the past. It was one of those legislative items that sailed through with overwhelming bipartisan support. However, the times are changing and more quickly than anyone might have imagined. Even the stimulus money set aside for states’ education budgets is mostly spent for fiscal year 2011 and twenty states have none left at all, according to the Education Commission of the States.

For most educators, Chicken Little is in the driver’s seat and the sky is falling. Some contend that quality education cannot be offered as budgets are reduced. Others maintain that essential priorities will have to be altered. Still others believe that universities will no longer be the incubators for economic development.

I demur. For far too long administrators were not obliged to be creative. The money flowed whatever the outcomes on campus might be. Higher education was an untouchable budget item that sensible politicians didn’t reduce. As someone who was involved in higher education in one way or another for decades, I am confident in asserting that retrenchment need not influence the quality of teaching and research. In fact, scarce resources might be the impetus for innovative approaches to learning and financing. It might even have the effect of a major rethinking of the disciplines and how undergraduates are taught. After all, there isn’t a “right way” to learn or an optimal way to teach. It may well be that self-indulgent professors who believe that they are anointed to preach instead of teach will not be as welcome as they once were when universities were flush with public funds.

Yes, there are difficulties that will have to be confronted in some colleges and universities, but in the aggregate, survival is not the issue as much as adaptation to a changing environment. In this case the lemons that college administrators are sucking can be very sour until those lemons are converted -- with some ingenuity -- into lemonade. Let the conversion begin.