The Soul of A New University
Arthur Levine, President of Teachers
College, Columbia University.
The New York Times, Monday March 13, 2000
In ''The Education of Henry Adams,'' describing his college experience
under a curriculum that had not changed in several decades, Adams said he
had received an 18th century education when the world was plunging toward
the 20th. In a space of just a few years, education had fallen 200 years
behind the times.
Today's pace of economic, social and, above all, technological change has
put higher education in danger of falling behind again. And this time,
pressures from outside are likely to force those of us who shape the
academy not only to adapt our institutions, but to transform them.
In the decades after World War II, higher education was a growth
industry. Governments around the world, eager for better educated
populations, supported it with few questions asked. Today it is a mature
industry, and in return for continuing support, through direct funding,
grants and student aid, government is asking a good many questions. How
much should faculty teach? What's the appropriate balance between teaching
and research? How much should it cost to educate a student? Should we have
lifetime appointments for faculty? Why aren't graduation rates higher? Why
does it take students so long to graduate?
Once higher education could simply add new activities to the old, but the
current wisdom is that it must do more with less. We in academia must figure
out what is really critical to us and what we are willing to give up.
Not all of these choices will be ours alone. Our students, as well as our
governments, have changing expectations. Information economies require
higher levels of education and more frequent education. More of the new
student body may be part time, working and older.
I asked some students in this new breed what relationship they wanted
with their colleges. They told me that it should be like the relationship
with a utility company, supermarket or bank -- their emphasis was on
convenience, service, quality and affordability. This group is going to
gravitate toward online instruction, with education at home or in the
The rise of online education and other new technologies has enormous
implications for all of us. Textbooks are dying. We're moving to learning
materials that can be customized for the students who are in our classes.
There won't be any excuse for those of us who are still using yellowed
notes to teach our courses year after year.
An article in an airline magazine last year said that travel agencies of
the future will show customers virtual trips, letting them see, by
computer, the hotel room they'll stay in, walk the beaches, see the
restaurants. The time is coming when colleges and universities will do
something similar: instead of telling students about 15th-century Paris,
for example, we will take them there. And when a student can smell the
smells -- which must have been putrid, walk the cobblestones, go into the
buildings, how will a stand-up lecture compete?
It is possible right now for a professor to give a lecture in Cairo, for
me to attend that lecture at Teachers College and for another student to
attend it in Tokyo. It's possible for all of us to feel we're sitting in
the same classroom. It's possible for me to nudge (via e-mail) the student
from Tokyo and say, ''I missed the professor's last comment. What was
it?''; have my question translated into Japanese; have the answer back in
English in seconds. It's possible for the professor to point to me and my
Japanese colleague and say, ''I want you to prepare a project for next
week's class.'' If we can do all of that, and the demographics of higher
education are changing so greatly, why do we need the physical plant called
Many countries built systems of higher education based on propinquity,
trying to build a campus in easy proximity of every citizen. How long will
it be before nations ask why they have so many campuses? How long before
they ask higher education to request new technologies, not new buildings?
This is where growth of the private sector in higher education comes in.
In the United States alone, higher education is an industry with revenues
of $225 billion, and that is causing the private sector to look at
postsecondary education as a potential target for investment.
One corporate entrepreneur recently told me: ''You know, you're in an
industry which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and you have a
reputation for low productivity, high cost, bad management and no use of
technology. You're going to be the next health care: a poorly managed
nonprofit industry which was overtaken by the profit-making sector.''
An amazing phenomenon is the for-profit University of Phoenix, which has
all the appropriate accreditation and is traded on the stock exchange. It
would like to reach 200,000 students within the next decade and is already
online with more than 6,000. It has thrown out most of what higher
education does traditionally, using mostly part-time faculty. Class
syllabuses are uniform and prepared every few years with help from
industry professionals and academics in the field.
Phoenix is the nation's largest proprietary institution, and
entrepreneurs around the world are watching its example. Investment firms
are developing higher education practices. Venture capital groups are
starting to put money into higher education enterprises. I recently saw a
list 30 pages long, single-spaced, of for-profit firms that have entered
higher education internationally.
Not long ago a questioner at a conference asked what my biggest fear was.
I answered: ''I think in the next few years we're going to see some firm
begin to hire well-known faculty at our most prestigious campuses and offer
an all-star degree over the Internet. So they'll take the best faculty from
Columbia, Oxford and Tokyo University and offer a program at a lower cost
than we can.''
A top-notch professor on our campus touches a couple of hundred students
a year. The lower-paid online professor may touch thousands. The economics
is not in our favor.
After the speech, a fellow came up to me and said, ''Who told you?'' I
said, ''What do you mean, 'Who told me?' This isn't rocket science.'' He
said: ''We're doing this. Who leaked?'' The simple fact is that we're
going to see an increasing number of these enterprises.
The biggest danger is that higher education may be the next railroad
industry, which built bigger and better railroads decade after decade
because that's the business it thought it was in. The reality was that it
was in the transportation industry, and it was nearly put out of business
by airplanes. Colleges and universities are not in the campus business, but
the education business.
The trend is a convergence in knowledge-producing organizations:
publishers, television networks, libraries, museums, universities. The head
of technology at a large publisher told me recently, ''We're not in the
book business anymore.'' When I asked what business he was in, he answered:
''We're in the knowledge business. Our big focus now is teacher education.
We're using television and we're using computers, and we're in thousands of
schools. We want to put our brand name on professional development for
The ''content people,'' he went on, ''are on staff, not at
universities.'' As for credits and degrees, ''we're working on that,'' he
In the years ahead, every knowledge-producing organization will begin to
produce similar kinds of products. Those of us in higher education have a
small amount of time to stop and think. What is the purpose of higher
education? How shall we continue to accomplish it? Not to answer these
questions is to make a profound decision, by default, about our own
prospects for the future.
Contact F. David Peat