Forbes Magazine Takes Note — and Weighs In

About a week and a half ago, a blogger in the United States, Junct Rebellion (Debra Leigh Scott), published a piece in which she offered her account of the detrimental forces that have been having their way with post-secondary education over the last three decades. Hundreds of readers have offered a response to the post. Yesterday, in Forbes Magazine, Steve Denning summed up Scott’s argument about the “five steps” with which North American culture is “killing” the contemporary university as follows (emphases in blue mine):

  1. Defund public higher education. Starting in the early 1980s, shifting state priorities forced public universities to increasingly rely on other sources of revenue. For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011. The change came long before the current economic crisis. State budget debates became platforms to defund subjects that were not offering students the practical skills needed for the job market. These arguments translated into real- and often deep- cuts into the budgets of state university systems.
  2. Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s). Although college costs are out of control, the money isn’t going to the professors. There are 1.5 million university professors in the US . . . 1 million of whom are adjuncts. One million professors in America are hired on short-term contracts, most often for one semester at a time, with no job security whatsoever. And earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work.
  3. Run the colleges with hierarchical bureaucracy. Coming from business, a managerial/administrative class moved in to take over governance of the university. This new class takes control of much of the university’s functioning, including funding allocation, curriculum design, and course offerings. Hierarchical bureaucracy became the order of the day, with a focus on outputs rather than outcomes, and efficiency rather than value for society. The result was massive cost escalation, several times faster than the cost of living, unaccompanied by noticeable improvements in the quality of education.
  4. Focus the college curriculum on jobs: A flood of corporate money shifted the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. University was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”.  Unfortunately, many of the jobs for which people were preparing vanished as the economy shifted. Thinking of colleges as job factories turned out to be a mistake: the economy was changing too quickly.
  5. Make the students pay: While dumbing down the education, college became so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest can attend or those willing to take on incredible debt burdens that will follow them to the grave.

The question is, will it matter that Forbes Magazine has taken note? Which is to say, will university administrators sit up in their chairs and take seriously the fact that one of the premier business publications in the world has taken Scott’s concerns seriously enough to showcase them? Since it is business logic that so many of them hold so dear, will they at listen to what a business writer has to say on the subject?

Denning responds with the five steps he suggests are necessary for the “reviving” of universities. Funny: not one word about MOOCs in them. Denning insists that “hierarchical bureaucracy can’t get the job done”; asserts that the creative economy requires more education in the humanities; and urges massive investment. Read Denning’s full article here.

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