Abelard, Apple and Ogle

WARNING, WARNING: This post exceeds all reasonable bounds for blog-length

Richard A. DeMillo works down the street from us at Georgia Tech and has recently published a new book, Abelard to Apple, The Fate of American Colleges and Universities. http://www.scs.gatech.edu/people/richard-demillo. Peter Abelard was a 12th century French monk whose ideas helped shape Western ideas about education. Apple, on the other hand, needs no introduction. DeMillo’s premise, which began as a 5-page memo he wrote in his spare time on the future of his university, is this: if colleges and universities do not change from the model that Abelard imagined nine hundred years ago, we are headed to irrelevance and marginalization. Good reading material for me on a plane ride from Atlanta to Washington DC where I will first meet with one hundred other presidents from the country’s most distinguished liberal arts colleges (all members of the Annapolis Group, http://collegenews.org/about-the-annapolis-group), followed by Oglethorpe’s annual DC area alumni reception. Between events in DC and Baltimore, I will see close to 100 alumni and friends before I return Friday.

Oglethorpe exists in a marketplace with abundant choice. High school seniors who apply to Oglethorpe apply to 1000 other colleges and universities. Yes, you read that correctly– 1000. DeMillo writes: The winners will be those with competitive brand, price or value. Most will never be able to establish the kind of brand recognition that gives them unassailable advantage. Tonight, I will break bread with presidents from a few of those schools – including Swarthmore College, my wealthy, renowned alma mater and place of employment prior to Oglethorpe. DeMillo’s words ring true: Oglethorpe will never be able to compete with colleges like Swarthmore on reputation or resources. Programs like we have in Georgia such as the HOPE Scholarship have deflated the price of public education (not the cost) for even the wealthiest families. At Oglethope, we are incredibly attentive to both price and cost, but competing on price alone would be our death knell. That leaves value. And what determines value?

Value, according to DeMillo, is established by student expectations and cultural demands. Colleges that are out of step with those expectations and demands will be pushed aside by more nimble institutions and left by the wayside. I have argued a similar thing: as a school fixed firmly in the vast middle rung of the higher education hierarchy, we must focus on our value proposition and that proposition must both be grounded in our mission and relevant to the market. We must, using the words that my former professor Bob Zemsky at the University of Pennsylvania coined, be both “market smart and mission centered.”

Universities have to come to grips with their central value proposition: the value of a degree depends on the skills and aspirations of its students and graduates. The institutions that thrive will be the ones that can make a compelling and personal case for the development of those skills and the fulfilling of those aspirations. And that case, he argues persuasively, must capture the passion of students whose motivations are satisfied by networks, associations and experiences relevant to their career goals. He warns, in particular, that in difficult economic times and especially for students from families of little accumulated wealth, institutions that do not connect learning to potential careers are not likely to survive the competitive onslaught.

We have been wrestling with just these challenges at Oglethorpe. How can our curriculum most powerfully reflect our place, our home in the great city of Atlanta? We refer to this as searching for the intersection of mission and place and we have some terrific examples of curricular initiatives that seek to find that intersection — our urban ecology program that partners with the neighboring Blue Heron Nature Center; our new program in non-profit management where each student completes a capstone project with a local NGO, our nationally ranked theatre program coupled with Georgia Shakespeare, our professional theatre company in residence.

DeMillo is fairly hard on us university presidents. We are far too focused on the status quo or chasing someone else’s status quo. Our inaugural addresses, for example, are devoid of aspiration, both personal and institutional. They are simply speeches of stewardship. Since it has been a while since I re-read my address, I took this opportunity to do that. Well, no one can accuse me of avoiding the aspiration thing. I am aware not everyone agreed or agrees with the vision I laid out for Oglethorpe six years ago, but I was not shy about sharing what I believed that vision to be, and, for me, it has not shifted since I delivered my talk. I won’t repeat my address here (a link in case reading this post isn’t enough: (http://www.oglethorpe.edu/about_us/Our_President/inauguration/address.asp), but here’s the short version. Oglethorpe’s purpose must be a public one. We will lay our hands on the city, I promised. “Hands On” was the theme of the entire weekend, with events with Mayor Shirley Franklin and Ambassador Andrew Young, a day of service with the Atlanta Public Schools, and my talk which focused on strengthening the connection between words and action, between theory and practice. The passion of our students must be unleashed, using DeMillo’s terms, by building networks, association and experiences that link students’ learning in the classroom to opportunities for learning that a city like Atlanta presents. We’ve come a good way I think, with miles to go before we can rest.

Back to DeMillo. He spends a lot of his book talking about curricula and curricular reform. One idea is threaded through most of what he writes: universities need to redefine the connection between what students want to learn and what and how we teach. What they want to learn, he suggests, increasingly involves experiences inside and outside the classroom that are relevant in their eyes to their career goals. I believe that everything we can do to help students draw meaningful connections between theory and practice and mission and place will make their education richer. And, not insignificant for a school without massive resources or reputation, this will also serve to establish Oglethorpe’s unique value proposition. An integral part of an Oglethorpe liberal arts education will be the personal connections we help each student build between their field or fields of study and the real world experience that a city like Atlanta offers.

As DeMillo brings his work to a conclusion, he lays out ten rules for the 21st Century.

1. Forget about who is above you
2. Focus on what differentiates you
3. Establish your own brand
4. Don’t romanticize your weaknesses
5. Be open (especially to disruption)
6. Balance faculty-centrism with student-centrism (the word and the work of a university faculty is important, but students need to be presented with choices of their liking or they will flee)
7. Cut costs in half (With the availability of open, high-quality on-line materials, he posits introductory and general education requirements can be delivered effectively and efficiently.)
8. Use technology (invest in lightweight, sharable technology that enables specialization and networking) 9. Focus on your measures of success
10. Adopt the New Wisconsin Idea–which is not so new. Dating to a baccalaureate sermon in 1877, the primary tenet is that universities must serve a public purpose

A key economic lesson of the past decade — that compelling value is needed to prosper when there are abundant less expensive alternatives — has not been internalized by American institutions, DeMillo continues. Only seventy or so elite institutions in the United States have sufficient resources to establish their own agenda. It is the fate of the universities in the middle to be shaped by political, economic and social forces, yet each institution remains free to select its own path and the road it wants to travel. That path, however, must include defining a compelling and unique value proposition. The forces promoting uniformity in higher education are enormous and spirited defenses of past and current practices are easy to mount and romanticize. It is time for bold experimentation.

DeMillo ends with the story of Antioch College. In an odd coincidence, I spent thirty minutes on the phone this week with their new president. Antioch enrolled 35 students this fall, its first class since it closed its doors in 2008. In DeMillo’s view, the root cause of Antioch’s demise was that the program Antioch offered had little value to students looking for a liberal arts education. As the number of freshmen dropped below 100 and then 20, the community continued to argue the culprit was something other than its academic program had lost its appeal. Even as the college was shutting down, many remained convinced they could sell an Antioch education to students who were not interested and to donors who failed to see its value.

It is our good fortune to be in a different place. This past year, 5000 students applied for admission to Oglethorpe and we enrolled the largest first- year class in our history. Philanthropic giving is up. The announcement last week of the largest gift in our 176-year history helps build on the momentum we have created. I believe that the value we offer to each student, as well as to the community in which we reside, is becoming more and more evident. At Oglethorpe, students learn to think, to reason and to communicate. Equally important, they learn to live well and productively in a community whose diversity reflects our entire country. And when their learning and living extends outside the walls of our beautiful, protected campus, the results are powerful.

I am so thankful for this.

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