Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 10

Revolution in Higher Education, coverWe’re coming up on the end of our reading of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisher; Amazon). This week we’re discussing chapter 10, on “Brands.”

The focus here is on institutional reputation, where it comes from, and what can happen when it’s questioned.

This chapter begins by looking at a recent example of a university hit hard in its reputation, the Penn State sexual assault scandal.  DeMillo argues that this is the kind of disaster which should harm or even break an institution, but Penn State emerged with higher application and alumni donor numbers (4231).  No regulations appeared to crack down on such abuse either at the state or federal level.  In contrast is the story of one MOOC, which exemplifies how easily those projects can see their reputation punctured.

“Brands” then reaches further back in time to sketch out a history of academic reputation.  This is an important topic, since today many institutions like to cite their traditions as evidence of quality and to bank on the trust their reputations ground.  But DeMillo argues that the history of higher education shows reputations fluctuating greatly.  Medieval universities went from triumph to “financial and intellectual ruin” (4332).  Many new institutions and reformations of established ones were able to ignore or actively junk tradition, especially in the United States.

DeMillo sees today’s higher education as facing the possibility of massive change because academia’s reputation has declined for reasons readers of this blog know well: questions of cost, quality, etc.  The rest of this chapter uses Ben Nelson‘s Minerva project as an example of what might happen in such a period, as new models and institutions appear.

DeMillo sounds several themes, including senior leadership supporting change.  The Minerva story is replete with high-flying allies and representations.  The chapter also returns to his earlier emphasis on the overblown nature of reputation and the uselessness of mission statements.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The account of Penn State is really damning. DeMillo leaves hanging the larger crisis over academic athletics.
  • DeMillo starts off with stories about campuses resisting MOOCs, offering reasons why faculty rejected them.  He doesn’t respond to these points.
  • There’s an odd line about the English or British empire (4339), odd because it comes out of a discussion about the Renaissance, when London wasn’t really running an empire.
  • It’s nice to see the text imply that land grant universities helped inspire Harvard to reform its curriculum (4361).

Overall, an interesting and useful dwelling on a vital but not well discussed aspect of higher education.

What do you make of it?

Next week, starting January 11th, is chapter 11: “Ivory Towers.”

Would you like to follow along?  Simply snag a copy of the book from your library or MIT Press or the local bookshop or Amazon (etc.), and get reading.  I’ll post about each chapter at the start of each week, so you can add comments there.  I’ve set up a tag for all posts: demillorevolution.  Twitter’s also a fine place to chat (I’m @BryanAlexander).  If you’re into Goodreads, let us know so we can catch up (here’s me).

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2 Responses to Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 10

  1. David Allard says:

    I believe that athletics is very harmful to the proper fiction of a university. The tail wags the dog.

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