Continuing with 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 9, “Institutional Envy.”
That title describes one half of this chapter, which slams strategic plans. The other half is about two campuses doing innovative work. But first, plans suck: “Rather than a plan for action, a university strategic plan is often a substitute for it.”
Fearful of an aggressive faculty culture, university leadership creates empty exercises that make people feel that they are being consulted while at the same time asserting authority over the future direction of the institution.(3879)
Plans have an additional problem, which is that they don’t address competition. DeMillo sees these groups as have strategic advantages at the moment: students, new entrants, and peers (3919). They can compete successfully for campus resources. The best way for a campus to address those advantages is by “differentiating itself [from] new entrants as well as… peers.” But most strategic plans don’t do this. The ones that do “explain exactly the decisions that will be taken… that address existential questions, and… look startlingly different that the plasm of other universities.” (3969)
The second half of this chapter addresses the exceptions, with the main example being Jackson State University‘s reinvention (3972ff). DeMillo describes several components to this unusual reinvention:
- Aggressively addressing student graduation.
- Recruiting students with strong academic and financial backgrounds. This included a surprise move of opening a branch campus in another school’s territory.
- Recasting curricula and pedagogy in the “thinking like a disciplinary expert” mode.
- Having students create course materials themselves, drawing on open content.
- Partnering with local community colleges to add STEM materials there.
DeMillo points out, accurately, that none of these initiatives are captured by strategic plan boilerplate.
This chapter concludes with another strategic innovation, Temple University’s TECH (Teaching, Education, Collaboration, and Help) center. This sounds like a cross between a makerspace and Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium, a busy group work zone where individuals and small groups work on academic projects.
Campus culture and history comes in for serious skepticism here: “if you focus too much on history, you are out of touch with profound changes in the environment.” (4030) “Culture, however, rarely serves a higher purpose. It is part of a faculty-centered view of what the university is for and how it operates, and it is frequently used to trump strategy… 93870)
Several themes from earlier in the book return, most notably as DeMillo continues his campaign against academic hierarchies (“Strategic thought is dominated by concerns like [improving rankings], not by the value offered to students”, 3823). Jackson State’s plan to get students thinking like sociologists, scientists, etc. links up with this book’s earlier focus on brain science. The problem of economic sustainability pops up again, at Jackson State runs into declining enrollment and state support.
- I’m really glad to see the book address HBCUs, all too often ignored.
- The chapter opens with a note about faculty concerns about university management. DeMillo picks at this later on, observing that professors aren’t more suited to administer their campuses than anyone else.
- There’s a striking example of college athletics gone mad at Grambling State, as DeMillo finds them increasing sports budgets while cutting academics. “University leadership chose to protect athletes at the expense of academic programs. By 2013, half o Grambling’s state allocation was budgeted for athletics.” (4017) Is this true?
Overall, a well done chapter. In a few pages DeMillo attacks academia’s obsession with strategic plans, outlines some mold-breakers, and covers a neglected element of American higher education.
What do you make of it?
Next week we enter a new year and a new section of Revolution, called Ramparts, and opening with chapter 10: Brands.
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).