University of Vermont

University Communications

Symposium Brings All-Star Cast to UVM to Mull Future of Public Research Universities

Tamar Lewin
Tamar Lewin, higher education reporter at the New York Times, looks on as former UVM president Dan Fogel exchanges a point with former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt. Lewin was moderating the concluding panel at a symposium on the future of public research universities held at UVM last week. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Tamar Lewin, the New York Times higher education reporter – who moderated the concluding panel at a star-studded symposium held last week at UVM – began her session by having a little fun with the analogy imbedded in the event’s title: "Precipice or Crossroads: The Future of the Public Research University." "Crossroads" put her in mind of road signs, and she could think of a few that painted the plight of public research universities in 2012 more descriptively: Steep Hill, Change Gears or Pavement Ends: Rough Road Ahead.

Whatever the figurative language, the meaning was clear: with draconian cuts in state funding, rising tuition, the advance of inexpensive online technology, the growing appeal of vocationally oriented education in a down job market, a leaky bucket in the K-12 system, and general public disaffection with higher education, America’s great public research universities, the backbone of the nation’s remarkable progress over the last 150 years, are at risk.

Examining the problems in surgical detail, with the hope that solutions, or at least new frames of reference, would emerge, was the symposium’s goal. The event was the brainchild of former UVM president Daniel Mark Fogel, who edited a book of essays sharing the symposium’s title published this year, the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land Grant Acts, which established the country’s public research universities.

Participating were some of the biggest names in higher education, including James Duderstadt, University of Michigan president emeritus; Jane Wellman, founder of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability; and Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, along with UVM leadership: President Tom Sullivan, Provost Jane Knodell, and Domenico Grasso, vice president for research and dean of the Graduate College, among others.   

The symposium unfolded in six panel discussions and two keynote speeches over three days. 

Rocks and hard places

Much of the discussion was, well, bleak.

Take the Thursday night keynote address, “Between a New Rock and a Bad Hard Place,” by Robert Zemsky, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education. The old bad place, Zemsky said, is a governance system that seems to be broken, with relationships between university leadership and governing boards fractured or fraying at university after university. He pointing to a half dozen failed presidencies in the last several years – from Wisconsin to Oregon, with a near miss at Virginia. 

“If this were an aircraft,” he said, “we’d wonder why all the wings are falling off before we land.” 

The new hard place, Zemsky said, is the most “extraordinary shift in the market for post-secondary education in a century" --the advance of online learning technologies that appear to be delivering, in pilot after pilot, better learning outcomes at a fraction of the cost of face-to-face learning. With hobbled leadership, Zemsky despaired that big public universities would be able to muster the will and creativity needed to meet the challenge.

Not everyone agreed that the job of university president has become such an impossible one, or that university presidents are facing insurmountable challenges. “It’s easy to overstate the problem,” said panelist Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. “If you look at other industries under financial pressure, like high tech, their CEOs have short tenures, too. We haven’t suddenly become ungovernable. The situation is complex.” 

UVM President Tom Sullivan gave no truck to the idea that public universities and presidents should slim down their ambitions as budgets shrink and competition from better funded private research universities swells, a prospect proposed as a discussion-starter by moderator Scott Jaschik, co-editor of Inside Higher Ed

“If the public is going to support our public institutions, they need to know they’re first rate,” Sullivan said. “We simply need to make a better case than we’ve been making to the public and to donors and alumni. Why? Because higher education is critical for us to confront the big issues today. It’s always been our public research universities that have led the country in big, breakthrough discoveries.”

That isn't to say universities shouldn’t focus investment on their strengths, he added, a theme Provost Knodell took up.

“When I’m out in the community, people ask me how those pillars or posts of excellence are going,” she said, referring to UVM’s Transdisciplinary Research Initiative, or Spires of Excellence, program, which seeks to establish just such focused areas of excellence. “That tells me we’re getting some traction" with the program, she said.  

Tuition rising, but why?

Rising tuition, and its impact on access and public opinion, was a topic that never strayed far from the discussion. But ex-Michigan president Duderstadt sought to clarify the exact nature of those increases: they’ve come about almost entirely due to cuts in state funding, not increases in per-student costs. “Our per-student costs have been at about the cost of living, while the privates have been several times that,” he said. Absent increases due to funding cuts, “…we’re almost as cheap today as we were 30 years ago.”

Wellman, of the Delta Project, didn’t dispute those facts, but said perceptions matter, especially when there’s some truth to them. “There are some very strong positives here,” she said. “But there’s a huge vulnerability in the perception that we’re feathering our own nests and working toward institutional advance, not for families and students.” Higher ed needs to to deal with financial issues like tuition and financial aid, she said, “in a more straightforward way.”

Any higher education symposium that didn’t take into account the rise of the formidable MOOC (for massively open online course) wouldn’t be worth its scholarly salt, and the topic of online learning’s impact on the traditional educational model came up several times.

Arizona State’s Crow announced that his school was “stealing and raiding” every technology platform it could lay its hands on and was having great success with the new tools. The school transitioned a problematic freshman math course with an average enrollment of 20 students, 35 percent of whom failed to master the eight core concepts in the class, for example, to an online version with 120 students. Not only were costs cut in half, Crow said, but the number unable to master the concepts dropped to 12 percent. 

APLU’s McPherson cited other well known examples at Carnegie Mellon and Virginia Tec and said he wouldn’t be surprised if higher ed is on the verge of a major change. “Are we at a tipping point?” he wondered.

To be a physicist

Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, said she wished she were a physicist, rather than an educator, so “people would listen to her” when she talked about problems in the K-12 system, higher ed’s supply chain. The key isn’t flashy programs like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. It’s providing resources to establish “crosswalks” between universities, schools and community organizations “that we don’t have now,” she said.

Given the dearth of federal money, Zimpher and SUNY have developed an innovative “collective impact” strategy that creates solutions-oriented alliances with civic and educational partners in local communities.

“What can we do right here, right now in Burlington, Vt.?” she asked by way of example. The program makes use of a university’s expertise, allied with community organizations, to plug the leaky K-12 bucket with best practice pre-natal programs, for instance, or exemplary family and community counseling programs. The program has migrated from New York State to 70 cities across the country. “We can’t fix the problem in the first year of college,” she said.            

In defense of humanities

Given symposium organizer Dan Fogel’s background as an English professor, and the generalized drubbing they’re taking, it was natural the humanities came up for review at the symposium. 

National Endowment for the Humanities chair Jim Leach kicked off the symposium on Wednesday night with keynote lecture titled “Humanities and the Role of Public Universities.” Not only do the humanities offer education a fourth “R,” for reality, Leach said, they tap and expand imagination, foster vital understanding of other cultures, provide perspective, and stimulate the creativity and critical thinking needed to create jobs, not merely fill them, as vocationally oriented curricula are designed to do. “The ability of humanities to enhance the meaning of life is so powerful it obscures the practical benefits,” he said.   

“What it means to be human now is very different from what it meant in the Middle Ages,” UVM’s Grasso added during a discussion later in the symposium.  “Humanities research itself has to evolve. As it does it will become increasingly germane and easier to make the case for.” 

New directions

With challenges coming from so many quarters, it was understandable that much of the discussion focused on framing problems. But now and then, solutions, or a least promising new directions, presented themselves.

Duderstadt saw value in the MOOCs’ ability to collect vast amounts of data on how students learn, which could be applied in other settings. Zemsky saw promise when faculty – the English Department at Stanford, where group work is the norm, for instance – work together in collectives, rather than as independent contractors. And Crow outlined a successful new philanthropic strategy that asks neighboring municipalities to invest, not in Arizona State, but in “solution spaces,” like health or teaching and learning, that Arizona State will address in partnership with the communities.

In the shaky area of governance, Zemsky said, what was most needed were a few wins. “We need a couple of super successes to set the standard,” he said, mentioning SUNY’s Zimpher as building the kind of exemplary relationship with her board and other stakeholders that could serve as a model.

Reflecting on the previous three days’ discussion, Fogel found reason for optimism, while acknowledging the tough choices ahead.

“Looking at the quality of leadership of the enterprise represented by our panelists, I concluded that it isn’t ‘precipice or crossroads,’ it’s some kind of crossroads,” he said. “The institutions are too consequential and the leadership too smart and nimble and determined to let them go over the edge.”