Notes from the field

Meeting with other schools

Last week, I attended meetings of representatives from public health schools and programs. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with other deans, some of whom I have gotten to know well over the years. The high turnover rate is a reminder of the fact that most of us in these positions serve “at will,” and nothing is forever.

While at the meeting, I participated on a panel charged with discussing evolving demands on higher education. Led by Stefano Bertozzi (UC-Berkeley), the panel included Julio Frenk (Harvard) and Eddie Lawlor (Washington University in St. Louis). David Ward, past president of the American Council on Education and former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, made some interesting statements about the landscape of higher education, noting the apparent disconnect between academic traditions and the digital revolution. He argued that even though the standard academic approach to higher education works for only about 25 percent of students, we still are predicating much of what we do on a standardized model in a customized world. In a period of declining or, at best, stable funding, there will be more competition, greater demands on higher education and a pressing need for innovation. This will be pushed further by the accelerating debt burden on students and demands for greater efficiency and accountability.

These questions are amplified in North Carolina, where the legislature and the University’s board of governors have expressed many concerns about higher education. I understand the efficiency issues. If we did not have legacy systems, would we organize our university, or almost any university, as we have? I would not, but I am not a traditional academic, so perhaps there are truths I cannot see. On the one hand, our structures inherently create duplication and lack of scale. On the other, there’s tremendous research innovation and success in obtaining highly competitive NIH grants and other funding. As a result, many faculty members see change as an unnecessary evil. As problematic as the present may be, they don’t want to mess with success. I see an uncertain future if we fail to change and adapt to present and future circumstances.

A disruptive innovation could unsettle us all. Some thought massive open online courses (MOOCs) would be that innovation; I don’t think so. However, the ability of some organizations to deliver quality education conveniently, at low cost and in an accredited milieu could be very disruptive. It will happen sooner or later. We must recognize that the way we were isn’t the path to the future. We must be adaptive, resilient and unafraid of structures that look very different from those in which we live and work today. The current landscape might feel unsettling to some, but I find the notion of change energizing and exciting. An opportunity to imagine the universities of the 21st century? Now, that’s the place to be.

Happy Monday! Barbara

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