Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2010
"Faculty Will Figure It Out":
Robert Zemsky WF '62 on Higher Education Reform
“Kick me,” Robert Zemsky WF ’62 told his wife last fall. “I’m getting optimistic.” In Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education (Rutgers 2009), he argues that higher education can and will—indeed, must—drive its own strategies for change.
For nearly four decades, Dr. Zemsky, an historian by training, has observed and modeled change in higher education. Now chair and CEO of The Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania, he was founding director of Penn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education from 1980 to 2000.
Appointed in 2005 to the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, Dr. Zemsky soon sensed that Commission members from the academy “were being set up as a kind of stand-pat opposition unwilling to face the truth of higher education’s declining effectiveness.” Making Reform Work was written—at the urging of Dr. Zemsky’s mentor, Penn’s late President Emeritus Martin Meyerson—as “the report the Commission should have submitted.”
Woodrow Wilson staff spoke with Dr. Zemsky about the book.
WW: In Making Reform Work you outline some of the critiques that have been leveled at the academy from outside—pressures for accountability, transparency, greater entrepreneurialism—and you describe how faculty have pushed back against what’s been perceived as commodification, commercialization, or a simple lack of understanding of academic values. Since the work of the Spellings Commission, the U.S. domestic policy agenda has shifted. Do you see those external pressures changing?
RZ: The academy is seldom shaped by short-term changes—there are long cycles to our history. Rather, the rest of the world has changed dramatically, and we have to catch up. What’s more likely to impact us than market swings, for instance, are social media. What does cheating mean in a Twitter world? It’s those pressures. Another example: The number of master’s degrees awarded in this country has doubled over two decades. The undergraduate years are now a middle passage, bridging the chasm between home and secondary school on one side and professional training and work on the other. Data now suggest that most young people, when they start college, know they will pursue further degrees, and they want skilled tools to make that transition. That’s a big shift.
WW: So in response to such pressures, you call for a reform process that will be “open-ended, purposeful, and faculty-centered.” In fact, you argue that meaningful reform will only come from within the academy, and then only if faculty see such reform as being in their interest. What kind of reform might, from your perspective, be in the interest of faculty?
RZ: Interview data tell us over and over again that no one outside the academy has any idea how the academy works. It’s the people inside the academy who know how to get the job done. And yet, since the 1980s, on a lot of campuses, many people have been less interested in a collective voice than an agreement that lets them do their thing in a reasonable, civilized way. As [Henry] Rosovsky at Harvard argued, tenure is an implicit social contract, but it’s broken if faculty don’t see the university as a collectivity.
WW: Still, there are clearly faculty leaders who do see the university as a collectivity. How can they best shape reforms that preserve academic values while accommodating inevitable shifts in pedagogy, as well as political and market forces? What’s the vehicle today?
RZ: How do we get collective buy-in? You really do need to tip the cube so everybody has to scramble.
WW: You mean what you call a “dislodging event” in the book: a complete overhaul of federal financial aid, changes in the tax code for university endowments, a national move to a three-year baccalaureate—some event that forces the issue.
RZ: We need that. I have ultimate faith in faculty; we’re gifted. Tip our box in a way that doesn’t just make us declare civil war and we’ll figure it out. Just indicting higher ed isn’t going to get higher ed to change. But if you really said to us, “How can you do it better,” some interesting things could happen.
WW: You write with enthusiasm about new perspectives on learning and e-learning that come from neuroscience. You also insist that real reform will come about when faculty collectively are willing not just to restructure curricula, but rather to reexamine values, intended outcomes, and teaching methods—in short, to put learning rather than teaching at the center of their efforts. Won’t that happen in any case, as new generations of scholars who have learned differently enter the professoriate?
RZ: [University of Michigan President Emeritus James] Duderstadt always argues that it’s generational. [Neuroscientist James] Zull and others note that learning is physical; it has a neural basis. What they’re really telling us is, never walk into a classroom and tell your students to forget what they know about a subject. Instead, from the neural science point of view, you should say, “Tell me what you know now so I can work with it.” So this is not “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side”; rather, it’s the idea that in a purely intellectual sense you need to know where your students are starting before you can teach them anything.
My father was a physician, and I would accompany him on hospital rounds. When he’d get on the floor, he’d go to the rack the charts were kept in and look at the chart of every patient he was about to see—and he would not imagine working with a patient until he had seen where that patient was. But today I “operate” on people without charts all the time. About three-quarters of the way through a course I figure out who I’m teaching, and that’s intellectually wrong. That’s a much bigger revolution.
As for technology in the classroom, about 10% of the technologists have gotten the point. The “if we build it” approach—that’s how about 90% of the technologists I know think of media and technology in learning. About 10% ask, instead, how to help solve problems. They see their challenge as “how can I help you.” Then it turns out that there are some simple things technology can do. And that group is now going to grow.
So all these things are coming together. I think the time is right for change. The money bet is to say no, higher education won’t change, because the odds are that it won’t. But this could be the time to take a flyer.