This is the second ten-year report on Virginia higher education I have prepared during my service as Director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and it surely is the last. Ten years in this job is an honor; 20 is an oddity; but 30 would be cruel and unusual punishment. I present this report under very different circumstances than the one I prepared in 1987, when Virginia higher education was in renaissance. In 1997, opportunities remain abundant but we are struggling to regain a place of grace.

I have been privileged to work with very good people at the Council and in a system of very good colleges and universities. And I remain convinced that state-level coordination of higher education is useful and necessary, even though almost no one really wants it done.

"Every morning, when you look into the mirror," a university president told one of my colleagues in another state, "you should ask yourself: I am an evil; but am I necessary?" I think that coordination of complex systems is necessary in this time of extraordinarily rapid change. But both systems and their effective coordination are changing along with everything else.

The root causes of the change are neither trivial nor casual. We are living at the end of a major intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. This movement, the hallmark of which is rationalism, began in reaction to the appalling religious wars of the 16th and early 17th centuries. Thinkers like Rene Descartes recognized the need for logical, orderly thought, strictly separated from the passions and enthusiasms that fed the flames of religious intolerance and bigotry.

But in the 20th century the inherent limitations of reason have become increasingly apparent. Despite scientific and technical progress, our century has had its own "Thirty Years' War," from 1914 to 1945. In logical, orderly ways, we have unleashed horrid forces of destruction and slaughtered millions of human beings. "Snow is falling on the Age of Reason," writes a poet, and "on Mr. Jefferson's little hill."

The Enlightenment's quest for certainty, for unchanging truths that would protect us from the savagery of our own passions, is ending short of the mark. The history of the 20th century is, at one and the same time, a history of astonishing technological progress and of enormous human dislocation and suffering. We end the century more aware of one another in the "global village," but also more aware of the vast gap between the big house on the hill and the hovel in the hollow.

The work of higher education planning and coordination is fascinating in this time between traditions because, like learning in the modern university, it is always provisional. Our work, as a colleague in another state described it, requires "rapid improvisation in the face of unanticipated change." What we do today is not satisfactory for tomorrow; the notion of a five-year plan is quaint; there is no end to change and possible improvement but the goal is to become "more perfect" rather than "perfect." The time is transitional and it is therefore important that we avoid rigidity and that we suspect all forms of certainty about where we're going and what we should do. We can only be certain that we are working toward something we do not see clearly. It is an exciting, if occasionally frightening, time.

We also can be certain that higher education planning and coordination is now a business of ideas, rather than of statutes and regulations. We, and our colleagues in the colleges and universities, are creating something new. Not necessarily because all of us want to but because we have to. "Whatever we do together is pure invention," writes another poet. "The maps they gave us were out of date by years."

In my 1987 report, I identified many of the issues with which we would have to deal in the coming decade. But I did not foresee the economic recession that caused us to spend the first half of the 1990s slashing budgets and increasing tuitions until the very notion of what it means to be a Virginia "state-supported" college or university is in question.

I foresaw the need for restructuring, the kind of change that does not come easily and that comes only at a price. But I missed the intensified politicization of education that has infected our nation in this decade and now threatens Virginia higher education.

For all the difficulties, Virginia still is committed to the first principles of public higher education: every citizen who can benefit deserves access to it; and those responsible for the system of colleges and universities should make that education as good as we possibly can. But this commitment now is attenuated by absence of political leadership, rising levels of intolerance in our society, and meanness of spirit.

I believe that higher education can continue to improve the human condition, both by helping students learn how to lead healthy and productive lives, and through research that creates new knowledge or leads to new technologies. Moreover, our colleges and universities have a major responsibility to help people who are or will be the leaders of our society learn to live productively with uncertainty. One of the orienting values that colleges and universities need to retain in a rapidly changing world is the importance of preparing women and men to be thoughtful, skilled, compassionate, and skeptical participants in public and private life. This may require a new conception of liberal education, or at least a new understanding of how technical skills and knowledge are related to the liberal arts.

Preparing men and women for the opportunities that will open to them will not be easy or, to put it better, will be even more difficult than it ever has been. Traditional higher education faces a serious challenge in the next several years from new kinds of educational providers who have very little stake in liberal education and whose purposes are frankly utilitarian.

Partly by policy and partly by accident, the United States has made colleges and universities the gateway to just about everything we judge to be good in our society: productive work, self-reliance, better health, labor-saving technology, recreation, aesthetic experiences -- the list goes on. Perhaps out of conviction that there simply is no such thing as being "over-educated," our predecessors built a system of universal access to advanced learning. The greatest American innovations in higher education, the land-grant university and the community college, were intended to broaden access to applied, advanced education. No other people, at any time or in any place, has provided so broad an educational franchise. Indeed, the rest of the technologically advanced world is moving rapidly to provide as much access to higher education as we do. We can't turn back. And we shouldn't want to.

A distinguished teacher and scholar once began a seminar by asking what conditions of the present time made it unlikely that a similar gathering could occur 100 years from now. Borrowing but inverting his rhetorical device, I begin my 20-year report with this question:

What should we do today to help ensure that Virginia's (and America's) colleges and universities
will continue to improve the services they provide the people and institutions of our society?
I propose that we need to act in three areas. We need to fund higher education adequately, protect our systems of higher education from the vagaries of partisan politics and ideologies, and seize the dangerous opportunities offered by advanced communications technology.


Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia