Seize the Dangerous Opportunities

Virginia can do three things to position its colleges and universities for a tumultuous future in which higher education becomes a retail commodity: invest strategically in our strengths, give the institutions more autonomy, and require precise accountability for results.

Some institutions have or will develop market niches that enable them to continue serving largely residential student populations with their own courses and programs. Others will become primarily sophisticated sites for the reception of electronic instruction, mentoring and tutoring students, and enriching the intellectual and cultural lives of the communities they serve.

Virginia should continue to invest strategically in the good ideas advanced by its colleges and universities in order to take advantage of the opportunities that will be available in this new world of higher education. While some basic level of funding for each institution probably is necessary, it is important to recognize that not all institutions will develop strong market niches, that only a very few will originate large volumes of electronically delivered instruction, and that some will have more good ideas than others. But spreading scarce resources across all institutions without regard for the quality of their adaptation to new challenges is a luxury we can no longer afford. It is necessary now to invest in the good ideas of Virginia higher education.

Along with strategic investment, the Governor and General Assembly should give the colleges and universities both more autonomy and greater responsibility for their own actions. As the Chichester Commission said, there is a link between accountability and autonomy.

We believe that the faculty, administrators, and staff of the institutions will assume greater responsibility for the results they produce when they are given greater responsibility for their operations. This is true not of institutions of higher education, but of any organization. If the state intrudes, oversees, or over-rules, college and university employees will regard their obligations to the public as diminished because they are not in control (p. 25).

We should maintain a relationship between the Commonwealth and the colleges and universities -- they are a Virginia asset and they should remain so. But those who are responsible for them, including faculty, administrators, and governing boards, should be aware that they flourish or fail on the basis of their own initiative, imagination, and hard work.

A leading theorist in learning and technology has observed:
We can fight boundary-spanning satellite instruction, and try to establish signal-jamming Maginot Line policies which prevent other institutions from getting a foothold nearby -- for a while. We can ignore the chorus of malcontents who trash higher education and who propose technological box-top solutions to complex problems -- a bit longer. If we follow that strategy, public higher education will begin to be seen like a rock in a river. Events will flow around us, wearing us down in the process. Campuses will become smaller, poorer, and more marginal to the social mainstream (Robert M. Threlkeld, quoted in Multiversity, the IBM magazine for colleges and universities. Winter 1996)

A better approach is to embrace the future and control it before it controls us. We resist change and die, accept it and survive, or lead it and flourish.

We can create better learning and provide better service. We can demonstrate the superiority of our programs in a marketplace filled with mass retailers. We can make technology the tool that gives faculty more time for students, not less. Like the makers of blue jeans and shoes, we can provide a custom-tailored product for each student. We can do it better if we take the initiative and begin to do it now.

In doing so, we can shift the focus of higher education once again, so that it becomes more appropriate to speak, as we have spoken for years, of students and teachers in learning communities, rather than of consumers and vendors in shopping malls. Seizing the dangerous opportunities is the best way to help future students learn to earn good livings and live good lives.

American systems of higher education are complex, even chaotic. Students progress through them in a variety of ways that surprise even those of us who are supposed to be responsible for them. Our systems combine, and seek to hold in productive tension, the right of individual women and men to shape their own learning and the responsibility of government to use its revenues as efficiently and effectively as possible. There are no simple formulae for doing this, only creative adaptations to unanticipated change. The systems of higher education are as distinctively American as jazz. And like jazz, our systems of higher education thrive on improvisation.

I think the systems were simpler in 1955, when I began college. I know they were simpler in 1977, when I became Director of the State Council of Higher Education. But ideas still matter, and the need for lifelong learning is greater than it ever has been. We can be grateful that Viriginia's colleges and universities remain dedicated to creating knowledge and transmitting it for the common good.

These institutions require constant attention if they are to remain dynamic. Because the future is the accumulation of our present decisions, Virginia now needs leadership that will help colleges and universities be strong and vibrant partners in developing the Commonwealth. What we create today will determine how our children and grandchildren live tomorrow.


Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia