The Significance of Alternative Advocates

A sign that the official higher education structure is not working satisfactorily is the emergence of alternative organizations to advocate on behalf of higher education. These have been created in some states during the past few years, usually with support from business and industry, and occasionally from foundations. These organizations have become the "idea outlets" of higher education in their states, because the colleges and universities will use whatever means they can find to describe both the opportunities they see and their need for adequate funding. Typically, the alternative organizations try to establish communication with elected public officals and others by circumventing bureaucratic processes that would inhibit it.

The Virginia Business-Higher Education Council is a leading national example of these alternative organizations. It came into being at the request of the college and university presidents, who perceived that the system's coordinating council had surrendered its informal authority and its effectiveness as an advocate for higher education in Virginia. Drawing upon existing resources within the system, the VBHEC has used its credibility to mount successful drives for increased funding in the last three sessions of the General Assembly.

But the Business-Higher Education Council has turned out to be more than the symptom of a malaise. It is most significant because it represents the kinds of work colleges and universities should now undertake, which involves their reaching out to form relationships with new partners.

Ten years ago, I suggested to the faculties that they lower the barriers within the academy, in particular between the disciplines. I argued then that much creative intellectual work is done by linking the disciplines to one another, particularly in the sciences, and that our students would be well-served in the future by learning that was not narrowly compartmentalized. My suggestion was repeated shortly thereafter by the Commission on the University of the 21st Century. That process has begun throughout American higher education and now appears to be working itself out within the curriculum and in scholarship. It is time to take the next step.

We need now to make more permeable the boundaries between higher education institutions themselves and between them and other institutions of our society. We need alliances; we need the strengths of synergy. The Business-Higher Education Council represents a new kind of relationship between the business sector and colleges and universities. It has challenged the institutions to explain their financial needs in terms of the services they provide, rather than simply in reference to what they want or other institutions have. Its insistence that restructuring is the quid pro quo for business advocacy has helped to bring about basic changes in how institutions operate. The conversations that now occur between business and higher education are about partnerships and mutual goals. We have moved past the stage in which colleges and universities saw business simply as a source of financial contributions, and businesses saw higher education simply as a source of employees. We now are talking about collaboration in a society in which work and learning are inextricably related.

The new relationships are not yet firmly established and it is fair to say that representatives of both business and higher education are still creating the protocols and paradigms. It is not clear that business always knows just what it wants from higher education, or vice versa. And colleges and universities have yet to meet the challenge to justify their financial needs in terms of what it takes to provide the services expected from them. In addition, there is great diversity on both sides of the table, which means that expectations and capacities to respond will differ depending upon the relationship.

But the right conversation is occurring and the right people are in the room. Thus far, there appears to be a high level of mutual respect among the participants. The business representatives recognize that colleges and universities cannot simply be at their beck and call. College and university presidents, for their part, are genuinely listening to what an influential constituency has to say. The new relationship can lead to people, resources, and ideas flowing back and forth through the boundaries of all the organizations involved.


Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia