Sunday, July 17, 2005

Non-Denial Denials in Higher Ed

Frank Rich hit a home run today with his column Follow the Uranium. He notes the lies, the misdirection, the odd similarities with Watergate. But his key point is this:

That's why the stakes are so high: this scandal is about the unmasking of
an ill-conceived war, not the unmasking of a C.I.A. operative who posed for
Vanity Fair.

This is why the documentary Declining by Degrees is so interesting. Higher Ed has had a free pass, since as long as I've been on the scene. It has been a secure monopoly, the gateway to the good life. Now it is being challenged in that role, both on the cost and on the quality front. Rather than face that challenge squarely, we're getting a head in the sand approach.

The University of Arizona was featured in that documentary, an exemplar of the large public research university. It is telling that the day after the documentary aired, the Chronicle ran a piece saying that administrators at Arizona were upset with how the piece depicted their university. The producers of that documentary were not out to get the University of Arizona, not at all. They were out to illustrate some of the problems Higher Ed is facing today with undergraduate education and that the large research universities are struggling here. The denial in the Chronicle was both predicatable and comical.

It may not be human nature to face serious problems head on. And in this case especially, since these campuses must continue to recruit students and promise parents that they are doing well on the social contract to educate their children, it is hard to imagine a forthright endorsement of the themes in Declining by Degrees coming from within Higher Ed Administration.

Those in Information Technology more broadly and educational technology more specifically live this non-denial denial on a regular basis. This plays out in our budgets and the services we are expected to provide; never the twain shall meet. We need leadership willing to openly express what is really going on. But don't hold your breath.

Although the economy is rebounding nicely now so we may get a temporary restbit, I fear we're headed for worse problems in Higher Ed over the next five to ten years and we're not doing enough to get ready for that now. It is this lack of positioning, which is the real problem. But if you don't acknowledge that things are tough, why should you change the way you do things?

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