U.S. News & World Report: Op-ed: A call for balanced change in American higher education

David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University

Commentary appears in U.S. News & World Report:

I am concerned. For the first time in my 36 years in academia, the value of America’s colleges and universities is being questioned – and seriously. Is what we offer worth the money and time invested? Will a college degree really translate into a better job down the road or improve our quality of life? Couldn’t we rely more on technology and less on highly paid faculty members and expensive campuses and student amenities to deliver our “product” at lower cost?

There is no “one size fits all” solution to these questions. Colleges are delicate organisms that require careful handling when they must be handled at all. Nonetheless, we in the hallowed halls are the recipients of an enormous public investment – including our tax-exempt status – and we need to find a better balance in several areas:

Costs: Higher education faces real resource constraints, but they can’t be solved solely by endless tuition increases. More public funding for public institutions would certainly help, but we can’t make college more affordable without some serious attention to cost containment – by reducing redundancies and layers of management, outsourcing services, negotiating purchasing discounts with suppliers, and finding other ways to make limited dollars go further.

And while excellent facilities are essential to campus quality, taking care of deferred maintenance on existing buildings should be a higher priority than new construction. Where new construction is necessary, it should be undertaken without incurring substantial debt.

Tenure: Colleges traditionally grant tenure to outstanding faculty members so that they can teach, discover, create and pursue knowledge, even in controversial areas, without fear of losing their jobs. Tenure remains important to recruiting and retaining the best faculty, and by extension to institutional excellence and academic freedom, but it should be accompanied by serious post-tenure review with “teeth” to ensure continuing faculty productivity.

Student learning outcomes: Increasingly, the public expects a college degree to certify that graduates can succeed in a rapidly changing workplace. Much of what makes college valuable, however, is not easily reduced to a specific set of testable skills. Moreover, course content and quality vary widely among institutions, and grade inflation has complicated the situation further, with the vast majority of students at many institutions earning A’s and B’s. We need to develop more robust measures of student learning outcomes to demonstrate what students have gained from their college careers.

The role of a liberal education: In educating students for tomorrow’s jobs, we must not neglect the arts, humanities and social sciences. These disciplines help develop critical thinking, historical and cultural perspective, and the ability to analyze, synthesize and communicate. Equally important, they enrich our lives with joy, beauty and insights into the human condition that can be gained in no other way.

The use of technology: The rise of online education has led some to predict that the traditional college, with a physical campus and resident professors, soon will be obsolete. Technology can make teaching more engaging and sometimes improve student learning. But it would be a mistake to apply technology for technology’s sake. We must demand proof of efficacy.

Diversity: In selecting students, faculty and staff, we need to consider merit and the “fit” with our individual institutions, while also ensuring that the campus reflects the society it serves. All members of a university community benefit when a campus welcomes people of many backgrounds and points of view.For centuries American colleges and universities have added new functions, expanded student access and evolved to meet society’s needs. Today we in academia must take a hard look at the issues mentioned above, among others, and find a better balance so that we can continue to contribute to societal progress and individual success at a price the public can afford.