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Higher Education's Resistance to Change

Visiting Professor Brian Rosenberg addresses the cultural and structural factors that impede significant transformations in higher education
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Higher education is one of the few industries that has changed little in the past few decades. Visiting Professor Brian Rosenberg believes there is an urgent need to transform higher education but too many structures and practices are keeping colleges and universities stuck in the past.

“Look at any mission statement for any college or university, and you will probably find a word like transformational or transformative. And look at the work of any faculty member in any discipline, and they will tell you that they're trying to push the boundaries of their discipline and change things,” Rosenberg says. “But when it comes to the way these institutions operate, there is, in fact, a powerful resistance to, reluctance to, opposition to change.”

An unsustainable financial model in colleges and universities and the importance of making education more accessible and equitable should be enough of a driver for higher education to change, he says. However, a stubborn resistance to change is so embedded in the culture and structures of higher education have made it nearly impossible. Some of those structures are the foundation of higher education like faculty tenure and shared governance.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Rosenberg emphasizes the need for a shift in mindset to push for meaningful change in the field and to ensure its sustainability and relevance.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Brian Rosenberg knows slow, incremental changes won't be enough to sustain and transform many colleges and universities into the future. He knows the inner workings of higher education well. Rosenberg has been everything from a student to a faculty member, and was even the president of Macalester College for 17 years.

How do we change higher education is a question that's nagged Rosenberg for a long time. This resistance to change is the focus of his book, Whatever It Is, I'm Against It, where he takes a deep look at why institutions need to reform and what's stopping them. He points out that many of the foundational parts of higher education, like faculty tenure and shared governance, might be working against change. I wanted to know more about why higher ed is so stuck. First, I asked Brian why colleges and universities need to change?

BRIAN ROSENBERG: Well, when people ask me why higher education needs to change in more than slow, incremental ways, I ask them to respond to two numbers-- 56 and 46. 56% is the current discount rate the average discount rate at private colleges across the United States. In other words, the product is on sale for more than half off. And every year, that number goes up, and it doesn't go up by a decile or a small percentage point. It goes up two to three percentage points a year.

When I started at Macalester, the average was in the low 40s. Now, it's moving into the upper 50s. If you keep discounting and discounting and discounting more and more, sooner or later you're going to be giving it away for nothing, and that is obviously an unsustainable financial model. So if you think the current model is good, or doesn't need change, you have to respond to this enormous economic pressure that the vast majority of colleges and universities in the country are facing.

And the other number, 46%, is the percentage of African American students who begin college or University and graduate within six years. In other words, more than half of the African American students who start don't finish within six years. So my argument is that the first number is unsustainable, and the second number is unacceptable. And given that, just continuing to do exactly what we're doing with small tweaks is to me just not acceptable. It's hard to defend that.

JILL ANDERSON: When you think about it, and this is something that you have written about, most all industries have had to change at some point in the past decade, let alone several decades. But higher education has barely changed at all, except the price tag. It almost seems like this weird paradox, because higher education is supposed to be so valued for innovation and disruption, but it hasn't been able to disrupt its own system. Why?

BRIAN ROSENBERG: That's basically why I wrote the book that I wrote, to try to understand exactly that paradox, because it is paradoxical. Look at any mission statement for any college or university, and you will probably find a word like transformational or transformative. And look at the work of any faculty member in any discipline, and they will tell you that they're trying to push the boundaries of their discipline and change things. But when it comes to the way these institutions operate, there is, in fact, a powerful resistance to, reluctance to, opposition to change.

And I really wanted to try to understand that because I've experienced it throughout my career as a faculty member, and a Dean, and a president. So that's what I dug into. And what I found is that the resistance to change is rooted in the culture and the structures of higher education. If you look, for instance, at the incentive system, most people who change, change because there's some sort of extrinsic incentive to change.


BRIAN ROSENBERG: People don't like change. It's uncomfortable. It can be scary. It can make more work. But if you look at higher education, there is not a lot of incentive for any of the constituencies within the industry to push for transformational change. People like to point to college presidents. And there are articles all the time about why college presidents aren't change agents. But the reality is, the college president who tries to come in and be a change agent is likely not to be a college president for very long. 


BRIAN ROSENBERG: And it's because they run into all kinds of opposition within the system. Tenure-track faculty members certainly have very little incentive to change the system. Students push for change in areas like commitment to fossil-free investment portfolios, and on social issues, but in terms of changing their actual institutions and the curriculum, they also tend to be pretty conservative. Anytime we talked about eliminating anything at Macalester, I'd get tremendous pushback. And alumni don't tend to push for change. Alumni tend to view the institution's ideal moment as the moment when they were a student.


BRIAN ROSENBERG: And so anything that's going to change that, they tend not to like. So there really aren't any internal constituencies that are incentivized to push for change. And then you have structures like-- and this is where the book, I think, really either strikes a chord or touches a nerve, depending upon where you sit. There are internal structures like shared governance and tenure that are expressly designed to prevent dramatic change. And so when you combine a culture and a structure that are not amenable to change, you get what we have, which is a system that changes very, very slowly, if at all.

JILL ANDERSON: Did you find that college administrators are living in a world of delusion, or do you think that they know that practices and structures need to change?

BRIAN ROSENBERG: I think it's a combination of both. Whenever college presidents, and deans, and provosts are surveyed, there's this fascinating disconnect between their awareness of the overall state of the industry and their perception of their own institution. So there was, just for instance, a survey that was released today-- I think it was in Inside Higher Education-- of college presidents. And the overwhelming majority believe that the Supreme Court decision to overturn affirmative action will result in less diversity in higher education.


BRIAN ROSENBERG: But the overall majority also believe that there will not be less diversity at their own institutions. Those positions are inconsistent with one another. If you look at the way college leaders tend to answer questions like that, that's a pretty common phenomenon.

So they look at the system and say it's unsustainable, but then they say my institution is going to be OK. And so I think they are aware of it, but I think there is a certain amount of denial about the extent to which it's going to affect their own institutions, or there's an awareness of the extent to which it will affect their own institutions, but a real inability to do anything about it. So they don't.

JILL ANDERSON: I mean, that seems like a huge problem in and of itself, to not be able to clearly see your own institution and its challenges.

BRIAN ROSENBERG: Yeah. College presidents are paid to be cheerleaders for their institutions. Nobody wants to go out and talk to alumni and say, you know, the reality is we're hanging by a thread. People want to talk about the fact that we added this new great program, and we're really optimistic about the future, and we're doing these things to make our institution sustainable, even when they know that, if you look beneath the hood a little bit, things are not very good. 

And I'm sympathetic with that. Once a college tends to admit that it's in trouble, it becomes a vicious cycle, where people become more reluctant to attend or invest in an institution because it's struggling, and then it struggles more. So even when you know there are problems, it's very difficult to admit publicly that there are problems because it'll probably make those problems worse. 

JILL ANDERSON: So it's not a case of we're really struggling and in those moments colleges and universities are able to find some innovation and spark change. It sounds like it's a downward spiral from there. 

BRIAN ROSENBERG: You'd like to think that institutions that know that they're in trouble would push their various constituencies to change things. We don't see very many examples of that. In fact, even institutions that seem to be almost literally on their deathbeds get a lot of pushback from students, from faculty, from alumni against anything like dramatic change. 

If you look at the example of Mills College in California, which was a very progressive college, more than half of its students were students of color, very, very high percentage Pell eligible. And they were losing enrollment, and losing money, and they eventually worked out a deal to be absorbed by Northeastern. First, they were sued by their own alumni, then they were sued by their own students. 

The deal eventually went through in some form, but it was delayed dramatically. And the people who were objecting didn't have any alternative solution. They were just objecting to the change. And you see that all the time in higher education. 

Look at what's happening in West Virginia right now. I am no big fan of the changes-- the particular changes-- they're making at the University of West Virginia. They're eliminating all of their foreign languages. They have, I believe, eliminated their math graduate program. And I get the pushback. I totally get it. But what I don't see in a lot of the pushback is an alternative solution. 

This is a flagship state university that is in a very, very poor state, that is losing enrollment rapidly, and is looking at a demographic cliff that's going to make them even smaller. So if you want to push back against the changes that are being made, you can't just object. You also have to say here's an alternative solution, because the solution of just continuing to do what we're doing will not help anybody and will not be the answer. So what you tend to see in higher education is lots and lots of angry pushback against changes, which are mostly cuts, but not a lot of new ideas about how to come up with more sustainable financial models. That's the problem that we're facing right now. 

JILL ANDERSON: How do you think faculty tenure and shared governance hold institutions back from being able to make change? 

BRIAN ROSENBERG: Yeah, I'll start with shared governance. Anyone who studies organizational change will tell you that, essentially, consensus is the enemy of change. By definition, if you seek an answer that is acceptable to as many people as possible, or that disturbs or bothers as few people as possible, you're going to end up with something that is probably incremental, and probably some sort of compromise that makes nobody really happy. 

Most transformational change is going to generate some opposition. Colleges don't do very well when any constituency, particularly when faculty push back against the change. Most transformational change happens or originates with a smaller group of people. That's antithetical to the way shared governance works. Shared governance is designed to encourage very slow, very incremental change. It's designed to prevent. 
One could argue that for a long time it served higher education pretty well. These colleges and universities have been around for a long time for a reason. They didn't change with every change in the market, which 10 years later might be something different. They weren't taken in crazy directions by someone who happened to come in as a CEO. So it's promoted stability. 

But the question I think we need to confront now, as an industry, is are we still in a moment when very slow, very incremental change is appropriate for the students we serve, and for the industry, the work that we all believe in? My argument is that it is not, right now. And so consensus is good at blocking dramatic change. It's not good at pushing for dramatic change. 

And as far as tenure goes, it's very similar. It's hard to argue that tenure doesn't freeze a lot of what happens at a college or university in place. If you hire someone to teach, like I did, Victorian literature in 1990, there's a good chance they're still teaching Victorian literature now, whether you want someone or need someone to teach Victorian literature or not, whether there's student interest in taking classes in Victorian literature or not. 

And we know that the interests and the priorities of students have shifted. When I arrived at Macalester, less than 20% of the students were majoring in a STEM discipline. When I left Macalester, 50% of the students were majoring in a STEM discipline. You have very little ability, as an institution, to respond to that shift in demand, when the majority of your faculty positions are tenured or tenure track and can't be changed, can't be moved. 

Now, a lot of people, especially in my own area, the humanities, will push back and say, well, that's just fine. Our job is not to respond to student demand. Tell that to a parent who's paying $75,000 a year for a Macalester education, and whose kid can't get into the classes that they want. I don't think that the sole purpose of a curriculum is to respond to student demand, but certainly one of the purposes of a curriculum is to do that. 

The locking in place of positions with tenure makes it very, very difficult for a curriculum to evolve, for programs to evolve. It's also human nature. If you are told, seven or eight years into your career, you have a job guaranteed for the rest of your life, that is not a great incentive to change what you're doing because change is hard. So it's sort of a unique gift that tenured faculty have, to have that security. The only other employees that are in the United States who have that protection are federal judges, and there only about 800 of them, where there are tens of thousands of tenured faculty members. 

JILL ANDERSON: Another thing that you write about is the academic calendar. And from afar, you would think changing the academic calendar wouldn't be that hard. It seems like an item that's low on the list of things to change. But I can only fathom if a university tried to take away summer breaks, or take away winter breaks, what the reaction would be to that. 

BRIAN ROSENBERG: For all intents and purposes, you can't do it, unless the faculty agrees, and the faculty is highly unlikely to agree. Every college has a different governance system. At Macalester, the faculty voted on and controlled the calendar. One of my favorite little pieces of institutional history is that Macalester up until, I believe the early 1990s, had a January term, where courses were offered. And the faculty voted, at that point, to get rid of the January term classes, but they kept the calendar. So now there's about a five week break in the middle of the year, where essentially nothing is offered to students. 

You're right. The simplest way to make college less expensive for students would be to make it shorter. And the simplest way to make it shorter would be to reduce the length of those enormous breaks in most college and university calendars. But that would mean changing the nature of faculty workloads in a way that faculty are not going to go along with. It's also going to, inevitably, get a lot of pushback from those who say that faculty need to be scholars and teachers, and they need that time, those breaks, to do their research. 

The University that I'm working on in Africa, African Leadership University, has the equivalent of three semesters each year. They're trimesters, but each one is the length of a semester, there's about a three-week break, and then they resume. You can get the bachelor's degree in three years. And that reduces the cost, and it reduces the opportunity cost of going to college. We're seeing a little of it in the United States, but still very, very little. 

JILL ANDERSON: A lot of the things that you have mentioned here would be such significant changes in higher education. How do you begin to incentivize those changes? 

BRIAN ROSENBERG: It's really, really hard. There's a reason why most industries that get disrupted get disrupted from without, because disrupting an industry from within, especially a long standing legacy industry, is very, very difficult. My hope is that the external pressures that are being brought to bear on many of these institutions will at some point confront them with a choice. Either we innovate, either we change in ways that are more than incremental, or we don't survive, and that they choose to innovate rather than not to survive. 

This is not going to happen to the 75 or 100 or so colleges and universities that are highly selective and financially secure. And why should they? The demand for them is extraordinary. They have the resources that they need, and there's no sign that demand is going to let up anytime in the near future. They're the very, very top of a very, very large system. Most of the institutions in that system are looking at major challenges. 

My hope is that the disruption comes-- it's not going to come from the top of the system. My hope is that it comes from the more challenged part of the system, or it comes from higher education systems outside the US. There's a process called reverse innovation, where in contexts of great constraint, people have to come up with less expensive and more efficient solutions to problems. 

And there's been some examples of that, for instance, in the medical device industry, where in places like India and China where they couldn't afford to build really expensive medical devices, they built less expensive ones that have then been adapted back into more developed economies. And it may be that the innovation is not going to come from within the US, or from within most of Europe, but from places like Africa, or India, or South America, where they simply don't have the option of recreating the American system, and they have young populations, growing populations, that need to be educated, and they need to come up with different models. 

And so maybe some of those models will then be looked at by American institutions that say, you know, we might be able to do that as well. Maybe we can offer this in three years. Maybe we can build the education more around the student and less around faculty with PhDs. Maybe we can make it more experiential. Maybe we can genuinely figure out a way to use technology and reduce the reliance on very expensive campuses. And maybe what we offer can actually be good. If there's a model that can be developed, even if it's in Rwanda and not in Massachusetts, maybe those things can have an impact on the way higher education works globally. 

JILL ANDERSON: One of the things I don't hear you mentioning, which is interesting because a lot of people look to policy as some sort of way to help the higher-ed system-- what's your take on the role of policy to alter higher education? 

BRIAN ROSENBERG: Look, I would love it if, as a country, we accepted the fact that higher education is not a private good but a public good. 


BRIAN ROSENBERG: And that we treated it appropriately, which would mean, dramatically more funding directed toward higher education, and more connections across what is a very, very disconnected system. The problem is, that's not going to happen, for a whole variety of reasons, including the fact that even if people decided tomorrow that they wanted to inject a lot more money into the higher education system, the question is, where does it come from? Because we're not investing sufficiently in K-12, we're certainly not investing sufficiently in health care or in infrastructure. 

It's a very, very deep-seated problem within the US. The other policy answer that you hear has to do with things like free college, free community college, free public college, loan forgiveness. All of those solutions deal with price and not cost. 


BRIAN ROSENBERG: All of those solutions really just shift the question of who pays. So when you're talking about free college, it ain't free. What you're talking about is, someone else is going to pay for it. 


BRIAN ROSENBERG: Which is not a sustainable solution to this problem. All you're doing is shifting the payer, but unless you figure out a way to actually bend the cost curve, actually make it less expensive to offer, then that solution is going to be very, very short term, and is probably going to degrade quality. So all of the public policy, questions, solutions that I see have to do with price. There's almost nobody talking seriously about cost. 

JILL ANDERSON: Knowing that the current model for the majority of colleges and universities is unsustainable, people might hear that and think, is it such a bad thing to have colleges closing when we know enrollments are down, and the predicted future enrollments are looking fairly bleak? 

BRIAN ROSENBERG: Yeah. The purpose of higher education is not simply to keep colleges open. The purpose of higher education is to educate people, and through educating people to improve the quality of our civic life. Yes, it's true that the supply and demand have to rightsize themselves. And it is probably true right now, if you look at demographics-- certainly it's true in Massachusetts that there is probably an oversupply, given what we're looking at demographically. 

The problem is not so much individual colleges closing. The problem is that we are not educating portions of the population that really need and deserve to be educated. I'm not arguing that everybody should go to college. What I would argue is that everyone who wants to go to college should be able to go to college. And right now we know that there are many populations that are being underserved. In the 18-to-22-year-old category, most African-American, most Latino students-- Latino students are not being served by higher education at the rate that white students are. 

And then there's that whole group of what has been called nontraditional students, adult learners who can't show up Monday through Friday on a physical campus, and live in a residence hall, and pay a lot of money for a college education, but might want to get all or part of a college education. And the system is not at all designed to accommodate them. 

So it's not so much that the tragedy is colleges closing. The tragedy is that colleges are not serving, right now, the populations that they need to serve. And if all we do is have colleges close, and we don't do anything to address that other problem, we'll just have what we have now but less of it. Look, I don't want to be completely negative about this. I think there are ways to try to improve things. First of all, we have to acknowledge that technology has changed our world. 


BRIAN ROSENBERG: And I've always been a passionate believer in the virtues-- the educational virtues of a human being, in a classroom, in small groups, with other human beings. I think the model is great. The problem is the model is expensive and not scalable. If you are one of the fortunate students who could go to Macalester College and sit in those rooms with those faculty members, that is terrific. But the reality is that the vast majority of the population doesn't have that access. 

And so we have to ask ourselves how technology can increase access to education, and do so in a way that is both ethical and effective? We're inching in that direction, but really, really slowly. We need to be much more serious in looking at technology and how it can make education more accessible. Is there really that much of a difference between a Harvard professor standing in a theater and lecturing to 300 students and a Harvard professor lecturing to 3,000 students online? Where can we find those efficiencies and that scalability? 

And the other thing that we have not, I think, taken advantage of is the ability of human beings to be self-directed learners. And this is not a new idea. This goes back to John Dewey, a century and a half ago. One of the things that we're exploring at ALU is the question of how fully students can be, in effect, the owners of their own learning journey, and how much do they need help from a coach, or a faculty member, or an adviser? 

How much can they access in this enormous world of knowledge that's now available to them technologically? How much does that both improve the quality of education and reduce the cost of education? And how much does learning through doing, experiential learning-- how does that compare to learning through reading or learning through listening? And is that something that could possibly make higher education more accessible and less expensive? 

So the answers are not there yet, but unless we ask the questions, we will never get the answers. And my frustration with higher education is that we just don't seem willing, seriously, to ask questions like what can technology really do? What can self-directed learning really do? What can experiential learning really do to bend that cost curve and make education more accessible to more people? And as long as we just dig in our heels and say we're not going to answer these questions, we're not going to ask these questions, we're not going to listen to criticism from without, things are just going to get worse for a lot of institutions and for the people they're supposed to serve. 

JILL ANDERSON: Well, Brian, it seems odd for me to end on this note and just say thank you. It's a little bleak, but that's OK. 

BRIAN ROSENBERG: I don't think it needs to be bleak. The thing that I am most excited about right now is, in fact, the work that I'm doing in Africa. 


BRIAN ROSENBERG: Because this is a continent with the youngest population in the world, the most underserved population in the world, where people have very, very few resources for the most part. And we are working on trying to build a university that provides a high-quality education for $3,000 or less per year, and that produces great graduates. The university has grown now to over 2,000 students. 

And I've interacted with them. They're astonishing, what they can do and accomplish. And it's costing a lot less than what virtually any college university in the United States costs. And so when I see those students, and I see what they can do, and that they're getting jobs, I think this is doable. 

This is not an insoluble problem. It's just that we have to be willing to tackle it. And we have this tendency in the United States to wait until something is on the verge of complete collapse before we really deal with it. A bridge has to fall down or a health care system has to collapse before we say, you know, maybe we should do something about this. I fear that we're waiting for the current higher education system really to begin to collapse in a way that we haven't seen before we wake up and say, all right maybe we should do something different. But it is doable. 

JILL ANDERSON: Brian Rosenberg is a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a senior advisor at the African Leadership University. He's the author of Whatever It Takes, I'm Against It: Resistance to Change in Higher Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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