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Harvard Higher Education Leaders Forum Launches

New forum brings together young faculty to discuss current and future challenges in higher education.

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Thirty young faculty members from 14 universities came together at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on January 29 to discuss the future of higher education.

At the inaugural gathering of the Harvard Higher Education Leaders Forum — a new forum designed to bring together the future leaders in higher education — faculty from 15 universities including Harvard, Northwestern, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Virginia, and Duke, focused on hot topics in higher education, as well as challenges in field and how to make changes. Among the topics discussed at this first gathering were free speech on college campuses, online learning and MOOCs, changing demographics among students, challenges to humanities, and student learning.

“I’m delighted to be here, and I admire your willingness to put your daily work aside to grapple with broader issues affecting higher education," said Dean James Ryan in welcoming the group. "I also think you are wise to do so, as you can either help shape the forces bringing change to higher education or be shaped by them."

The forum was convened by Professor Richard Light, who for many years has traveled the country visiting college and university campuses examining what is being done well and not so well. Light said he was compelled to encourage young faculty, who are often encouraged to specialize and gain fame in their research areas, to think more broadly about higher education and the “enormous changes coming in higher education.”

Light selected the forum participants, who represent a wide range of academic fields and disciplines, after a lengthy search and interview process. In the coming years, faculty members will continue to meet and work on higher education issues.

Here Light answers questions about the forum and its meeting:

Why did you decide to create this forum now?

This is a wonderfully productive time to grapple directly with emerging challenges for American higher education. Think of all the challenges that university leaders, faculty members, and students all face, and right now. On some campuses, the leadership feels that the business model is either breaking or it is already broken. Costs are steadily rising and incomes of students and their families often are stagnant. The explosive growth of online learning and MOOCS will change in the next few years how students learn. Fewer and fewer courses are now taught by the traditional lecture model where a professor holds forth in front of a classroom, speaking to a group of generally silent students taking notes. Active learning is rapidly replacing lectures across the nation. The demographics of who attends college are changing steadily. Twenty years ago, 33 percent of college students were students of color. Today the fraction is about 40 percent. At America's leading universities, including the Ivies and several dozen more outstanding campuses, students of color already are roughly half of the entire undergraduate population. Within the next 15 years this will be true of a majority of American campuses.

If colleges and universities are to see these as opportunities rather than challenges, now is just the right time to assemble the next generation of faculty members and future university leaders. That is precisely what we have done at our Harvard Higher Education Leaders Forum.

What does the future of higher education mean in this context?

When I use the phrase "the future of higher education," we could easily talk about a three-to-five-year time horizon, or a 10-year time horizon, or a far longer time horizon. My inclination is to focus our forum on a roughly five-to-10-year time horizon, because certain changes are clearly predictable right now.

An example is that right now we can predict reasonably well the demographic make-up of traditional-age college students in five to 10 years. We almost can do it year by year. That is because these students have been born already. This capacity for good prediction is not at all true if we try to predict challenges 50 or 100 years from now. Similarly, it is awfully naive to think we can predict how technology will change teaching and learning in 50 years. Yet thinking over the next few years, we can make some fairly well informed guesses and then implement changes in how we organize our universities and our students' experiences on our campuses right now.

What were some key takeaways from the first session?

One is that declining enrollment in the traditional liberal arts, and especially in the humanities, is widespread and it is only increasing in intensity. Students are taking fewer such courses, and increasingly signing up — making their own choices — to take more classes in STEM subjects, plus new computer science classes, plus new data science classes, that didn't exist as recently as three to five years ago. For example, at Harvard College the largest enrollment undergraduate course is now Computer Science 50. At Stanford, the largest undergraduate major in terms of enrollment just this past year became computer science, which has surpassed economics, biology, English, and other traditionally popular majors. At the far smaller Macalester College, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the campus went from zero to more than 1,000 undergraduates taking courses in data science from 10 faculty members, in three years.

A second takeaway is the challenge of how curricula should evolve over time to accommodate the changing demographics of who comes to various colleges. While calculus or physics might not have much relationship to demographics of the students, clearly the choice of texts to read in a history class, or a literature or sociology or urban studies class, might evolve over time to reflect changing demographics. This creates real challenges for campuses, such as Columbia University, that have a heavy emphasis on the “great books” of literature.

A third takeaway is how challenges of governance of campuses will evolve. Right now some decisions are made by faculty, some decisions are made by deans, and some are made by a board of trustees or a board of directors. Now the concept of shared governance is growing as an important goal on many campuses. Achieving that goal isn't always easy. Developing good models for shared governance may differ quite a lot from campus to campus. For example, private universities may differ noticeably in their governance structure from public universities, which was a topic that captured many forum participants' interest. This is an excellent example that when it comes to universities, it is rare that one size fits all.


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