Voices of concern – visions of opportunity

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 March 2003



Abeles, T.P. (2003), "Voices of concern – visions of opportunity", On the Horizon, Vol. 11 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/oth.2003.27411aaa.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited

Voices of concern – visions of opportunity

Voices of concern – visions of opportunity

A department chair said to me that he had about US$100/faculty member that could be allotted to members of the department to travel and present papers at conferences. The New York Times published an article on adjunct faculty in the USA, "perma-temps", individuals who work without benefits, tenure, often without stature, and at pay that might be about 20 percent of that of tenure track faculty, for the same workloads. Both point to an impending fiscal crisis within academia.

While tenure in the academy is relatively new in the USA, and unions an even more recent phenomenon, the current economic crises on campuses coupled with the size of the qualified labor pool, gives incentives to those who must balance the academic budget and gives pause to those who would challenge the system for fear that they are among the expendable. The situation seems reminiscent of the early days of labor unions in the USA.

The problem is acerbated by the growing number of e-learning institutions whose ubiquity renders jurisdictional boundaries almost transparent. Private for-profit institutions, corporate universities and the changing needs of students raise concerns in the already cash-strapped academic institutions, and also within the ranks of the academics.

At one time, students could only enter an institution through the front door. This would be to apply for admission, be accepted and then enroll as a full time student. Today, with the growing number of part time students and student mobility, not even considering e-learning, there are a number of gaps in the walls surrounding the ivory tower and students can slip in via individual classes or come to the admissions office with a collection of courses and life experiences which can be assembled like a set of Leggos to form the requisite structure for degrees, credits or other certification.

It is increasingly clear that change is in the wind; but this change is not gradual nor one which will allow most institutions and their faculty and staff to batten down the hatches to ride out the storm and into calm seas. What is even more critical is that the differences in the individual institutions may make their own ships sufficiently unique that there may not be a uniform plan that carries all ships safely through the eye of the storm.

In order to grasp the situation, one needs to understand that, today, the academy or the faculty, may be metonymic for the institution or institutions and not the individuals bound together in what has been called an intellectual community. The fiscal crisis clearly sets out that it is the institution's future that is at stake.

The rising number of adjuncts returns us to the past where academics were almost itinerant mendicants exchanging their knowledge for compensation. Or, in today's marketplace, they can be seen as itinerants providing temporary services to one or more institutions. The ideal of a student matriculating upon high school graduation and remaining for the traditional four-year program is also changing, indicating that a transition is in place as we start to pass through the eye of the storm.

In the USA, the issue of regional accrediting agencies can be called into question as both students and institutions extend their sights beyond the walls, creating a global presence. Institutions, internationally, in return, see the USA as a potential market, as well as Asia and the People's Republic of China. In these cases, the campuses are virtual and the courses that are offered under the imprimatur of the institution may or may not be ones that are created or are even delivered by the university. In other words, academic institutions are commodifying their products and the students can select both the materials and the institution, much as they might have picked a course and instructor in a campus experience.

A wise corporate executive used to lead his company through a creative exercise. He would divide a piece of paper in half. On one side he would get them to list "what businesses we are in"; and on the other half, there would list "what business we are not in". The first list was easy to fill out. The second was harder. It may be time for the academic institutions to participate in similar exercise. Campuses have grown rapidly, in the areas where academics have chosen to pursue their scholarly interest. And institutions have grown to accommodate this intellectual proliferation. This effort, along with the creation of a myriad of support activities, has provided opportunities, but also significant financial responsibilities for the institution.

The advent of the Internet is currently seen as a vehicle for expanding the current model into cyber space. Like computers and slide projectors, it is seen as a way of enhancing current programs, or possibly providing some economies of scale and delivery. The arrival of the Internet is viewed much like the coming of the telegraph was by the Pony Express. Only the institutions believe themselves to be smarter and have adopted it, rather than ignored it. Unfortunately, they are still mapping old business onto a new medium. They have not skipped a beat in leveraging the technology, but they have failed to ask whether this technology might not be considered disruptive and what this means for education as an industry.

Faced with the emerging hurricane, how will the academic fleet fare? Some institutions will remain safely outside of the storm and will survive with their campuses intact. Geographic isolation or strong management will create bounded worlds where the Internet supports the campus. Because of this isolation, the faculty will survive as a community, but the financial burdens will be great and the market will be self-selective based on the ability to buy a unique, luxury experience. The idea of publish or perish will not be a central issue when weighted against teaching and community participation. Globally, these will be a limited number of institutions, ones that maybe joined in a collective network for resource sharing.

These will be private institutions, probably stripped of "athletics as entertainment", as it has been labeled by at least one savvy sports editor. As an aside, one cannot dismiss the possibility of new forms of entertainment as we see the rise of games and fantasy sports teams on the Internet. Given the fact that the Internet is ubiquitous, and we will see the rise of intellectual and, maybe, even "spiritual" machines, these institutions will not be the cloisters of intellectuals "walking to and fro" as in Elliot's Wasteland. The institutions may have ties to government agencies, think tanks and private or public research facilities and may be active and influential citizens, as institutions and through their students and faculty.

They will probably eschew traditional external certification by easily exceeding any public standards. These institutions will weather the storm as lesser craft, clones, with less sure leadership, are caught on Scylla's rocks of change or are sucked into Charybdis' whirlpool of infinite opportunities. These are the institutions that have successfully completed their "not" list and are able to stay the course on the seas of change. They are global by networks and not by their reach, with a clear understanding of the strength and weakness of their own institution and their community.

We will also see, from deconstructed pieces, a new, emerging structure, much like a self-organizing school of fish, colonies of social insects and similar, turbulent, but ever dynamically organized learning networks. In the K-12 arena, we see home schooling as one example. Once a lonely experience for a family, it is today, with the Internet, an increasingly enlarging community, drawing many more resources than could have been conceived prior to the Web. At the other end, we find corporate universities and training programs, learning that also evolves and changes with the needs of the corporation and its employees.

This spectrum over space and time becomes an eclectic intellectual construction set where knowledge is assembled to meet a kaleidoscope of changing needs of the individual and community. One can choose a prepackaged program and add options or one can construct, ala carte as the exigencies demand. Traditional academic institutions are more like a major "toy store" where one can select prepackaged programs of all sizes and features where such assemblages come with warranties, or one can pick from smaller packages where the assemblies may need third party evaluations as to the value created on completion.

In this version, faculty rolls are more varied and dynamic. Some energy may be focused on the creation of various components and custom delivery; others may be more concerned with delivery, support or evaluations. Again, research becomes much less of an issue and the demands for publish/perish work are muted or non-existent.

Research, with the Web, can now be carried out in distinct nodes that are interwoven for the sharing of knowledge and joint cooperative ventures. Research personnel will primarily focus on the cutting edge of knowledge and not be diverted by evaluation as educators, community builders or institutional developers. But, within these facilities will be positions for those academics in the teaching arena who wish to take time from their primary function to carry out work that both advances their art and keeps their thinking at the cutting edge. Such a model was suggested, in part, by Jose Ortega y Gasset in his work, Mission of the University, written in the 1930s.

Such a model optimizes the research effort without demanding that the participants try to find a surgeon that can fit a Janus face on the academic, forcing a performance that challenges most individuals even when they have other lives to lead. It also extends the community and creates opportunities for students to engage in research, also, without the binding requirements of traditional campus obligations.

The realignment of the function of research also acknowledges that, in the USA, for example, only about 2 percent of the total expenditures for research and development are carried out within academic institutions. If this function is to bring the optimum return and contribute best to the primary function of an academic institution, then a shift in the academic structure to clearly separate the research and instructional obligations of the faculty may be in order. This, in no way denies the value of research in the training of students, nor its purpose in keeping academics current in their respective fields. One might see such an alignment much as one sees sabbaticals for faculty today.

The Internet is truly a disruptive technology and yet provides the key to the survival of the academic ships weathering the storm. It provides the armamentarium to carry out reconstructive surgery following the business exercise above. By deconstructing the fleet, reassembling the pieces and then networking them in their new embodiment, academic institutions should be able to come through the storm, but transformed, as the above suggests.

The procedure is risky and unproven. As with any transformation, there is a creative leap of faith that must be taken. Like Indian Jones on the Last Crusade, one must chance stepping out onto that invisible bridge. Drucker's prophesy of the demise of these institutions in the face of an abundance of students may hold for those institutions that cannot make that leap of faith and for a few that misstep. But those who can embrace the transformational nature of the Internet should find that they can weather the approaching storm.

Tom P. AbelesEditor

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