For quite some time, there’s been a debate on how to make colleges and universities more responsive and relevant to today’s world. Like my colleagues here at New Mexico Highlands and other institutions around the state, I am committed to improving higher education for our students, their families and our communities.
Three ideas to improve higher education have been floated here in New Mexico and around the country: eliminate tenure, put everything online, and focus on programs leading directly to jobs.
• Doing away with tenure is not a new suggestion; I’ve heard it for decades. To someone not working in higher education, the notion of a “lifetime job” seems pretty farfetched. Who has that kind of job protection these days?
Tenure is incredibly important. It rests on an important tradition in higher education: academic freedom. To me, it is not about job protection; tenured faculty can be dismissed for any number of reasons including dwindling enrollment, program closure and poor performance. The reality is that tenure-track or tenured faculty are in the minority in American colleges and universities.
For truth to spread freely and for new knowledge to be discovered, there simply must be some protection from powerful interests who might be inclined to shape truth to meet their needs and influence scholarly work. Tenured faculty members teach truth unfettered from shifting political winds. The day we allow political or economic influences to shape truth will be a sad and even dangerous one for us all.
• Online education has drastically shaped the landscape of higher education, and online programs are great for some students. Give me a motivated, largely self-directed, probably adult student who knows what she or he wants from a class: An online approach is probably a good way to go. Online programs are also great for place-bound students. But, give me a student who is not convinced he/she can make it in college or a student who perhaps attended a weak high school and was not exposed to any upper-level classes. A student who needs support right from the very beginning of his/her college days. A student who could be easily discouraged and just give up. That student is probably not a good candidate for online education.
Additionally, communities in our state would be hurt economically without the brick-and-mortar university. Each year, universities like Highlands generate a substantial local economic impact in our communities.
• Lastly, there are those who believe universities would be a lot better off if we focused exclusively on classes that lead directly to jobs.
The pace of change in the world of work, particularly the use of robots and other technology, is so rapid that some students working hard and investing time and money to prepare themselves for a specific job will find that those jobs simply no longer exist.
The days of go to college, major in X, get a job in X, and retire 30 years later in that job are fading fast.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with gaining knowledge and skills that are required in a specific job today, but the traditional outcomes of a solid liberal education – refined communication skills, learning to work in group settings and also gaining confidence to figure out things yourself, i.e. critical thinking – will sustain someone over a lifetime of work and are valuable skills many employers seek.
A strong university education does much more than simply prepare someone for work.
A strong university education inspires people to understand the history of the world complete with the many great achievements of humankind as well our many foibles and mistakes.
It moves people to lead ethical lives. It promotes civic engagement.
As a state, failing to provide solutions to strengthen our higher education system fails not only our students, but our citizens and our communities.
We have a choice to be strong together. Why don’t we make it?