Thursday, July 25, 2013

Steps in the Evolution of Higher Education

One of the standard arguments of the evolution deniers is that there aren't examples of fossils half way between species that are held to be on the same evolutionary path, one having evolved from the other. There are swimmers and then there are walkers, goes the argument, and you claim that the swimmers walked out of the water at some point and became walkers, but there are no fossils of fish with elbows. Then a few years ago a Greenland expedition that included my lamented late colleague Farish Jenkins found one. Named Tiktaalik, it even had a neck. (Tiktaalik seems not itself to have been a missing link, just one of nature's amphibious locomotion experiments, some of which worked out.)

I wonder how we will think about today's higher education innovations a few decades from now. Perhaps some of the new institutions will prove to be nature's failed experiments, mutations that had some brief promise in a new environmental niche, but the niche was not big enough or enduring enough to foster long term survival, or it got filled by some better-suited variant institution. Or perhaps some of the equally transitory experiments will evolve into stable species, and we will rediscover them as we look back and try to remember how the world got to its new form. At the moment, there is a lot of guesswork and experimentation.

Already, it seems, the rush for American universities to open campuses in Singapore is going through a retrenchment period, in spite of the Singapore government's efforts to turn the country into a higher education hub. The University of Chicago is shutting down its Singapore campus and moving it to Hong Kong. NYU's Tisch School of Arts and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas have both announced they are closing up shop in Singapore. The reasons cited are the same in each case: It's too expensive to do business in Singapore, and the home institution can't afford the continuing subsidies. The strength of the Singapore dollar is mentioned as part of the story that these American-brand degree are not seen as being as valuable as the American parent universities thought they would be.
"If a branded school is unable to persuade its students to pay their market fees, then it suggests that the brand may not be so attractive after all," said [a government official].
Still, others are staying, and the Yale-NUS campus is set to open next month. It will be interesting to see whether there are enough environmental nutrients (that is, Singaporean and American dollars, and Asian students) to keep them alive. So far, none of the closures seem to be related to the issues that deeply concern the Yale faculty: how to teach in the spirit of open inquiry and free speech in a place where you can be jailed for criticizing the government (or for homosexuality, or a variety of other things that are not constraints in American universities).

At some point the American universities that are venturing into authoritarian states in search of fame and fortune are going to have to square their values with the values of their host countries. NYU President John Sexton's statement about NYU's Chinese campus won't wash forever: "I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression." Anything can be political, and for a university in which students can expect to study and discuss any kind of social issue, giving up on the right to political expression means giving up the pursuit of the truth.

In other news, the Minerva Project, the online university that promises to recreate the feel of an elite American liberal-arts college, is teaming up with the Keck Graduate Institute. Huh? The Keck Institute is about as far from a liberal arts college as you can get it academia. It's got only forty faculty, all in the life sciences, and grants only graduate degrees. The announcement trumpets the perfect fit between these two institutions with so much enthusiasm that you know it is about as true as Anthony Weiner's assurances that his mayoral campaign is not about him. And in fact, the fit was so perfect that Keck was Minerva founder Ben Nelson's second choice. Pomona turned him down, in part because some faculty "questioned whether Pomona was just being used as means for Minerva to get regional accreditation."

Now why do you suppose they would worry about being used? Really, by now they should have forgotten that way back in April, Nelson said he would use "various loopholes" in the accreditation process to get his university launched--specifically, that the accreditation process is simpler if you can partner yourself with a place that is already accredited. Keck fits that bill perfectly, for sure.

Can't help wondering if there is a connection between the Keck board and the chair of Minerva's Advisory Committee, the man who this week is, depending on the source, either tied or ahead in the race to be chair of the Fed. Or maybe Summers is just skilled in the art of regulatory loopholes.

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