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Fat to the Rescue

Upheaval in Staid Universities

Jonathan B. Wight

Yesterday the University of Virginia's governing board forced out of office its first female president after just two years in office. The governing board is led by a female businesswoman who believes the outgoing president was missing the big picture—that a transformational tsunami will rock universities and strategic planning needs to get ahead of the wave.

Jim Bacon writes:

As we've been saying on this blog for a couple of years now, disruptive change is coming to higher education, a sector of the economy badly in need of disruption. The business model is broken. Administrations are bloated, faculty are protected by tenure, innovation is lagging, costs are out of control and tuitions are soaring. Students and graduates have accumulated $1 trillion in student-loan debt. For the first time forever, parents, students and outside observers are questioning whether a college education is worth what you have to pay to get it. While the University of Virginia may be less guilty of inflated costs and predatory tuition hikes than many other institutions, it will get caught like all the others in the perfect storm of technological advance, consumer revolt and shrinking state government support….

As products of a pampered industry that has been largely immune to the traumas and turmoil of the recession-racked private sector, many university administrators cannot imagine how quickly their ivory towers can come tumbling down. Faculty and administrators have no idea of the frustration and rage that has been building against their bastions of privilege and how eagerly consumers will desert them for a better value proposition — even if it is delivered online.

The technological revolution that enables MIT, Harvard, Stanford, U Penn, and others to offer free or low-priced on-line courses is indeed a game-changing scenario for higher education. At the University of Richmond we can't compete with the big research names at those schools. What we can do is offer a comparative advantage in critical-thinking in small classrooms.

The best-known universities will mass produce lectures, forcing out of business lesser-known universities relying on chalk-and-talk lecturing modes of teaching. Niche colleges will survive (and hopefully thrive) by creating relationships of mentoring and critical thinking.


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