Volume VII, #11
Last month Purdue University captured the attention of the higher education universe by announcing it would acquire for-profit Kaplan University. One of the most interesting but overlooked elements of the story – aside from gratuitous ad hominem attacks – was the reaction of the Purdue University Senate, which passed a resolution stating that because “Faculty governance and faculty control of curriculum are the lifeblood of any healthy University” Purdue President Mitch Daniels and the Board of Trustees should rescind any decisions made without faculty input.
The tenets of faculty governance and control of curriculum were codified along with the concept of academic freedom, which was a reaction to the tragic experiences of academics in totalitarian states in the first half of the 20th century. While it’s a fair question whether academic freedom is related in any way to the question of whether Purdue takes over Kaplan University, over the ensuing decades faculty governance and control of curriculum embedded themselves in accreditation standards. According to the Higher Learning Commmission, Purdue’s accreditor, faculty must “oversee academic matters.” And the New England Association of Schools and Colleges states that institutions must place “primary responsibility for the content… of the curriculum with its faculty.”
An article in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education sums up where faculty governance and academic control have led curriculum in America. In “How to Revamp a Curriculum Quickly, but Not Too Quickly,” which describes Texas A&M’s effort to launch courses in cybersecurity, the Chronicle reached the following conclusion: “Work-force demand can lead some institutions to teach students the skills needed for today’s entry-level jobs. But those tools may well be obsolete five or 10 years from now.” The implication – one that is absolutely in the mainstream of faculty thinking – is that updating curriculum to reflect current labor market needs may not be a worthwhile pursuit because such needs will change in five to 10 years.
Can you imagine similar thinking in any other sector of the economy? Does Apple let a year go by without a new iPhone release, let alone five or 10? Do health care professionals skip continuing medical education for years at a time because the new information will be outdated? That would cost lives. Likewise, it should be unacceptable to sacrifice one class of college graduates, let alone five or 10.
The challenge of updating curriculum to reflect what employers need for today’s entry-level jobs is less an issue of faculty commitment to students than of organizational structure. Academic departments have come to be structured according to an encyclopedic organization of knowledge. That means yesterday’s knowledge, which yields academic silos and big gaps.
Take business analytics. Hundreds of thousands of new entry-level jobs have been created in this area over the past several years. But where does it fit into existing departmental structures? Some business schools have added relevant curriculum. At other universities it’s the statistics departments. Under faculty control, most universities haven’t yet come up with an adequate answer. We’re seeing the same thing in cybersecurity. The skills required for cybersecurity require some computer science curriculum, but are a distant relative from learning C++. At Texas A&M, cybersecurity courses were offered by engineering as well as agriculture and life sciences departments.
The problem isn’t isolated to new professions. Most industries are demanding surprising new skill sets. According to a LinkedIn study of recruiter InMails sent between April 2015 and April 2017, project management was one of the top three skills demanded for jobs in the following sectors: healthcare and pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and industrial, oil and energy, telecommunications, and government, education and non-profit. Software engineering management showed up in the top three for just as many industries, including retail and consumer products, financial services and insurance, and media and entertainment. The reality is that within existing department structures, nearly all universities offer relevant coursework in these areas, but nowhere as pervasively as labor market demands dictate, and not in a manner that is remotely close to the level of “applied” that employers need for the training to be useful.
But make no mistake: faculty aren’t victims of archaic departmental structures. These are structures perpetuated and supported by faculty governance. This explains why, at the vast majority of colleges and universities, across the vast majority of departments, lower-level course curriculum is rigid and rarely changing. Most departments offer the same lower-level courses they offered 20 or 30 years ago. And it also allows for most upper-level courses to be dictated by faculty research priorities, which tend to operate completely independently of labor market demands.
Higher education finds itself in a similar position to the armed forces a century ago. Organized according to infantry, artillery (and for some nations also cavalry), it wasn’t clear which department would develop tanks, let alone planes. Hopefully you figure it out before losing too many battles, let alone the entire war.
Perhaps the best retort to the Purdue Senate’s resolution was The Onion’s recirculation of an old commencement season article: “Company Immediately Calls Job Applicant Upon Seeing ‘B.A. In Communications’ On Résumé.”
A Bachelor of Arts? In communications? I mean, where did this kid come from?” said HR director Robert Bradshaw, who, after seeing Wilhelm’s impressive 3.20 cumulative GPA, walked the résumé directly into the company president’s office and said, “We must hire this person immediately.” “I mean, not only did Corey manage to get into the University of Washington School of Communication right out of high school, but—get this—he then graduated with a degree in that very field. A Bachelor of Arts, no less. Rare and gifted is all I have to say.
The sarcasm is particularly poignant as communications is an attempt at an applied program in the liberal arts. What’s missing – of course – are the many technical skills that employers now insist on for entry-level positions in project management, software engineering management, and the like. Programs like communications are the result of shared governance, which is – in effect – diffuse governance. It is high time we acknowledged that it’s possible to uphold academic freedom while recognizing that a universities aren’t the United States of America, requiring a government of checks and balances; they are research and teaching institutions with constituencies that require quality services and clear outcomes.
But even if faculty were to relinquish control over curriculum, there are no easy answers. Last week, writing in Time, Mitch Daniels and George Miller (former Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee) described two community colleges that do more to engage with employers than any university. At South Dakota’s Lake Area Technical Institute, employers provide equipment, labs, internships and sometimes subsidize faculty salaries. At Florida’s Indian River State College, employers have helped design experiential curricula across a range of programs, as well as “employability training… so that students graduate not just with technical knowledge, but also the soft skills required to excel.” Although both of these community colleges seem to be doing everything they can to get as close as possible to employers, it’s hard to distill what’s replicable or scalable at either institution.
University Ventures has been able to identify two scalable models that ensure proximity to employers – neither of which comes naturally to traditional academic institutions.
First, there’s physical proximity: getting employers to set up shop in the same space as the postsecondary education enterprise. Galvanize is the textbook example here. Galvanize operates immersive coding, data science, and Web development programs in co-working spaces in seven cities. Each campus may house over 100 different employers, including teams from IBM and Google as well as dozens of start-ups. Employers are engaged in curriculum development, instruction, and – of course – recruitment. Universities are beginning to recognize the power of this model. Last week, CU Denver announced a Pathways Program partnership that integrates Galvanize’s six-month Web Development Immersive into CU Denver academic programs. Among universities, Northeastern comes closest to Galvanize with its new Silicon Valley Hub, an 8,000 sq. ft. campus co-located at Integrated Device Technology, a company led by a Northeastern alumnus. Of course, by dint of Silicon Valley’s success, Stanford’s ecosystem also fits the bill in a broader geographic sense.
Second, there’s staffing: engaging employers as clients and providing them with exactly the talent they’re seeking, typically on a “try-before-you-buy” basis. Revature is the leader here, with its finger on the pulse of the skills and curriculum employers want. Revature provides free customized last-mile training for technology talent in partnership with universities like CUNY, Arizona State and University of South Florida. Then Revature hires graduates and staffs them out. As Revature makes a significant investment in each student, the Company is highly motivated to ensure the curriculum is exactly what employers are seeking. As a result, Revature updates its curriculum multiple times a year – a far cry from every five to 10 years.
Mitch Daniels knows that online education isn’t only for for-profits. He also knows that aligning curriculum with what employers need today isn’t only for community colleges. Universities can and must do more – a critical task that’s complicated by principles of faculty governance and control of curriculum. Ironically, the path to a healthier economy and society – and therefore the path away from totalitarianism – involves rethinking faculty control.