Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century

Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century

by Annette Kolodny

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Both revealing and compelling, Annette Kolodny’s Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century is drawn from the author’s experience as a distinguished teacher, a prize-winning scholar of American literature, a feminist thinker, and an innovative administrator at a major public university. In chapters that range from the changing structure of the American family and its impact on both curriculum and university benefits policies to recommendations for overhauling the culture of decision making on campus, this former Dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona explores the present state of higher education and offers a sobering view of what lies ahead.
In this volume Kolodny explains the reasons for the financial crisis in higher education today and boldly addresses the challenges that remain ignored, including rising birthrates, changing demographics both on campus and across the country, the accelerating globalization of higher education and advanced research, and the necessity for greater interdisciplinarity in undergraduate education. Moreover, while sensitive to the complex burdens placed on faculty today, Kolodny nonetheless reveals how the professoriate has allowed itself to become vulnerable to public misperceptions and to lampooning by the media.
Not simply a book about current problems and future challenges, Failing the Future is rich with practical solutions and workable programs for change. Among her many insights, Kolodny offers a thorough defense of the role of tenure and outlines a new set of procedures to ensure its effective implementation; she proposes a structure for an “Antifeminist Intellectual Harassment Policy”; and she provides a checklist of family-sensitive policies universities can offer their staff, faculty, and administrators. Kolodny calls on union leaders, campus communities, policymakers, and the general public to work together in unprecedented partnerships. Her goal, as she states in a closing coda, is to initiate a revitalized conversation about public education.
This book should be required reading for all those concerned with the future of higher education in this country—from college trustees to graduate students entering the professoriate, from faculty to university administrators, from officers of campus-based unions to education policymakers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396703
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/18/1998
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
Lexile: 1530L (what's this?)
File size: 446 KB

About the Author

Annette Kolodny is the College of Humanities Professor Emerita of American Literature and Culture at The University of Arizona. She is the author The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860 and The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. She is the editor of Joseph Nicolar's The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, also published by Duke University Press.

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Failing the Future

A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century

By Annette Kolodny

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9670-3


Facing the Future: An Introduction

"The care of the public must oversway all private respects." —John Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity," 1630.


This is a book about higher education, written for those who want to be part of its future. Most of my observations and recommendations will apply to public and private research universities, as well as to comprehensive (or nonresearch intensive) universities, because these are the institutions I have come to know best both as a student and as a professional educator. To a lesser degree, this book also reflects the current realities of four-year liberal arts colleges, public and private. But of the approximately 125 research universities in the United States—of which about forty are private and eighty-five are public—my major focus is on the public research university. These institutions are the focus of my concern because they are responsible for training most of the nation's Ph.D.s and other professionals, at the same time remaining accessible to large segments of the undergraduate population, providing superior education at relatively affordable tuition rates. Even so, despite their importance in undergraduate and professional education and their central place in the nation's research agenda, public research universities are now imperiled by budget cuts, by assaults on tenure, and by a general misunderstanding of what they do and how they do it.

That said, whether I am discussing colleges or universities—or even both at once—my remarks are informed by two carefully considered beliefs. To begin with, if we want our educational system to serve us as well in the future as it has in the past—or perhaps serve us even better—then it will require greater, and not reduced, investments of human and financial resources. An additional three million students are expected to enroll in the nation's colleges and universities between 1997 and 2,015, a 20 percent increase over current enrollment levels. These students will need more professors, more classrooms, more computers, more foreign language instruction, and better equipped science laboratories if they are to receive a quality education and fulfill the employment needs of the coming century. After all, in the next decade alone, in addition to the existing jobs that already require a college degree, approximately one-third of all new jobs created will require at least that.

Who these students are is also changing. At the moment, more than one-third of students in primary and secondary schools are minorities; and in Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia more than half of the students are members of a racial minority. Those numbers continue to grow as the twentieth century's minorities become the twenty-first century's majority. As college and university enrollments increasingly draw upon this changing population, institutions of higher education will have to accommodate the fact that, disproportionately, these students will come from poor families and even poorer school districts. This means added costs in scholarship money and loans, counseling and academic tutoring facilities, and remedial programs for basic subjects like math and English.

But it is not only the investment in improved educational quality and updated facilities for growing numbers of students or even the costs of enrolling talented students with inadequate preparation that will account for the need for increased resources. It is also the fact that institutions of higher education will be called upon to play a variety of unprecedented roles in a transnational information age. The ease with which individuals will be able to access vast quantities of information whenever they want will be matched by a commensurate demand to learn how to analyze that information, recognize recurrent patterns or connections, and extract what is truly important. In effect, the new information technologies will make higher education both more necessary and ongoing, if only because learning to make connections and to reason rigorously across and between the disciplines is a lifelong process requiring sensitive tutelage. The twenty-first century, in other words, will be a century in which people are constantly "going back to school" in one form or another.

The second belief behind these chapters is that accelerating technological innovation will transform all aspects of teaching and learning in ways that cannot yet be predicted. What is certain, however, even from the current successes with self-paced computer learning programs and video transmission to off-campus learning sites, is that there is no substitute for the inspiration, rigor, and focus of direct human contact between a teacher and her students. Emily Weiner, a 1995 graduate of New York's Empire State College—a college that exists in cyberspace, providing instruction online and through email—made that clear when she assessed her own experience in a New York Times editorial. Despite her "excitement about new electronic educational opportunities" and the convenience of "on-line degrees," Weiner nonetheless came to depend on the professor at the other end for emotional and intellectual nurture (Weiner 42). In her view, the success of distance learning arrangements depends on "a person at the other end of the line who is watching to see that students are stretching themselves, choosing appropriate courses, struggling with new ideas, overcoming personal obstacles, getting smarter" (Weiner 42). But even when those ideal circumstances obtain, Weiner complained, "the fuller relationships that develop between students and teachers on a college campus will be missing" (Weiner 42). Clearly, then, the teacher as coach, as guide, and as immediately responsive presence—even beyond the teacher's disciplinary expertise—contributes to the learning process in a way that no computer program and no video, however well designed, can ever replicate.

Of course, the understandable fear of many in the professoriate today is that universities will continue trimming their costs by replacing live teachers with computer programs or with videotapes of lectures that can be replayed semester after semester—what I call "the professor in a can." We learned, however, from the innovations introduced to basic language instruction in the College of Humanities' language learning laboratory at the University of Arizona that even the most sophisticated and creative computer programs proved successful only when combined with the give-and-take of the traditional classroom. Nothing substituted for spontaneous conversation between teachers and students in the targeted language.

The videotaped lecture series by "great professors" currently being marketed to schools and to the general public suffer from another significant liability. Because the knowledge base in any field of study is never static but, rather, dynamic and changing, these videos become obsolete almost as soon as they are canned. Although the lectures may be wonderful as performances, they will never replace professors who impart the very latest discoveries in their fields and make their students partners in the discovery process. Unlike the professor in the classroom or the laboratory, a video won't engage a student in dialogue about cutting-edge research or controversial new concepts.

The challenge facing the professoriate of the next century, therefore, is to become knowledgeable about the new technologies and their possibilities in order to adapt them both for enhanced on-campus instruction and for increased outreach to students not currently on campus. The challenge to our educational institutions is to provide incentives and continuous support to faculty willing to push the technology envelope. The challenge for policy-makers and the general public is to resist the impulse to force colleges and universities into substituting the kind of rote training that technology can cheaply supply for the more expensive education that teaches thinking and analytic skills, values and an understanding of complex relationships, which the learned professor in the classroom can facilitate. An exclusively cost-driven dependence on computers and telecourses may instruct students in a subject; but only the professor with passion and disciplinary expertise can help students understand why a subject is important to think about and how to think about it.

Having identified this as a book about higher education, I must add that it is consequently also a book about social responsibility. Despite all the trendy importations of corporate models into academe (like many others, my own campus embraced "total quality management"), the chapters that follow reject the notion that colleges and universities are merely training vendors, that students are end products or interim consumers, that the professoriate is a quantifiable human resource, or that prospective employers represent higher education's ultimate customers and most important constituency. In an open society, creative production and the making of new knowledge can never be reducible merely to commodities for market exchange. Markets may be excellent devices for increasing profits and personal wealth, but they are notoriously unreliable as protectors of the common good. Yet striving to define and enact the common good, since Plato, has been one of the major goals of advanced education. During my years as dean, when local business and community leaders asked whether universities should be training students to work effectively in an increasingly competitive international economy; or whether we needed to train more socially responsible participants for national and global citizenship; or whether we should concentrate on graduating individuals equipped for success in our own nation's complexly multicultural workplace, my answer was always the same: we need to be doing all three at once; we dare not separate or compartmentalize those missions; and we need to pursue each of them through high-quality curricular innovations.

What I now want to add to that answer is my profound belief that the quality of education reflects the quality of community that supports it. But at the end of the current millennium, any sense of community in this country is in short supply. Vicious corporate downsizing for the sake of short-term profits, a fraying social safety net, and widening inequalities in income distribution have turned the nation sour and cynical. Crime, violence, domestic terrorism, and smoldering racial tensions are regular features of the evening news. And, in a desperate act of scapegoating, too many citizens and politicians seem content to punish the poor as though, amid a myriad of better opportunities, the poor had stubbornly chosen their plight. It is a sad note on which to end the century.

If we have any hope of social harmony, it is a note we dare not carry over into the next century. My narrow focus on education in these pages, therefore, must be understood as grounded in the argument that the best educational system in the world is no substitute for—nor can it survive without—reinvestment in troubled communities, job creation, income redistribution, the reinstitution of a truly progressive tax system for individuals and corporations alike, and far more inclusive political and civic participation than is currently the norm. Unless we develop social programs to mitigate the economic displacements that impoverish entire neighborhoods, disrupt families, produce violence, and stunt young people's growth, educational reform will not stand proof against civil disorder.

Americans will have to get out of the habituated ruts of late-twentieth-century thinking. Social justice is not the enemy of economic growth, but rather its engine. Tax structures that continue to concentrate wealth among the few actually slow an economy's expansion by widening the income gap, depressing consumption, and depriving the dwindling middle and working classes of the opportunity to save and thereby spur investment. In fact, a truly progressive tax system is simultaneously a social good. Moreover, as the post-World War II pattern in East Asia demonstrates, "the most successful ... economies are also the most egalitarian," and there is a direct correlation between equitable "income distribution and a strong economy" (Passell 5).

What this teaches us for the next century is that full employment at decent wages must be valued as a far greater social benefit than the lowest prices for consumers or the highest dividends for stockholders. And because the dignity and stability that well-paid employment brings to an individual translate into civic participation and political enfranchisement (not to mention social order), there need to be significant disincentives in place for employers who, as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman phrases it, massacre their workers (Friedman 15). By any measure, after all, American workers "work longer and harder than workers in other industrialized nations, ... with less job security" (Meier 82), and they rank among the most productive in the world. The fact that stunning technological advances have allowed machines to replace hands and minds should mean shorter workweeks rather than fewer employees who put in overtime (as do most American workers today); and it should mean that those same hands and minds are now available to be educated to perform the tasks that technology, as yet, cannot.

A twenty-first century education can certainly make such transitions possible. But only if politicians and the general public first squarely face the consequences of current policies that protect profits before people.


I contemplate the profession that I am passing on to my graduate students with trepidation. Beyond the immediate question of whether there will be employment for these talented newcomers in a cost-cutting and downsizing academy is the larger question of how they will make a place for themselves within institutions that are already, in their view, obsolete. Often far more sophisticated than their teachers about the possibilities of technology for teaching and learning, they share with undergraduates the sense that the new technologies have the capacity to transform learning into play. Even more important, the students to whom I currently teach American literature and American studies see the university as a barrier rather than a bridge to the barrio, the reservation, and the 'hood. And they are determined to utilize the new technologies and to use their knowledge as a means of breaking down the barriers.

Perhaps as a consequence, today's Ph.D. candidates ask disturbing questions about how our society has organized itself, and they seem deeply committed to applying their studies to help solve problems like global poverty and environmental degradation. Because their intellectual ambitions have so wide a reach, these students chafe at disciplinary boundaries, pursuing dissertation topics that require professorial oversight committees made up of humanists, social scientists, and scientists in combinations that were unimaginable when I was going through my own Ph.D. training just thirty years ago. In terms of the way we have segmented disciplines and compartmentalized knowledge fields, these students are telling us, the organization of the American university in the late twentieth century cannot survive into the twenty-first century.

This is just one of many cues that major changes are upon us. As Donald Kennedy, the former president of Stanford University, wryly phrased it, "Another century's end, another revolution for higher education" (Kennedy 8). Kennedy's wearied humor notwithstanding, most colleges and universities are now expending considerable resources on strategic planning, the latest talisman for ensuring institutional survival into the next century. The trouble is that on most campuses strategic planning has been skewed into a search for strategies to deal with current fiscal problems while its potential to embolden creative thinking about the long-term future has been severely curtailed. As a result, the most important conversations about higher education in the twenty-first century have yet to begin in earnest. We have not generated paradigms for true interdisciplinarity; we have not planned for education's role in a society where the forty-hour week and a single career path have ceased to be the defining activities of adulthood; and we have not prepared for the internationalization of higher education.


Excerpted from Failing the Future by Annette Kolodny. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

A Personal Preface: Reflections on Five Years in a Dean’s Office I

1. Facing the Future: An Introduction 33

2. “60 Minutes” at the University of Arizona: The Polemic against Tenure 53

3. Raising Standards While Lowering Anxieties: Rethinking the Promotion and Tenure Process 81

4. Paying the Price of Antifeminist Intellectual Harassment 98

5. Creating the Family-Friendly Campus 131

6. Teaching and Learning in a World of Cognitive Diversity 159

7. Setting an Agenda for Change 173

8. Failing the Future; or, How to Commit National Suicide at the End of the Twentieth Century 214

A Closing Refrain: Reflections at a Graduation 249

Appendix 1. University of Arizona College of Humanities Promotion and Tenure Procedures 257

Appendix 2. Summary Checklist of Selected Family-Friendly Initiatives and Programs 269

Notes 273

Works Cited 281

Index 291

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