Saturday, November 19, 2011

The middle

In a recent book about the perils of higher education (Abelard to Apple) Richard DeMillo argued that the most vulnerable part of higher education was what he defined as the “middle”; those institutions without significant resources and with only nominal selectivity.   He argued that they are beset with a range of issues – competition for admissions, rising costs and a commodity like brand.

In one sense he is right.   Those institutions do have a higher possibility of failure.  Although any analytical person who looks at the flagships notices some significant cracks around their super-structure – huge demands on resources (as Howard Bowen once said “Institutions raise everything they can and spend everything they get.”), arrogant faculty who teach as a hobby while pursuing other interests,and students who demand every amenity.

But we were discussing the middle.    Last night I was honored by one of those in the middle, in Mexico, Universidad del Pedregal.   At the entrance of the University there is a statue of a man with a sledgehammer breaking rock – indeed the university refers to its job (as many universities in Mexico do) as formation of students.   The university has a relatively young rector who has just completed his third year.   I first knew him when he was a student.  
On an annual basis, most Mexican rectors offer an Informe, which sets out the accomplishments of the last year and proposes some plans for the future.  This is a formal meeting, where the Rector gives an address and then a senior member of the board responds.  As you can see from the picture, in this instance the auditorium was beautifully decorated. (I counted more than 600 roses.) What I heard about last night was a university on the move.   They are determined to stay true to their mission, which is to educate middle class students.   But they have grown in size (both in terms of matriculations and graduates).   They have improved the academic qualifications of their faculty.   They have used their resources carefully but they have taken some risks.   In short, while many other universities talk a good game about continuous improvement – they are working on it.

So was DeMillo right?  As I look forward on higher education, I believe that all universities face some real challenges.  I fully expect that the sector faces, especially the independent sector, a pronounced set of issues that will sink some places.   I fully expect that some of those failures will come from among the most prestigious universities.   But I look at a place like Pedregal and think they will continue to “stick to their knitting” (as Waterman and Peters – In Search of Excellence once said) and continue to serve their market quite well. 

No comments: