Unsettled Air

Unsettled Air

For those who have been following Shaeffer’s Forays, you will remember that I last left you on my “most interesting” trip to Austin, TX that included stops in Charlottesville, Dulles, Chicago and then Austin.  The good news is that my trip home was much less eventful and the direct flight from Austin to Dulles actually was a direct flight this time – odd how that doesn’t include a stop in Chicago.

I also want to thank our friend Don Swoboda for adding an additional lesson learned from traveling: “I don’t want to fly if the pilot doesn’t want to. The lesson realized is that many times others are more knowledgeable about a topic than you are, so listen to the experts and learn from them. (In the case of flying it just might save your life.)”


Thanks Don.

The only thing of note on the trip home happened between Dulles and our regional airport in the Shenandoah Valley. It was a pretty turbulent trip, and anyone who has flown in small planes (did my share of that in Wyoming) knows that if you have a combination of flying over mountains, flying in unstable air, and flying in high winds you are going to have a turbulent trip. 

In many ways as I look at higher education, we are having a turbulent trip. We are flying over mountains of criticisms, state and federal funding has been very unstable, and higher education is caught in shifting winds of being called upon to assist with economic development by increasing the number of people with degrees, and at the same time receive our share of skepticism as to the value of a higher education degree.

While we are in the middle of this turbulent trip, I’m concerned that there does not seem to be a unified vision for how we can not only survive the trip, but also provide leadership in assisting our greater community through their own financial turbulent trip.

Doug Lederman captured the lack of and the need for a unified vision for higher education in a recent Inside HigherEd article: Is Higher Ed Ready to Change? http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/11/17/change.

Part of the lack of a unified vision is that we seem to be looking for scapegoats.  Lederman suggests that you get a glimpse of this depending on which meetings you attend — whether they be meetings for politicians, administrators, or faculty groups.  It seems as if the reason why we are where we are is “their fault” and can only improve if only “they” will change – whoever “they” is in any given context.

And I don’t think we can begin to have a unified vision unless we first recognize that things have changed and they are not going back to the good old days.  The economic problems for higher education are now old news. Lederman quotes John Curry, saying that even with these dire warnings Curry suggests we are still leading by the “the power of evasion, the power of wishful thinking, the power of hoping it will go away — evading and trying to avoid the difficult decisions.”   

One of the problems/challenges we must face is the unsustainable business model we’ve had for higher education; Lederman quotes Christopher Edley as describing his state’s (California) higher education business model as “faith-based fund raising.”  You would have to have a faith to think that we can rely on the same old business model.

When I think about having a unified message for higher education I feel more and more confident that we in professional and continuing education are at the core of what that message needs to be. We need to advocate for access, affordability, and accountability.  You may be thinking, “Oh sure, Shaeffer is simply being cute by tying this back to the name of his blog,” but not so.

Access: One criticism in the mountain of criticism of higher education is that we are not accessible and that we are here to serve those who can come to the campus and those who are fully matriculated students.  We (professional and continuing education units) know that is not the case, and that we must continue to assist our institutions in developing programming that is accessible in terms of the content and in its delivery, so that we can continue to reach students who can’t come to us.

Affordability: If we think that we’ve had unstable funding higher education in the past few years, we should look at the unemployment rate and the foreclosure rates. These are only two measures of what unstable funding really looks like, and we can see this impact for many of our friends and colleagues at other intuitions.  We have an obligation to find ways of making higher education affordable to those who can least afford it and who can most benefit from it.

Accountability: Yes, we are in the shifting winds, caught between being called upon to assist with economic development by increasing the number of people with degrees, and at the same time receiving our share of skepticism as to the value of a higher education degree.  We must build need to provide a value added proposition that is built on data.  Many of our institutions have assessment centers and many are gathering data that can tell this story.  Let’s move beyond “trust us” to “let us show you.”

When I started this blog, I saw it as an opportunity to force myself to think through the issues facing professional and continuing education units.  Little did I think I would use it as a travel log — and my occasional foray in to looking beyond our units to all of higher education.  For those who are sticking with me: thanks, as they say, for letting me go there.

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