Who Decides?

Several years ago I realized that the concept “should” was not particularly effective in facilitating change in higher education. We are immersed in a world of “shoulds” – from personal health and lifestyle to how large systems operate, and everything in between. We “should” have a work-life balance, students “should” come to class prepared, academia “should” be equally concerned with access and quality. The list is endless. Amid all of these moral imperatives, what’s necessary? And perhaps most pressing, how to address the myriad of changes in our society, with our colleges, universities, students and stakeholders?

Former CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and CUNY University Director of Technology George Otte try to tackle this complicated issue in an edited volume of essays entitled Change We Must: Deciding the Future of Higher Education. The authors/editors are clear in their introduction: the book is about what “must” happen. Change is an imperative.

Focused on students, the book and its contributors take different perspectives in addressing some of the most basic challenges of higher education in the twenty-first century. How do we continue to advance quality and excellence while remaining equally committed to access, opportunity and affordability? The promise and potential of technology is the volume’s recurring theme. As the book was put together before the pandemic and the great retreat to education via screens, it offers an interesting take on what might or might not make for real differences. The selection’s contributors, all success academic leaders, hail from four-year or graduate institutions. More than a few are connected to the City University of New York – CUNY.

As expected in any essay collection, the impact of the chapters vary. Michael Zavelle’s look at business models is very much of a time and a place, while Goldstein’s discussion of shared governance is high-level and remains relevant. Hearing more from him and his direct experience leading one the nation’s most complex higher education systems would have been welcome. Otte’s section and that by Cathy Davidson on technology are the book’s strongest, melding theory with informed practice. So, too, is Candace Thille’s chapter on what learning science can tell us. It is engaging, provocative, and points the way to more work, more discovery and, clearly, more change. The section on managing change and its chapters were more general in nature and, for me, of less impact. Taken as a whole, Change We Must represents a welcome and thoughtful collective effort to marshal ideas and approaches to how to address fundamental challenges facing higher education.

The volume also raises questions in what it does not address, the political, social and economic context in which higher education operates. The wisdom in its chapters is predicated on academia possessing the trust and support of those outside of campuses, in communities, legislatures and decision-making bodies. Will higher education have the energy and agency to facilitate deep change? This, I believe, is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to adapting to new situations, problems and opportunities. If higher education is going to gain external support, it must demonstrate a willingness and ability to change with the times, adapting to new situations. The pandemic provided just that opportunity. The jury is still out on whether higher education has been able to gain or lose support, whether we have learned lessons or are committed to the status quo. It would be most interesting to learn how Goldstein, Otte and the others in this volume might address that question.

David Potash

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