A Rip Van Winkle Plan?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, recently offered a ”modest proposal” for coping with the rampant increase in university costs and prices. Unlike the satirical eighteenth-century proposal of Jonathan Swift, it really is modest. In fact, it is too little and too late.

Trachtenberg’s proposal, made in a speech he gave last fall at a Cato Institute forum, has been reproduced in the spring 2012 issue of Cato’s Letter. (You can view the actual speech on Cato’s site.)

Trachtenberg is well ahead of his presidential cohort in recognizing that universities must change. But he doesn’t seem to realize that the revolution is already underway—news about college graduates steeped in debt and underemployed appears almost daily, the term “college bubble” is part of our lexicon, and online classes from Stanford and MIT professors are teaching tens of thousands of students, throwing traditional universities into confusion.

In this light, Trachtenberg’s comments remind me of author Richard De Millo’s remark about the pioneers in open courseware at major universities: “They clearly know that a 21st century revolution is under way, but they think that their institutions are at the center of it. In reality, they are bystanders.”

Could Trachtenberg, who for nearly twenty years headed one of the most expensive universities in the country (tuition alone is $45,735), be a mere bystander as outside forces reshape education?

“I am going to make a modest proposal,” he said, “in order to allow the higher education world a 20-year breathing spell before total chaos reigns.”

A 20-year breathing spell? It might be more like a Rip Van Winkle-style 20-year nap. Trachtenberg’s 20/20/20 plan could be left in the dust very soon. Even in the short period since November, when Trachtenberg gave his talk, the world of higher education has been in tumult. Here are a few examples:

  • In a nationwide story, the Associated Press reveals that half of all recent graduates don’t have jobs in their fields, raising questions about the value of expensive degrees.
  • The private company Straighterline announces that it will help individuals showcase their skills through exams by the Educational Testing Service (of SAT fame) and the Council for Aid to Education (sponsor of the Collegiate Learning Assessment).
  • MITx starts its first online course, Circuits and Electronics, which will provide a credential for successful students. One hundred-twenty thousand students have signed up. Then, on May 2, Harvard joins MIT in offering free courses.
  • Professor Sebastian Thrun quits Stanford in order to start Udacity, an online project that offers free engineering courses.

Trachtenberg’s strategy to drag universities into the twenty-first century consists of increasing faculty productivity by 20 percent and reducing administrative personnel by 20 percent. He has four major recommendations:

  • To address the cost impact of tenure in an era without mandatory retirement, he recommends finding creative ways “to structure buyouts of senior faculty.”
  • To teach more courses more efficiently, he recommends separating faculty into research and teaching specialists. “We would, in other words, allow the best teachers to enlighten their students and put the best researchers in front of the computer to write.”
  • To improve faculty productivity and student throughput, he wants to change the academic calendar to three semesters a year. “By adding one semester, productivity would rise, adjunct scholars would be reduced, and students could complete their degrees in less time, translating into less overall tuition.”
  • To save money, he wants universities to cut administrative staff. Trachtenberg admits that there are legitimate causes of expansion, such as mandatory federal mandates. But he also says that parents expect amenities for their children, from health clubs to gourmet meals, in return for tuition dollars and that schools are devoting enormous sums to admissions, fund-raising, and marketing. So, he says, just cut the number of people by 20 percent.

Those may be good suggestions, but they are either already being done, ineffective in achieving the cost-cutting goals, or unlikely to be done. Cutting administrative staff is already happening, especially at public universities that are facing reduced appropriations.

Increasing faculty productivity by creating more teaching specialists is something that the Pope Center, among others, has championed. But we also recommend putting less emphasis on research. Trachtenberg’s proposal could merely reassign professors to perform the exact same mix of duties instead of ending unproductive activities altogether. If so, there will be little or no productivity gain.

Trachtenberg also recommends revising the academic calendar. “I have long proposed changing the academic calendar to three semesters a year.” He was president of a major university, so why couldn’t he get it done?

The fact is, it’s difficult. One school, BYU-Idaho, has made the summer semester equivalent to other semesters (students can start school in the summer). But that was part of a complete overhaul of the school, reflecting a high-level commitment from the leadership of its owners, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; intercollegiate athletics and graduate programs were dropped as part of the change.

Revising the academic calendar has rarely been done. It may be that the tradition of taking summers off is just too entrenched for the year-round approach to gain much popularity. Like faculty buyouts, revising the calendar may be something that universities simply won’t do until universities feel the pressure of outside forces.

So, in one sense, Trachtenberg is indeed a leader in his field.

But if the whirlwind that is hitting higher education through changing attitudes, economic forces, online competition, and credentialing has the effect we expect, the “total chaos” that Trachtenberg thinks is twenty years down the road may be just around the corner.