What with shrinking government funds and growing competition from online for-profit institutions, American colleges and universities are facing hard times, and being forced to rethink what they do. Richard A. DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology, discusses the evolution of universities in his new book, “Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities.” Drawing on his experience as the first chief technology officer at Hewlett-Packard, director of the National Science Foundation’s computer and computation research division, and dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, Dr. DeMillo offers an engineer’s view of the challenges facing higher education. The article was in The New York Times Education Life section.
Q. and A. | The Academy
The Evolution of Higher Education
By TAMAR LEWIN
Published: November 4, 2011
WHAT with shrinking government funds and growing competition from online for-profit institutions, American colleges and universities are facing hard times, and being forced to rethink what they do. Richard A. DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology, discusses the evolution of universities in his new book, “Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities.” Drawing on his experience as the first chief technology officer at Hewlett-Packard, director of the National Science Foundation’s computer and computation research division, and dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, Dr. DeMillo offers an engineer’s view of the challenges facing higher education.
Q. Are colleges doing the right things to get ready for the future?
A. With a handful of exceptions, college presidents today are recruited to be stewards, not leaders. For the most part, they have gotten their jobs by convincing the search committee and the trustees that they’ll preserve the best of what the university has to offer. That’s a great goal, but as society changes, and universities are subject to the same political, geographic and economic forces as every other institution, preserving the past isn’t the only goal. Sometimes you have to be a chief executive officer, make priorities and set a direction that’s different from where you were going before.
There’s a big disconnect right now between how university presidents see the landscape and how everyone else sees it. A large majority of the American public thinks universities are doing a fair or poor job. But a huge majority of college presidents think they’re doing a good or excellent job. I think many of them are so concerned with stewardship that they lose sight of the data.
Q. In your book, you talk about some of the recent online educational innovations, like iTunes U and M.I.T.’s OpenCourseWare. What are those going to mean to universities?
A.What Chuck Vest did at M.I.T. with OpenCourseWare, putting every course online, free, showed that the value of a degree from M.I.T. was not contained in the lectures and the exams and homework. It’s contained in the experience of passing through the network of M.I.T. scholars. So why hang on to what should be shared widely? OpenCourseWare was an important signpost that hammered home the point that the content of a university course was being rapidly commoditized by technology. If you can easily access a lecture in quantum mechanics from the best lecturer on quantum mechanics, how many other quantum mechanics lectures do you need?
Q. Do you hear a lot from professors worried that having so many brilliant lectures available online will eventually do away with their jobs?
A. Absolutely. If you think your value is in 13 weeks of lectures, then exams, it’s true that that’s probably not going to be as valuable in the future. To some extent, that’s already happening with iTunes U, where you can hear a lecture on English literature or the global financial meltdown from someone who can explain it very well. What you get there is pretty much all you need to get students involved in the discussion. But that’s not the discussion. The discussion is what takes place afterward, maybe not in the classroom, but in the learning community. That’s where professors can add value.
Q. Can you give me an example of how your university, Georgia Tech, has evolved to meet the future?
A. When I stepped down as dean of computing in 2009, we had just come through a big transformation of computer science at Georgia Tech. After the dot-com bust, enrollment had fallen off dramatically, with people staying away from computer science for all the wrong reasons. They were afraid the jobs would be outsourced to India. Women were scared away from the field. So we went to employers — video game companies — to ask what they were looking for from computer science graduates. We talked to maybe two dozen companies, big and small. They said they needed people who not only know the technology but were skilled in the art of storytelling, the narrative arc. So we started an Introduction to Computer Science course for people who had grounding in humanities and liberal arts.
People who’d been turned off from computer science flooded in. Women flooded in. It was a group of Georgia Tech students who were impassioned about using computers for things that are impactful in art and in society. So we redesigned the undergraduate curriculum to let students choose two interdisciplinary threads, like computing and media, or computing and people, or computing and modeling.
What engineers are good at is out-of-the-box solutions, prototyping, and not waiting for a big system change to make an improvement.
Q. So from your vantage point at a leading engineering school, can you tell me what the university of the future will look like?
A. That’s the question everyone asks, but I really believe it’s not the right question. The 1910 landscape for higher education is almost unrecognizable today. A hundred years ago, when Edwin Slosson ranked universities by their reputations, there was no public funding of academic research, and his list of the top 14 elites included five public universities. Now, public research funding is huge and there isn’t a single public university in the U.S. News top 20. The only thing we can be sure of, here in 2011, is that there’s going to be a wave of innovation over the next century, and 100 years from now, higher education won’t look the same.