Precautions and Paralysis

In response to a prompt recently, I had to try and do a bit of forecasting about higher education.

I’ve spent too much time teaching about the history of futurism and prediction to find that a comfortable invitation. No matter how sophisticated you think you are as a forecaster, you’re mostly limited to extrapolation from existing trends. Visible trends can either be dealt with incrementally as they continue along their course of probable development. Or they can’t be, and their projected endpoint is so dire or dangerous that it calls for dramatic action now. Yet it’s exceptionally difficult to get anyone to act dramatically now based on a forecast where only the worst-case scenario justifies that kind of action, and for good reason. Not merely because such forecasts are not infrequently wrong, but because acting correctly means understanding not just what is likely to happen but why it is happening. Not to mention that the underlying causes of future developments have to be something that the forecasting actors can meaningfully affect or adapt to.

Occasionally an imaginative person can see some novel or unexpected development lying in wait, but that also doesn’t do much good, because it usually requires that person’s distinctive cast of mind to appreciate the forecast. If it’s hard to trust the collective wisdom of methodologically precise trendspotters, it’s harder still to trust some outlying eccentric. Even if you did choose to put all your money down on a single number and wait for the wheel to spin, being the first to adapt to some forthcoming reality might not do you any good. Spending fifty years in the fallout shelter eating beans out of a can might mean that you’re one of the few to live through the apocalypse, but by that time, your shelter is probably obsolete and you’ve traded fifty years of the good life for ten more years of beans in the darkness.

All of that said, it still seems important to at least try to think about the future. The cautionary example that I think is most pertinent for academics is newspaper and magazine journalism. Fifteen years ago, some of the developments that have cast the future of print journalism as we have known it into doubt were already quite visible. But few people in the industry took those developments seriously as a threat, even if they were otherwise interested in online media and digital culture.

Would it have made any difference if print journalists in 1995 had sat down for an industry-wide summit, accurately forecast what online media would look like in 2010, understood the implications for their own business model, and had tried to plan accordingly? What could they have done that they did not do?

This question takes on even sharper edges when you consider what exactly did the most damage to the business model of print journalism: not the movement of content to online venues, but the movement of advertising (classified ads in particular when it comes to newspapers). Then muddy the waters even more and ask how much of what has happened is about a shift in generational attitudes, reading practices, and conceptions of information.

If a perfectly accurate forecast of every major development between 1995 and 2010 had been delivered to that summit, there are some actions which might have shifted the future onto a more favorable track. But some of those would have required that the people sitting around the table then sacrifice their own involvement in print journalism in favor of other writers, editors and executives with different skills and perspectives, since one of the shortcomings of print journalism has been the reliance of many print journalists on closed-shop, old-media conceptions of what makes for good and bad content. Generally there are not many takers when you ask people to save the long-term future of their industry by sacrificing their own immediate future, even if twenty years down the road they’ll be unemployed anyway. Maybe some professionals in the industry could have made the leap to a new paradigm, if they were absolutely convinced that it was coming.

Could print journalists and publishers have found a way to steal a march on Google, Facebook, and most especially Craigslist in 1995 if they knew they were on the horizon, and in a way that would have saved their revenue streams? In advance of the technology and social practices that have made all of those companies successful? Despite the dot-com crash that was still to come?

Certainly journalists could have done something to avoid the self-inflicted wounds that have cost them so much collective credibility and so hampered their claims to be indispensable guardians of the public interest. No Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, perhaps. The line of willing dupes and accomplices of the Bush Administration’s manipulations of evidence and information after 9/11 would have been much shorter. But considering that so many Americans were in that line as well, maybe that would simply have made journalists targets of a different kind of populist ire, with no change in their overall reputation.

So suppose some equally on-target warnings were dropped in front of academics today? That our revenue sources would change or dry up, that our status in the wider society would transform or diminish, that the way we worked or thought was out of touch in some novel way that would have novel consequences? What would we do? What could we do?

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7 Responses to Precautions and Paralysis

  1. Laura says:

    As my mother would say, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

    Already, people are forecasting the demise of higher education. I think the best you can do is recognize that things can and do change and be prepared to shift appropriately. I think part of journalism’s problem was thinking that okay, maybe people will read online instead of on paper, but basically things won’t change. That doesn’t mean you can prevent your own demise, but you might postpone it or, as an individual at least, you might be able to shift into another business before the ship goes down.

    I personally think academics need to do a much better job of explaining their value to the public. At teaching-heavy institutions this is less of a problem. At research ones, it’s more problematic. At places that aspire to be R1’s, where students pay nearly Harvard level tuition but are taught by grad students, we might have a problem. So either, those institutions need to better explain what those faculty are doing besides teaching or get those faculty teaching more. I honestly think you can make a case for the research arm, but it has to be done very well. Also, public higher education needs to lobby more. Part of the issue is the lack of funding at most state schools. These are the schools that educate the vast majority of students. Those students often stay in state, raising the level of education and employment in those states. If those schools disappear or if there’s a brain drain (which already happens in many states), those states will suffer economically. Someone needs to do some better ROI reports to state legislatures.

    I have more thoughts, but I’ll end there. 🙂

  2. Doug says:

    As I understand it, many of the financial problems of newspapers are related to the amounts of debt that their corporate owners took on to buy them. The underlying businesses are (or perhaps were until 2008) healthy, just not delivering the outsized returns necessary to service the debt. So not only can technology give your economic sector a kick in the head, financial jiggery-pokery can make things much worse for reasons unrelated to the business itself. Not much a working scribe can do when the whiz-bang MBAs load up on leverage and mortgage everyone’s future.

    The other, perhaps less gloomy, thought is borrowed from William Gibson: the future is here, it just isn’t well distributed yet. Are there places where alternatives are already working? Are there parts of higher education where the unsustainable trends are following (or inflecting toward) a different path? That’s probably where change will come from, including overnight success stories that were a decade or two in the making.

  3. john theibault says:

    I think the contours of the coming crisis of higher education have been predicted pretty clearly for a while. Symptoms include adjunctification, rise of for profit universities, increase in student debt load in a shrinking job market, high student non-completion rates, managerialism in academic administration, even lack of control over the professionalization of college athletics.

    Like you, I find the example of journalism instructive for the ways in which bundled services (advertising and news) became unbundled in the transition to digital. It seems to me that higher education bundles at least four things that may prove difficult to hold together – research/scholarship, teaching, credentialing, and socialization/experience. And research and teaching each have their internal tensions that may also become unbundled. Teaching shades between “imparting skills and content knowledge for the job market” and “developing a spirit of inquiry.” Research shades not only between “pure” and applied, but also between scientific/collaborative and humanist/individual.

    Right now, the bundle of higher education is held together by the fact that college graduates really do earn significantly more on average than non-graduates. And it’s not clear how the different aspects of research/teaching/credentialing/socialization contribute to higher earnings. For-profit universities seem to be banking on the idea that teaching and credentialing can be effectively detached from both research and socialization. They’ve attracted a lot of students, but have very high attrition rates and inconclusive impact on earnings. I’ve always understood the research/teaching nexus in R1 universities to be based on the argument that only those people engaged at the cutting edge of their disciplines are capable of teaching students who want to learn about the cutting edge. Of course, a lot of undergraduate education is pretty far from the cutting edge and probably should be taught by “great teachers” rather than “great researchers.” But I suspect that if the research mission of universities were unbundled and turned over to think tanks, the teaching mission of universities would also slowly strangle. It’s that gap between the introductory and the cutting edge that higher education currently bridges – and needs to explain better to the public.

  4. G. Weaire says:

    “Could print journalists and publishers have found a way to steal a march on Google, Facebook, and most especially Craigslist in 1995…?”

    Not in a way that would have preserved “print journalism as we have known it,” I think.

    Fortunately, academic institutions are less closely tied to a particular information technology, and have a much longer history of adaptability and survival in changing conditions. I’m comforted a bit by the fact that the Exciting New Thing of the moment (“Autodidacts + Web browsers = …Edupunks!”) is so charmingly naive. If anything brings us down, it won’t be that.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree with that. But I think John’s comments are spot-on. The rebundling of credentialing and teaching in some other institutional & technological package strikes me as very plausible, and if someone could pull that off at an attractive price point, I suspect many clients for higher education would be happy to leave research to specialized R&D institutions and socialization to any number of alternative venues.

  6. north says:

    I agree with John on the functions of the university, but I think the socialization piece is also part of the credentialing. My grandfather used to say that making it through college meant you had docility and perseverance. Companies want those things, and will pay for a credential that reduces the odds that a potential employee is actually a total flake who can’t turn in assignments on time or deal with being in classes. This is one reason I’m skeptical that online universities will really have legs – they really can’t deliver an assessment of a potential employee’s socialization or in-person work qualities.

  7. G. Weaire says:

    And then I read this.

    Not sure whether this is a data point for or against.

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