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Paradigm Shifts: Four Major Changes that Transformed Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Paradigm Shifts: Four Major Changes that Transformed Higher Education
The higher education industry—and the colleges and universities that compose it—are in the midst of some massive shifts, but looking at the sector’s recent history can provide context to some of the seemingly new directions institutions are moving.

The higher education sector is often accused of being slow to change: a lumbering, mature industry that is ripe for disruption. The recent history of American higher education would suggest otherwise. Perhaps without our recognizing it, higher education has experienced episodes of profound change.

Here are four such disruptive events that have exercised a transformative effect on the system of higher education:

1980: The Bayh-Dole Act

Prior to 1980, universities that had received grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation surrendered to the federal government the patents and other intellectual property from discoveries they made. Most of the time, the government did little or nothing with this intellectual property, and so many potential innovations remained in stasis.

The Bayh-Dole Act changed this relationship: Henceforth, the intellectual property from federally funded projects remained with the university, meaning universities were now free to commercialize the fruits of this research. Some universities had already been engaged in commercial activity. Stanford and MIT were such examples, forging close connections between the university and businesses, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule. After Bayh-Dole, universities rushed to open technology parks, technology commercialization offices and industry liaison councils.

One effect of Bayh-Dole was that it tipped the balance of research on many campuses from basic research toward applied research. In many departments, a patent is the equivalent of a peer-reviewed paper, and professors in some disciplines are very likely to be founders of their own companies. The “professor/entrepreneur” is now a common figure on many campuses. The current emphasis on STEM-related disciplines was one result of this change, as those disciplines—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—are the ones that were the most likely to produce commercialized results.

1994: The West Philadelphia Initiatives

By the early 1990s, the neighborhoods surrounding the University of Pennsylvania were in a state of decline: high crime, low-performing schools, vacant housing, non-existent infrastructure and commerce. The newly installed president, Judith Rodin, lead a strategic initiative to make West Philadelphia cleaner and safer, to create the conditions for new business development, and to develop new schools and retail. That is, the university would no longer sit behind ivy-covered walls while the surrounding neighborhood deteriorated The university would take a more active role in urban redevelopment.

The “West Philadelphia Initiatives” spurred a national movement among other urban universities. In 2003, Columbia University announced that it was building a new campus in West Harlem, a neighborhood the university identified as “blighted.” The city invoked eminent domain to take over the property and—after surviving court challenges—cleared it to make room for the new campus. These urban universities became more aggressive in their urban development schemes such that, as Davarian Baldwin observes, “The quaint notion of the ivory tower is dead, as city schools take on a baron-like stewardship over surrounding neighborhoods to help shore up their fiscal stability in times of economic change.”

The influence of urban universities has extended far beyond the surrounding neighborhoods to encompass the entire city. Several urban universities emerged as the chief employers in their cities, especially in health care. They now held vast amounts of real estate and in some cases maintained security and police forces over non-student jurisdictions. Many urban universities have become economic development agencies as much as they are institutions for higher learning.

1997: Drucker predicts disruption in higher education

Peter Drucker told Forbes magazine that the system of higher education is becoming untenable. Tuition costs were skyrocketing such that middle class families were finding it increasingly more difficult to pay for this economic necessity. Expenditures were too high without any measurable difference in the quality of instruction. Drucker announced that “Higher education is in deep crisis.” He predicted that the application of technology—at that time, he saw such technology in the form of satellite and two-way video—would transform higher education, and that the residential college was a thing of the past. Drucker predicted that “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive.”

Drucker’s prediction was the start of the “crisis in higher education” conversation, where every week a new book, op-ed or think tank white paper announced that higher education was in crisis. More importantly, Drucker’s prediction established a new set of expectations: that higher education was ripe for the kind of disruptive innovation that was engulfing other industries, that technology was going to be the catalyst of that disruptive change, and that traditional institutions were on notice that they had to innovate or be left behind.

The language of disruption, innovation and change is now regularly employed by presidents, boards of trustees, policy analysts and entrepreneurs when discussing American higher education.

2002: OpenCourseWare Project

Before there were MOOCs, there was the OpenCourseWare movement. Although there were earlier efforts in Europe, it was at MIT that the movement really took off. MIT made all the course materials from some two thousand undergraduate courses—lecture notes, syllabi, problem sets, and exams—available for free online. Anyone with an interest in a particular subject could access the MIT materials and learn on their own, or some colleges around the world used the learning materials in their own classes.

The OpenCourseWare initiative was the precursor to MOOCs. In addition to lecture notes, the lectures themselves were made available, and MIT was once again in the vanguard. MIT and Harvard teamed to make entire courses available online, creating a program called EdX. At Stanford, Sebastian Thrun similarly recorded his computer science course and offered it freely available online. Hundreds of thousands of students signed up, and soon Thrun had left Stanford to start an online course company, Udacity. Coursera and the Khan Academy were other organizations that formed around the same time, with the goal of providing free college courses.

Online education was already well established by the late 1990s, but had associations with community colleges, for-profits and lower-tier colleges and universities (although some of the early pioneers included the University of California). With OpenCourseWare and then with MOOCs, high-end universities had given a legitimacy and an imprimatur to online education.

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