Guides to Ascending the On-Ramp in Higher Education: Connecting Dots

By George McCully

A review of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, by Cathy N. Davidson (New York, Basic Books, 2017); a summary of the recent announcements of a major restructuring of MIT, and a synthesis of other relevant developments.

It is increasingly obvious that we are living in one of the greatest ages of paradigm-shifts in Western history, comparable to the Renaissance and the fall of Rome. As with Gutenberg in the Renaissance, today’s is driven by revolution in information technology—the rise of computers, the internet, and now artificial intelligence (AI). The pace has dramatically accelerated—previously such momentous shifts took centuries to be resolved; ours is taking decades. Higher education, which is certainly information-intensive, is being so rapidly transformed that, whether we know it or not, every institution is in crisis. Leaders need urgently to mobilize their faculties, staffs and boards to face facts and respond. Problem-solving innovations are everywhere; strategic overview is needed.

In 1869, Charles W. Eliot lost a competition for the endowed chair in chemistry at Harvard ( surprisingly, considering he was a Brahmin, deeply connected alumnus); he then joined the faculty at MIT and, funded by a modest inheritance from his grandfather, toured European and particularly German universities and technical institutes, returning to write an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “The New Education,” in which he argued that higher education at the time needed urgently to be modernized, to prepare future managers of industrialization and urbanization. He was shortly thereafter chosen to be president of Harvard at age 35, where for the next four decades his reforms played a top-down leading role in setting the model for 20th-century American scholarship and higher education.

Now comes Cathy Davidson—a prominent strategist in higher education, longtime professor at Duke University and its vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, currently director of The Futures Initiative at the City University of New York (CUNY)—who has explicitly invoked Eliot’s title and spirit to declare that today, we are at a similar inflection point in the history of higher education, and for the same reason: that it no longer adequately prepares students for the world in which they will live. In response, she has provided a compendium of exemplary institutional innovations, useful as a guide for reformers elsewhere.

The governing paradigm of scholarship and higher education has been the modern multiversity, in which knowledge and skills of separate and exclusively specialized conventional academic disciplines were passed on in lecture and reading courses to receptive students, to equip them for their future professional careers. This system she says, and many agree, is obsolete and actually counter-productive. As a result, the future of higher education is this time being led from the ground up, all across the country, in myriad kinds and levels of institutions, especially including community colleges where fully half of the nation’s undergraduates now matriculate.

Disruptively innovative experiments in curricula, teaching and participatory learning are burgeoning, led by “smart” faculty who have given up on the inherited models and are pioneering new pathways that are public problem-oriented and “student-centered” rather than discipline centered. Their common denominator, she says, is teaching students how to teach themselves— “learning how to learn” for real-world problem-solving in volatile “gig” job markets, using rapidly advancing new information technology in practical situations and terms—in short, the opposite of the traditional paradigm of conventional multiversity academicism.

She does not mince words. She says today’s students are being swindled, not getting what they’re in any case paying far too much for, and that there needs now to be “a revolution in every classroom, curriculum, and assessment system … To revolutionize the university, we don’t just need a model. We need a movement [that] seeks to redesign the university beyond the inherited disciplines, departments, and silos, by redefining the traditional boundaries of knowledge and providing an array of intellectual forums, experiences, programs, and projects that push students to use a variety of methods to discover comprehensive and original answers.”

Building a movement

Her book addresses the need to build the desired “movement” by calling attention to the fact that it is already underway on “almost every college and university campus right now” where “smart educators—sometimes a handful of visionaries, sometimes a substantial cohort—are working on new models for higher education.”

The structure and style of her book is, accordingly, anecdotal—necessarily so, given the novelty of the movement, its innumerable and widespread expressions, and therefore the paucity of systemic historical data. But she is an excellent storyteller, vividly conveying the personalities and characters of the diverse people and institutions involved in new experiments. She presents the “new education” as “student-centered” also faute de mieux—because today’s excessively high-cost and -loan-financed conventional classrooms are not helping today’s students to obtain reliable credentials for predictable future careers. The world is changing too rapidly, driven by technological revolutions in every field.

Her argument is in general carefully and intelligently laid out—this book certainly deserves wide readership by everyone interested in the future of higher education at their own and other institutions. There are chapters on students in crisis, on excessive “technophobia” and “technophilia,” the failures of higher education business models, the reductionism of quantification and grading, the unfairness of elitism and the deleterious effects of all these on American society.

An essential aspect which could only be alluded to, however, is how they relate to the substantive issues of scholarship and research. The multiversity strategy and structure of exclusive specialization by conventional disciplines—the content of higher education that was long the focus of the academy—has been increasingly criticized as inadequate in addressing complex real-world problems such as climate change, environmental degradation, disparities of wealth, overpopulation, energy needs, technological revolutions, etc., which are not organized in the separate parts of the disciplines. This discord has been exacerbated by technological revolutions—rapidly unfolding, accelerating and increasingly powerful, especially in information technology, big data and data science. Although Davidson’s focus is on “student-centered” innovations, a number of her examples involve extra-disciplinary research by the faculty as well.

The College of Computing at MIT

The content of scholarship and pedagogy is the focus of a truly revolutionary new transformation in higher education—the “College of Computing” introduced last October at MIT and certain to be widely influential on the future of technology and of career-training in STEM and all other related fields. While there is no book or even widely published report on it yet, we may summarize its rationale from MIT’s official public statements, to help place Davidson’s book in its most up-to-date and concrete context.

MIT has been structured in five Schools: Science, Engineering, Architecture and Planning, Management, and Humanities/Arts/Social Sciences. The College of Computing is a self-financed addition to that mix, conceived as a “connective tissue for the whole Institute,”in which all faculty and students in all “Schools” will participate. Its “central idea” is that this new “shared structure can help deliver the power of computing, data science, and especially AI, into all disciplines at MIT; lead to the development of new disciplines; and provide every discipline with an active channel to help shape the work of computing itself.”

This “new approach [is] necessary because of the way computing, data, and AI are reshaping the world.” Here computing will be “baked into the curriculum, rather than stapled on.” Students and researchers will be “bi-lingual” and thus of immense value to their employers—taught to use AI in their disciplines from first principles, instead of dividing their time between computer science and other departments, predicated by the fact that “Computing is … everywhere, and it needs to be understood and mastered by almost everyone.” “AI in particular is reshaping geopolitics, our economy, our daily lives and the very definition of work. It is rapidly enabling new research in every discipline and new solutions to daunting problems. At the same time, it is creating ethical strains and human consequences our society is not yet equipped to control or withstand … In response, we are reshaping MIT.”

“Reshaping MIT” is of immense strategic importance to the future of higher education because MIT is in a unique position to assume a global leadership role. AI itself originated there in the 1950s, with the work of Marvin Minsky and others. The Turing Award, computing’s highest honor, so far awarded to 67 scholars worldwide, is held by 10 current MIT faculty. The largest laboratory at MIT is the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, established in 2003. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) is by far MIT’s largest academic department. U.S. News and World Report cites MIT as No. 1 in six graduate engineering specialties, and 17 disciplines and specialties outside of engineering, from biological sciences to economics.

From that exalted platform, this innovation begins with clear and powerful advantages: impetus from technology both within and outside MIT, and the inexorable rise of AI; MIT itself, as a highly extraordinary and well-resourced stage; an initial investment of $650 million already in-hand, including the launching gift of $350 million from a single donor, anticipating a $1 billion total investment; increasing pressure from students, 40% of whom at MIT are already majors or joint majors in Computer Science; and bold, thoughtful, leadership consensus from both administration and faculty.

Startup funding will enable immediate commencing of student enrollments in 2019; begin construction of an already-sited major new building centrally located on the MIT campus; endow 50 new faculty appointments within five years—half located within the College and half jointly with other departments across MIT, for which jockeying has begun—a 5% growth in total faculty, nearly doubling MIT’s academic capability in computing and AI.

The College will develop new curricula connecting computer science and AI with other disciplines; host forums to engage national leaders from business, government, academia and journalism, to examine the anticipated outcomes of advances in AI and machine learning, and to shape policies around the ethics of AI; encourage scientists, engineers, and social scientists to collaborate on analyses of emerging technology and on research that will serve industry, policymakers, and the broader research community; and offer a seed-grant program for faculty, and a fellowship program to attract distinguished leaders from universities, government, industry, and journalism.

The College’s influence will be reciprocal with all other entities, encouraging the future of computing and AI to be shaped by insights from other disciplines, as well as vice-versa. It will “foster breakthroughs in computing, particularly artificial intelligence—actively informed by the wisdom of other disciplines.” It will deliver the power of AI tools to researchers in every field and advance pioneering work on AI’s ethical use and societal impact.

Its educational aim is to generate “new integrated curricula and degree programs in nearly every field, to equip students to be ‘bi-lingual’—as fluent in computing and AI as they are in their own disciplines and ready to use these digital tools wisely and humanely to help make a better world.” MIT President Rafael Reif says, “Society has never needed the liberal arts—the path to wise, responsible citizenship—more than it does now. It is time to educate a new generation of technologists in the public interest.”

This momentous innovation is intended to strengthen MIT’s position as a key international player in “the responsible and ethical evolution of technologies that are poised to fundamentally transform society. Amid a rapidly evolving geopolitical environment that is constantly being reshaped by technology, the College will have significant impact on our nation’s competitiveness and security.”

The lead donor, Stephen A. Schwarzman, founder of Blackstone, hopes that the College of Computing “will constitute both a global center for computing research and education, and an intellectual foundry for powerful new AI tools. … With the ability to bring together the best minds in AI research, development, and ethics, higher education is uniquely situated to be the incubator for solving these challenges in ways the private and public sectors cannot. Our hope is that this ambitious initiative serves as a clarion call to our government that massive financial investment in AI is necessary to ensure that America has a leading voice in shaping the future of these powerful and transformative technologies.”

Two complementary approaches

We have, then, two complementary approaches to the future of higher education: Davidson’s focus is mainly procedural, broadly based and especially concerned with higher education’s role in creating upward mobility for all students, for the health of American society; MIT’s focus is mainly substantive, initially centered on this single though world-leading institution, and aimed at clarifying, strengthening and refining the force and impacts of today’s revolutionary research and technology. Each of these approaches needs the other—MIT’s will influence the content of future research and teaching across the whole of Davidson’s movement; it would also help if Davidson’s concern for the upward social mobility of all students found special and explicit “multi-lingual” expression in guaranteeing the broadest possible student input to our national future.

Both are happening amid a cascade of powerful and mutually conducive developments. The New York Times recently reported that student demands for computer science are exploding far faster than faculties can adequately supply now or in the foreseeable future. The number of undergraduate majors more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, while tenure-track faculty ranks rose 17%, and graduate student enrollments rose 13%. Part of the problem is that corporate demand for computer scientists is also exploding, so businesses are poaching faculty and new Ph.D.s away from academia at much higher salaries, forcing universities to make diluting dual appointments. While the multiversity featured cross-fertilization between corporate and academic activities, this current further blending of the two realms may intensify to combine them at both faculty and student levels, further undermining strictly academic disciplines and even producing new ways of organizing research and teaching.

Maldistributions in societal structures further exacerbate those in higher education. Extreme and worsening imbalances of wealth and income are well-known, but less familiar are their damaging effects on public education and training. Re-tooling skills of the lowest-income workers for higher-paying jobs is already a crisis, but add to that, the conservatively estimated 1.37 million U.S. workers who will lose their jobs to automation in the next decade alone, increasing rapidly thereafter, and “upskilling” them would cost $34 billion, 86% of which would have to be covered by government, which has been steadily reducing its support of higher education for several decades.

Globally, China presents another challenge—owing to the massive investment its government is making in AI technological development and the huge numbers of scientists being trained. A recent survey asked Chinese and American executives whether they thought AI would have a larger impact than the internet; 84% of the Chinese said yes, while 38% of Americans agreed. Currently 25% of Chinese business leaders say AI is utilized on a wide scale at their firms, whereas only 5% of U.S. executives said the same. In June, the Pentagon announced that it was establishing a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center that will spend $1.75 billion over six years, but that is a small fraction of what the Chinese are spending.

In the realm of values, the Pentagon’s initiatives are widely regarded with ethical apprehensions both within and outside the high-tech industry. In response, the Defense Innovation Board last October launched an AI Principles Project to create an ethics framework for artificial intelligence in national defense. The initiative’s first major public meeting took place this January at Harvard, where Pentagon officials met with about a dozen AI experts, some of them strong critics. Similar expert gatherings are planned at Carnegie Mellon University in March and Stanford University in April, after which the Board will release draft principles for public comment. While it is significant that this discussion is taking place on university campuses, we may hope that this fact will focus increased scholarly involvement in these issues.

The subject of values brings us back to where we started. Davidson says, from her social science perspective, that “The goal of higher education is greater than workforce readiness. It’s world readiness.” There is an additional (not alternative) consideration: that another and equally worthy goal of higher education is to prepare students for their personal maturity as human beings, in any future world, especially given as we have seen that their rapidly unfolding future world is highly unpredictable. That broader and deeper pedagogical framework is commendably included in MIT’s explicit interest in humanistic liberal education.

Liberal education, of course, invokes the deepest traditional—in fact, Classical—values of self-development and -fulfillment, as well as the newer hypermodern models increasingly dependent on artificial intelligence for a more comprehensive forward-looking synthesis. The obvious advantage of that more capacious perspective would be to ground what always and increasingly rapidly changes—history—on what never changes—fundamental human nature.

So our current Age of Paradigm-Shifts is posing fundamental challenges to traditional higher education and all its institutions, which are being met by a nationwide ground-level movement searching for solutions. Several features of the movement stand out, all driven by necessity: first, that the Old Paradigm of 20th-century multiversity academicism is toast; second, that the direction of future higher education is toward more explicit commitment to students’ personal and professional development; third, that research and teaching will be much more engaged extramurally in external communities and real-world practical problem-solving; fourth, that higher education as a whole will become more explicitly responsible socially, involving more widely inclusive constituencies than ever before; fifth, that government support of higher education must increase substantially, as emergent issues compel political attention; and finally, that leaders in every institution of higher education—administrators, boards and faculty members—must now assume responsibility for guiding their institutions forward along these lines, encouraging fresh and innovative thinking and experimenting now more than ever before.

George McCully is a historian, former professor and faculty dean at higher education institutions in the Northeast, then professional philanthropist and founder and CEO of the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

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