Remember to Just Think

By John O. Harney

“I was just thinking” was columnist Mike Barnicle’s lazy motif in the Boston Globe. Still, it’s hard not to copy a lazy motif. So … I was just thinking …

Business leaders confirmed for the record this spring what they’ve been grousing about for years: Too few recent graduates have the skills to be good workers. That was the key finding in Northeastern University’s third annual survey on the “Innovation Imperative.” And it formed the base of a recent “summit” sponsored by Northeastern, WGBH and the New England Council.

Northeastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun opened the summit saying he doesn’t like using the term “customer” in higher education, but that the poll aimed to find out how CEOs, students and faculty view the university and higher ed’s roles. (Infected myself by the cost-consciousness disease, I couldn’t help noticing that the handouts were on very heavy stock—relatively expensive.) The polled CEOs emphasized soft skills including communication and interpersonal skills over tech skills. They also emphasized entrepreneurship skills—not to launch a business necessarily but to think on a different level about creating an ecosystem and to learn how to fail.

Jeff Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Edu­ca­tion said he has wondered why more higher education institutions—HEIs as we abbreviate them now—hadn’t adopted Northeastern’s famous co-op model.

Aoun noted that during the recession, the number of co-ops actually grew because employers wanted to be sure to have a pipeline for talent.

So why not encourage dramatic expansion of the co-op idea as some in the Obama administration have suggested? One reason, worried Selingo, is that slews of new co-ops and internships might replace full-time jobs—the economy may not be able to absorb them.

Also working against co-ops, many students and parents today are looking for ways to cut a year off the overworked four-year bachelor’s degree; co-ops sometimes add time to graduation. It’s not a bad thing, but it could be grounds for penalties under the government’s controversial plan to introduce a new college scorecard. HEIs like Lesley University could also suffer under the new scorecard system because the university specializes in educating teachers, who still don’t earn that much money—one of the scorecard’s potential key measures of a worthwhile college.

Selingo injected a bit of sanity, noting that many faculty do not see higher ed as preparing people for jobs, but for life. Then the obligatory, but ever-shorter, tributes to the liberal arts all around.

On a different aspect of innovation, Part­ners Health­Care President Gary Got­tlieb lamented underfunding of the National Institutes of Health, the federal research program that has played a central role in setting U.S. higher ed apart from the rest of the world. The combined effect of budget cuts and the increasing cost of biomedical research have resulted in a 12% cut between 2010 and 2013. That means less for researchers and breakthroughs in treating diseases ranging from HIV to Alzheimer’s.

All the panelists talked about the transformation of higher education and hiring. The moderator Kara Miller, host of WGBH’s Inno­va­tion Hub, quipped that if you interview to be an engineer at Facebook, they sit you down for a four-hour test to do some coding and other tasks, not to talk about your Columbia degree.

Selingo added that as more focus is directed to “outcomes” rather than “inputs,” rankings such as U.S. News and World Report will be turned on their heads.

He also mentioned that more older students are accessing education they need when they need it, not enrolling in degree programs. You’ll have a foundation that may not be a four-year degree, but every couple of years, you’ll access more from MOOCs and other new models.

Someone from the audience asked about a finding noted at the summit’s beginning in which more than 70% of CEOs attributed their success to their personal drive. She wanted to know, understandably, is that because higher ed is now so cast as a private good that you can attribute your success at the HEI to your own grit and determination? The answer should have been, “You didn’t build that.”


At the summit, Aoun briefly cited the rise of “competency-based education” as a new way to show what you’ve learned, rather than how long you’ve been in a class. CBE, as it’s called, may soon be all the rage. It seems to fit the times, offering higher-quality learning at lower prices. But I learned at a recent webinar that the concept has been around since the 70s. More than 130 institutions do it. Most of the students are in their 30s or 40s. It was noted that “academic success coaches” follow an “intrusive advising model” and can activate students who seem to be just lurking. Also that it’s important for HEIs to enlist their library staffs so the students in the self-paced learning environment can find the resources they need. One proponent of Wisconsin’s CBE program says the chancellor told them they had permission to fail, which faculty don’t usually feel they have. Speaking of faculty, they tend to suffer the bruises in this larger conversation about transformation—especially tenured ones and their unions, and this while NCAA football players start using the U-word.


The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education approved America’s first statewide policy to make civics part of the curriculum at state colleges. Commissioner Richard Freeland, a historian, is concerned that public college graduates are focusing too much on job training and not learning the history of their own country. “For example, what is the history of our involvement in Asia, or the Middle East, or in Europe or in Latin America, and therefore not really having a context to evaluate what is going on in those regions as the United States tries to interact with them,” Freeland told WGBH.

Just 21 states required a state-designed social studies test in the 2012-13 school year, down from 34 in 2001, according to a study released by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. To make matters worse, assessments have shifted from a combination of multiple-choice questions, essay questions, and other assignments to almost exclusively multiple-choice exams since 2000, meaning that the material tested tends to be relatively simple facts rather than the ability to apply information and skills to complex situations.” That runs counter to the Common Core State Standards movement. Yet social studies as a subject has become a poor cousin, and there’s little agreement on what makes sense to teach in the way of civics.


Gallup is always asking questions. When they asked people to rate their state as a place to live, 77% of Montanans pick theirs as do 77% of Alaskans. But just 18% of residents of Rhode Island did. A friend who writes in the Ocean State once unfairly and politically incorrectly damned the state as New England’s “slum.”

Another Gallup poll makes more sense though. It asked college graduates whether they’re “engaged” with their work or “thriving” in all aspects of their lives. The big finding: Responses don’t vary based on the prestige of their alma mater.


Mike Barnicle, it turns out, stole some of his “I was just thinking” material from George Carlin. The key in these gimmicky columns—as in higher education—is to think for yourself because George won’t be there with you.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.














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