AirTalk's higher education summit

Wednesday evening, we brought together the Presidents of USC and Pitzer College, along with the Chancellors of UCLA and the state Community College system.  It was a great chance to put these four leaders in a room together to talk about the biggest challenges facing their institutions.

One of the jobs of a college CEO is to put a positive face on unpleasant trends, such as fast-rising tuition, bidding wars over “star” professors, and large cutbacks in funding for public institutions.  As expected, we heard some of that, but I was impressed that the panelists consistently acknowledged that the current model was going to have to change.

One of the biggest areas of concern is over teaching methodology itself.  Does it still make sense to teach introductory students by placing hundreds of them in a large lecture hall so that they can listen to the dot below?  Now that lecturers are competing with electronic devices, probably not.  Looking even bigger picture, is the physical campus going to downsize, as the need for traditional classrooms declines?

Clearly cost increases in higher education are going to reach the point where they can’t be sustained.  Eventually, debt becomes so large that prospective students decide they can’t afford to take it on.

We closed our conversation by talking about the political homogeneity that’s evident at most non-religious schools.  Is it a problem that public and top-level colleges and universities tend to have liberal arts faculties that skew liberal?

Pitzer President Laura Skandera Trombley thought not.  She pointed out that students at her college are free-thinkers who regularly challenge the views of their professors.  Dr. Trombley also mentioned the ideologically-diverse guest speakers who come to campus.  I’m sure that’s true.  My question, though, is whether that’s a sufficient substitute for the in-house passionate conservative professor who’s also, presumably, going to stimulate wide-ranging debate.  I’d argue there’s also a benefit to professors in being surrounded with colleagues who strongly disagree on fundamental issues.

Though there are conservatives who say widespread discrimination exists against humanities and social sciences professors who aren’t liberal, part of the problem is probably cultural.  Just as real estate developers likely skew conservative, academics skew liberal.  Even if college leaders engage in ideological “affirmative action” in an effort to reflect broader views, it might be hard to find those conservative sociology professors you’d like to hire.

On a personal note, before Wednesday night’s program, I found out that Dr. Trombley is the daughter of Mary Skandera, the assistant principal at the Inglewood elementary school I attended in the late-1960s.  I told Dr. Trombley that I fondly remember her mother and how much latitude and respect she gave me as a sixth-grader at Centinela Elementary.  I’m hoping to talk with Mary Skandera directly to tell her how much I appreciate her, to this day.

Also at Wednesday night’s event, my former high school English teacher was in attendance.  I hadn’t seen her in 35 years, but recognized her right away.  She complimented me on my use of language, which made me feel like a 16-year-old again – in a good way!

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