Our systems of higher education are built around a centuries-old legacy that has touched the lives of countless administrators, faculty, staff, and students. When this involves traditions such as covering a campus statue with red crepe paper before a big football game, or newly-engaged couples ringing the landmark tower’s bell seven times, it’s charming – serving a valuable purpose in building and maintaining community. Other legacies, however, are less beneficial. We unquestioningly accept “the way it’s always been done,” refusing to look beyond longstanding institutional practices that ought to be open to examination. As Sir Ken Robinson so ably pointed out, the systems still in place across all of American education developed during the industrial age, designed to yield a consistent product – educated citizens. This has been true for so long, we don’t even recognize the obvious connection to manufacturing. Our colleges and universities are designed to ensure uniformity – each person who earns a certain degree will have received similar instruction, met the same requirements, and had a comparable educational experience. This means that a B.S. in Chemistry, for example, will be essentially the same no matter which institution grants the degree, notwithstanding the relative prestige or status of the institution. We even apply metrics that quantify and evaluate our work, much like the quality control practices in factories. However, no matter how consistent and reliable our educational methods may be at imparting a pre-determined set of knowledge, skills, and competencies, it does not mean that students who earn a degree are truly educated. Certainly, students progress through our systems, abiding by the stale rules that change with glacial slowness, but many never become fundamentally transformed by the education they received. They are merely recipients of a standardized credential.
When someone who earns a living in higher education makes such a claim, it raises the specter of controversy, since those who contribute to such systems appear to be complicit in their perpetuation. Nevertheless, each person who works within the educational system can and should strive for improvement where opportunity exists or circumstances demand change. Every faculty member or academic administrator should support continuous improvement of our institutions and the expansion of our disciplines. We should resist the tendency to take the easier path that leads inexorably to the comfortable trap of legacies, rules, and traditions, guarding against our natural inclination to allow our longstanding institutional habits to limit the advancement and improvement of higher education. After all, progress occurs every day, even when our colleagues turn a blind eye to changes occurring beyond the campus gates.
Furthermore students come to us expecting our best, believing that we are leaders in our disciplinary fields. Do our credentials uphold the trust students place in us? Do we actively maintain our disciplinary engagement? Or has our professional involvement been stalled by legacy or tradition? We should never lose sight of the fact that students quite literally mortgage their futures for the privilege of studying with us, incurring staggering debt to avail themselves of the opportunities that they presume we will provide. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a private college for the 2017-2018 academic year was $38,830, which translates to $151,320 for a four-year bachelor’s degree. An in-state student at a four-year public university could expect to pay $20,770 per year for tuition, fees, room and board, or $83,080 for a bachelor’s degree. Unless we ourselves are the parents of college-age children, we seldom stop to count these costs, yet knowing the financial burden that our students place upon themselves (or that their parents incur through “Parent Plus” federal student loans) should give us pause. By way of comparison, $150,000 could buy a comfortable single family home in many areas of the country; and $83,000 is more than the cost of a brand-new Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe, or a Chevy Corvette Grand Sport, or a Jaguar F-Type R Dynamic. Some faculty and administrators may bluster at this comparison, saying that we cannot measure the value of college education in mere dollars and cents. Nevertheless, we DO put a price tag on it, which means that we must also consider whether we are giving students their money’s worth.
We in higher education must help one another perceive change and opportunity through a benefits-oriented lens. In other words, we must ask ourselves: does our choice to remain steeped in legacy, tradition, and manufacturing-era operational models draw us closer to the goal of preparing students to lead successful, sustainable lives after graduation? Or does it drive us further away? Academic maturity, leadership (and make no mistake: all educators are leaders), and scholarship each allow us to develop the ability to judge the constructiveness of our decisions, allowing us to recognize that high-quality scholarship has nothing in common with doing things the way they’ve “always been done.” We should never allow our intellectual curiosity to be sated, nor our eagerness for professional growth and achievement to wane. We cannot permit our departments, colleges, or schools to remain stagnant when the world all around us continues to evolve. If we do, our houses of learning become mere museums where we are but docents, introducing students to the treasured antiquities of our disciplines. Instead, we should each remain on the cutting edge of disciplinary achievement so that our students will be exposed to the most current information it is within our power to provide, empowering them to go forth from our institutions prepared for the ever-changing rigors and challenges of the professional world.
Higher education can no longer adhere to a model of mass production, using the obsolete machinery that has been in service for many decades. We should recognize that each student deserves an individualized educational experience that will be personally transformative, not only delivering the tools to succeed now, but instilling a passion for lifelong learning, an insatiably curious mind, and a spirit of innovation that transcends the basic skills and competencies typical of standardized degree progressions. When we can truly say that we do this, then we can legitimately claim to be educators.
AXIOM: Higher education must provide students with a transformative education that empowers them to transcend the skills and competencies of a given degree program.
 Brown, Karen. (May 24, 2013). An Interview With Sir Ken Robinson. Etsy Journal. https://blog.etsy.com/en/sir-ken-robinson-on-creativity-and-finding-your-element/
 Robinson, K. (2010). Changing Education Paradigms. RSA Animate-TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms
 College Data, a service of 1st Financial Bank. “What’s the Price Tag for a College Education?” https://www.collegedata.com/cs/content/content_payarticle_tmpl.jhtml?articleId=10064
 Road and Track (June 27, 2017). The 15 Best Cars Under $100,000. http://www.roadandtrack.com/car-culture/g4277/the-13-best-cars-under-100000-dollars/?slide=2