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Whither Higher Education?

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And the answer is, "I don't know," but hardly a day goes by without reading some form of obituary or Cassandra-like prophesy about the imminent demise of colleges and universities as we have known (and love) them. Perhaps I am in denial, but I seriously doubt the end is near.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a lengthy interview with Bill Gates on myriad topics pertaining to education in general and higher education in particular. Much of the interview dealt with the delivery of information -- classrooms versus on-line. The interviewer, Jeffrey R. Young, asked Mr. Gates if traditional college leaders "should be worried" about their place-based models. In response, Mr. Gates noted, among other things, that while "the lecture class will be viewed at some point as an antiquated thing," he granted that, "having a bunch of kids come into a small study group where peers help each other, where you can explain why you're learning these various topics, will be even more important."

The Gates' interview underscored that a near-feeding frenzy is underway and waters are being chummed with issues related to the cost of higher education, the national job market for graduates, examples of bad or ineffective leadership, questionable methods of demonstrating quality and, frankly, the desire, by some, to create headlines likely to garner market share or readership. Someone said recently, "I never thought I would see higher education viewed in the same category as big oil" or something like that. Those entrusted with educating future leaders in this country and abroad can't help but feel embattled when our "labor of love" is placed figuratively alongside the Exxon Valdez, listing just off-shore and leaking precious cargo.

The beginning of a new academic year is about two months away. Despite abundant technology, vast resources placed online and floated into cyberspace for free, and all of the economies and conveniences of educational curb service, still the students come. Are they not reading the same stuff I am? Do they not know that they can stay home, boot up their laptops and sit cross-legged on their beds hearing lectures from the best and brightest while avoiding the distraction of the human dynamic?

Still, they come. For it is not just about what they get in the process of an education, it is just as much about who they become in the process. I am profoundly grateful for Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates and others who have contributed measurably to the quality of our lives and, frankly, our learning. I am just as grateful for the unassuming professor who teaches her lessons well and then walks alongside the student after class offering her life as a living example, or the librarian who demonstrates techniques to harness the treasure trove of electronic resources by day and then builds community by night as he works with students and teaches them the grace of service to others. There is, simply, no app for that, at least not yet.

In addition to my role as an administrator, I teach. My classroom averages about 18 students and we will, together, study the American constitution, its glorious heights in history and its weaker moments when placed in frail and trembling hands. I find that teaching a sampling of our 3,200 undergraduates provides me with a sense for our students (for they will never be mere customers to me), who they are and want to be. I enter the classroom this fall committed to enlivening my classroom with careful preparation and with technology to illuminate the teaching and learning process.

My teaching colleagues and I do not compete against the titans of technology; indeed, we are outmatched in platform and volume. We do compete for the hearts and minds of our students when we deploy the remarkable tools the technologists have created.

Choice has always been a prominent and beneficial hallmark of the American system of higher education. Technology offers even more choice and its proponents do so with a lot of noise and fanfare. Good for them. Choice is good. Meanwhile, in two months we open our doors, and our arms, to the class of 2016, together with all of their hopes and dreams. I am glad they chose us.


Andrew K. Benton has been president of Pepperdine University since 2000 and has served the institution for a quarter century. He is the former chair of the American Council on Education (ACE) and currently serves as a vice chair for the Commission on Attainment in association with the American Council on Education and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). He regularly teaches courses at Pepperdine's Malibu, California campus.

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