Higher Education for the Future: Plan B - Where Art Thou?

02/25/2015 10:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
--Attributed to Albert Einstein, physicist

Recently, Dr. Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California (UC) system, in presenting the 37th Pullias Lecture at the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC, argued passionately that the state's Governor, legislators and voters need to recognize "the unique role research universities have played in making California a bastion of innovation and a world leader in its own right." Making the case for increased funding for the UC system, she offered this startling fact: The "University of California is funded by the state in constant dollars at the same level as it was in 1997," while at the same time educating 75,000 more students than in that year -- the equivalent of having added two more universities the size of UC Berkeley.

An important and persuasive argument, and one this former Arizona governor is likely aiming principally at the California legislature ... a legislature currently addressing how to parcel out a record $113 billion state budget proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown. Despite including a planned 4 percent increase in base funding for the UC system, the Governor's proposal is $120 million short of the UC Board of Regents' budget request, which they deem necessary to prevent tuition increases. That difference is a mere 0.1 percent of the total state budget.

But as valuable and important as Napolitano's observations are, one is left with a question: Asking for more money is certainly understandable, but what is Plan B?

It has been my impression, as a university executive and a faculty member, that most in our country -- from legislators to average citizens and beyond -- do recognize the enormous value that universities bring to their states, the world, themselves and their families. However, taxpayers and legislatures alike regularly ask a simple question, "Is the rising cost justified?" (The same dynamic plays out in health care -- another commodity whose great social benefits few dispute.) Generally, they are not asking if there is inherent value (although a few might question even this), but they are asking whether the resources allocated are well managed. Are they being used to achieve the maximum effectiveness and efficiency?

The question is made more pressing by the pesky little reality that there is simply not enough money to be had in today's U.S. economy for everything we need (particularly with China not contributing their share to the global GDP) -- at least, not if we do things the way we have always done them.

And therein lies the conundrum in President Napolitano's comments. In addition to arguing passionately, even persuasively, that research universities in particular and higher education in general deserve greater state support, we are left with the unspoken question of what else we should be doing. If not more money...What is Plan B?

Because the broader question is how can we begin to reinvent higher education in the U.S. today to provide greater value at less cost to both the institution and to students and their families? For example, how can we leverage new technologies to actually reduce the cost of education, most notably for the core curriculum? How do we ensure that in addition to the hard knowledge that individual disciplines demand, students (perhaps more importantly) acquire the soft skills necessary to adapt and grow in the more competitive, morphing employment environment of the future? How can we restructure core curricula so that students do not lose credits if they transfer between disciplines or colleges, as many are wont to do? What organizational structures may best improve the efficiency and quality of administrative support, while lowering overall cost? And so on.

It is in times like ours, where pressures are multiple and from many different directions, that the environment is ripe for creating the necessary sense of urgency and for proposing, testing and implementing new approaches to what we have done for millennia. If not now, when?

To paraphrase Winston S. Churchill ..." A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."