10/05/2012 08:04 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Hedgefunders, Hedgehogs, and Higher Ed

The Hedgefunders and the Hedgehogs both believe colleges and universities are in big trouble. They believe this for different, even contradicting reasons, but both groups are right. Their solutions, unfortunately for all of us, are mostly wrong.

The Hedgefunders are those university trustees who, from time immemorial, have groused about the lack of business practice in higher ed -- as if business knows The One True Way and Enron, the Exxon Valdez and 2008 never happened. But their gripes have gained new force given the crisis in the economic health of those colleges and universities that lack Harvard's bank account and in the economic health of students and their families -- a crisis, one should recall, that their own practices of greed-gone-bonkers helped to exacerbate.

Many faculty members constitute the Hedgehogs -- for hedgehogs, when threatened, roll into a ball and stick out porcupine-like defensive quills. In an era of panicky cost-cutting, it is hardly surprising that faculty members are inimical to fresh organizational ideas, assuming this is a euphemism for take-aways. "How many faculty members does it take to change a light bulb?," goes the joke among university presidents. "Change? Why does it need to be changed?" In a paranoid environment, the response that the bulb needs to be changed because it no longer provides illumination has logical force but zero emotional force.

Of course, there are change-friendly faculty and tradition-respecting trustees, but the biggest voices often belong to the smallest minds in each group.

From the Hedgefunder point of view, most recently exemplified by a few members of the Board of Arrogance at the University of Virginia, "God" is a misspelling of "Google," His/Her world was reinvented about seven minutes ago, and universities must reconstruct themselves as if they are a failing newspaper -- the web is the new campus.

But, surprise -- people like to be around people on occasion. The give and take of small seminars is obviously irreplaceable -- dialogue on the web is often less its equal than its opposite in its lowered standards of true interchange and civility. But even larger classes, so often cited as easily replaceable by technology, often provide a performative excitement and an intellectual energy that a meandering seminar may lack. If Oprah can provide give-and-take with a large audience, so do many profs, and the very size of many large elective classes testifies to their popularity.

Presence is not a naive or nostalgic ideal, and that is why an audience spends 10 or 15 times the price of admission to a play as compared to a movie, or several times more to participate in a live concert than to purchase a CD, or is willing, at a still greater multiple of cost, to endure traffic jams and overpriced rubber hot dogs to attend a sporting event rather to watch from a comfortable armchair via television.

The Hedgehogs, meanwhile, are not moving but they are massing. The Association of University Professors, once a respected watchdog, has become a catalyst for extreme distrust of the hated administration, even when many of the major administrators are professors themselves. Shared governance in such a poisoned atmosphere becomes snared governance, to the extent that the federal politicians who take presidential jobs at universities often scurry back -- when they are not thrown back -- to the kinder, gentler world of the cutthroat Beltway. The faculty nationally has filibustered successfully for what the editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education described in a New York Times opinion piece as higher education's "lost decade." But this victory is worse than Pyrrhic. It's a disaster.

Why? Because the world really has changed, external support for the universities has declined precipitously, the public will to pay rapidly increasing tuition ended about five years ago, health and energy costs have skyrocketed, and there are in truth more alternatives now to the traditional campus out there.

My own guess is that we are headed for a soft disaster, where most of the 3,000 colleges and universities in America, still offering a variety of learning places that is the world's envy, will not survive. In a Walmart world, especially, the big universities will grow while their state support will continue to dwindle, making a mockery of personalized education; and most of the small colleges that are a distinctly American achievement will simply cease in their present forms over the next few decades. And dying will be even worse than death, more painful by far, as campuses become class-warfare battlegrounds.

Even so, it is the Hedgefunders and the Hedgehogs who can save us. Within their fallacies lie important and saving truths. I'll get to those in my next blog.