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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM


Whenever the future of universities is discussed, it is asserted with increasing frequency that education is a business and students are the customers. There is no doubt this is a well-intentioned analogy, but it seems false for a number of reasons.

Today, in most countries and in most universities, professors are state employees. Also, students pay in tuition only a small fraction of the total cost necessary to run most universities. Therefore, professors serve the public first, students second. Although the interests of the public and university students are similar, the public's interests and goals are beyond that of students' in the following areas.

Standards. The diploma often serves as a license to practice a profession. The public must be protected from incompetent practitioners. This public interest may conflict with most students' interests in finding shorter and easier ways to obtain diplomas. Witness the flourishing diploma mills in the U.S. and employers' increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of newly hired graduates.

Morals and values. Although a state's goals may change over time as definitions of good morals change, the public must always be protected from practitioners with low morals. For example, students must be taught to respect copyright and intellectual property laws. Most students don't learn good morals and values—traits that should not be elective subjects.

Research. There was never significant student demand for research. Nevertheless, the public may have an interest in promoting research at the university level. One could cite a long list of discoveries and inventions found and perfected at universities. One could also add another long list of discoveries and inventions in industry by people whose interest in research was sparked and developed at research universities. The public may lose comparable discoveries in the future if high-quality university research is not supported.

Any change in university policy must be implemented carefully, so the public's interests are not hurt. In particular, the following should be taken into consideration.

  • Increase the quality and prestige of professors. It is for the public's benefit to have university professors and primary and secondary school teachers who are well-qualified and respected, and therefore able to teach high standards. Prestige comes mainly from a combination of salary and tenure. This means that to keep the same quality of professors while changing from a tenure to a nontenure system, as advocated by some people, salaries must be increased to reflect industry salaries. The tenure system should not be changed unless universities are prepared to offer higher salaries.
  • When evaluating a professor's teaching, the university should not rely solely on student evaluations. Instead, evaluation forms should be sent to employers of the former students, asking about employer satisfaction with the quality of the employees taught by the professors being evaluated.
  • When evaluating a professor's research in science or engineering, the university should not count the number of publications or total research dollars obtained, or ask only other academic peers to comment on the professor's work. Instead, the professor's publications should be sent to industrial labs and/or government agencies for evaluation.

These proposals strengthen both universities and industry and promote greater cooperation between them. Students benefit by having professors whom industry finds are the best at preparing them for jobs after graduation. Good student preparation is of great interest to the public and warrants and guarantees generous public support, augmented with donations and industrial support.

On the other hand, if students behave and are encouraged to behave as customers, public money will diminish, because the public will realize that while professors cater to the wrong demands of students, standards are lowered, morals are misguided, and the quality of university research declines.

Peter Revesz
Lincoln, NE

Tsichritzis proposes the transformation of universities from communities of scholars to corporations (or "partnerships") of content providers. I have heard this theme before, always from those who would not be harmed by such a transformation.

It is arguable whether education actually is or should be a "business," but let's assume it is. Tsichritzis notes that North American universities (for example, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton) that do treat students as customers have no problem attracting students despite their high tuitions. Such universities have always spent money to provide quality education, and students are willing to pay for such quality (students don't care about "efficient management," as Tsichritzis claims). In sum, the present university structure works very well for rich "customers."

Even when student "customers" have no money and have to be subsidized, a university can satisfy them by spending just as much money per student as Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton. But the stockholders (the public) do not wish to subsidize students; they want cheaper (not necessarily better) education. So public universities are forced to cut costs, shortchanging "customers" exactly like all other monopolistic businesses.

Tsichritzis asserts that universities must become more agile and should be able to adapt quickly to changing demands without changing their structures. At my university, students may create special majors (combining, for example, art and computer science), even though the university is not "reengineered" and is made up of mostly tenured professors.

Universities have other important duties to students: achieving a balance in the materials taught to them (among basic principles, techniques for reeducation and techniques that give competitive advantage), having an appropriate overall curriculum by continually re-asking the question, "What should a graduate with this degree be expected to know," and (at least in computer science) ensuring the degree is respected so graduates get good jobs.

I believe these duties are best fulfilled within the current university structure; witness the dramatic restructuring of Carnegie- Mellon University's electrical engineering degree. This radical change, which gives students enormous freedom and variety within electrical engineering, was achieved carefully (rather than quickly) over a four- or five-year period. If the thought of all those academic meetings is a concern, as it is to Tsichritzis, then consider the turf wars and mayhem when (as proposed in Tsichritzis's piece) almost all employees are hired on a course-by-course or short-term basis (even professors teaching for only five or six years), and all of the employees have direct economic interest in deciding which courses are taught. If these choices are all made by, say, one tenured professor, consider the destruction if this particular professor makes poor choices and cannot be dissuaded or dislodged.

The argument that "the public wants more efficiency" and therefore "change is unavoidable" has often been expressed in California with respect to the California State University system. The argument takes for granted that universities in California are not succeeding (which is incorrect), that it is not possible to educate the public about the job the universities are doing (university chancellors and trustees have been singularly inept at this), that the public is right in its desire for tax cuts for California prisons rather than for universities, and that improvements are not possible without radical transformation of the university.

Storing, reusing, and importing. Tsichritzis suggests the use of canned lectures ("stored" and "reused" content), claiming lectures are nonchanging "performances" that can be packaged without losing quality. Even if this were true, it is possible that successful presentation of difficult material requires personal interaction between lecturer and student. We have had stored content in the form of books for 400 years; why not just have the students read the books? But the analogy is false for me. I know. Lectures change from semester to semester as techniques and educational emphases change (for example, from structured programming to OOP and from C++ to Java).

Universities don't have the vast audience of television. For one or two or even five sections per semester, it doesn't make sense to put in the extra work to store the content. Reviewing lectures produced by lectures would require 200 hours.

Distance learning. I have been involved off and on with distance learning for about 30 years. It is a good way to reach distant students, but it is more (not less) expensive per student, and it involves much more work for the instructor in front of the camera.

Present and proposed organizations. There is no way to prove that Tsichritzis's radical new organization (using animators hired on a course-by-course basis, supervisors hired on two- to three-year appointments, professors hired on for five- or six-year appointments, and a few professors with tenure) would be more agile and efficient. We can be sure this will be more hierarchical and that fewer of the employees will have a strong loyalty to the employer (this proposal makes the term "university" seem inappropriate).

At the moment, we can't achieve this new organization. The real objective of all this is to minimize costs, but politicians and university administrators have been unwilling to make the investments required to achieve efficiencies. All these new techniques—storing content, evaluating content, distance learning, and so forth—require extra effort, but university administrators are usually unwilling to ask for extra effort for no compensation. Moreover, there is a ticklish question of appropriate reward. If I record the content, shouldn't I get paid for each student who views it, especially since in recording it I'm starting to put myself out of a job? And if the university won't pay me for each student who views it, why should I record it?

Finally, such a new organization would no longer be a community of scholars. Instead, it would create a corporation of mostly temporary workers providing content. There would be no way for administrators or supervisors to advance to permanent employment. Since only professors would have Ph.D.'s, there would be no path for supervisors to advance to professorial positions. Such an organization would not be worth having.

Philip Gilbert
Los Angeles, CA

I would like to express my view regarding "reengineering the university," because we are undergoing a similar change in Hong Kong. While I share the view that universities nowadays should improve their efficiency, I disagree with the following points.

  • The customer is society, not the individual student. For example, doctors are trained on the basis of how many are needed, rather than on how many students want to be doctors.
  • Education should not be equated with transfer of knowledge. A university becomes attractive because of the achievement of its graduates, not its efficiency in the transfer of knowledge nor the amount of its revenue. While Tsichritzis emphasizes the export of knowledge, my vision of a university is one that exports personnel, ranging from engineers to world-class leaders.
  • The idea that a university should provide lifelong education assumes our graduates can learn only in a greenhouse. Why can't we have graduates who are able to learn by themselves for the rest of their lives?

Tsichritzis's emphasis on the efficiency of running a university is a reincarnation of management's old-fashioned belief that a worker in a factory is a cog in a machine, and every worker should be trained to work efficiently as part of the machine. I demand my students be creative and think differently, as well as pass examinations.

To sum, when we reengineer our universities to meet the challenge, we should not put too much emphasis on know-how. Our graduates' ability to survive and thrive in the most difficult situations should be the primary goal.

S.W. Ng
Hong Kong

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