Monday, February 01, 2016


MIT 2?

So an MIT Dean, Christine Ortiz, is taking a leave of absence to start a new university in a city that badly needs one: Boston.


She wants the Boston campus to be the size of MIT, and to open other campuses in other cities over time.  It’ll be nonprofit, and the fundraising hasn’t started yet.


Her vision, as outlined in a brief Chronicle interview, sounds like a whole bunch of research labs.  She says it’s “more toward the graduate-education model,” with the entire campus basically becoming a huge interdisciplinary lab.  “Lecture” will be virtual and modularized, with the model “very much moving away from tenure.”  

That’s not how I remember graduate education, but never mind that.

Whether the idea is audacious or delusional will become clear over time.  But it did get me thinking.

For the past forty years or so, most new colleges were for-profits.  The public sector mostly threw in the towel by the mid-1970’s.  More community colleges were established in the 1960’s than in the five decades since.  More private colleges are going under than starting up. The non-profit sector of higher ed, as a sector, is mature.  It has moved from the exciting phase of investment and growth to a more difficult phase of austerity and scrutiny.  Expectations formed during the growth phase can’t be fulfilled.  “Kludge,” defined as sedimentary layers of workarounds and adaptations around processes and even personalities, is the normal state of things.  

The prospect of a shiny new kludge-free setting is enticing.  

For a while, the for-profits offered a version of that.  They grew quickly, opening up opportunities for a generation of Ph.D.’s that non-profits had largely sacrificed to the convenience of incumbents.  For a time, they offered an unlikely port in a storm.  But after a while, the compromises built in to the need to meet stockholders’ earnings expectations became unsustainable.  Eventually, the mission devoured most of them.

Now, with the for-profits either laying low or circling the drain, the space for innovation is wide open.  MOOCs held promise for a bit, though they’ve largely settled into a role of supplementing, rather than supplanting, traditional providers.  Western Governors University and College For America developed to offer intriguing new ways to offer degrees, with very different structures for delivery.  But at this point, the green shoots are relatively rare.  

In other words, whether Dean Ortiz’ vision comes to pass or not, it’s a good time to try something new.  Somebody has to.

My own vision?  I’ll let Dean Ortiz work on the elite end, filling in the yawning chasm between Harvard and MIT.  I’m obsessed with helping the students who would never be admitted to either.  That means addressing a different set of needs.  “Unbundling” may make sense for the student with plenty of cultural and educational capital, but to the first-generation student, it’s disempowering.  The key is to start with student needs and build the institution around it.  That’s not how it has been done in the past.

The piece I’ll be watching closely is the funding.  Dean Ortiz allows breezily that she hasn’t started fundraising for her MIT-sized university yet, which I found either disingenuous -- Zuckerberg or the Defense Department in her back pocket, say -- or discrediting.  But hey, maybe she knows something I don’t.  Research universities are her world, not mine.

For the non-elites, the funding question is paramount.  The DeVrys of the world addressed that through selling stock; the limits of that strategy have become apparent.  Community colleges have relied on public funding, but the past few recessions have shown the limits of that.  Philanthropy helps, but rarely at scale.  Even Cooper Union had to start charging tuition.  If there’s another, better way, I’m all ears.

So good luck to Dean Ortiz.  It’s a longshot, but I’m glad to see someone stepping up.  I’ll be taking notes...    

Funding is how grownups solve problems. This sounds like we're gonna read a heck of a Buzzfeed article in a few years.

Sounds like "university" is a bit of a smoke screen. I have no special knowledge here, but on the surface it sounds like opening another Beltway Bandit, this one fairly far from the actual Beltway, and then turning to "graduate students" for cheap labor. Basically, what MIT has already done with Lincoln Labs.
I was going to say the same thing Erik said, although I would view it as a plan to poach on all of the NIH and other bio-med research going on at MIT and/or the underemployed students and research scientists that provide a ready-made staff. (The 21st century version of military electronics.) Here "fundraising" is probably a euphemism for grant writing to companies, foundations, and the government. Grants first, then the university.
I am not sure that I understand what Dean Ortiz is proposing. It seems more like a collection of research laboratories rather than any sort of actual university, as we currently understand the term. The main role of the faculty will be to supervise sponsored research projects, performed primarily by graduate students. There will not be any classrooms or any formal lectures—all the learning will take place strictly online via things like MOOCs.

Tenure will not exist, and most of the faculty in Dean Ortiz’s new university will probably be part time or contingent faculty who are paid by “soft-money”, derived primarily from research grants. If their grant disappears, their job disappears as well. Just like the faculty in research-intensive institutions, they will have to spend a large fraction of their time in fundraising.

I gather that most of the learning that takes place will be within the context of the research project that the graduate student is currently working on. If the student needs to learn something in order to complete their research, they will go online and dial up a MOOC that will tell them what they need to know. But part of the goal of graduate education is to introduce the students to things that they don’t necessarily need to know at that very moment, but which might later become important. Since there wouldn’t be any majors anymore, what would their diplomas look like? Each graduate from the program would simply be rated on the basis of the particular research project that they happened to be working on.

I fear that this could lead to an exploitative workplace, in which most of the research being performed is done by poorly-paid graduate students or by lower-ranking part-time or contingent faculty. However, this situation would not be all that different from the environment that is currently in place in most research-intensive academic institutions.

Well said, ArtMathProf, and your last sentence has spelled out exactly why this project could be successful. It might even be better than the alternatives.
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