Smaller classes, bigger science, and the increasing need to engage

In the middle of checking with colleagues at a variety of peer institutions about the evolving nature of teaching loads, yesterday’s New York Times distracted me with two fascinating articles about forces that are pushing educators and researchers to work with both smaller and larger groups of people.

Small groups and quality learning

On the downward push side, the article ‘At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard’ by Sara Rimer, explores how physicists at universities across North America are:

pioneering teaching methods drawn from research showing that most students learn fundamental concepts more successfully, and are better able to apply them, through interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning.

The article, which primarily focuses on MIT and the discipline of physics, notes that students still take basic introductory classes, but:

today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers.

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

The article reminded me of a day I spent in the Wharton School‘s lavish building at the University of Pennsylvania (see the pictures below, taken in 2005).  I was impressed with the dialogue-oriented classrooms, and the small semi-private meeting spaces for student teams in the hallways (to the left of the corridor) with more public computer desks on the opposite side; spaces clearly designed from the ground up.

wharton1 wharton2


At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard’ resonates with debates underway in numerous quarters about the learning process, classroom technologies, pedagogical practices, and so on. Yet one cannot help but wonder how the effects of the current economic crisis will restrain most public universities from moving in this logical direction, one that our institutions have long known about (witness the praise for colleges like Harvey Mudd), yet have resisted or been unable to act upon.  Indeed, as I noted to one of my colleagues in Minnesota yesterday, long term underfunding of public higher education systems generates structural forces that see faculty-student enrollment number balances tilt the exact opposite way – away from small group quality learning – as witnessed in Australia and Canada in the 1980s and 1990s (see some indicators here in ‘Analysing Australia’s global higher ed export industry’). MIT and Penn have the resources to do the right thing, but does the average university in most continents?

Big science, research, and the centralization impulse

The 13 January issue of the same New York Times included a guest column by Aaron E. Hirsh titled ‘A New Kind of Big Science’. This article, which is also getting a lot of attention, discusses what Hirsh deems a “very broad trend” in scientific research: the creation of huge international teams of researchers, and associated research infrastructures, that are enabled by the forces of centralization:

Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.


It’s not only scientific instruments, but also the scientists themselves who are transformed by centralization. If the 19th century was an age of far-flung investigators alone in the wilderness or the book-lined study, the 21st century is, so far, an age of scientists as administrators. Many of the best-known scientists of our day are men and women exceptionally talented in herding the resources — human and otherwise — required to plan, construct and use big sophisticated facilities.

In a way, centralization seems unavoidable. The governments that fund research have themselves become far more centralized, so perhaps science has been pulled along in the process. But even without that prevailing wind, science would, I think, head in the very same direction.

A young discipline is bound to move first through the data it can gather most easily. And as it does, it also defines more exactly what it must measure to test its theories. As the low-hanging fruit vanish, and the most precious of fruits are spotted high above, bigger investments in harvesting equipment become necessary. Centralization is a way to extend scientists’ reach.

I quote at length, here, for he raises some important issues worth pondering for those interested in the construction of new knowledge spaces. These include:

  • the degree to which collaboration and partnerships (many international) are becoming indispensable to the research endeavor.
  • the need to extend and guide heterogeneous networks to enable such research to be undertaken, and the double-edged role of centralization in enabling this extension/guiding process to function.
  • the rarely examined effects such collaboration, and such centralizing impulses, have upon the subjectivity of researchers (and of administrators, I might add).
  • the difficulties that exist in building an emotional attachment to what Hirsh calls Big Science, an issue ‘outreach’ and development planners in universities (including my university) are also concerned about.

Hirsh’s column, especially his idea of a national initiative in Citizen Science – to complement Big Science – in the US, has generated 100+ comments, some of which are insightful.

In closing, I can’t help but note that both pushes – smaller groups of people when teaching, and larger groups of people when researching – require greater, not less, social engagement, and of both virtual and face-to-face forms. Resource constraints aside, do we have the quality institutions, structures, technologies, programs, etc., in place, and knowledge about them, to enable and facilitate better quality social engagement in the local spaces of the classroom, and the broader spaces of Big Science?  Citizen Science might help resolve some problems associated with Big Science, yet we are arguably lacking up-to-date support systems to enable us to engage better, to be better partners, in the worlds of teaching and research.

In a future entry I’ll come back to the issue of inter-university consortia and associations (e.g., the US’ Committee on Institutional Cooperation) in providing one element of these needed support systems. Enough procrastination for today though…I have syllabi to finish writing!

Kris Olds

The media, universities, and Higher Ed Cabinets: Or, why doesn’t Harvard buy the New York Times?

A potentially symbiotic relationship between the ‘quality’ media in the USA, and institutions of higher education, has been discussed from time to time in a variety of fora. Fiscal stress in the print media, for example, has led some to suggest that the well endowed (e.g., Harvard, with nearly $40 billion in interest generating capital) should rescue outlets like the New York Times, or actually facilitate the creation of a quality newspaper in Chicago (the Chicago Tribune is shockingly bad for a city of eight million). Instead, we see a significant component of the New York Times being sold off to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú last week, or the Washington Post dependent upon the profits being generated by Kaplan.

Yet quality newspapers play a critically important role in the higher education process, let along the broader socio-economic development process. Many professors (including myself) use newspaper articles in courses, and we require term-length newspaper subscriptions to complement more traditional readings. Newspapers are also important outlets for the circulation of knowledge that is produced in universities, and they help observers of the world of higher ed (including global higher ed) keep up on what is happening.

In this context, it is worth noting that the New York Times teamed up with the Chronicle of Higher Education today to host the USA’s:

first Higher Education Cabinet, comprising presidents, trustees and leaders from 76 colleges, universities and higher-education associations. The goal of the cabinet is to identify trends and direct discussions about the most pressing issues facing higher education today.

The first meeting of the cabinet will be held today at The New York Times Building. The welcome address will be given by Janet L. Robinson, president and chief executive officer of The New York Times Company, followed by remarks from Jeffrey Selingo, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Topics to be discussed at the cabinet meeting included e-learning, internationalization [“Internationalization” – How will you compete globally?], financing models, assessment and accountability.

“The New York Times is committed to fostering discussion about the changing landscape of higher education,” said Felice Nudelman, executive director, education, The New York Times. “We are delighted to be hosting the inaugural Chronicle of Higher Education/New York Times Higher Education Cabinet meeting and look forward to continued opportunities to facilitate creative and collective discussions about the key topics in higher education.”

Today’s ‘Cabinet meeting’ is apparently the first of many (to be held on an annual basis), and will be supplemented by quarterly online meetings “conducted via the EpsilenTM environment, an e-learning and meeting platform”, which is:

the result of six years of research and development within the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI.  Epsilen Products and Services are commercially available through BehNeem LLC, the holding company created in Indiana to commercialize, market and further develop the Epsilen Environment. The New York Times is an equity and strategic partner in the company.

The bringing together of institutions of higher education and the quality general and higher ed media cannot help but generate positive benefits. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the leaders of the many well resourced universities participating in this scheme – people focused on generating maximum annual returns off of endowments, or selling their innovative learning technologies like Epsilen to the media (or to universities and colleges) – reflected much, if at all, about the structural problems facing media companies like the New York Times Company.

Autonomy of university foundation offices and administrators aside, imagine if just a few of these universities decided to pool parts of their endowments, and preserve if not enhance the quality media in the USA, a country desperately in need of better news and analysis. So, instead of Columbia’s Bollinger working for the Washington Post Company, imagine if the Washington Post worked for Bollinger, or the Chicago Tribune worked for Penn’s Guttman, or the New York Times worked for Harvard’s Gilpin Faust. Not ideal, perhaps, but better than watching these important media firms get ravaged by the forces of socio-economic and technological change. But, might this be expecting too much of inward looking universities in the era of the marketplace?

Kris Olds

Just saying “no” to overseas branch campuses and programs: Ivy League vs UK logics

Over the last two days we’ve received information regarding leaders of two universities – in this case the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University – making clear statements that they have no interest in opening degree-granting campuses or programs abroad. Both decisions were highlighted in The Daily Pennsylvanian (22 April 2008), while the Yale decision (regarding a possible presence in Abu Dhabi) was profiled by the UK Higher Education International Unit, a relatively new (circa 2007) institution with a website, and newsletter, worth keeping an eye on.

The Yale and Penn stances contrast, sharply, with the stance on overseas degree-granting ventures adopted by numerous UK universities that were profiled in today’s other GlobalHigherEd entry. The crux of the matter is related to (a) control over brand name reputation, and (b) quality assurance (QA) concerns, as determined by the respective Ivy League universities versus QA agencies. These quotes from The Daily Pennsylvanian say it all:

While the University has “considered” exporting education overseas, Penn President Amy Gutmann said the University is not ready to open a degree-offering program on a satellite campus.

Should Penn ever seriously consider a degree-granting outpost campus, it would only be because the school found such a program in line with its mission and consistent with its educational standards, Gutmann said.

She said the University’s ability to recruit faculty overseas was not up to par, but added that partnerships with universities on other continents have been successful.

And in the UK Higher Education International newsletter:

Quality assurance struck at the heart of Yale’s decision to withdraw: ultimately the University did not believe it could devote adequate numbers of faculty to the Abu Dhabi institute to guarantee academic standards. Yale President Richard Levin said ‘We don’t want to offer degrees unless we can essentially staff the courses with a faculty that is of the same quality and distinction as the one here in New Haven… and at this stage in the development of international programmes, that’s not easy to accomplish.’….

In an interview with the Yale Daily News in October 2007, Mrs Ellis warned, ‘You cannot have the ‘luxury Yale experience’ — the couture line — in New Haven and then the Canal Street fake version somewhere in the Middle East. You must never compromise on your brand or your honour in such ventures [or] chip away one iota of quality or core values that have made Yale, Yale or the Louvre, the Louvre.’

No doubt straining not to say, ‘I told you so’, Mrs Ellis was re-interviewed by the paper last week. ‘The rewards would have to outweigh the potential political and reputational risks to Yale,’ she said, before raising a fundamental question: ‘What’s in it for Yale? Abu Dhabi needs Yale, but it is not clear to me that Yale needs Abu Dhabi.… It seems to me such deals make most sense for institutions looking to raise cash and their international profile. Last time I checked, Yale needed neither.’

To be sure Yale, and Penn, both seek to create ‘global footprints’, but institutional and program mobility is clearly not a desirable option for them right now, if ever. It is also noteworthy that Yale and Penn have relatively deliberative institutional cultures, at least compared to many universities with overseas campuses, and thorough debate occurs before key decision-making points; a feature of institutional governance that frequently leads to the rejection of these types of proposals, as the University of Warwick found out in 2005 when deliberating about the implications of opening a large campus in Singapore. This said, it is noteworthy that a peer university – NYU – has gone very far down the institutional mobility path, highlighting the diversity of approaches adopted to institutional globalization.

In closing, GlobalHigherEd understands more news items will be emerging on the broad issue of QA and overseas degrees (in China) in the coming weeks, and we’ll be sure to keep you posted…

Kris Olds

The Global Colloquium of University Presidents: events for global challenges?

University presidents (or their equivalents – vice-chancellors, rectors), especially those associated with universities that seek to be at the forefront of the internationalization/globalization agenda, are searching for suitable mechanisms to make their voices heard, create momentum for change, and generate discursive effects at a wide variety of scales. In other words university presidents seek material change (e.g., enhanced understanding of issue X; new initiatives to address problem Y) but they also seek to use such mechanisms to create positive publicity for their university (under their stewardship) as leaders at a global scale. Leadership at the local, state/provincial, and national scales is no longer enough for ambitious university presidents. Thus a rescaling process is taking place with an enhanced emphasis on the global, with universities as seeking to act as global actors and university presidents seeking to act as global leaders. In some ways this is nothing new, as the experience of colonial university vice-chancellors and rectors demonstrated. Such people acted as the interlocutors between the colonizer and the colonized; the soft administrative infrastructure and centres of calculation that enabled colonial networks to be extended over space. This said times have changed, and it is interesting to see what forms of action are emerging in the contemporary era, where these forms of action are initiated, where they take place, and what the underlying objectives are.

International university consortia and associations are one key mechanism, be they inclusive or exclusive. One example of the inclusive is the very active Paris-based International Association of Universities/Association Internationale des Universités, which has 570 members. The IAU/AIU runs or sponsors numerous events that bring together senior university officials, including presidents, to discuss and debate issues of global relevance. As Lily Kong also noted on 7 October, international consortia such as the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), or the International Association of Research Universities (IARU) also create events (many of which are of an annual nature) that bring together senior officials, usually university presidents, to discuss issues. They sometimes focus on substantive issues, such as at the recent Realising the Global University conference, though many of such events tend to be focused on consortia governance matters.

Regular and ad-hoc groupings of university presidents are also brought together by national councils and associations but their ambit is national in scope is therefore limited by statute, in general.


In this context, the third annual Global Colloquium of University Presidents took place at New York University (NYU) a few weeks ago. The first two of these events were held at Columbia University (2005), and Princeton University (2006). A core group of university presidents (Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania; John Sexton, NYU; Lee Bollinger, Columbia University; Richard Levin, Yale University; Neil Rudenstine, president emeritus of Harvard University; and Shirley Tilghman, Princeton University) are the formal sponsors of the Global Colloquium of University Presidents.

Each colloquium explores two issues: “universities and their role in society, and a specific public policy challenge”, though the themes of discussion vary from year to year, with the assumption that the university president in attendance will draw upon expert resources (and one representative) out of his/her institution. The themes associated with the first three Global Colloquium of University Presidents have been:

  • 2005: “International migration, a key element of globalization” and “academic freedom, a crucial foundation of university research and teaching”
  • 2006: “The social benefits of the research university in the 21st century” and “innovative sources of funding for public goods”
  • 2007: “The role of universities in relation to climate change” and “setting the post-Kyoto agenda for climate policy”

A significant part of the rationale is to provide an annual forum where the Secretary General of the United Nations, and some of his staff, can benefit from the dialogue and discussion that takes place. As Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the UN, put it in 2005:

One of the first speeches I gave on taking office as Secretary-General was to a distinguished group of university presidents from around the world. From the outset, I was convinced that universities would be tremendously important partners of the United Nations. And so it has been. As educators, as repositories and creators of knowledge, as people deeply involved in helping the world address the issues of our times, your role has been vital. This colloquium is yet another example of the productive ties we have developed over the years, and I hope it will become a tradition.

The third Global Colloquium of University Presidents appears to have drawn in a larger and more diverse set of university presidents, as the attendee list demonstrates (Bangkok University, Columbia University, El Colegio de México, Fudan University, Harvard Universit, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Indian Institute of Technology, Karagpur, Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris-Sciences Po, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Kyoto University, Makerere University, New York University, Pontifical Catholic, University of Rio de Janiero, Princeton University, Seoul National University, Tsinghua University, University of Amsterdam, University of Botswana, University of British Columbia,, University of Dhaka, University of Oxford, University of Pennsylvania, University of São Paulo, University of Tokyo, Yale University). It also drew in the new Secretary General (Ban Ki-moon), with Bill Clinton as a guest speaker this particular year (hard to imagine GWB as a guest speaker in future years…). NYU is, as we have noted, pushing the boundaries with respect to the globalization process so this event would clearly have been viewed as a complement to action on other levels for this institution.

gcupreception.jpgAre these events more than networking opportunities? It is difficult to say at this stage. Is, for example, the cumulative knowledge base of all of these universities regarding climate change evident in the position papers available here and here (with late stragglers consigned to the late download site here)? Or are the position papers mere leaders to bridge scholars in a president’s university to relevant UN units?

I can’t answer these questions, nor will I pose more that could be asked. But what I can say is that we at GlobalHigherEd have noticed a restlessness as universities (and select university leaders) seek to identify what networks and scales to focus their activities and contributions on, and how to frame their identities (and their brand names). All universities are embedded, placed, grounded; they have territorially specific responsibilities to the societies that they depend upon and (hopefully) nurture. But how to blend these responsibilities with supra-national responsibilities and objectives is becoming a conceptual and strategic challenge. Are temporary or regular fora such as the Global Public University, the Globally Engaged Institution, and the Global Colloquium of University Presidents the answer? Or are member-only international consortia of universities the answer given their capacity to offer sustained dialogue? Or is active and sustained leadership via a body like the International Association of Universities/Association Internationale des Universités the answer? There are numerous other options, many of which have not been discussed or indeed even invented yet. The point is that we are only at the early stages of thinking through what role universities, and university presidents, should be doing with their limited time and resources so as to address pressing process-oriented challenges that cut across the divisions that so artificially constrain truly global analyses and the formulation of associated solutions. If universities are to become genuine global actors, then more sustained thinking, and acting, on an intra-organizational level, is required. But we also need a broader global view, with an eye to creating a more effective and inclusive global landscape of options that is appropriate for universities and their leaders.

Kris Olds

Update: The next Global Colloquium of University Presidents is being held at Yale University in January 2010. Link here for the press release.