Kevin Carey thinks Bill Gates ought to start his own university. Carey’s reasoning goes like this: first, we all agree that higher education is broken and needs to be fixed; second, in working with primary and secondary schools, Gates and his team discovered that they had “less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school”; colleges and universities are harder to change than primary and secondary schools; therefore starting from scratch is the best way to go.
By and large, I’m not convinced. For one thing, I don't think Carey has seriously considered what is involved — in infrastructure, in organization, in hiring, etc. — in creating a brand new college or university. For another thing, I’m inclined to think that schools that have recently lost 30% or more of their endowments are likely to be far more receptive than they once would have been to demands for change — if those demands come from someone who is willing and able to pay for major changes.
But more important, I don't think Carey has thought through what he wants this university to be. Even if we grant that the traditional models of higher education are broken, a new model won't be less broken just because it is new. Carey says that Gates can “prove that newer, better ways are possible,” and he thinks that that would be pretty easy — or at least “easier in higher education” than in secondary education. Okay, so whatcha got?
“What would Gates University look like? To start, it would look like something. It wouldn't be wholly virtual. A university needs a physical center, a beating heart, a place where students and teachers come together and learn.” Well . . . okay. But that’s not new, of course.
“Admission to Gates U., the place, would be selective — but without the bribery and latent classism that still stain our so-called best colleges.” Sounds good. What will be the criteria for admission? Will they be different than at existing schools?
“Who would work at Gates University? Anyone who could do a great job. Maybe professors will have Ph.D.'s, maybe they won't. If a really smart person drops out of college, founds a phenomenally successful business, and decides to turn toward education as a way of giving back, he or she would be welcome to apply for a job. You, [Bill Gates,] for example, would be qualified to teach at Gates U.” Let’s ignore the sucking-up here and ask: What would being “phenomenally successful” in business qualify you to teach? Would it depend on the business? Who would make these decisions? What criteria will you use to determine “who could do a great job”? Would Mark Cuban be a good candidate for a professorship at Gates U? Would he want a job there?
“There would be no tenure, obviously. I assume you never thought it was a good idea at Microsoft — why have it here?” Sounds good to me. But of course higher ed. seems to be headed in that direction already. . . .
"Nor would you sequester faculty members into departments organized around academic disciplines. The world can get by without one more English department or college of business. Gates's programs would cross traditional disciplines, organized around goals for what students need to learn.” Okay. So, what do students need to learn? That’s a pretty big question, isn't it? — maybe the biggest of them all? And who will be answering that question?
More specifically: if there is no English department, will there be English processors? Will anyone teach writing? Literature? Or anything else that’s currently taught in existing universities? If not, what would they teach? If there wouldn't be a “college of business,” but there would be business people on the faculty teaching (I would assume) courses involving business, then how precisely would that differ from current business courses in existing universities?
“How would you grant credits at Gates University? You wouldn't. At least not the way colleges normally do, based on time in contact with professors. No credit hours at Gates U., no degrees based on the number of years enrolled. Instead you'd describe in great, public detail all of the knowledge, skills, and attributes that students pursuing a given course of studies would need to acquire. You'd be very open about how you teach those things and how you assess what students have learned. Then you'd grant credentials when students met those academic standards — regardless of how long it takes.” Again: what would the standards be? What “knowledge, skills, and attributes” are students supposed to acquire while at Gates U? Presumably they would be different than those pursued at other institutions, but in what ways? If there are no departments or schools, how could there be “a given course of studies”?
I just can't find any substance at all in Carey’s article. Is this a real proposal, a real argument, or just an elaborately circumlocutious attempt to flatter Bill Gates?
In any case, we already have too many universities and too many people attending them. I’d like to see the Gates Foundation provide incentives for the consolidation and restructuring (financially and academically) of some under-performing colleges. Radical change is not likely to happen in institutions that are succeeding, more or less, in their current incarnation; but what if the Gates Foundation could throw its resources into creative experimentation with failing or floundering institutions? Then we might see some changes that work, changes that more prominent schools could then be induced to imitate.