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The More Things Stay the Same

“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”

If you have a mind to, you can read an article every week about new pressures confronting higher education – college graduates unable to find employment; tuition outstrips inflation; MOOCs render brick and mortar institutions obsolete; states withdraw support from public colleges and universities.  Recently Moody’s Investor Services released a report addressing the expectation of declining net tuition revenue at colleges and universities – even at institutions with a seemingly stable financial profile. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece last Spring asking whether college is worth the cost.

A couple of years ago Archibald and Feldman wrote a book Why Does College Cost So Much?  The book argues that colleges and universities are fundamentally different than manufacturing jobs, or office jobs, places in the economy where automation and technology have helped increase productivity significantly and have helped slow the growth of costs. They argue that colleges and universities face special challenges because they rely on a highly educated workforce that is engaged in activities that require intensive personnel attention – it takes a lot of smart people to do the institution’s work, and computers can’t replace all those people. Archibald and Feldman go on to argue that efficiencies can and should be found to help contain costs. But, they say, higher education, done well, is expensive, and the retreat of state support for public higher education is a fundamental driver of rising expense of college for families.

With the changes in state funding for public colleges and universities, the employment troubles of the last five years, issues surrounding income disparity, and the general pressure on the US as it confronts the limits of its financial capabilities, it is not a surprise to forecast that the challenges for the academy over the next many years will be economic.  For us at UB, with fewer students of traditional college age in New York, how can this university maintain its enrollment numbers while retaining the high quality of its students? As a question at the state level, if UB opens its doors to more New York high school graduates, what happens to the four-year SUNY colleges and the smaller privates?

Talking in round numbers, the tuition increases provided for under the NY-SUNY 2020 plan returns to the university the buying power it had immediately prior to the 2008 economic collapse. Even after five years of tuition increases called for in the NY-SUNY2020 legislation, UB will remain one of the best bargains in the college market. Nonetheless we must ensure that SUNY colleges and universities remain open and available to all New York students.

Inside the academy we also know about the major changes we see all around: colleges consider retrenching programs; the humanities are in crisis; students shun the arts for business and engineering; costs of research and instruction in science and engineering strain an institution’s ability to hire in STEM fields.

And, at a fundamental level, there remains the age-old question of how one judges quality.

In the meantime, under pressure from federal and state lawmakers, agencies try to reduce a college education to two or three numbers that are somehow supposed to represent “success”.

And lets not forget that colleges and universities are expected to be engines driving the local economies.

The realities of politics and the changes in public expectation on higher education, then, mean that we in the academy are in for several years of changes, pressure, adjustment, and more change.

With all these discussions as context, the fundamental question UB faces right now is how to afford all the things we want to do. How do we set priorities?

For us in the College, we return to the question we asked at the start of our CAS@20 planning process – Why UB? Why would the high school senior in Baldwinsville choose to attend UB? Why will the newly minted Ph.D. accept the UB job offer?

How are we to respond?

Let me make a personal observation here. Even after a decade-and-a-half of administrative work, I am still surprised at how universities – the birthplace of new ideas and different ways of thinking – are among the slowest organizations to accept change. This is true both at the institutional level and at the department and individual level. It seems that we are very good at encouraging change to others but not so much at accepting it ourselves.

But changes at UB are in the works. Realizing UB2020 calls on us to re-think much of what we do. Core learning. Themes. Communities of excellence. International experience. Research. Co-curricular learning. We don’t yet know what form all these changes will take. But change is coming.

As I look at all the planning work we have done over the last 18 months, I am encouraged by the willingness among many of our faculty and staff, to re-examine what we do in the College. We have re-examined how we wish our departments to develop. We have committed ourselves to improving the experiences of our students, and to changing the way we support research and scholarship. Many departments are actively engaged in new programs to recruit and retain the best students, both undergraduate and graduate. We have also committed to holding ourselves accountable, to see that the changes we have made are paying off, leading to improvements in the standards to which we hold ourselves.

What is coming at us over the next months and years will be bigger. We will change how we provide foundational understanding for our undergraduates. We will have different expectations for ourselves and for our colleagues. We will interact differently with students.

Certainly what we will face over the next months will be neither easy nor tidy. There are issues, both big and small, that need to be considered and prioritized. The details of implementation will be critical to the success of the effort.

For right now, without diminishing the importance of implementation, let us focus on the fundamental goals and objectives that we hope to obtain, and pursue those objectives, while ensuring the many good things we do in the College are enhanced.

We are looking at a fundamentally different way of delivering core education to our undergraduates. What do we want them to know? Without itemizing every course and topic that we happen to think students ought to sit through, what do we really want our students to know? I offer that we should not think about this question in terms of courses to take and books to read. Rather we might ask ourselves how we want our students to comport themselves when they interview for a job. In such a setting one learns how rounded a student is, how agile their thinking is, how clearly they communicate.

We are looking at a different way of supporting, conducting, and evaluating scholarship. Each of us on the faculty should ask ourselves whether we are pushing hard on the boundaries of creativity, generating the new ideas that will alter the way others think and act.

Of course all these changes will have a profound effect on how we conduct business, for ourselves and for our departments. It will be disruptive. We should not minimize that impact. But let us not become incapacitated out of the fear of change, reduced to ceaseless nattering negativism.

Without being trite, let us accept – yes, embrace – the changes.  Let us consider carefully what we want this university to stand for, what we want out College to stand for, and put our efforts toward those ends. Let us be deliberate in making changes, confident in our ability to make this institution the destination of choice – for the student from Baldwinsville and the new Ph.D. professor.