Burning Platforms

Hyperbole is great fun but it tends to distort our sense of time and scale.  A phrase like “burning platform” is no exception. (Here’s a quick definition of the term; the story sounds apocryphal.)  Higher education, some might say, is (or is on)  a burning platform in the middle of the sea and we– or it– have to decide between the certain death of staying on the platform or risk the only probable death of jumping off the platform into the cold water. It’s a simplistic parable but it has a certain appeal. May you live in interesting times.

In fact, short of the fall of the Soviet Union, change, even life or death change, can be remarkably slow. The Arab Spring is entering its 5th season. Here’s how the ACTA  (American Council of Trustees and Alumni) seeks to slow educational change to a crawl. The AC TA congratulates governor McDonnell for staying out of the controversy over the firing  and then rehiring of Teresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia (“Kudos Governor McDonnell“). It doesn’t criticize the Board of Trustees, whose power grab created the problem.

Instead, the ACTA wags its little reactionary finger at those who now seek  “a radical restructuring of the selection process to minimize the role of the governor and to enhance the role of specific groups, such as faculty or alumni.”  Let’s not go overboard; governance is not the problem: “The challenges besetting higher education,” it says, “are considerable: costs, quality and accountability.” That business-minded administrator point of view is hardly a creative leap of faith into the future.

If  Don Tapscott’s (among others) optimistic notion  is correct, the real paradigm shift suggested by the Virginia debacle is a incremental move towards a more transparent system in which no Board of Trustees (or administrator) can make sweeping institutional changes behind closed doors. We’re watching in a new way and it matters. (Tapscott outlines his idea in a TED video, here.)  The ACTA can’t see the toothpaste that Tapscott says cannot be put back into the tube: the slow but steady shift away from rigid, centralized power.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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