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Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities


reviewed by Clifton F. Conrad - November 03, 2011

coverTitle: Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities
Author(s): Richard A. DeMillo
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262015803, Pages: 344, Year: 2011
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The last decade has seen unprecedented, often severe, critiques of the higher learning in the United States, with criticism ranging from the aimlessness of our colleges and universities to their failure to adapt to the rapidly changing, interconnected, and global world of the twenty-first century. Echoing much of the contemporary rhetoric, Richard DeMillo argues that it has become the “fate” of American colleges and universities to become increasingly engulfed by “disruptive” social, historical, and economic forces. According to DeMillo, rather than define their own path, our colleges and universities continue to remain prisoners of faculty-centeredness and a homogenous culture of university leadership—which he intermittently discusses throughout the volume beginning with the twelfth-century French monk Peter Abelard.


Richard DeMillo has spent a lifetime interacting with major university presidents and corporate leaders (such as Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard) in working to develop innovations to facilitate student learning in computer science and engineering. In broad strokes, DeMillo argues that our “universities in the middle”—as compared with major research universities (“elites”) on the one hand and “proprietary universities” (for-profit institutions) on the other—remain mostly inward-looking and inclined to romanticize rather than excoriate their weaknesses. Rather than continue on that corridor he invites these and other institutions to consciously choose their destiny by defining “a compelling value proposition and then imagine an institution that is capable of delivering that value” (p. 272). To that end, he proposes some rules to guide such a search: forget about who is above you; focus on what differentiates you; establish your own brand; don’t romanticize your weaknesses; be open; balance faculty-centrism with student-centrism; use technology; cut costs in half; and define your own measures of success (pp. 272- 278). While purportedly eschewing the notion of a single pathway, DeMillo remains tethered to a seemingly uncompromising appreciation for “market values” (and the implicit assumption that students are, above all else, “consumers.”) In his words: “[M]arkets are very good at determining both value and pricing” (p. 49).


Consonant with its veneration of market values, this volume is loosely held together by two genres of “success stories” of innovation in information technology—stories of how institutions can survive and prosper. First, and most prominently, the author provides portraits of technocratic innovation by drawing from his own life history—as a professor of computer science and an academic dean at Georgia Institute of Technology, an entrepreneur, and Hewlett-Packard’s chief technology officer—as well as the life histories of people with whom he has worked. In so doing, he celebrates the initiatives of people, such as the Stanford physicist Leonard Suskind, who variously open their classrooms to the world through such means as broadcast video of their lectures online, blogging, and other technologies such as Apple’s iTunes to educate students from around the world. Second, by drawing from his considerable bank of social capital, DeMillo relays stories of institutional change and innovation. He calls attention to MIT’s OpenCourseWare project that provides online course delivery for students across the globe; the University of Mary Washington’s use of large-scale social networks within which students maintain “digital identities” and create networks of friends, teachers, and collaborators that facilitate their lifelong learning; and, not least, the initiatives led by Michael Crow at Arizona State University—including ASU’s exploration into the possibility of artificial intelligence systems to assist human advisors and, no less, an e-advisor system in which students can map their pathway to a degree.


This reviewer has a decidedly mixed response to this book. On the one hand, the “success stories” proffered by the author—accompanied by a never-ending emphasis that our colleges and universities must embrace dramatic changes if they are to survive—invite readers to reflect on the narrative of institutions in which they are invested. And I have no doubt that many stakeholders in the higher learning, both within and outside of our colleges and universities, are likely to take away ideas for enriching our institutions. On the other hand, I remain skeptical of the author’s underlying proposition that the keystone of change for higher education ought to be the coupling of technology with a market model in which students are relegated to the role of “consumers.” Why? Independent of business models that are driven by short- and long-term profit-seeking, higher education in this country has long promoted human development—technical and otherwise—and prepared individuals to reflect on and challenge extant truths, and to develop new ideas aimed at sustaining human cultures. In turn, I am left wondering whether there are innovations that hold the potential to revitalize higher education while exceeding the rather narrow bounds of new information technologies and platitudes such as “branding” and “forget about who is above you.” Moreover, notwithstanding the numerous historical references scattered throughout the volume, the author does not appear to appreciate the non-pecuniary value of higher education to society nor its potential to shape society in the future—including how the humanities and the social sciences can contribute to preparing students for the turbulent world of the twenty-first century. Still, at the least, DeMillo’s book reminds those of us in higher education that the price of our academic freedom is “personal responsibility,” including seizing responsibility to re-imagine our colleges and universities.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 03, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16580, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 7:43:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Clifton Conrad
    University of Wisconsin - Madison
    E-mail Author
    CLIFTON F. CONRAD is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-edited The Sage Handbook for Research in Education (2011) and is co-author of the forthcoming Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners: A College Education for the Twenty-First Century. With Professor Marybeth Gasman he is currently engaged in a three-year national study of Minority-Serving Institutions of Higher Education.
 
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