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The Struggle to Reform our Colleges

reviewed by Christine Stanley - July 09, 2018

coverTitle: The Struggle to Reform our Colleges
Author(s): Derek Bok
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691177473, Pages: 240, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

The Struggle to Reform our Colleges is a thoughtful critique of the efforts to reform our nation’s colleges and universities and improve educational attainment. In a speech to Congress in 2009, President Barack Obama called on America to regain its historic lead in educating its workforce by raising the share of 25- to 34-year-old Americans possessing a quality college degree by 40% in 11 years. The author, Derek Bok, a higher education thought leader, is a professor of law and president emeritus of Harvard University. Reflecting on this call as well as the public good, he draws on his experience as a university leader and shares his knowledge and vision for future reform.


The publication of the book in 2017 is timely considering the challenges currently facing colleges and universities and the prevailing perception that the United States is falling behind its counterparts in postsecondary degree attainment. Issues such as access, affordability, graduation rates, privatization, curricula relevance, free speech, campus civility, and the changing role of the university are high on the agenda for higher education stakeholders and leaders.


Derek Bok raises four salient and thought-provoking questions in The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges: (a) “What can we make of the president’s challenge and higher education’s response?”; (b) “How reliable were the president’s assertions that the current level of educational attainment is unsatisfactory, and how concerned should we be by such findings?”; (c) “Is attainment the only major problem, or are changes needed to ensure that college graduates will receive ‘quality degrees’?”; and (d) “What have colleges and universities accomplished in the last few years to achieve these goals, and how can they be helped to do better?” (p. 3). These are the questions that frame the discussion throughout the book’s 13 chapters.


The Struggle to Reform our Colleges is a compelling read. Bok’s style is conversational, similar to that of an invited lecture, and the chapters are supported with multiple sources of data as well as Bok’s own leadership experience. The book is divided into three parts; Part One describes “The Challenge,” Part Two, “Sources of Influence,” and Part Three, “The Way Forward.”

In Part One, “The Challenge,” Chapters One and Two focus on graduation rates, educational attainment, and the quality of education. Bok discusses and raises concerns around what he calls the “non-pecuniary benefits resulting from increasing the number of college graduates,” such as higher voting rates, better health, and less substance abuse, which “will exist whether or not the estimates of future labor market trends turn out to be accurate” (p. 18). While access and affordability remain a concern for many stakeholders, Bok makes the argument that many low-income students with very successful academic records never apply to selective colleges because “they do not know of their existence, do not believe they could afford to attend, or do not realize that their chances of graduating will normally be much higher than they would be at an open admission school” (p. 20).  Bok also raises issues relating to curriculum; in particular, large vs. small classes, intellectual competence, how American college graduates compare with their counterparts abroad, and the quality of student effort. Part One concludes with what colleges and universities are doing to improve the quality of undergraduate education, discussing the increasing popularity of more active teaching and learning methodologies and the development of new types of assessment measures. He is also quick to point out that while faculty have been slow to adopt new techniques, a “hopeful sign is that more than 80% of American colleges, at the behest of accrediting organizations, have now defined their learning outcomes and hence are equipped to start thinking about how well their curriculum and its course requirements relate to these goals” (p. 37).


In Part Two, “Sources of Influence,” Chapters Three through Ten focus on the challenges associated with the influence of students, employers, old and new competition, the major foundations, the government, and accreditation. One enduring source of conflict among many faculty, staff, and administrators is “letting colleges deal with educational problems on their own without external interference” (p. 43). In fact, boards of trustees and regents, alumni, parents, and legislators have often been criticized for meddling in campus affairs. As Bok points out, these external influences may be helpful in theory, but this requires nuanced understanding. For example, he points to the need for money, because enhancing the quality of education and raising educational attainment are costly endeavors. Furthermore, he argues that boards of trustees and regents are more likely to focus their energy on short-term rather than long-term challenges facing their institutions.


Bok argues that “while consumers may the best judges of what they wish to eat in a restaurant or buy from a clothing store, students do not always know what is best for themselves” (p. 59). Thus, the influence of students on graduation rates and the quality of teaching, for example, “is more complicated.” He discusses a complex interplay of issues such as grade inflation, “consumer mentality,” work-study, student activism for social causes, and the college experience. While the issue of student activism for social causes was raised, I had hoped for a deeper analysis and discussion, especially in the wake of the resurgence of white supremacist activities on college campuses, the tensions between free speech and civility, and the need for more race-conscious academic leaders.


While few would debate the opinion that colleges and universities should prepare students for a career, “campus officials and corporate leaders have widely different views about how well colleges are succeeding in giving employers what they seek” (p. 68). Bok assesses evidence from academic leaders, students, recent graduates, and as well as employers, determining interestingly that “despite the concerns about excessive vocationalism frequently heard in academic circles, employers do not appear to have too much influence over undergraduate education” (p. 77).


External forces such as old and new competition, the government, and accreditation present both promises and perils for higher education. For-profit institutions and online education, for example, are using innovative methods to attract all types of students, including working adults. However, Bok notes that while technology has improved access, “it has not yet fundamentally altered the graduation rates of colleges, nor has it transformed the methods and effectiveness of instruction” (p. 93). He also adds that we need to attend to the “unintended consequences of technology-based innovations” and, “consider the use of big-data analytics to examine massive amounts of data about student behavior and patterns of learning” (p. 95).


Philanthropy and large foundations play a significant role in higher education, and Bok argues that they are “gambling on methods carrying a high risk of failure,” but he remains hopeful, as do I, that these entities will be open to “considering proposals that researchers themselves [consider] important, in addition to projects that match their own priorities” (pp. 106–107). In his discussion of the growing role of the federal and state government, the bottom line for Bok is, “all things considered, one can scarcely muster much optimism over the near-prospects for success at the either the national or the state level” (p. 122).


In Part Three, “The Way Forward,” Chapters Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen focus on increasing educational attainment, improving the quality of education, and encouraging reform. In these chapters, Bok takes aim at the reasons for colleges and universities’ slow pace of change, poses new and alternative possibilities, discusses some immediate improvements, shares his vision for more substantial reforms, and addresses what makes today’s situation different from that of years ago. This part of the book leaves you wanting to hear more of Bok’s perspective on educational leadership. He states:

If past trends continue, the government is bound to intervene and more intrusively, if not in this administration, at some point thereafter. Judging from past experience with educational reforms, the ensuing interventions are likely to have frustrating results. Money will be wasted, unanticipated side effects will materialize, red tape will proliferate, and bureaucracies will grow. (p. 201)

Overall, this book is a valuable resource, discussing a good balance of challenges and accomplishments and examining a multitude of issues surrounding reform in our colleges and universities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 09, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22420, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:30:15 PM

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About the Author
  • Christine Stanley
    Texas A&M University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE A. STANLEY is professor of higher education and vice president and associate provost for diversity emerita at Texas A&M University. She is a past president of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education. She holds a BS degree in Biology from Prairie View A&M University, and MS and PhD degrees from Texas A&M University. Dr. Stanley’s research focuses on faculty professional development and the experiences of faculty of color in predominantly white universities. She has over 50 peer-reviewed publications and has edited three books, including Engaging Large Classes and Faculty of Color: Teaching in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities. Most recently, she authored Researcher as Instrument and Advocate for Inclusive Excellence in Higher Education, published in 2018 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
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