Bacow Discusses the Research University in a Digital Age

October 16, 2013

In a world dogged by financial setbacks, while at the same time enhanced by progressing technology, where do brick-and-mortar higher education institutions stand? What do they have to gain and what parts of their traditions will they lose? Harvard Graduate School of Education President in Residence Lawrence Bacow addressed these critical issues facing higher education in his lecture on Oct. 14 at CEU.

Bacow cited the rising cost of education as being one of the most critical issues facing U.S. institutes of higher education but, more importantly, to students and their families. In fact, in 2001, the average tuition at U.S. public research universities was 23 percent of median household income and by 2010, it was 38 percent, Bacow noted. The recession and cutbacks in state funding affect the number significantly. “Competition drives costs up in higher education, instead of rewarding the least cost provider,” said Bacow, noting that it's the opposite in the business world. “We know how to reduce the cost: increase class size, increase the student/faculty ratio. Competition forces costs up, not down, and this is not a uniquely American phenomenon.”

Another platform that competes with physical institutions is online learning and, Bacow noted, non-traditional, part-time students (who are more likely to choose online options) are the fastest growing segment of the higher-education community in the U.S. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Bacow served as the chancellor from 1998-2001, is a leader in the field, having paved the way with their OpenCourseWare. They also developed the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) edX, with Harvard, that essentially opened up many of the two institutions' courses to the online public. “MOOCs are driving the marginal cost of educating a student to zero and permitting global student access,” said Bacow. “What will this mean for traditional research universities?”


Harvard's Lawrence Bacow and CEU's Liviu Mateil participate in a discussion about the future of universities. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

For brick-and-mortar universities, there is increasing pressure to demonstrate the value added of residential education, especially in light of all other competitive factors. Although Bacow predicts that some institutions will figure out how to package education and offer it at a lower cost, “there is still tension between the need to adapt quickly and institutional resistance to change.” Most universities are operated on the collective wisdom of the faculty and, he noted, faculty aren't apt to making decisions lightly or quickly.

Still, Bacow thinks that “the death of higher education has been grossly over-predicted.” As a former faculty member himself, he knows firsthand the appeal and allure of great institutions of higher learning but he emphasizes that universities have to be willing to adapt. A proponent of educational access, Bacow believes that online instruction offers institutions of higher learning the opportunity to extend high-quality education to students worldwide as well as enhance their own curriculum with digitally imported content and faculty expertise. He pointed out that MOOCs and other online programs do not yet have a sustainable business model and that brick-and-mortar universities do, even if they need to be modified. An online presence has the potential to lower costs, he said, and even enhance classroom interaction. He envisions more “flipped classrooms” where students watch videos and study other online content before coming to class, then tackle homework in the classroom as a group.

“I think great faculty inspire their students,” Bacow said. “I think most of us who became teachers had a teacher who inspired us and we wanted to grow up to be like them. They mentor their students and continue to be an influence in their students' lives. But, as we continue to develop online courses, will we be able to replicate these kinds of communities online?”

CEU Senior Vice President and Professor of Public Policy Liviu Matei moderated the discussion. Bacow is currently a member of the Harvard Corporation and the president in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He served as the president of Tufts University for a decade and is now a senior advisor to ITHAKA S+R and co-author of its major study, “Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in US Higher Education.” Bacow is a member of the Lincoln Project, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which seeks to explore the future of public higher education in America, and also serves on President Obama's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.