A Reason for Optimism?

By Judith Shapiro

Higher Education in America. Derek Bok. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. 

Samuel Johnson is famous for having said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Derek Bok, who is well aware that this is most definitely a historical moment for concentrating the mind about higher education in America, is at the same time a temperate voice, offering a balanced and comprehensive response to those predicting (either in anguish or in celebration) the proximate demise of colleges and universities as we know them. 

Bok draws both on his own extensive experience, including his years as president of Harvard University, and the ever-growing body of research on higher education. His diagnoses and recommendations thus combine the benefits of fine-grained ethnography and large-scale survey research. (Interestingly, Bok observes that he became immersed in higher education research only after he had retired as president of Harvard—a state of affairs that is probably common among college and university presidents and bears thinking about.)

He begins by noting the diversity within the American system of higher education. In an opening chapter, he sets out the differences among research universities, comprehensive universities, four-year colleges, community colleges, and for-profit institutions. While Bok may be at his most perceptive and persuasive when speaking of the kinds of institutions where he has spent his academic life, he directs compelling attention to problems facing higher education institutions across the board and to possible solutions. And his admiration for the diversity of American higher education is well tempered by recognition of the growing stratification among institutions in terms of resources, status, populations served, and outcomes. 

Bok covers a range of issues that have been getting a lot of attention but have not yet been addressed with sufficient dedication and imagination. He notes, for example, how competition has led to “mission creep,” as some institutions depart from their historic purposes and attempt to emulate those at the top of the prestige hierarchy—a process that has also played a major role in driving up costs. At the same time, he notes that many institutions of relatively modest means have been centers not of imitation but of innovation—notably in matters of curriculum, pedagogy, and resource sharing—in ways their more privileged peers might be well advised to emulate. 

Bok also devotes considerable attention to how changes in information technology are affecting and will continue to affect higher education. He addresses how institutions can provide courses and programs important to the education of students in a cost-saving, collaborative way, while keeping an eye as well on pedagogical effectiveness. 

The inclusion of chapters on professional education in medicine, law, and business is an especially welcome part of the book. So, for example, Bok explores why teaching hospitals have been pressed to move away from the kind of clinical training they used to do so well, why the first year of law school is so successful and the following years considerably less so, and why business schools have failed to integrate either practical management skills or an effective treatment of ethics into their curricula. Bok points to encouraging recent developments within these fields while noting that they have much to learn from one another, as do professional schools and graduate departments in the arts and sciences. 

As for graduate education in the arts and sciences themselves, Bok emphasizes the need to move beyond the traditional virtually exclusive focus on research to prepare graduate students for their future roles as teachers and citizens of an institution. His regard for serious research is accompanied by a frankness about what most  academics themselves realize: “Forcing faculty members in more and more institutions to churn out more and more research only threatens to create greater stress and added busywork without contributing anything of real value to the corpus of scholarship.”  This leads, moreover, to faculty members being inclined to teach exclusively in their own areas of scholarly specialization, which, as Bok notes, does not necessarily correspond to what is in the best interest of our students. Aside from the fact that many graduate students will have careers outside the academy, Bok notes that current graduate education does not even well serve those whose careers will be within it. Since the subheading he chooses for his final observations on this matter is “The Sluggish Pace of Reform,” Bok clearly argues for the need to get a better move on. 

Bok views faculty members as the key players in any significant change in higher education and invites them to assume a central role in reform efforts. The alternative is outside pressure from those who do not understand what higher education is truly about—pressure that is sure to have undesirable outcomes. Bok is hardly unaware of the fact that faculty members will often fail to rise to the occasions he offers; he has no doubt seen his share of tenured faculty members who are complacent and entitled, some of them possibly narrow-minded, a few even mean-spirited. But, aside from his being possessed of a benevolence that strikes this reader as virtually Confucian, he also seems to believe that unless you expect the best from others, there is little chance that you will get it. 

Being at heart an optimist, Bok expresses his faith that faculty members will ultimately (though, one hopes, not too ultimately) remain mindful of their essential vocation: “What is less understood is that academic values can also be a powerful force for constructive change, since faculties will usually experience discomfort and agree to reforms once they are persuaded that existing practices conflict with the principles and responsibilities that help define their professional identity and shape the aspirations that give meaning to their lives.” 

And, should that prove true, Bok dares to hope “that the next twenty years will take their place along with the several decades before and after 1900 and the quarter of a century following World War II as another of the great creative periods in the history of American higher education.” From his mouth to our ears.

Judith Shapiro, currently the president of the Teagle Foundation, is president and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College. Her e-mail address is jshapiro @teagle.org.