University of Maine System Chancellor James Page and University of Southern Maine President Theodora Kalikow explored radical new outlooks regarding higher education during the “Future of Higher Education: Philosophical Perspectives” philosophy symposium last Tuesday in Portland. The event, five months in the making, offered a unique platform for both leaders to discuss with the public, students and faculty the future of public higher education in Maine.
Kalikow and Page both emphasized the influence the changing political climate has had in regards to the usefulness of higher education and the necessity for the university to serve the needs of the community in order to justify its mission. Their message was simple: times have changed and so must we.
Online competitors like Massive Open Online Courses, iTunesU and alternative colleges like Thomas Edison State College of New Jersey are decreasing the available student pool and changing student expectations about what the college learning experience can and should be. Online modules have opened up new ways of learning with multimedia interactivity, games and pre-recorded seminars that can be accessed at a student’s leisure.
Hundreds of thousands of students are flocking to free and low-cost online education opportunities focused on skill building that offer the possibility of receiving college-level instruction without having to leave one’s couch.
Both Page and Kalikow openly discussed the positive and revolutionary aspects of these developments. Their goal is to incorporate some of the practices of readily accessible course content into a model that does not sacrifice the open debate and spirit of exploration offered by the university’s distinguished professors.
While evolving with the times is paramount, Page insisted that Maine’s unique demographics cannot be ignored. Because 35 percent of the UMS is funded by taxpayer money in the form of state appropriations, Page believes the university has a huge responsibility to be affordable to Maine families. But the university’s pool of potential in-state students continues to dwindle. The median age of Maine’s citizens is the highest in the nation, and only 14,000 high school students graduate per year. That number is expected to continue to trend downward to just 12,000 before leveling off, Page noted.
Attracting these new high school graduates (and retaining them) while balancing the needs of the UMS’s estimated 40,000 plus students is a major concern. “We have to be relevant, make value for the state of Maine and promise students something better than they can get elsewhere,” said Kalikow.
The business jargon of university efficiency and the talk of delivering traditional humanities education like a product to student customers, however, did not sit well with many of the attendees. Senior English major Phil Shelley asked, “What is the responsibility of the academy to hold the line in defense of non-economic values?” President Kalikow’s response was a clear and definitive “None.”
Delivering this economically-driven, cutting-edge experience will not be easy. When pressed for specifics, Kalikow, who earned a doctorate in philosophy from Boston University, espoused a strategy she learned from experimental engineering: “Fail early, fail often,” she said. She suggested that students, faculty and university leaders work together to implement best practices. Page noted that everything is under review as he guides the evolution of the university.
“The future of higher education,” Kalikow said, “may include game-play designed to help students reach demonstrable proficiencies.” She remarked that it may also involve the removal of credit hours in favor of a proficiency model, where additional certifications could be awarded based on proven learning, a strategy currently used by Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, which emphasizes flexibility and alternative learning accreditation. Or there may be a combination of strategies and online modules with more teams, labs and seminars over shortened periods of on-campus time.
Regardless of the final outcome, the important thing is that “careful, free, open debate is preserved,” said Page.
Kalikow was quick to point out that the university experience should be part of a developmental process, not a simple ticket to a job. “That’s not a way to live. No one wants [to hire] a techno-automaton, but a grown-up human being with a moral compass.”
USM philosophy professor Jason Read moderated the Q-and-A session that followed the talk, giving students and faculty an opportunity to react and engage both leaders on their ideas.
USM English graduate Sarah Moon questioned to what extent did either Page or Kalikow feel that President Obama’s proposed $89 billion cuts to higher education over the next 10 years will affect these plans. Kalikow responded that she didn’t care what Obama said and that the university needed to move forward with these changes.