The University Record, February 22, 1999

Klor de Alva calls for new way to document learning

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communication

Technological advances, workplace changes and shifting student needs are challenging some basic premises of American higher education, according to J. Jorge Klor de Alva, president of the University of Phoenix (UP), one of the nation’s fastest growing for-profit institutions. He was one of three current or former university presidents who participated Feb. 16 in the opening event of a public lecture series, “The Future of the Research University.”

Klor de Alva questioned the importance of full-time tenured faculty members, traditional assumptions regarding accreditation, and even the need for library buildings now that reference materials are only a few keystrokes away.

The other panelists, President Lee C. Bollinger and Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and former president of the University of Minnesota, emphasized the positive contributions Michigan and other research institutions make to the world and to students. The Rackham Amphitheather presentation was part of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies 1999 Winter Lecture Series.

The growth of a technology-based economy and industrial down-sizing are fueling the development of new higher education programs aimed at adults who must update their job skills to remain employed, Klor de Alva noted. Also, the need to provide employees the most current information in their field is driving increasing numbers of corporations to establish their own universities, he added.

In 1995–96, Klor de Alva said, 79 percent of all undergraduates were working, and 39 percent viewed themselves as employees taking classes rather than as students. Only 15 percent of U.S. post-secondary students are enrolled in more traditional residential-based colleges or universities.

Working adults who are taking classes want a convenient, efficient and cost-effective education. They demand a student-centered, outcome-oriented experience; they don’t want to pay for football teams, stadiums or student unions, Klor de Alva explained.

As a result, colleges and research universities no longer hold a monopoly on granting credits and awarding degrees. “Credits and degrees attest to time spent rather than achievement,” said Klor de Alva, who voiced a need for new ways to document learning.

Independent of transmitting knowledge, Bollinger said, Michigan and other research universities play an important role in a functioning democracy. Being a student in a university community is more than gaining information or knowledge. It is about developing the capacity to see the world through other peoples’ eyes and learning to suspend belief, which is possible when a person is part of a culture in which suspension of belief is the norm. “We haven’t communicated the importance of this to people,” Bollinger said.

Hasselmo talked about the history of the partnership between the federal government and research universities and said many signs, including bipartisan support for increases in the federal research budget, indicate that the partnership remains strong.

Research universities, he said, must deal with a number of issues, including the equitable distribution of federal dollars for research, changing federal regulations and tenure. Communities have learned that a major research university can be a tremendous boost, and regions are clamoring for “this magic bullet.” One solution is to have large universities, which receive the bulk of federal research dollars through the peer review process, partner with universities attempting to expand their research capacity.

Hasselmo reported that the AAU is working to protect research data and repeal a new federal regulation that requires researchers to release any data gathered with federal grant money when requested through the Freedom of Information Act.

Hasselmo said research universities have to do a better job explaining tenure, demonstrate that change is possible within the tenure system, clarify how tenure relates to compensation and institute effective post-tenure review as a safety valve.

Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs and a member of the audience, asked about the future of virtual universities.

To be successful, virtual universities must resolve critical issues including course quality, financial and structural problems. For example, Klor de Alva asked, when states or universities form a consortium to offer distance learning, to whom do students pay tuition?

Distance learning, Bollinger said, can enhance the traditional college experience. He noted that when Harvard University made a medieval manuscript available via computer, the number of people who saw the manuscript increased dramatically, and more people visited the library to view the original manuscript.

Klor de Alva debunked the myth that distance learning lowers the cost of higher education. He said University of Phoenix seminars enroll 13 to 14 students while enrollment in its distance learning classes is limited to nine students, making the online courses 30 percent more expensive to offer. About 5,000 of UP’s 65,000 students are taking online classes, he said.

School of Art and Design Dean Allen Samuels asked if panelists agreed that research universities need to change and grow as the competition for students increases and as new teaching models emerge. He contrasted UP’s “fast and efficient” model of delivering information with the slower, more nurturing teaching associated with research universities.

People learn in many different ways—through video, the Internet, conversation, large lectures, small seminars and the tutorial, Bollinger concluded. The tutorial, in which the student explains to a knowledgeable faculty member what he or she has studied or read, is an ideal way of learning within the research university, he said.

David Scobey, director of the Arts of Citizenship Program, will present the next program in the series. His lecture, “Putting the Academy in Its Place: Building Bridges Between the University and the Community,” will be at 3 p.m. Feb. 23 in the Rackham West Conference Room. For more information about the series, visit the Web at www.rackham.umich.edu/Events/lectureseries.html.