Today and tomorrow is a short conference at The New School on "The Future of Higher Education." Tonight was part one, when four talking heads and a moderator shared their thought on what universities ought to look like in 20 to 30 years.
One of the pontificators was the chancellor of the CUNY system. Now I should mention that I know practically nothing about the current CUNY situation, other than that it has been particularly hard hit by the budget woes that all of public higher education has been facing. I say that not because I'm proud of my ignorance, but towards the point that I don't have a dog in this fight.
A group of (presumably) CUNY students had come out for the occasion ready for battle. When the chancellor was introduced, there was rise in the amount of sneezing and coughing that was statistically unlikely to be coincidental. They also did three or four "fact check" chants that interrupted proceedings. This was a little frustrating for those of us that weren't there for a referendum on CUNY.
They also undermined their own demands for answers (the Q&A session involved almost no actual Q) by asking, twice, why the panel had no women on it. It was a perfectly legitimate question; the entire conference is overwhelmingly male, even granted the demographics of America's Top Administrators. But when the conference organizer rose to answer the question, the protesters interrupted with a fact check that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. I, for one, would have like to hear her answer.
The upshot was that I don't think the CUNY crowd gained any new supporters. But before you feel too sorry for the poor beleaguered administrators, a couple of things struck me.
One, I came away with no idea of what they thought higher ed would look like in 20 or 30 years. There was more lamentation of current problems than proposed solutions. The solutions I did hear were things like "innovation." Okaaaaay … or as the kids used to say, back when I was one, "No shit, Sherlock." None of the presenters tried to operationalize that; none suggested anything concrete. No one said, "Here is what it ought to be like," or "Unfortunately, I expect this is what it will be like."
Two, the CUNY chancellor's answers were remarkably tone-deaf. The man has a tough job, I am sure; being a system head of a troubled system means everyone wants answers but you don't build personal relations with any of your constituents. But his answers never entirely addressed the questions, and they were in vague administrator-speak. (The exception to this was his answer to a "fact check" about faculty health insurance, which was specific and clear.) I have no idea if the man has helped or hurt CUNY during his tenure, or if anyone else would have done better or worse. But from a PR perspective, a leader for troubled times needs to be able to code-switch out of bureaucratese and talk frankly and straight (or seem to).
I very much came away with the sense that, whatever the future of higher ed was going to look like, these guys were not going to be its architects.