Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Future of Colleges & Universities… And the Present

This article looks at the future of colleges and universities:

There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen says that half are bound for bankruptcy in the next few decades.

Christensen is known for coining the theory of disruptive innovation in his 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Since then, he has applied his theory of disruption to a wide range of industries, including education.

In his recent book, “The Innovative University,” Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring analyze the future of traditional universities, and conclude that online education will become a more cost-effective way for students to receive an education, effectively undermining the business models of traditional institutions and running them out of business.

I think a bigger problem – and it isn’t limited just to the US – is that a lot of schools are putting out a large number of students with unmarketable degrees and useless “skills.” For instance, Newsweek had an article entitled Men with muscles and money are more attractve to straight women and gay men – showing gender roles aren’t progressing. It links to this study published in Feminist Media Studies by a couple of, ahem, researchers at two British universities: Coventry and Aberystwyth. Here’s the abstract:

In this paper, we analyze the website TubeCrush, where people post and share unsolicited photographs of “guy candy” seen on the London Underground. We use TubeCrush as a case study to develop Berlant’s intimate publics as a lens for examining post-feminist sensibility and masculinity in the liminal space between home/work. The paper responds to notions of reverse sexism and post-sexism used to make sense of women’s apparent objectification of men in the digital space, by asking instead where the value of such images lies. We suggest that in TubeCrush, value is directed onto the bodies of particular men, creating a visual economy of post-feminist masculinity of whiteness, physical strength, and economic wealth. This celebration of masculine capital is achieved through humor and the knowing wink, but the outcome is a reaffirmation of urban hegemonic masculinity.

Given the direction of the paper, I’d guess that the field collectively has close to a one in five chance of stumbling onto the theory of evolution over the next few decades. The probability would be higher but for some strong biases that are likely to get in the way. Regardless, though, what with On the Origin of Species being published 158 years ago, even were they to succeed at the (cough) feat of recreating Darwin’s work, it would be neither neither impressive nor useful.

But the professors who do this sort of, er, work, teach. They also have graduate students. This is a fair number of people putting in serious time and money with an expectation that what they are doing will somehow translate into improved job opportunities. All of which brings us to Stein’s Law, which is to say, if something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

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Lifted from comments: Program sustainability is?

Lifted from comments comes a beginning thought on the term ‘sustainability’ for programs…Sustainability

Rusty asks:

Is there an accepted definition for “sustainability?”
I tend to think of it in an environmental context, but apparently it is used more broadly.
Your thoughts?

Bruce Webb’s quick reply:

STR, well in Social Security lingo ‘sustainable’ is mostly used in a hyper-specialized way. So to the extent that SS policy has injected the word into discourse it might not be fully representative. I’ll think about it.

Operationally ‘sustainable solvency’ for SS means not just being solvent (as defined) over the projection period (there 75 years) but having the metric of solvency (in this case Trust Fund ratio) trending up at the end of the period and so likely to be longer-term or permanent.

Rhetorically it is an argument against ‘patching up’ a problem or as the Fix the Debt people put it in their messaging “Kicking the Can (Down the Road)”. If the need is permanent so too should be the structure that provides it, come what may there will be some need to provide transit of goods and people from San Francisco to Oakland as long as those cities exist. Showing that both BART and the new Bay Bridge will proper maintenance will suffice for 35 years is not good enough, long range planners need to think about year 36 and year 50.

Now whether given all the uncertainties in the specific case of Social Security we should be worrying about years 76-100 (sustainable solvency) or all years to Heat Death of the Sun (unfunded liability over the Infinite Future Horizon), that is whether this is just reasonable prudence or pointless crisis-mongering to ‘sustain’ a ‘current’ ‘crisis’, is an open question. For example the current funding ‘crisis’ in the Post Office forcing shutdown in Saturday delivery is the result of a requirement to pre fund retiree health care for 75 years, or for the new hires of 2053.

Similarly Congressional restrictions on Social Security Administration have forced field office consolidation and early closing even though those expenses are billed back against a Trust Fund with $2.6 trillion in legally available assets (which presumably have to be paid back SOMEDAY, why starve SS today?)

I am not really aware of ‘sustainable’ being deployed in that many other policy areas, then again I have a certain amount of tunnel vision on this topic. So to the degree that SS has actually been the source of injection of this term into political discourse it’s precise usage may not be illuminating to your overall question.

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