On November 2-3, Mason will host a mix of outside and internal presenters on key topics concerning the future of higher education. The audience will be largely Mason faculty, staff, students and friends, but we’ll have some visitors here as well. The purpose is at once to further conversations about vital higher education issues in general, and to stimulate discussions about applicabilities to Mason. A final session Saturday afternoon involves a panel, headed by President Cabrera, precisely on the subject of lessons for our own future, but we hope and expect that relevant conversations will occur throughout.
Full information about the Forum and its schedule are available on the website http://fhe.gmu.edu/. We have a reasonably full house already but a few slots remain open as of this writing.
The conference is the brainchild of Ángel Cabrera, who urged me to get this going when we met in Arizona in early April. He was particularly interested in making sure we had good representation from for-profits and also the Western Governors’ University, to see about lessons from that quarter, and more generally to deal with new opportunities presented by technology. We’ve added some explicit discussion as well on what we’re gaining from research on student learning and how this fits into the complex contemporary mix. I should note that we’ve had tremendous contributions from a steering committee drawn from my staff, faculty and the Information Technology unit.
I’m looking forward to the sessions, though I anticipate a fairly intense experience. It’s obvious that not all of the components of the conference are easily compatible—the tension between lessons of learning research (including those that can be technologically facilitated) and the imperative to cut costs is the obvious gorilla in the room. We know that it’s possible to mount cheaper higher education programs if faculty duties and rewards are, often dramatically, redefined. There’s no responsible way to avoid discussing this kind of model, though we need attention to outcomes. But we also need more sophisticated understandings of ways we can improve productivity, without necessarily cutting annual costs, by more effective teaching, that will among other things improve retention and limit re-takes of classes. There may be some unexpected middle grounds—I think it’s past time to talk more about additional self-paced components in conventional higher ed—and we should get some good examples from several panelists.
We’ll have self-styled disrupters of higher education well represented, and more moderate reformists as well. Key questions, ultimately, will surely include the inevitable confrontation of disparate possibilities and demands and the related issue of applying a relevant mixture to a still-fairly-successful institution like Mason. (Some will legitimately note that we’ve already simplified the formula by leaving out explicit discussion of research expansion, where places like Mason are also under additional pressure—but we can and should add this in amid our own discussions.)
The Forum will not produce magic solutions. It will increase our range of inquiry and impel some challenges to comfortable conventions. Ultimately, there’s no way to duck either of these goals.