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Checklist for Change

Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise

Robert Zemsky

Publication Year: 2013

Almost every day American higher education is making news with a list of problems that includes the incoherent nature of the curriculum, the resistance of the faculty to change, and the influential role of the federal government both through major investments in student aid and intrusive policies. Checklist for Change not only diagnoses these problems, but also provides constructive recommendations for practical change.

Robert Zemsky details the complications that have impeded every credible reform intended to change American higher education. He demythologizes such initiatives as the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, and the Higher Education Act of 1972, shedding new light on their origins and the ways they have shaped higher education in unanticipated and not commonly understood ways. Next, he addresses overly simplistic arguments about the causes of the problems we face and builds a convincing argument that well-intentioned actions have combined to create the current mess for which everyone is to blame.

Using provocative case studies, Zemsky describes the reforms being implemented at a few institutions with the hope that these might serve as harbingers of the kinds of change needed: the University of Minnesota at Rochester’s compact curriculum in the health sciences only, Whittier College’s emphasis on learning outcomes, and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s coherent overall curriculum.

In conclusion, Zemsky describes the principal changes that must occur not singly but in combination. These include a fundamental recasting of federal financial aid; new mechanisms for better channeling the competition among colleges and universities; recasting the undergraduate curriculum; and a stronger, more collective faculty voice in governance that defines not why, but how the enterprise must change.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page

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p. 3-3


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p. 4-4


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pp. 5-8

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pp. ix-x

I am almost embarrassed at just how extensive a list of acknowledgments I owe for a volume that was expected to be a personal summing-up— almost, but not quite. For me at least, one reward of writing is learning how to ask for and accept help. ...

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Chapter 1: Trapped in an Exxlesiastes Moment

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pp. 1-18

In the late 1980s I briefly shared the stage with Robert Reich—not yet a member of a president’s cabinet but already a major commentator on securing America’s economic future. In those days the big accounting firms regularly brought cadres of university officers to Florida or some other sunny location to network with each other and their partners ...

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Chapter 2: A Faculty Encamped Just North of Armageddon

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pp. 19-37

This volume is predicated upon a simple axiom and its inconvenient corollary. The axiom holds that changing American higher education ought to be the business of the faculty. Although often used as a shield against those who want faculty to teach more, the truth is that: learning and research are joint products in which, ...

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Chapter 3: A Federalized Market with Little Incentive to Change

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pp. 38-55

A sizeable portion of the American professoriate has a different explanation about what has gone wrong; in a Clintonesque moment they are ready, willing, and able to remind higher education’s critics that “It’s the market, stupid.” Colleges and universities, professors remind all who will listen, ...

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Chapter 4: A Regulatory Quagmire

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pp. 56-77

In the spring of 2006, with his Spellings Commission still months away from making its final report, Charles Miller orchestrated a preemptive attack on the voluntary system by which American higher education had historically accredited its colleges and universities. First was a paper by Robert Dickeson, a former vice president of the Lumina Foundation ...

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Chapter 5: A Troublesom Fractiousness

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pp. 78-94

Five years after the Spellings Commission issued its final report, American higher education could be forgiven for asking, “What happened?” Public colleges and universities have a right to feel particularly put upon. In that host of states whose economies and revenues have been ravaged by a debilitating recession, publicly funded institutions have cut programs, ...

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Chapter 6: A Disruptive Lexicon

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pp. 95-109

Since 2010, at least, demanding that colleges and universities operate more efficiently has meant calling for fewer administrators, a less ready supply of student amenities, and a more flexible commitment to faculty autonomy in general and tenure in particular. Now, however, higher education’s efficiency pundits are after much bigger game. ...

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Chapter 7: A Different Footprint

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pp. 110-125

The explosive growth of American higher education since the Second World War notwithstanding, the founding of a new research university has not proved to be a common occurrence. With few exceptions, the more than fifteen hundred new or transformed institutions created after the war were either community colleges, public comprehensive universities ...

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Chapter 8: A Liberal Arts Conundrum

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pp. 126-140

In 1994, David Breneman, already a scholarly rarity in that he was both a noted economist focusing on higher education and the past president of a liberal arts college, posed the central question then vexing what had once been the crown jewel of American higher education: Liberal Arts Colleges—Thriving, Surviving, or Endangered? ...

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Chapter 9: A New Peace Treaty

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pp. 141-159

I have already told the story of the faculty delegation from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh journeying to a neighboring two-year institution that annually supplies the largest number of Oshkosh’s transfer students. Invited to participate in a faculty and staff workshop, the Oshkosh delegation was greeted, not with the polite applause they expected, but with a robust round of boos. ...

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Chapter 10: A Stronger Faculty Voice

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pp. 160-180

Despite my fondness for the Ecclesiastes metaphor, American higher education may at last have reached a moment of inflection—or as Robert Reich would want to say, “It’s just possible, maybe even this year, that American colleges and universities will have to change.” To be sure, I have made such predictions before, ...

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Chapter 11: A Competent Curriculum

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pp. 181-202

Much of the clamor surrounding the high cost of a college education has focused on the numbers rather than the processes that produce the numbers. The result, more often than not, is more proclamation than analysis. Colleges and universities are portrayed as being inefficient to the point of being sloppy or undisciplined ...

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Chapter 12: A Federal Commitment to Fix, Fund, and Facilitate

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pp. 203-222

Had I been drafting Checklist for Change thirty years ago, there would have been no need for a twelfth chapter focusing on the federal government’s responsibilities in a process meant to recast American higher education. Thirty years ago, the federal government was largely seen as a disinterested source of critical funding ...


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pp. 223-230


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pp. 231-243

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About the Author

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p. 256-256

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert Zemsky described himself as someone “old and round enough to be mistaken for a pooh-bah.” In his forty-year career he has proved to be a major commentator on the future of both American and global higher education. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813561356
E-ISBN-10: 0813561353
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813561349

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013