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22 The Wine of Our Discontent 2 Much of the story of reform in higher education has been written by the exhorters who have challenged us to do better while at the same time suggesting they know exactly what “doing better” entails. Often the best known exhorters have been university presidents—Charles Eliot of Harvard, Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, and Clark Kerr of the University of California come readily to mind. More recently, higher education’s leading exhorters have come from organizations that promote improvement. Russ Edgerton as president of the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) and Lee Schulman as president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching are good examples. Whether institutional leader or organizational promoter, however, each of these exhorters has led by example as well as precept and in the process has significantly altered the development of the nation’s colleges and universities. When exhortation has failed—and it has failed now—lamentation has inevitably followed. There is a noticeable shift in both the tone and substance of the higher education dialogue. Gone is the sense of challenge and duty, replaced by long litanies of failures along with generalized prescriptions for making right what has gone so horribly wrong. As I have already observed, we are living today in one of those shifts. How do I know? Not because I served on the Spellings Commission, though as I have already testified, that experience certainly confirmed we had entered an era of lamentations. No, I know because in the previous CH002.qxd 6/16/09 9:38 AM Page 22 23 THE WINE OF OUR DISCONTENT spring, the canary in the mine died in Atlanta. Russ Edgerton’s AAHE announced it would close. For nearly four decades, AAHE had been the organization that best exemplified the exhorters’ challenge to higher education. To the task of recasting American higher education, AAHE brought an exuberance that was often infectious. The movement promised to climb any mountain and ford any stream if the effort promised better learning or more engaged students and teachers. Declining membership, however, exacerbated by a shift in the spending priorities of foundations, had left the organization without sufficient resources to continue. The larger problem, however, was that the association had run out of energy. A Japanese visitor to AAHE’s last annual meeting in Atlanta told me at the time, “It was all so tired; nothing was really new.” Even before AAHE’s demise, the lamenters had assumed center stage. They, with their charge that American colleges and universities had slipped to the point of failing, had come to set the context for nearly every discussion of change and transformation. It was, I am sure, this rising chorus of lament that gave Margaret Spellings and Charles Miller the confidence to argue that higher education was now primed for the same kind of reform they had each helped embed in the No Child Left Behind legislation that became the hallmark of the Bush administration’s educational agenda. I want to begin by trying to understand what the lamenters have—and have not—been saying and why. Declining by Degrees As if to mark the transition from exhortation to lamentation, Richard Hersh and John Merrow sallied forth with Declining by Degrees, Higher Education at Risk, a 2005 PBS documentary on higher education that was accompanied by a companion volume of essays with the same evocative title. Merrow and Hersh were an impressive duo: Merrow was the executive producer and host of The Merrow Report, a program on PBS and NPR produced by his nonprofit company, Learning Matters; and Hersh was the former president first of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York and then of Trinity College in Connecticut and more recently codirector of the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Their reporting and experiences had taught them—and their interviews with several dozen higher education poohbahs , myself included, seemingly confirmed—that higher education needed a wake-up call, something to convince the nation’s colleges and universities that calamity lay just over the horizon. CH002.qxd 6/16/09 9:38 AM Page 23 To save the enterprise, Merrow and Hersh promised to blow higher education’s cover. Their avowed model: the 1983 report A Nation at Risk that had made fixing elementary and secondary education a national priority. Now it was an “insidious erosion of quality” across higher education that “places this nation at risk.” Finding a remedy would necessarily begin with...


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