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  • Reimagining the Study of Higher Education:Generous Thinking, Chaos, and Order in a Low Consensus Field
  • Kristen A. Renn

[2019 ASHE Presidential Address]

Hundreds of thousands of graduate students around the world will complete their degrees in 2020. Tens of thousands of them will begin work as faculty or administrators in postsecondary institutions. If all goes well for a number of them—and the institutions that hire them—they are likely to retire sometime around the year 2060. Whatever the sector may look like in 2060, let's assume there is still some fraction of young adults that will begin postsecondary education that year. If there is still any such thing as a bachelor's degree, and people who complete it in five years, give or take, many of those young adults who enter in 2060 will celebrate their 50th reunions in the year 2115. That is what we are doing today in higher education—educating [End Page 917] students who may work until at least 2060, and graduate students who may end up as faculty and administrators welcoming new students who could work into the first decade of the 22nd century.

That timeline, introduced to me by Jon Western, a political scientist and dean of the faculty at Mount Holyoke College, framed my thinking about the ideas put forward by the ASHE 2019 program committee as we developed a theme for the conference. In order to generate knowledge, theory, and research methods that can hold up to the challenge of supporting the postsecondary sector through current shifts into whatever ecosystem of institutions and organizations it will be in 2060, and making sure that in 2060 it is robust enough to prepare those new students to lead lives of meaning up to and past 2015; That is the challenge that requires us to reimagine our work as people who study higher education. Because let's be honest: If we keep doing higher education research the way we do it now, we're going to be left behind sometime long before 2060.

I argue that if we want not only to stay relevant but also to influence the direction of postsecondary education, we must engage the will to reimagine the study of higher education. This afternoon I will discuss the challenges and opportunities for our future bound up in the fact that higher education scholarship is a low consensus field of research and application. And I will propose two ways of thinking about how we might approach this low consensus in ways that can help us reimagine the study of higher education.

In 1976, higher education researchers who participated in AAHE—the American Association of Higher Education, a now-defunct organization of higher education leaders (Renn, 2020)—formed their own organization, the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). And as the field grew larger and more diverse in all ways, a gap between people who research higher education and people who do higher education widened into a gulf, then the ocean we experience today. As the field has grown ASHE has become its own island within this ocean. And year after year ASHE presidents give addresses in which we describe the disconnect, propose approaches to reconnect, or offer examples from research that could be applied to make a connection.

Meanwhile, higher education institutions, state systems, and federal policy are on fire. This isn't news to anyone in this room. Leaders and policy makers struggle to survive within a context that has relied on unsustainable financial models, where wealth and opportunity are concentrated at the top of a pyramid, access forms an under-resourced base, and public systems based on geography and state boundaries are threatened by changes in population growth and the lack of public will and capacity to fund local institutions.

In this room we could put together a group of scholars using economics who study where and how financial incentives work within this system to leverage institutional action, or who use sociology to study how governance [End Page 918] structures mediate and political actors regulate, critical theorists who study how individual students and faculty experience inequities, and learning scientists who study what works best...