Arthur Levine

How To Fix What’s Wrong with Education, Part II

VTR Date: December 20, 2000

Guest: Levine, Arthur


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Arthur E. Levine, Ph.D.
Title: “How To Make Right What’s Wrong With Education”, Part II
VTR: 12/20/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Arthur E. Levine, the innovative President of historic Teachers College at Columbia University. Now last time we were talking about some of the problem inherent in the new world of education and we got going to such an extent that I wasn’t able, really, to finish all the things that I wanted to ask Dr. Levine. I’m going to try to, today.

Arthur Levine you wrote this wonderful piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, called “The Future of Colleges, Nine Inevitable Changes” and you listed them here and we started to talk about them the last program. Let’s go back over some of them, if you will. One of them is, “The focus of higher education is shifting from teaching to learning”. What did you mean by that?

LEVINE: Ah. What I talked about in that article was the fact that we’re going to see all of these providers of education enter the marketplace. So we’re going to see traditional universities, and we’re going to see corporate universities … about 1,800 corporations that now have their own version of a university.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEVINE: These are corporate training organizations …


LEVINE: … once upon a time I had … when I was still at Harvard, I had a contract with one of these organizations, one of better known corporations in America to do some work with their university. And they said, “we want you to come down and look at what we do”. I’m a Harvard professor, I’m going to come down and see what you do? This is Harvard. And I said, “Yes, I’ll gladly do that”. And I went there, and I was amazed. Here is a university in which teaching advanced skills in units that don’t look like courses … it’s not fifteen weeks, it’s “gee, here’s what we want to teach, here’s the best way to do this, and gee, we can really assess whether students have learned this”. And by the time I left I was awestruck at how far ahead they were of traditional universities in terms of teaching and learning. And went back to campus and felt I was working on marble, with a chisel in terms of pedagogy that we were offering in universities.
HEFFNER: What was the difference? Motivation?

LEVINE: No. I think part of the difference was lack of tradition. Which is to say, they knew what they wanted to accomplish, they could construct whatever they wanted de nova, the emphasis and this one I think it’s probably important, too, and goes beyond tradition, was on teaching whatever needed to be taught in the minimum amount of time that was necessary to teach it. As opposed to how to fill fifteen weeks. Which is a traditional semester. So, the combination of being innovative, the combination of not having to do simply lectures and the combination of not wanting this to go on forever, beyond what is necessary, all lead to the development of new kinds of curriculum.

HEFFNER: But the teaching of what needed to be learned for a reason, for a purpose, for an objective and the objective was profit.

LEVINE: Sure. But profit defined not in terms of “how does one thread widgets”, profit defined in terms of how one builds leadership that can take a company or an organization to its future. Which is a far broader notion than one typically associates with training.

HEFFNER: But what difference does it make, as long as there is that motivation. There is a motive. There is an objective. And it is an objective that one could identify as larger and larger profits, even though in the one instance you’re teaching them how to make larger profits by making widgets better, and in the other, by a kind of entrepreneurial skill, leadership skill, or whatever you want to call it, but it’s … there’s a purpose there. And you’re saying you don’t think that’s particularly keening felt … the motive, the reason for the difference.

LEVINE: No, I don’t. I think …

HEFFNER: Well, I made my speech.

LEVINE: [Laughter] Yeah, but I can’t let you get away with it.

HEFFNER: Fire away.

LEVINE: I think that we … if I could tell you tomorrow that I can get you a computer made by the Department of Commerce and U.S. Department of Commerce makes these computers, or alternatively we can get one from IBM. You know the U.S. Department of Commerce is non-profit. And IBM is a for-profit. I guess what I’d argue is, they need effective education. And they’re producing that effective education. And when looking at it objectively, not why they’re doing it, but the fact that they are doing it, seeing the product they’re producing is very, very impressive.

HEFFNER: Okay, I’m not going to argue with you further because you’re a better “argue-er”, debater than, than I am. But you found this to be true ..


HEFFNER: …. in a corporate setting.


HEFFNER: A corporate university.


HEFFNER: And you’re concern now is that those who have … what did you say, in 1,800 instances learned how to teach.

LEVINE: They’re all not of the quality of the one I saw. But there are some out there and they’re beginning to ask how do we take these experiences that we’ve had and begin to apply them to the rest of the world in terms of offering education. So we’ve got traditional universities, we’ve got these corporate universities, we’re going to have some on-line, for-profits that are coming into the marketplace, and also more traditional for-profits, like the University of Phoenix which is now the largest private university in the United States, with an enrollment of over 75,000 which is ordinarily accredited which is the seal of approval in higher education and also traded on Nasdaq. What also is going to enter the marketplace are things like the British Open University, which has been operating in 100 countries, offering mail-order degrees — good ones — but mail degrees and correspondence courses, has just created an American branch. And we’re also seeing organizations we’d never thought of as being educators entering the market … publishing houses and television. For example, the largest provider of science education to teachers in the United States is now the Public Broadcasting System, PBS. We’re going to see more and more of that. So what we’re going to see is a terribly complex marketplace with people offering all kinds of instruction of variable length and variable function and variable purpose. And what’s going to happen as a nation is with all this stuff … once upon a time we were able to track student progress through higher education and courses. We knew what a course was. What happens when you have all these experiences that don’t resemble courses. What I argued is, in that article, that we’re going to move from a focus on simply teaching … what students are exposed to … because there’s no longer a commonality of process to the outcome … what they’ve actually learned as a consequence of whatever experience they’ve had.

HEFFNER: You don’t have a problem with this, though, do you?

LEVINE: No. I think that’s a wonderful thing. Teaching and learning aren’t the same things.

HEFFNER: But you do have a concern for what learning that way will do to the traditional universities, the traditional non-profit universities. But, do I see a smile when we talk about that? I mean you, you … you’re concerned about it … in, in what terms. Why are you concerned about this new learning?

LEVINE: What I’m most concerned about is that universities aren’t aware of what’s happening in the environment around them. They aren’t aware of all these new forces entering the marketplace. And the result is that they’ll continue to do the same things for year after year after year. Inventing a world in which the commonality, the focus on process, sitting in a seat for 50 minutes, three times a week is what we know we do in a university. And seat time doesn’t do it anymore. What we really have to do is focus on what students know and what students can do. As other organizations are doing. And that would be a wonderful change for higher education. Higher education has the capacity to make that change if it so wishes. And my fear is that it’s just not thinking hard enough about what to do in this new environment.

HEFFNER: And if it did, what would it do, do you think? What could it do?

LEVINE: I think that what it would end up doing is looking at the issue of learning and seeing how best to promote it among students. That’s why we’re there. If we’re teaching, that’s the purpose.

HEFFNER: :You mean forget seat time.


HEFFNER: Well, you know … being such a negative person myself, particularly when I’m sitting opposite you, I’ve got to debate your ideas … is there something valuable to seat time that we may be giving up in the process?

LEVINE: There may be. We don’t know what the answer is. One of the things I’ve always learned when I go to visit my dentist, is about foreign affairs. And the reason I learn is, he’s always 15 minutes Late and I sit there and I read “Foreign Affairs Quarterly”. It’s not one of the consequences that one gets out of dentistry. It’s not a direct result of what he does. And what I fear is, and worry about is, that in terms of seat time we don’t know what comes out of it …

HEFFNER: … Literally?? After all these …

LEVINE: … Absolutely. We don’t know what comes out of it.

HEFFNER: Come on, Arthur. We must. Why would be we certifying people as we do? Why have we been giving degrees as we do?

LEVINE: But we’re acting as if degrees were a common currency. The only thing that we … we know more about the length of a degree than we do about its content across the 3,600 colleges and universities in the United States.

HEFFNER: Explain.

LEVINE: All that we know is that students have taken a series of courses. They have taken 32 courses, usually one of them … usually a series of them is a concentration in some area major. Beyond that we know nothing. There’s no commonality. What we say about a degree, a baccalaureate degree … it means you spent four years in college and we know a degree is a mark of tenacity in pursing that. We know your class rank, its some indication of how you did relative to the other students. And the quality of the university that you went to is indicative of how good a student you were in general. But the degree doesn’t tell us very much.

HEFFNER: Look a half century in the future, what do you see in terms of what we now call higher education.

LEVINE: I think that a series of things are going to happen. The first one is a lot more people offering it. I think we’re going to see it coming in different forms. We’re going to be able to get it on a physical campus, which is a brick higher education. We will get it at home, in the office, on the train, on vacation, in a hotel, through electronic mechanisms that are called “click” universities. And they’ll be a third branch of this, its “brick and click”. And what I think is also going to happen is that we’ll see world universities. I think some of the physical plant we’ve created over the last fifty years closed. I think we’ll also see a changing relationship with the universities and their faculty. With the capacity to reach audiences that are global in electronic courses, with audiences where students that may number hundreds of thousands, ultimately, are going to see faculty members become the equivalent of rock stars, at least the big ones. And I wouldn’t be surprised in the next few years if we see agencies, talent agencies, that represent them. Someone like Michael Ovitz. And what we’d see is an agency coming to a faculty member and saying, “Look, have I got a deal for you. I can get you a PBS show, I’ve got you a book with Random House, I’ve you a course out of a private organization, maybe electronic, I’ve got you three product endorsements and I’ve got you a contract with the Russia and they’re paying you up front for consulting. And for this deal I can give you $5 million dollars”.

HEFFNER: You know every time you say something like this, somebody assumes that you’re embracing this.

LEVINE: Boy, am I not embracing that. That would put universities in the position that Hollywood studios were in. Once upon a time the studio was a dominant player in Hollywood, an actors signed contracts with the studios. What happened is that the talent, or the actor, became the dominant force in Hollywood and the studios became far less important. What could happen is that universities would be much less important than the people who work at those universities. So, for example, the name Carl Sagan would have been much more important than the name Cornell University. It wouldn’t matter what university Carl Sagan was associated with. Or the name Richard Heffner could be far more important than the name Rutgers University. And the consequence thereof is that universities would be in a position that would be far less impressive than were they are today in terms of their ability to attract and house the leading minds in the world.

HEFFNER: But Arthur, with the exception of Richard Heffner, what you’re talking about are the stars … and you say that yourself, the Carl Sagans … you’re talking about the John Deweys. You’re talking about others who would be more prominent than their, than their institutions. They’d give a new degree D.E.E., Doctor of Education/ Entertainment. But they don’t make up the bulk of the working stiffs in our universities. What happens to the rest of the world?

LEVINE: I don’t know. The thing that could happen, and again it’s not advocacy, it’s a description, there are a lot of small liberal arts colleges. And I was President of one of them, which have a professor who’s been there forever. Professor Jones got tenure in 1963 in physics. Professor Jones hasn’t read an article, let alone written an article in physics since the day after he got tenure. And what happens now since there are no physics majors in that school every student who wants to major in biology or any other science or considers meeting the general education requirements, takes Professor Jones’ physics course, which is the worst, the worst course at this college. What’s now possible is to have the best physics professor in America, the best teacher create courses that, that college, when Professor Jones finally retires can use to reach its student body. And what … there will never be other Professor Jones’ who are terrible at teaching because high quality courses will be available from other kinds of sources.

HEFFNER: And because, I gather you’re saying “exit tenure”.

LEVINE: I don’t know what’s going to happen with tenure. The interesting phenomenon is … depends upon how many of these star professors there are. If we’re talking about ten or we’re talking about a hundred, it doesn’t matter. If we’re talking about a thousand of these, what would happen to universities if the greatest minds in the university were no longer there. Why would an institution want to give tenure at that point to the next level of person? We’d be guaranteeing employment to the people who aren’t the leading names in their fields.

HEFFNER: Do you think this is what we’re going to be faced with? Well, I say “faced with” as a college professor with tenure, of course. Do you think this is the way it’s going to go?

LEVINE: Yes. I think that we’re going to see professors more independent. I think the colleges and universities have the option now of doing something about it. And what they’d have to do is make the environment that a college offers so congenial, so appealing in terms of colleague-ship, in terms of support for teaching. In terms of opportunities to do research that’s consequential, that a professor might turn down that $5 million deal we talked about before because “I want to be here. This is a wonderful environment for me to be and I don’t want to leave it”. We’ll also have to find ways for professors to participate in the activities that exist beyond the university in which he or she is employed. And what that’s going to mean is the issue of intellectual property. Who owns what in the university is going to be huge.

HEFFNER: You know, when I began Channel 13 back in the 1960s, talking about old men, we knew then that the real problem was the matter of intellectual property. And you talk about educational television, as we did then; talking about teachers teaching courses. Well, to whom belongs the course? What about residuals, etc. Are you beginning to find that now on the campus?

LEVINE: Oh, absolutely … colleges and universities did something interesting. On research and publication, colleges and universities gave that to the professor. And what it means is that there are professors who write text books, there are very few of them who write text books that make an enormous amount of money and the college professor is able to keep the royalties from that. The university gets nothing for it. Well, now we’re coming to a point in which teaching may have the same kinds of consequence. By the way I ought to tell you, my royalties from my last two books weren’t enough to take my wife and I out to dinner. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Good dinner I hope.

LEVINE: Hmmm, a little place that sells hamburgers down the block.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

LEVINE: [Laughter] What’s happening now is as courses become units that can be offered to larger and larger numbers, the same kind of potential, in terms of income generation is a possibility, that looms on the horizon. So what that means is we have colleges and universities saying, “Whew, we’re not going to make that mistake again? We’re not giving this one away.”, in that instruction is the only source of income that most have. People pay tuition for instruction. On the other hand we have professors saying, “Hey, I own everything I produce in research and I ought to be able to keep this”. And that’s going to be a battleground for a lots of universities.

HEFFNER: Is it now?
LEVINE: Yeah. It is. It’s becoming a major, major issue. Columbia has been a fascinating example in that regard. Columbia had worked for a year and a half on a policy which the faculty unanimously endorsed, which I think is an incredible, incredible accomplishment.

HEFFNER: Yes. Unanimity on a campus.

LEVINE: Yeah. However, on my own campus we’re having long … my own campus which is Teachers College, it’s a part of Columbia, we’re have long discussions about the future of intellectual property and who owns what. It’s going to be a major issue to the extent that it’s going to provide an opportunity for a lesser known university to be very liberal in policy and begin to attract the best minds. So it can say “I know at your home university you get 30% of the revenue. If you come to our university, we’ll give you 100% of revenue”. So I think there’s going to be a negotiating tactic, just as salary is. Or a negotiating tack, just as salary is, for faculty in the future.

HEFFNER: So the dollar rules supreme as almost always.

LEVINE: Well except for you and me.

HEFFNER: Right. Right.

LEVINE: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: But the golden rule means who has the gold, rules. Arthur let me go back in the few minutes we have remaining to this question of the inevitable changes that you list here. You talk about the traditional functions of higher education of becoming “unbundled” and you’re talking about here teaching, research and service. Is this happening?

LEVINE: It’s not happening yet, but it could happen. The notion there is that all colleges and universities engage in some combination of teaching, research, and services … that’s descriptor of the total activities in which they’re involved. And the point that I tried to make was that teaching is the only one that generates real cash flow for most colleges and universities. Research only makes money for a very small number of colleges. The result is that when the private sector has entered education as a competitor, they’ve gone after the instructional component. So that colleges and universities for example in areas like, where it’s plainly available is … areas like remedial education. We’re seeing colleges and universities sometimes sub-contract that. We’re seeing private firms move into the area in very impressive kinds of ways with good reputations. And maybe it doesn’t belong in a university, that’s one area of instruction that universities are engaged in. If the private sector begins to take on a larger and larger instructional role, what it could leave is the research function and the service function in a far more diminished instructional environment for most colleges and universities. And that seems real complicated. But the end result is there wouldn’t be enough cash coming in from instruction to support teaching, support research and service. And that would be bad for the nation.

HEFFNER: You think that there are going to be fewer, by far, institutions of higher education in the future, don’t you?

LEVINE: I think there are going to be fewer physical campuses. And I think that we’ll see more merger of institutions and larger institutions.

HEFFNER: Why merger and larger? If they … if the business community takes over the money making function ..

LEVINE: What I think’s going to happen … oh, I’m sorry what I think is going to happen there … I misunderstood the question … I think that small, private, non-selective colleges are going to have a very hard time staying open as the business community moves into the fray, particularly in the Northeast and the Midwest and the middle Atlantic states because they over-built private colleges. What’s also going to happen is that less well known state universities … Eastern State university … Western State university … Central university are going to run into trouble because they aren’t brand names. And we’re going to begin to ask the question of, “Why should a degree from Eastern State University mean less than a credential from Microsoft?”. And I think in that way, that’s going to cause institutions to come together. It’s going to cause the private and the public sector to merge, it’s going to cause combinations we’ve never even imagined before.

HEFFNER: You say “credential from Microsoft University”. Does that mean the State is going to acquiesce in this, the States will acquiesce and degree granting will be given to business community?

LEVINE: Right now we know that Jones University has had approval to give degrees all over the United States in many states. They’ve also gotten regional accreditation, which again is a seal of approval to operate. We’re going to see more and more of that. I went and talked to a major publisher and they began explaining to me that they were offering instruction now. And I asked, “where are you getting the instruction from? Who’s designing this?”. And I hoped that what they were going to tell me were college and university faculty members. What they told me was “We’re hiring full-time content providers. What that means is people who would have been professors …


LEVINE: … now work for them full time. And I said, “Tell me about credits and degrees”. And they said, “we’re still working on that”. We brought a group of venture capitalists to Teachers College two years ago. And we said, “if a State opposes entrance of for-profit-higher-education, how long does it take to break down the barrier? They said, “Three years, max”.

HEFFNER: So they know already.

LEVINE: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Private sector’s making big plans. And the only question I really have is, to what extent will they choose to challenge higher education directly or will they choose to form partnerships with colleges and universities, say offer instruction together.

HEFFNER: In a half a minute … will you be there if they choose partnership?

LEVINE: Yes. I will be there. And think most colleges and universities will. The fact of the matter is we’re always had a patron, initially it was the church, second it was government. This may be the first time we’ve had a chance to negotiate the deal in a way that beneficial for higher education …

HEFFNER: Arthur Levine, on that note, thank you again for joining me on The Open Mind …

LEVINE: It’s my pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.