In Search of Efficiency, We Shouldn't Surrender Our Soul to "University City"

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 7, 2009

The relentless rise in the cost of college tuition has been a source of high anxiety for students, parents, and politicians, and for those of us working to find the answers on our own campuses for a long time. But as we wrestle with ways to reduce our budgets, increase need-based aid, and find innovative efficiencies, we must also avoid creating a problem of equal or potentially even greater concern. Simply put, in making tough choices to contain costs and increase access, we must not surrender the soul of the enterprise that has made American higher education the envy of the world.

Like it or not, education has become a principal economic player in a highly competitive, knowledge-based economy. This is evident in emerging economic giants like India and China, which are making large investments in higher education and threatening the historic global dominance of American colleges and universities. A powerful lesson on the subject was offered on a recent trip I took to China to learn how that country is tackling the demands of an ever-expanding technological world.

It was also a lesson in just what we have to lose if we act without caution.

I visited a city of several million people, where in a single year a four-square-mile University City has risen out of the farmlands (and outside the city) in the shadow of a new superhighway. Ten huge new university campuses, one after another, each housing tens of thousands of students, reach out as far as the eye can see: one campus for engineering; another, just steps away, for tourism; others for business, aeronautics, technology, agriculture, education, and so on. All of them are built on land confiscated from farmers, some of whom are still squatting in a few scattered shacks on the plots they were forced to evacuate with little compensation, surrounded by a forest of towering dormitories and construction cranes.

As I compare this futuristic vision of efficiency and state planning with the jumbled patchwork of American higher education-from community colleges and technical schools to Ivy League and liberal-arts colleges, and land-grant state universities and research institutions-I cannot help but wonder if University City represents the efficient and affordable future of higher education, and we represent its quaint past.

And if that's true, I wonder about the cost to the Chinese-about the quality and value of the education those students will receive, the sense of meaning and worth they will develop in those anonymous places, the values they will cultivate, the vision and solutions for the future they will invent, the understanding and appreciation for human possibility that will live in them.

The Chinese educators with whom I spoke, while publicly proud of their achievement, privately grieve over the cultural emptiness in which their plans are being carried out-the lack of free and independent thought being nurtured on their campuses, and the intense focus on public institutions without anything like our private colleges to promote innovation and choice. Those regrets hang like the cloud of pollution that obscures the sun on most days in many Chinese cities and hovers over the skyscraper campuses they build with such efficiency and speed.

As we in America seek to recover from the blows our economy has taken, China offers a cautionary tale about both cost and value. And as we make the hard decisions to contain costs and improve access, we must not surrender the fundamental values that have won American higher education the esteem of the world. We must remain open to change and pursue new ideas, and we must also commit to advancing the fundamental American values of choice and free inquiry that created the strength and variety of educational options we have built. A great education for times like these will not be cheap. And it must not be cheapened.