How Stanford’s president sees the challenges ahead
Is higher education working?
A simple yes or no was not on the table for Stanford University President John Hennessy. “Generally yes,” he answered, but not everywhere.
Stanford has been able to avoid many of the crises squeezing educational opportunities at other colleges and universities. That’s no guarantee that Stanford will not face new challenges in the future, he said.
“We’ve been the beneficiaries of a much more dynamic, more entrepreneurial culture, but we’re going to have to change now if we are going to survive and continue to deliver education to young people.”
The question kicked off the first keynote conversation in the 8th Reunion & Conference of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, July 11-14 at Stanford.
The conference welcomed back decades of alumni who had spent a year away from their journalism careers learning, and now innovating, at Stanford. The conference drew nearly 200 alumni from more than 20 countries, as well as their spouses, partners and children.
In conversation with Knight Fellowships Director Jim Bettinger, Hennessy said higher education has diversified and spanned many spheres since its beginnings.
In Europe, where it originated, higher education is in much worse shape than it is in the United States, for example. “They still act like it was 800 years ago in some ways,” Hennessy said. In this country, new issues have arisen that put the effectiveness of higher education in question. Cost is the foremost.
“Costs are driven by salaries of highly educated people, the professors. Their salaries tend to go up faster than average family income,” Hennessy said. State governments once covered much of that differential. California no longer does.
The solution likely lies in increased productivity within the institution, he said. But the easiest way of doing that – doubling class sizes – could compromise the value of instruction. Still, he remains hopeful.
A four-year degree continues to be the gold standard for educated people, he said. Maintaining what is special about those college degrees is important as more people strive to attain them. That’s become a particular challenge in light of the massive open online courses (MOOCs) phenomenon, a movement in which Stanford has been at the forefront.
Since the fall of 2011, when then-Stanford professor and computer scientist Sebastian Thrun allowed people all over the world to take his course free online, Stanford and many other universities have been trying to find a way to make this educational model work in the grander scheme of maintaining a sense of the “specialness” of a university degree. MOOCs come with certificates, not university credits. There are no requirements for taking them. And most are free.
Hennessy doesn’t see MOOCs as the ultimate solution to educating the masses. The completion rate for these courses has been only about 10 percent, he noted. They are, however, “a very viable and unique opportunity” for self-motivated learners and people who want to get ahead on their own – as well as for the parts of the world where higher education is not easily accessible.
What are the university’s responsibilities beyond Stanford? Bettinger asked. Hennessy said Stanford should do more.
“The university had reached a point where it had done what it needed to do to deliver a very high quality of undergraduate and graduate education. It established itself as a strong player in the research environment, and it should try to face outward a little more.”
We face serious problems that have consequences for everyone, he said. He worries about the global sustainability of water and other resources, health care costs, corruption, failed states and the diminishing quality of life in many African countries.
Stanford’s response, he said, is to bring together students and faculty from various disciplines that share a common interest in tackling global environmental issues and enabling a sustainable future.
“We’ve embarked on a plan to try to organize the university in a novel way to try and address these problems without eliminating the disciplines that are the standard of excellence within the university,” he said. “It’s still early on; universities take a long time to develop. But I’d say… we’re pretty happy with the results so far.”
Barbara Skinner, an associate professor of history at Indiana State, asked Hennessy if his focus wasn’t overlooking the value of humanities programs.
“Your words are all dealing with applied sciences and engineering, business, environment. All of these things—very important stuff,” Skinner said. “What is Stanford doing to still promote the basic teaching of creative thinking, writing and to give that value?”
While the core requirements of every undergraduate degree at Stanford include a smorgasbord of courses in subjects like English, foreign languages and history, Hennessy acknowledged there has been a crisis in the humanities, both at Stanford and at universities across the country.
He cited a drastic decline in the number of students who major in the humanities. He attributed it to a more career-oriented mentality, exacerbated by parents who urge their children to pursue degrees in areas perceived to be more professionally and financially promising.
Unfortunately, that attitude represents an overarching misunderstanding of the possibilities for humanities graduates, Hennessy said.
“The acceptance rate in the medical school, for example, for students from undergraduate humanities majors is the same as it is for biology majors, and the same thing applies in the business school,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to do a better job of articulating that case, particularly as a core part of undergraduate education.”
Bettinger asked Hennessy how he effects change. His answer, in the entrepreneurial spirit he has embraced as a computer scientist, businessman and university president, was “with incentives.”
“It’s like herding cats, and the only way you can get cats to do anything is move the cat food, and the cat food should be very tasty cat food,” he said.
The incentive could be a venture fund, he said, which is what he used to bring about a multidisciplinary culture in research and education. “The fund enabled the leadership at the various institutes to fund new faculty collaborations. It has worked well for getting that kind of activity going.”
Such cross-departmental collaboration has also had an impact on the evolution of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships program. As journalism veered into crisis, the program shifted from a sabbatical year to one in which Knight Fellows now pursue solutions to particular journalism challenges. In doing so, they have interacted and partnered with a wide range of campus entities.
The results have been new tools for journalism, new perspectives on storytelling, challenges to how news is distributed, new ideas for revenue models and a new cadre of journalists who are also innovators and entrepreneurs and leading the next steps in journalism.
As Julie McCarthy, a 2003 Knight Fellow and NPR correspondent said, these collaborations and innovations are what make Stanford Stanford. Bringing some of the most capable minds from around the world to affect positive change—whether in the field of journalism or higher education as a whole—has become the culture of the university.
So while there is no clear yes-or-no to the question, “Is higher education working?” one answer may be that Stanford is working on behalf of higher education.
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