The Future of Education: A Poll

Over the summer, The Atlantic asked 30 college and university presidents questions about the hypothetical abolition of tenure at their schools, incoming student preparedness, and international competitiveness of American post-secondary schools. The poll was part of a larger initiative to assemble top experts across a number of fields to work with The Atlantic as an editorial advisory panel.

The presidents who responded to the survey represented 10 liberal arts and 20 research universities, six public and 24 private institutions, and more than 300,000 of the nation's top undergraduate students. Nine of the schools represented are in U.S. News and World Report's top 20 rankings, and three are Ivy League. The average school size is around 10,500 undergraduate students.

Are Students Ready for College?

Participants were asked what percentage of their schools' incoming students are "still under-prepared" to pursue their studies when they matriculate. A majority of respondents say that between 95 and 100 percent of incoming students are prepared for studies. Six of the 30 respondents say that 99 or 100 percent are "prepared from the start."

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However, most respondents answered the question by emphasizing the selectiveness of their admissions processes:

Academic credentials required for admission are very high, and students who choose [this school] are interested in a rigorous undergraduate education. Kids don't come if they're unprepared to run on a very fast track.

-- President of a public research university with 5,000 to 10,000 students

A small minority of respondents mentioned that their schools take in students who may not be fully prepared for academics from the start, but who are admitted for other reasons. These respondents said that their schools provide focused academic attention and advising to help these students catch up:

We have a small number of students that we consciously take risks on at the time of admission. These are usually students who have overcome enormous odds to get to [this school]. We make a point of identifying them at the time of admissions and work with them to ensure that they prepare themselves for the challenges they are likely to encounter in the classroom as first year students. We also make sure that they are advised by some of the very best supportive academic advisors at [this school].

-- President of a private research university with 5,000 to 10,000 students
The Effects of Ending Tenure

Presidents were asked how their institutions would be affected if tenure were to be abolished overnight. There is roughly an even split between those who support tenure and those who oppose it, though few feel very strongly either way. Most are familiar with at least some of the hypothetical outcomes of abolishing tenure, though presidents who argue either for or against are diverse in their reasoning. In other words, no particular negative or positive of tenure is a "rallying cry" for either side.

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Surprisingly, a majority of respondents (57 percent) say "little would actually change" if tenure were abolished at all universities at once, suggesting that tenure has a smaller effect on schools' hiring and firing practices than many have supposed.

But across the board, regardless of whether they support the institution, university presidents agree that no single school could ever abolish tenure on a stand-alone basis without dramatic, negative consequences for the quality of academics and student life, as well as for the financial stability of the school.

One might imagine that a simultaneous and global abolition of tenure might be the surest way to have least effect on faculty retention and recruiting.

-- President of a private research university with 5,000 to 10,000 students.

Other reasons given for either supporting or abolishing the institution include fear of academic censorship via influence of trustees or donors, the flawed implementation of tenure practice itself, and lack of workable alternative hiring practices.

Most people do not understand that far from preventing universities from firing faculty, tenure actually forces you to fire lots of faculty who are very good but just not good enough.  In a collegial institution without such a forcing function, it is far from clear that universities would make such tough "up or out" decisions.

-- President of a private research university with 5,000 to 10,000 students

Trustees, donors, and legislators would find it easier to have their objections to the views of faculty members heard and acted on, and faculty members less certain of their job security vis-a-vis administrators and their colleagues would be more likely to engage in self-censorship of unpopular intellectual, religious, and political views than they already are.

-- President of a private research university with 5,000 to 10,000 students

[T]enure would be replace[d] by limited-term contracts and a complex, burdensome, continuous review of all faculty members at all levels of appointment.  The workload required to do it sufficiently well to stand up to the scrutiny of "equitable" review is remarkably large. To do this for the goal of separating a few who are normally called "incompetent" is very expensive and actually in a pragmatic world is not likely to be done well, either. Catching incompetence at the major universities is not the biggest problem. [Lack of] a mandatory retirement age is a much greater problem.

-- President of a public research university with 20,000+ students
Competing With Foreign Schools

When asked which countries would be most likely lure students away from American institutions, respondents selected and ranked an average of four countries. China dominated the list by any count, with Australia and India following.

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Almost all respondents, in their comments, confirm that China's higher education systems are growing quickly, but that much of the growth has been as a result of overall growth in China. The rapidly growing number of degrees conferred by Chinese schools is due to an increased likelihood that Chinese students will stay in their country for degree programs. However, as Chinese institutions become better equipped to handle their own students, they could begin to attract more foreign students.

China and India are also developing some wonderful universities. But the demands of their domestic students to attend universities will be tremendous. In the research I have seen, those "student markets" are growing extremely rapidly and I think the flow of students from China and India into the US will continue.

-- President of a private liberal arts college with 1,000 to 5,000 students

I believe American universities will continue to attract a number of students from Asia and Europe.  The greatest impact may come by answering the question of how many Chinese, Korean, and Indian students choose to stay at home.

--President of a public research university with 20,000+ students

At the same time, say respondents, no other country's education system can yet compete with America's in terms of quality, and our dominant position in the education sector is likely to remain intact. Respondents agree that the flow of students coming into this country for education will continue at a steady clip. They also acknowledge the beginnings of a slow shift, although no other countries are legitimate contenders yet.

The biggest factors in university attendance will be language, financing  and reputation of educational institution.  In short what do the international universities have to offer in reputation and support while speaking enough English to make it work, at least initially.

-- President of a public research university with 20,000+ students

Survey respondents also ranked the following countries: Switzerland (#3 and #7 by two respondents), Canada (#1 and #3 by two respondents), and Holland (#2).


One respondent noted that the greatest "threat" to this country's four-year schools will be non-traditional degrees programs: 

The biggest factors in university attendance will be language, financing  and reputation of educational institution.  In short what do the international universities have to offer in reputation and support while speaking enough English to make it work, at least initially.

-- President of a public research university with 20,000+ students

Survey respondents also ranked the following countries: Switzerland (#3 and #7 by two respondents), Canada (#1 and #3 by two respondents), and Holland (#2).

One respondent noted that the greatest "threat" to this country's four-year schools will be non-traditional degrees programs:

You leave out totally the growing on-line industry that has in essence  no borders (although there are some regulatory issues outstanding)--to include the for-profits. Right now these enterprises for the most part DO NOT engage the 17-22 year olds and are not particularly concerned about "prestige," but they might in the future if they can find a way to make money in this sector and they see a financial incentive in prestige.

-- President of a private liberal arts college with 1,000 to 5,000 students

Participants

Michael Adams, University of Georgia
Lawrence Bacow, Tufts University
Andrew Benton, Pepperdine University
Lee Bollinger, Columbia University
Jean-Lou Chameau, California Institute of Technology
Rebecca Chopp, Swarthmore College
Mary Sue Coleman, University of Michigan
John J. DeGioia, Georgetown University
William Durden, Dickinson College
Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania
Cornelius Kerwin, American University
Steve Knapp, George Washington University
Anthony Marx, Amherst College (immediate past President)
Jane McAuliffe, Bryn Mawr College
C.D. Mote, University of Maryland
David Oxtoby, Pomona College
William Powers, University of Texas
Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis University
Taylor Reveley, College of William & Mary
Kenneth Ruscio, Washington and Lee University
Steven Sample, University of Southern California (President Emeritus)
Joel Seligman, University of Rochester
Mary Pat Seurkamp, College of Notre Dame of Maryland
John Sexton, New York University
Donna Shalala, University of Miami
David Skorton, Cornell University
Graham Spanier, Pennsylvania State University
Sandy Ungar, Goucher College
James Wagner, Emory University

Presented by

Emily Q. Hazzard is an associate editor at WaPo Labs. She was previously an associate producer for Al Jazeera's The Stream and an editorial project associate at The Atlantic.

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