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The Future of Higher Education

Westminster Matters

The Future of Higher Education

A Message from President Michael Bassis
Spring 2003

One of the most recent appointees to the Westminster College Board of Trustees is Alan E. Guskin, Distinguished University Professor and President Emeritus of Antioch University. Given the excitement and the challenge of Westminster's current strategic planning process, his appointment to our board couldn't be timelier. Dr. Guskin is one of higher education's leading thinkers on the art of institutional change. Over the last few years, he has been the
driving force behind the Project on The Future of Higher Education, a national initiative to explore how colleges and universities can adapt successfully to the rapid social, technological, and economic changes they currently confront. The participants in the project
are working to describe educational designs that colleges and universities might use
to enhance undergraduate learning in a climate of restricted resources.

Recently Dr. Guskin shared the ideas that have emerged from the project with an overflow crowd of Westminster faculty, staff, and students. Those ideas, captured in a paper by Guskin and Mary B. Marcy, will soon be published in the July 2003 issue of Change magazine. This issue of Westminster Matters contains excerpts from his campus presentation.

Michael S. Bassis
President, Westminster College

Excerpts from

The Future of Higher Education

Alan Guskin
Westminster Board of Trustees and
Distinguished University Professor and
President Emeritus, Antioch University

More Learning At Less Cost

It is an irony of the present higher education landscape that just as we are developing some of the most promising models for teaching, learning, student engagement, and the use of technology, we are simultaneously facing dire budget circumstances. Whether we are able to maintain and advance quality teaching and learning in this environment is a challenge almost all of our colleges and universities must address. Dealing with these difficult fiscal struggles while maintaining the quality of faculty work-life and student learning we believe will require that most institutions fundamentally restructure how faculty teach, students are educated, and campuses are organized.


Alan GuskinAs financial pressures increase, there is a danger that promising innovations in teaching and learning will be marginalized or lost, as campuses reduce any activity not seen as being at the core of academic life, and even some that have been traditionally seen as essential to it. While striving to increase resources will remain a necessary approach, it will not be sufficient for meeting the twin goals of quality student learning and a decent faculty work-life. To achieve these goals we believe it will also be necessary to restructure the organizational and learning systems of an institution around the most promising teaching and learning innovations. Such fundamental change offers the most hopeful future for student learning and faculty vitality in a future marked by restricted resources.


Recent trends indicate that our fiscal stress is not short term. The financial challenges faced by our state governments are troubling, and promise severe consequences for public institutions of higher education. But it is not only our public colleges and universities that face structural financial problems. Fund raising has been down in the past two years, the result of the recession and a post-9-11 reality. While it is always difficult to predict the equity markets, there are some indications that the stock market, which has fueled many recent successful campaigns, will not experience a sustained 1990s type of growth for some time (Geanakoplos, McGill, Quinzii, 2002). At present, many of our private colleges and universities are struggling financially, and the potential that future fund raising might be flat or increase only modestly among the 90+ percent of non-wealthy institutions will only exacerbate their problems. Simply stated, costs are continuing to escalate beyond their ability to generate tuition and fund-raising revenue.


In 1997, the Council on Aid to Education pointed out that the cost of higher education has grown substantially more than the rate of inflation for nearly three decades. Referring to both public and private institutions, they described the problem in this manner.



A sector whose costs grow faster than inflation for an extended period ultimately reaches the limits of available resources, as has been demonstrated in the health care industry...


In 1995 dollars, higher education will have to spend about $151 billion in 2015 to serve future students if costs continue to grow at current rates. Assuming that public appropriations to higher education continue to follow current trends, government funding will be about $47 billion in that year. Tuition, grants, and endowment income will account for another $66 billion. In other words, the higher education sector will face a funding shortfall of about $38 billion--almost a quarter of what it will need (Council on Aid to Education, 1997).



If these financial problems are indeed long term and structural, how can our colleges and universities respond creatively to this emerging reality? Most institutions to this point have responded by making incremental changes, with hopes of riding out a cyclical downturn. While some of these temporary, short-term measures will no doubt provide budgetary relief, over the next ten years fewer real (i.e., inflation adjusted) dollars from governmental sources combined with limits on tuition levels and private fund raising for almost all campuses (with the exception of the wealthy institutions) will still lead to significant budget shortfalls.


What will a college or university look like that does not make significant changes in how it educates students in a climate of dramatically reduced budgets? What impact will ongoing budget reductions have on the quality of faculty work-life and student learning? Answers to these questions are (literally) not an academic exercise, for facing this future head-on is essential for maintaining the viability and quality of our higher education institutions. And, given the importance of a college education for the present and future of our knowledge-based world, the answers are critical to the future of our society.


Two Institutional Responses to Fiscal Constraint

Muddling Through


The initial instinctive response of many (if not most) institutional leaders, with the full support of faculty and staff, is to assume that the present fiscal constraints are a short-term problem that will quickly dissipate--state appropriations and fund raising will bounce back in a year or maybe two and then increase along with continuing tuition increases. As a result, the immediate response to an annual budget shortfall and deficit is to balance the budget by draining all available and unspent dollars, make across-the-board budget reductions, and protect all faculty and staff positions.


Yet, in the present environment, a rapid one-year turnaround in fiscal conditions is highly unlikely. The result is that after an initial reaction and a second year of reduced resources, institutional leaders tend to move into what we call a "muddling through" mode of operations.


Such an approach assumes that the fiscal reality is very serious but cyclical and therefore, short term--that is, institutional leaders acknowledge that expense reductions need to be deep and selective, fairly significant layoffs and early retirements are part of any budget plan, and wherever possible vacated faculty positions are filled with inexpensive part-time and full-time instructors who teach more and are paid less than other faculty members. At the same time, major emphasis is placed on increasing resources from all sources--maximizing tuition revenue, increasing enrollment, refinancing debt, ratcheting up fund-raising goals, and in the public sector pulling out all stops to persuade state officials to increase appropriations to their institution and higher education generally.


In all these reasonable efforts, the focus is on maintaining and even protecting the existing educational and administrative delivery systems while making minor incremental changes throughout the campus. In fact, it is assumed that the educational delivery system cannot be changed. It is also assumed that, while technology may improve faculty teaching, it is always an added expense.

"Muddling through" is a time-honored practice of dealing with cyclical fiscal problems and does not fundamentally change how students learn, faculty teach, and services are provided. In the face of the present fiscal constraints, one can almost hear people say, "we have been successful in the past and we will come out of this OK." "This too shall pass."


Most people would say that "if it isn't broke, don't fix it," that our higher education system is the envy of the world and over the last half century has helped create the most powerful economy in history. But, Charles Handy reminds us in The Age of Paradox, It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and ways which got you where you are seldom are thosethings that keep you there...[This] is a hard lesson to learn.(Handy, 1995).




In the present environment, responses that assume a rapid turnaround in fiscal conditions are difficult to justify. The present and projected future economic realities seem to indicate a very different scenario than the past. And if this analysis is correct, then the muddling through approach, far from protecting institutions, may actually undermine the nature of the academic profession.



Over time, this will mean that academic offerings will be less challenging and the quality of learning will be seriously diminished. (Guskin and Marcy, 2002).


  • Transforming the Campus:
  • Three Organizing Principles and Seven
  • Transformative Actions





The alternative to muddling through is a more profound and, we believe, more hopeful transformative approach to these challenges. Changing societal conditions challenge us in new ways and demand different responses then we have followed in the past. Many of the fiscal difficulties, the increasing developments in technology, the changing demographics of students, and the needs of a diverse, knowledge-based society, represent a long term reality that will require long-term solutions, not short-term, incremental ones. It is in this context that, we believe, colleges and universities must begin to transform their institutions.

We have identified three organizing principles and seven actions that can transform campuses to support student learning and faculty vitality in an era of restricted resources. These principles are based on assumptions about the purpose of colleges and universities, and about the fiscal realities they face: the need to maintain or enhance the quality of faculty work-life; the need to maintain or enhance student learning; and the reality that we will have to accomplish these goals in a significantly restricted fiscal environment.


Organizing Principle I: Create a Clear and Coherent Vision of the Future Focused on Student Learning, Quality of Faculty Work-Life and Reduced Costs/Student


Organizing Principle II: Transform the Educational Delivery System Consistent with Vision of the Future




  • Focus on assessment of institution-wide common student learning outcomes as basis for undergraduate degree


  • Restructure the role of faculty to include faculty members and other campus profes sionals as partners in student learning while integrating technology


  • Integrate and recognize student learning from all sources


  • Audit and restructure curriculum to focus on essential academic programs and curric ular offerings


Organizing Principle III: Transform the Organizational Systems Consistent with Vision of the Future






  • Utilize zero-based budgeting process to audit and redesign the budget allocation process while involving faculty and staff as responsible partners


  • Audit and restructure administrative and student services systems while using tech nology and integrated staffing arrange ments to reduce costs


  • Audit and redesign technological and staff infrastructure to support transformational changes


These principles and actions are not meant to be implemented in a linear fashion; rather they represent three sets of overlapping change efforts that are systemically interconnected. While the first organizing principle--creating a clear and coherent vision for the future focused on student learning, quality of faculty work-life and reduced costs per student--must begin any fundamental reform process, many of the others can be approached in a number of different patterns, some in parallel, others sequentially.


We propose such fundamental changes only because the alternative will be more painful and damaging--and less hopeful--than redesigning our institutions. We believe that it does not make sense to follow a path that leads to a slow and inexorable erosion of the nature of the academic profession as we know it--and for the quality of the educational programs and student learning that has evolved from it.


When embarking on a path to fundamental reform, it will be helpful for faculty and institutional leaders to have models of what a transformed campus might look like in order to lead their campuses to envision a viable and vital future. Following the path we have laid out provides direction for developing such conceptions. In the months ahead, the Project on the Future of Higher Education, which includes some of the most creative thinkers and practitioners in undergraduate education, will use these organizing principles and transformative actions to create models for how institutions might be organized at the undergraduate level in different types of colleges and universities, as well as considering the change process involved in such fundamental institutional changes.


In developing these institutional models, we recognize that no single tried and true model exists that will enable an individual college or university to meet the challenges of the future. Each institution will have to come to terms with its own history, values, institutional settings, and resources.