For Consideration: Zemsky’s Checklist for Change and the Future of Higher Education

This just in from Dr. Ben Withers, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, “Notes from the Associate Provost“:

Reading for the Week:

Checklist for Change bookcoverAmong the books on higher education on my shelf, one I have recently returned to is Robert Zemsky’s Checklist for Change: Making Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise (Rutgers, 2013). Zemsky teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is the chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education. He is widely known for developing an approach to higher education reform based on market analysis, an approach that attempts to understand the colleges and universities as “competitive enterprises” with specific cost structures, productivity, markets, as well as lofty goals and missions. Checklist for Change is notable for several reasons, including Zemsky’s coverage of the history of earlier reforms of higher education and his several case studies of on-going efforts at reform across the United States. (A review of it can be found here).

One of the reasons I find the book interesting is Zemsky’s account of the development of a new general education curriculum at UW-Oshkosh, a process that bears considerable similarities with UK’s own creation of UK Core several years before (his Chapter 9). Zemsky indicts general education as “negotiated peace treaties in which departments sought to garner sufficient enrollments to justify for their faculty lines” (157). Zemsky argues that the lack of coherency is one of the reasons why students are often frustrated and resentful of general education requirements. It also undergirds a fundamental premise of Zemsky’s prescription for change: the need for a “competent curriculum” (the title of his Chapter 11). For Zemsky, “what drives higher education’s operating costs upward are the nature and organization of its basic functions,” including the costs of the curriculum. These costs include faculty salaries, expensive technology, of course; even more important are the inefficiencies of ever-expanding major requirements, bottlenecks in course sequence, complex rules that make it difficult for students (and faculty) to understand what to take and when, and the expense incurred when student routinely take 140 hours for 120-credit degree.

Ben Withers

Benjamin C. Withers, Ph.D.

Zemsky’s solutions call for some difficult and far reaching changes: the reliance on competencies rather than seat time, the establishment of learning communities (what he calls student cohorts), and the creation of three year baccalaureate degree, among others.


About UK Student and Academic Life

Undergraduate Education is now recreated within the Division of Student and Academic Life in the Provost's Office at the University of Kentucky.
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