Ivy League head warns of harms of institutional bloat

Accretion of projects harms the ability of US universities to restrain costs and hit goals, says Dartmouth College president

Female basketball player, Dartmouth College

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On the ball: universities must stay fleet of foot, says Dartmouth’s Philip Hanlon

US universities must become more streamlined in order to stymie the soaring costs of higher education, an Ivy League president has said.

According to Philip Hanlon, who became the 18th president of Dartmouth College in June last year, US universities have become entrenched in a process of “innovation through addition”, whereby new projects are funded while existing ones continue to operate, the result of which is bloated institutions.

“Colleges and universities, particularly the really good ones, have to be at the cutting edge: teaching in new ways…and doing new kinds of research,” said Professor Hanlon. “But what higher education has been really bad at in the US is innovation through substitution.”

Because of this, universities’ costs have increased, meaning that student fees have also risen in order to allow institutions to fund an ever-growing portfolio of activities.

“What many businesses would do is say: ‘I want to do this cool new thing, so I am going to figure out what the lowest priority stuff I am doing right now is [and] stop doing that.’ But colleges and universities in the US have gotten into a mode of innovating by addition and saying: ‘We’re just going to add this new thing on.’”

Professor Hanlon has ordered every department in Dartmouth to nominate 1.5 per cent of its budget for reallocation. “Every year departments will have to say what they really want to do with those resources,” he said.

More imaginative use of funding is not the only way that Professor Hanlon plans to encourage innovation. He is also changing how the university hires some academics to encourage more interdisciplinary collaboration.

“The grand challenges that the world is facing today are not going to be solved in a single discipline by a single expert,” Professor Hanlon said, citing climate change and the provision of clean water in developing countries as two examples of “grand challenges”.

“The only place where you find the required range of expertise in one location is in the great colleges and universities of the world. Our responsibility to tackle these challenges has never been more compelling.”

To facilitate collaboration, Dartmouth will hire about 15 new cross-department “teams” comprising several young, early career faculty, who will be appointed not only because of their skills in their own discipline but because they share a common interest. “That interest might be, say, financial markets,” Professor Hanlon explained. “Maybe one’s an economist, one may be a policy person and one may be a sociologist. We will get them to do research together, and we will require them to develop new courses on their particular subject.”

He hopes that these new courses will help Dartmouth to stay ahead of the game pedagogically.

“As an educational leader if the outcomes that I am offering are [just] information and knowledge, then I am screwed,” he said, explaining that massive open online courses and other open resources mean that students can access information free of charge at the click of a button.

Instead universities need to focus on experiential learning and ensure that students leave having acquired “wisdom”. “The résumé of the future will describe what you can do, rather than what you know,” he said.

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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