Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities

By Kortesoja, Sandra L. | Planning for Higher Education, April-June 2012 | Go to article overview
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Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities

Kortesoja, Sandra L., Planning for Higher Education

Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities

by Richard A. DeMillo

MIT Press 2011

320 pages

ISBN: 978-0-262-01580-6


This is a thought-provoking book by an author who speaks from experience not only as a university professor and former dean, but also as Hewlett-Packard Company's first chief technology officer and as a former director of the Computer and Computation Research Division of the National Science Foundation. Thus, Richard DeMillo's story reflects a modern-day digital-age perspective of American higher education, which, as noted by historian John Thelin, only recently became "a bona fide area of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarly study between 1960 and 1965" (Rudolph [1962] 1990, p. xii). According to DeMillo's preface remarks (p. x), the book

   is intended to reach the many
   stakeholders in America's
   higher education system who
   are outside the academy,
   who are not involved in higher
   education on a daily basis,
   and whose voices are
   seldom heard from within. It
   is not a book of secrets, but
   I suspect that many readers
   will be surprised by what
   they read here. Some of my
   colleagues will be shocked
   that the curtain has been
   parted, but many more will
   welcome the daylight.

A half-century ago, during the post-World War II period of expansion that accommodated the baby boom generation of students, Frederick Rudolph created a pioneering general history of American colleges and universities. To clarify a then newly emerging phrase, Rudolph wrote that higher education "might be loosely defined as education beyond the level of the high school or its equivalent" (Rudolph [1962] 1990, p. xxv).

Today's "higher education system" represents an aggregate of thousands of American colleges, universities, trade schools, and proprietary for-profit institutions--along with postsecondary students; their parents; state, local, and federal policy makers; and a variety of related agents, suppliers, and service providers. Even more so today than during the "golden age" of the 1960s (Thelin 2004), American postsecondary education is more an unruly confederation of participants than an integrated "system" with a cohesive history. Yet, traditional style "brick and mortar" colleges and universities, or "mainstream universities," in the phrasing of this book, now compete for many of the same students as the for-profit institutions offering online courses and degrees. In today's fiscally strained atmosphere, the competitive tendency is often toward greater selectivity in order to enhance institutional reputation and ranking. However, for all but the top-ranked institutions, pursuing such a strategy might prove counterproductive over the long run. For many of the colleges and universities adopting greater selectivity, DeMillo suggests that the students turned away will shape future educational alternatives. What will the university of the future look like?

Overall, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities is a very readable book organized into five sections comprising a total of 20 chapters. Each chapter is punctuated by topical subheadings. In the excerpt above from the book's preface, the term "stakeholders" might suggest a business approach or style of writing. Instead, the narrative is engaging and flows smoothly within chapters uninterrupted by outlines or summaries. Also in the preface, the author describes how he came to write the book, noting that he "resisted the temptation to write a business book for universities;" he suggests "this book should be read like a novel" (p. x). As if writing a novel, DeMillo uses descriptive language and images to portray a complicated subject by means of series of vignettes not necessarily in chronological order. Throughout the book he highlights the impact of new communications and information technology, the influence of market forces in the global economy, and the American public's diminishing regard for the value of higher education.

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