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“Whatever It Is, I’m Against It:” Resistance to Change in Higher Education

Reviewed by Stephen J. Handel, PhD

May 01, 2024

This review by ECMC Foundation's Stephen Handel, PhD, was originally published in College & University Journal.

“It’s the money, Steve.”

With that assessment my naiveté as to the causes of the University of California’s (UC) top rank as the greatest public university system in the United States ended.

As a junior staff member at the president’s office for the University of California System in the early 1990s, I had been invited (no doubt in error) to an afternoon event at the university president’s residence located in Kensington in the Berkeley Hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The modest garden gathering honored two long-serving professors. I was smitten because participants included the president, the systemwide provost, and several other academic luminaries who spoke eloquently about the aims of the academy and its value to society. The combination of lofty words, California sunshine, and unparalleled view of the Golden Gate fueled my congenital sentimentalism.

The only improvement on my reverie would have been an appearance by Clark Kerr.

I could not wait to tell my boss about my academic day in heaven. A woman of fierce intellect and sharp elbows, she had little taste for the superficial. Still, she smiled tolerantly listening to my account, until I concluded my remarks with some rot about the innovations, glories, and specialness of the University of California and higher education generally.

That’s when she hit me with her pronouncement on the primacy of lucre over unicorns in keeping UC aloft. Her unsparing insight has colored my outlook of U.S. postsecondary education for the past quarter century.

“It’s the money, Steve.”

UC and higher education are much more than money, of course. Even the most skeptical critic would admit that the investment in our college and universities nationally has brought extraordinary benefits to the United States, from a higher standard of living to research findings that have improved the lives of millions. But higher education does not operate on good intentions and inspiration alone.

I doubt Brian Rosenberg, author of “Whatever it is I’m Against It:” Resistance to Change in Higher Education, would fully agree with my former boss’ cynicism, although if they are not kindred spirits, they are surely realists who understand that higher education’s glories come at retail prices. Rosenburg goes further, arguing that higher education, an insular mutual admiration society sustained by scads of money, will die unless it reforms itself.

Do we need another book about higher education’s challenges and failures? Of course not. For a change, however, we have a critic who knows what he’s talking about. As a long-serving college president, provost, dean, and tenured faculty member at several institutions, Rosenberg has observed the higher education enterprise from multiple perspectives. His current position, as a visiting professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, has given him the time to write this short but provocative book about higher education’s inability to transform itself with anything approaching alacrity and purpose.

Rosenberg’s thesis is simple: higher education’s costs have been rising for decades, but there are fewer and fewer people willing or able to pay the price. Rosenburg forecasts “an extended future of diminished demand” (9). Since these conditions are not likely to improve anytime soon, he argues that higher education needs to adapt quickly. But as Rosenburg repeatedly emphasizes (in prose that is as sardonic as any script written by Billy Wilder), higher education—great at many things—is hopelessly ill-equipped to reform itself.

Rosenberg’s critique will hardly be much of a surprise for readers of this publication (but do text me if any of his major contentions shock you): 1) Higher education’s incentives are aligned toward self-preservation in its current form; 2) Shared governance operates more as shared intransigence; 3) Traditional collegiate organization—majors, disciplines—are designed to meet faculty needs rather than the needs of students; and 4) Tenure, whatever its enormous value as a bulwark against intellectual tyranny, has grown inward and against itself, like that kid in Deliverance (1972).

Rosenberg’s analysis of these topics is succinct, lucid, and acerbic; it is easily the most entertaining of the books I read in this expanding genre (about a dozen and counting…there are so many). Repeatedly he is able to draw upon a lifetime of work to enlighten—even amuse—us with concrete examples of futility, arrogance, incompetence, and childish behavior. I am normally skeptical of anecdotes serving as data, but Rosenberg avoids that trap. His examples illuminate even as they unsettle.

Still, there is nothing gleeful in Rosenberg’s book. I doubt he enjoys biting the hand that feeds him. He threads the needle better than most. Rosenburg never hits below the belt. Nor does he act the sage, offering advice that offends no one (granted, a low bar, the feelings of most of us in higher education so raw). He punches and counterpunches through a number of knotty issues (metaphorically, of course; he’s an English Ph.D.). Rosenberg acknowledges his complicity in a system unable to reform itself but is respectful even as he scolds. He recognizes, even champions, the insights of external critics (e.g., Kevin Carey) and internal, self-possessed agitators (e.g., Michael Crowe), but also has no trouble questioning their common sense when necessary. He is also troubled by political bullies on the left and the right but believes that higher education deserves them: “When Bernie Sanders and Ron DeSantis can both generate enthusiasm among their supporters by criticizing your work, you have a real problem” (165).

He is patient (to a point) with his faculty brethren. He tackles the twin third rails of tenure and shared governance with historical freshness, facing down the cant that substitutes for reason. He bristles, like the rest of us, when the faculty’s higher education agenda positions students, and their success, as a distant, perhaps disabled, family member worthy of a visit only now and again. Even here, though, he acknowledges the perverse peculiarities of academic culture—not to mention pure self-interest—that drives such surprising blindness by well-educated men and women.

So, what does Rosenberg offer as solutions? Nothing especially concrete. “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” is less a corrective than the exasperated stare of a parent whose teenager has just totaled the family car despite numerous warnings that the road ahead was treacherous. Rosenburg’s stronger suit is in identifying cherished practices that must stop: positioning faculty as the center of the enterprise; maintaining elitist practices that bar many people from higher education’s door; sealing the ivory tower off from the rest of the world; and continuing to offer “lots and lots of stuff,” in an attempt to be all things to all students.

It is this last issue for which Rosenburg is especially concerned. To stay viable, he argues, colleges and universities have to redefine themselves as something specific and necessary. (“Staying in business is not a compelling answer.”) He writes: The key to providing high-quality tertiary education at scale in a situation of constraint is not to offer a partial or lesser version of the traditional model but to reimagine the model from the ground up—to question many of the implicit assumptions that have shaped higher education for a millennium and gone largely unchallenged and unchanged (143).

By way of comparison, Rosenburg describes his collaboration with colleagues in Africa who wish to build an innovative university system there. African education leaders, he argues, understand constraint far better than similar leaders in the United States. As such, Africa is better laboratory for experimentation. He writes: “[I]n situations of constraint, companies and organizations have no choice but to figure out solutions to problems that are less expensive and simpler to implement” (141).

Fair enough. But even Rosenburg must know that this advice is more inspiration than strategy; that institutional reinvention will come at an extraordinary cost. He telegraphs this in his candid assessment of his work in Africa. “There are few harder things than building a sustainable model of high-quality education at scale on the African continent” (155). I’ve no wish to question Rosenburg’s assessment, but it is odd coming at the end of the book that has successfully argued that the hardest problems in higher education are here. 

I finished Rosenburg’s book chastened (even a bit despairing) about the future of higher education. Sure, he expresses well the value of U.S. higher education—its virtues, its importance, its unique place in American culture—with an insider’s view that is neither gossipy nor tendentious. But Rosenburg never strays from his essential lament that must haunt any devoted higher education leader—and perhaps anyone who has benefited from a college education; that the cherished virtues and demonstrated advantages of our traditional colleges and universities will fade away if we do not take the considerable risk of remaking them anew. Now.


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