Reflections on missed opportunities.

From coast to coast, colleagues at different types of institutions report struggles as they adapt pedagogies, supporting materials, and communication with students to distance teaching. These reports bring back memories of the mid-1990s.

In 19944-1995, a bipartisan group of governors in the Mountain West came togethet to envision the future of their respective states. They agreed on the need to improve the quality while also expanding the capacity of their educational systems. They also agreed that new operational and financial models would have to be developed for higher education.

The universities of the future would have to be affordable for students of modest means, accessible to working adults, parents of young children, and others unable to commute long distances to the existing campuses. The governors also shared a belief that emerging technologies might offer solutions to the key issues of lower cost and greater access.

I have been reflecting on this experience as I hear from higher education colleagues struggling to “convert” courses, master new tools, and evaluate student performance. I feel sad, even a tad guilty.

Twenty-five years ago, some elected officials and some corporate leaders who supported their experiments led the way in envisioning the future of higher education. They focused on academic quality, largely as defined by accreditors and professional societies, but also on access and affordability. Most of their counterparts in higher education (my contemporaries) resisted the experiments, doing little or nothing to prepare their institutions for the future.

The list of missed opportunities is long. Fortunately, most of the higher education leaders who were in charge in the 1990s have already retired. Today’s students cannot imagine a world without information and communication technologies literally at their fingertips. They also understand issues of access and affordability. The current crisis makes it possible for today’s campus leaders to catch up, to engage the radical transformation of the higher education enterprise that my generation mostly failed to engage. As others have said, we should not let a major crisis go to waste.

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