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Acceleration Check

May 2017

By Tadu Yimam

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Colleges and universities must keep pace with the education requirements of a rapidly changing marketplace, while fundamentally rethinking their relationships with students.

Thomas L. Friedman

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, renowned for his sophisticated analysis of complex issues facing the world, will be the opening general session speaker at the NACUBO 2017 Annual Meeting, July 29–August 1, in Minneapolis. In this conversation with Business Officer, Friedman expands on some of the key arguments of his latest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016).

Briefly describe the forces you see at play in our economy and society that you say are speeding up at an unprecedented pace, and share why these particular issues rise to the top of your list of concerns.

My job as a columnist is to think about what are the biggest forces shaping more things and more places in more ways and on more days. What I concluded in researching this book is that there are really three big, what I call, accelerations happening in the world today.

One acceleration that is taking place in the market is digital globalization. This is not your grandfather’s globalization. That was containers on ships. Everything is now being digitized and globalized, whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, PayPal, or—within education—through MOOCs [massive open online courses]. If you chart this on a graph, it looks like a soaring hockey stick.

Mother Nature is a second force. This includes climate change, biodiversity loss, and population growth; and if you mark that activity on a graph, it also looks like a soaring hockey stick.

The third force is Moore’s law. Back in 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that the speed and power of microchips would double roughly every 24 months. That timing is now closer to every 30 months, but the reality of that prediction is still going strong 52 years later. And this doubling, doubling, doubling, is really the driver of all technological change today.

What is the actual impact of these accelerating forces?

If you put these three together—accelerations within the market, Mother Nature, and Moore’s law—you will see an interaction among these forces that I think really helps explain more things occurring in more places in more ways and on more days. Moore’s law drives more globalization, and more globalization drives more climate change, though also potentially more solutions.

What specific implications for higher education do you see in this age of accelerations?

The days when I could go to a two- or four-year college, fill my head with all these facts and stockpiles of knowledge, and then gradually spend those stockpiles over the next 30 years of my career—those days are over. The pace of change today is simply too fast.

I’ve included a quote in the book from a congressman from Minnesota, who said that an average male growing up in Minnesota during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, really needed a plan to fail, because there was such an updraft of white-collar and blue-collar work available. Today, everyone must have a plan to succeed and must update that plan every four years or so.

This will be a challenge for companies and for colleges and universities alike, but I provide lots of examples in the book of how this challenge is being met. One example is about how Google released the algorithm for TensorFlow, which is a program for machine learning; and within a month or two, the online university Udacity already had a course available on this. My question is, “How many traditional universities can move that quickly?” If something has to go through approvals by 10 committees before being integrated into the computer science curriculum two years later, you’re simply not going to remain relevant to workers.

What must colleges and universities do to remain relevant? For instance, you also talk about the loss of trust in democratic institutions and the growing skepticism about their value. How can higher education institutions prove their value?

Part of the job of higher education is to help people understand what world we’re living in and to help them adapt to that world. I do believe institutions should be teaching Shakespeare and philosophy, but it’s also important for them to be plugged in to the demands of the global economy and understand what skills are needed in the marketplace. Colleges and universities have to learn how to leverage that understanding in real time.

Two main points I would make for how higher education must fundamentally change: First, educators have to start with the central new learning challenge that this age of accelerations poses, and that is the fact that today we all have to become lifelong learners. One implication for filling the need for learning throughout one’s career is that colleges and universities have to fundamentally reconsider their relationships with their students. I was an undergrad at Brandeis University. So, I would argue that the relationship should not end with me graduating from Brandeis and then sending a check every so often and rooting for the basketball team. Brandeis should have an online learning platform that enables me to continue to update my learning for the next 30 years.

And the second fundamental change?

A second implication for education is that it has to be affordable, so that individuals are able to continually update their skills and knowledge. I’m a big believer in, and a huge fan of, liberal arts education. I am certainly glad that I had a four-year college experience. I loved living in a dorm, and wearing the sweatshirt, and I continue to love rooting for my alma mater. All this is a wonderful experience and has value in and of itself, but it’s not going to be wonderful at a continually rising price point relative to the demands for lifelong learning that will face graduates. In many cases, the cost is getting to a point where it’s ridiculously out of proportion to the value that you will be able to translate immediately into the workplace.

At the same time, I would argue that all postsecondary education should be tax free. As a society, we can’t tell people that they need to become lifelong learners and to update their knowledge and skills every four years, but then expect them to make $80,000 annually in order to have $40,000 to pay for their ongoing education. So, we definitely need a different funding model in terms of what colleges charge and how we tax learning. Eventually the market will force some of these changes, otherwise institutions will become roadkill. There simply will no longer be enough people who will find value in the current model at the current price. These issues of cost and relationship to students are, I think, the central challenges for every higher education institution today.

More generally, you talk in your book about the politics of all this rapid change and how it leaves many feeling unsettled. While you point to the rise of globalization, we are witnessing a wave of populism and protectionist rhetoric sweeping across Western democracies in particular. Within that context, how can we continue to embrace difference and global participation as ideals that we want to retain?

In my book I use nature as a real model and mentor. All you have to do is look to see that Mother Nature’s most resilient ecosystems are her most diverse ecosystems. When you plow a prairie and replace it with a monoculture of a single crop, or when as a society we adopt a monoculture of ideas, those are much less resilient systems. When things are changing fast, it’s the most open systems that will adapt best, because they will get the signals first and will attract the most high-IQ risk-takers who will be best at finding solutions.

What would this kind of open-system innovation look like?

As one example, if you want to fix health care, what would a normal system and a normal leader do? You would call your democratic leadership together and say, send me your three smartest health-care experts. And, I’m going to send you my three smartest health-care experts. Now, let’s send them all to Camp David and tell them they can’t come back until they’ve come up with a compromise solution to fix and improve Obamacare. We’ll rename it whatever you want. I might get more credit than you will, but we’ll both get credit, and the country will be better off.

Learning to work together is absolutely crucial for a democracy. The notion that you can’t do anything big or hard that you don’t do together is a lesson you can choose to learn early, or you can learn it late. But, in the end, you have to learn it if you want your country to work.

To your point about learning to work together, you also say that we are at a moral fork in the road where we have some really big challenges as a nation and as a planet that we need to tackle, but that this requires a degree of moral innovation we’ve only begun to explore. What does this suggest in terms of leadership development going forward?

For starters, no student should be able to graduate from college without a course in digital civics, which involves understanding that the Internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information, and that you better build in the filters to understand how to separate what is fact from fiction in that world. Digital civics must teach people how to triangulate, how to think horizontally, to take that statement or assumption and move over here to check it on Google with other reliable sources. More than ever, this will be vital to having and maintaining a balanced and effective democracy.

At the same time that we need to be teaching digital civics, we need a good dose of ethics coming from strong families and healthy communities. I know something about healthy communities, because I grew up in one. In a healthy community, you learn to be connected to people. To do unto others as you wish them to do unto you is the Golden Rule, and every faith community has some version of this. And so, this need for building healthy communities is really where I focus a lot of my attention in this book.

You also talk about the need to rethink social contracts between workers and employers, studentsand educational institutions, and citizens and government. Where do communities fit within these renewed social contracts?

In an age of accelerations, the proper governing unit is no longer the nation state, which is simply too slow, and, in our case, too partisan, paralyzed, and divided. I would argue that the proper governing unit is the healthy community. Step back from higher education for a minute and consider public K–12 education. Communities that are doing well are creating an intimate relationship between local businesses and the local public school system, where the local business community is translating much more intimately, directly, and urgently, the skills they need coming from the local public school system, and where schools are then adapting their curriculum accordingly.

Now, the best communities in America are those where you have a collaboration among local business, the local public school systems, and local philanthropies that create pilot projects and learning opportunities and then work with local government on a very nonpartisan or bipartisan basis to meet the challenges of the 21st century workplace. This kind of organic collaboration is in fact happening in many communities around the country. What is important to understand is that no single entity can do this in isolation. Business can’t do it without schools; schools can’t do it without business; schools and business can’t do it without philanthropies; and schools, business, and philanthropies can’t do it without the help of local government.

Ironically, these rapid accelerations in the market, in Mother Nature, and in Moore’s law could in part be what help bring us back together as communities. That’s why I tell people that if they want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head, because the country actually looks much better from the bottom up than from the top down. Where people are working on that kind of nonpartisan basis at the local level to create an adaptive organism—to build resilience and propulsion as we move through these accelerations—those are the communities and the people who are going to win.

TADU YIMAM is director of online learning and publications for NACUBO.

Related Topics

“I tell people that if they want to be an optimist about America, stand on your head, because the country actually looks much better from the bottom up than from the top down.”

“At a minimum, our educational systems must be retooled to maximize these needed skills and attributes: strong fundamentals in writing, reading, coding, and math; creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration; grit, self-motivation, and lifelong learning habits; and entrepreneurship and improvisation—at every level.”

“If traditional postsecondary schools are going to remain relevant in a world where everyone will require lifelong learning, educators need to provide those opportunities at a viable speed, price point, and level of on-demand mobility.”

“We need an entrepreneurial mindset, a willingness to approach politics and problem-solving with an utterly hybrid, heterodox, and nondogmatic mixing and matching of ideas, without regard to traditional left-right catechisms—letting all kinds of ideas coevolve, just as plants and animals coevolve in nature.”

“As a species, we have never before stood at this moral fork in the road—where one of us could kill all of us and all of us could fix everything if we really decided to do so. Therefore, properly exercising the powers that have been uniquely placed in the hands of our generation will require a degree of moral innovation that we have barely begun to explore, in America or globally, and a degree of grounding in ethics that most leaders lack.”

“Which state can come up with the best platform for retraining workers? Which state can design a pilot city or community of the future where everything from self-driving vehicles and ubiquitous Wi-Fi to education, clean energy, affordable housing, health care, and green spaces is all integrated into a gigabit-enabled platform? Which city can come up with the best program for turning its public schools into 16-hour-a-day community centers, adult learning centers, and public health centers? We need to take advantage of the fact that we have 50 states and hundreds of cities able to experiment and hasten social innovation.”