I recently sat down with John Warner to discuss his latest book, “Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education.” John is a writer, researcher, and author of eight books with 20 years of college teaching experience and over a decade as a contributor to the online news platform, Inside Higher Ed. John has become a national voice on faculty labor, institutional values, and writing pedagogy issues.
Watch the Conversation
Listen to the Conversation
Summary of the Conversation
John Warner sees public higher education as ideally funded (at least in part) by taxes as a kind of "public good", the same way we look at K-12 schools, libraries, or roads. The notion of "public higher ed" isn't necessarily a financial classification for John, but rather a philosophical classification. Public or private, these are all institutions that are inextricably entwined with our society and have a lot of benefits to society, even for people who are not attending them directly as students, or working for them as faculty and staff.
One of the things that a lot of higher education leaders are thinking about is the demographic cliff that they believe is coming. We can't have colleges and universities closing simply because we have a temporary dip in the number of 18 to 22-year-olds. We need to think about how these institutions are going to be there when we need them and to make them sustainable for future economic shocks. The problem for most public higher ed institutions is that they don't have large endowments to provide them cover as Ivy League schools do. John's solution for public higher ed institutions is to have them truly be backed by the public, with some of the money potentially coming from wealthy institutions through taxes and redistribution. John sees it as essentially a partnership between states and the federal government. Some people have done calculations around if we just took all the money the federal government puts into higher ed and we just distributed it to the states, we could get close to a "tuition-free" model.
John believes that you would need to create some mechanisms that incentivize states to maintain the upkeep of their universities. He would attach things like a maximum percentage of out-of-state students in a state institution. John believes that for a university like Alabama or Clemson to exclude the residents of Alabama or South Carolina in Clemson from one of their flagship universities is an abrogation of the values that these institutions were established with.
John believes there's a disconnect between "mission", the educational and research mission of an institution, and "operations." The way that the relationship between the student and the institution has been established has created distrust between students and institutions. The institutions recruit students because they are where cash flow comes from. It can make a difference if it feels as though this is not a purely transactional relationship between student and institution. We've gotten into a "doom loop" where students feel pressure, because of the cost of higher education, to go into a "good major" that's going to pay off in a job. The current generation of students has been oriented towards college and careers since they were in kindergarten. Everything they do in school is for a future benefit, never in the present, and never just for its own sake. It undercuts the mission. It tends to make students more suspicious of the motives of the institution itself because they see themselves as a means to the end for the institution.
One of the things John worries about with the current generations of students is they're not being shown the possibility that anything could happen to them in the future. "Your degree is not your destiny. Your field of study is not your destiny. If you get curious, if you want to learn and keep your eyes open, you might have some interesting things happen to you along the way." Students shouldn't feel pressured to major in something that they're not particularly interested in.
John believes that the idea that we need to start training around things like ChatGPT is wrong. He says we need to help students be prepared for change and for students to have the mindset and skills that allow them to adapt. We should be teaching students to learn how to learn.
Ian Evenstar: I'd like to start with your latest book, “Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education”, because you claim that this is actually a critical read for anyone invested in the future of public higher education. But first, let's qualify the title. You add the word public to specify the type of higher education. Why is that important to you?
John Warner: So part of it is philosophical, right? I see public education funded at least in part by taxes and public arena as a kind of public good, the same way we'd look at K-12 schools or libraries or roads or anything like that. But really part of what I've come to see since I wrote and published the book is that we can even see some ostensibly private institutions that are not publicly funded, but fulfill a kind of public-facing mission, right? The mission of educating people from all walks of life and improving their economic, social, and personal trajectories. But I want us to see it as education, higher education as part of the infrastructure of society, as something that has a vital role, not just for the people who attend. And receive degrees and a credential that goes into the marketplace, but as entities that actually have a function and purpose beyond just conferring degrees. These are institutions that are inextricably entwined with our society and have a lot of benefits to society, even for those people who are not attending them directly as students or working for them as faculty and staff.
IE: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. So if I were to summarize that sentiment, the notion of public isn't necessarily a financial classification, it's more of a philosophical classification of how you view higher education.
JW: That's right. We have these lofty notions of education, right? Like education is the great equalizer, education is the pathway to happiness and prosperity and these sorts of things. And my view is we should take those ambitions seriously, that if this is what we want education to be, we should root our approach towards how we arrange our institutions in those actual values
IE: And when taking things seriously, you've given us three filters in which to view that responsibility the criteria of it being, sustainable. You call out resilient and free. So let's start with "sustainable", that first criterion. Can you elaborate on what you mean by making public higher education more sustainable?
JW: I wrote the book during kind of the early phases of the pandemic right in, in 2020 as it looked like a real potential existential threat to a huge swath of higher education institutions as we knew that revenue was going to collapse and there would be just this sort of huge exogenous shock to the system.
And I began thinking if these institutions were oriented differently, what would allow them to absorb these sorts of things? So how do we make it a combination of sustainable and resilient, right? How do we create a structure and a system where we know these things are gonna be there generation after generation rooted in their mission, giving people the opportunities we want to give them rather than seeing a sort of up-and-down cycle of these sorts of things? One of the things lots of higher education leaders are thinking about now is the demographic cliff that we think is coming where there's simply gonna be fewer. Traditional college-age students, and so we can't have colleges and universities closing simply because we have a temporary dip in the number of 18 to 22-year-olds. We need to think, "How are these institutions going to be there for when we need them and to make them sustainable in that way? That goes along with "resilient", in being able to absorb these sorts of shocks, right? Things like a pandemic or on the horizon, something like the global climate change where these are obviously threats to both society and institutions themselves. So what are the things that we can do to create these, the bigger system and then the institutions inside the bigger system that allows them to navigate these inevitable things that come up that are a threat to both the institutions and society at large?
IE: I'm curious what answers you may have in terms of safeguarding against those threats. Both existential or, yeah, maybe driven by current market demands. My response to that would be, "That's what the endowments are for." And the endowments have been highly criticized because, these universities, as we know, it's not cheap to go to a public or private university. And the endowments really safeguard against any of those hard times and ensure the sustainability and resilience of an institution. Is the endowment part of the solution here, or do you have other solutions in mind?
JW: For those that have them, for sure. A place like Harvard and Yale and Princeton are permanently insulated from the concerns of financial downturn. They have enough wealth many times over in order to weather any sort of bumps in terms of their existence. I'm sure the people running those institutions find these Sorts of events also disrupting, but ultimately not an existential threat. The problem is most of our public institutions don't have endowments that provide this sort of cover my most recent employer, the College of Charleston, the endowment is somewhere around 50 million, 60 million, which sounds like a lot of money, but it's a fraction of the annual budget for the institution, right? And as a sort of entity that can throw off money to be used, it's relatively negligible. And that's really the case for most of these public institutions. So my solution for the public institution is that it's actually backed by the public, right? That it's supported by taxpayers and money. And some of that money is going to come from potentially come from wealthy institutions through taxes and redistribution of those sorts of things. There are certainly a lot of complications and I wouldn't say that any of this is one of the things I often say about this is the solution is pretty straightforward. We take this huge amount of money we have. We are an incredibly wealthy country and we have a lot of capabilities in this country and we. Take some of that and we proportionate to the places where the vast majority of students already attend places like community colleges or public universities. So that's straightforward. But it's not uncomplicated, right? How to achieve that is actually very complicated. And invokes issues of politics and those sorts of things. But the mechanism itself is not unknown. It's simply a matter of how in some cases, "How much do we want to do it?" or how much those who would have to share some of those resources, wanna resist that sort of thing. And this is, this is just society writ large imposed on higher education. This is nothing we don't struggle with in just about all areas of our culture.
IE: Yeah, it's true. And are you imagining the public funding would be at the community level?
Is that the state level? Is that more of a federal program? I know it is highly complicated and I want to avoid getting into the details of how this would be implemented or rolled out. But in broad strokes, do you see it as more of a national effort or is it more local or state?
JW: So I see it as a combination of all of the above, but essentially a partnership between states and federal government. As we all know, the federal government pours a huge amount of money currently into making higher education affordable through various programs, Pell Grant, other grants to institutions, and all kinds of federal money that flow into public universities through various programs. The whole student loan system, which is backed by the government, right? So there's a lot of money going in, but currently, with the system, it's used highly and efficiently, right? It does not, it attaches to students. It has a high bureaucratic cost around things like Pell Grants and other things. And some folks have done some calculations around if we just took all the money the federal government puts into it and we just distributed it to the states, we could get close to kind of tuition-free as long as states hold their current levels of funding steady. Now, being something of a realist around these things, even though I'm an idealist in the concept of a realist in putting these concepts to work, you would need to create some mechanisms that incentivize states to maintain the upkeep of their universities. And I would even attach things like Just as one example a maximum percentage of out-of-state students in a state institution now, right? Like right now, universities like the University of Alabama or Clemson University, one of my former employers are majority out-of-state students because they're competing for tuition money. They're bringing in that out-of-state tuition and it's helping them. But overall, this is damaging to non-flagship universities in the system, and really, a university like Alabama or Clemson to exclude the citizens of Alabama or South Carolina in Clemson from one of their flagship universities, because they need to bring in revenue from wealthier kids who come from out of state is ultimately a sort of abrogation, I think, of the values that these institutions were established with. So I think it's a partnership. I think as with a lot of things, when the federal government puts money into your state, there are strings attached, but the strings need to be oriented around the mission of the institutions and what we say we want these things to do, as opposed to just proforma accountability metrics or these kinds of things. We really want to think about, "What do we want these institutions to do and how do we want them to do it?"
IE: So let's say I'm the president of a university. I'm looking at the P&L, or maybe I'm a dean and I'm looking at the P&L statement for my college, and I don't see any federal taxpayer line items showing up on my balance sheet anytime soon. Are there things we can do in the interim to make the idea of sustainable resilient programming, more of a reality?
JW: There's what we can do, and then there's the world we live in presently, and the world doesn't stop. There are new students who are gonna come in the fall and these things are gonna keep going. One of the reasons why I advocate for this sort of funding system is because I believe there's a disconnect between mission, the educational and research mission of an institution, and what I call operations, which is embodied for me in a quote. Carol Christ, who's currently the chancellor of the University of California system, but at the time she said this, I think she was a vice chancellor, something like that. And she said this was in 2016, "Colleges and universities are fundamentally in the business of enrolling students for tuition dollars." And she's not wrong. If you do not have revenue and you don't have tuition, you do not exist. But that reality distorts the mission of the institution where the need to keep enrolling students and compete for students and use students as sources of funding and revenue cuts against the mission of education, research human development community service, and all these things that universities provide. I'll give one quick example of where this happens. This was a couple of years ago. Michigan State University had done a bunch of research and found that students who live in the dorms for more than just the first year, do better in all kinds of ways. They do better academically, they do better socially. It's, we know from a lot of research this is a good thing for the benefit of students. They tried to Initiate this policy and the students rebelled because they almost universally saw it as a university money grab from the students, motivated by simply drawing more money outta the students.
And I looked into it and it was clear this was not the motive. The motive was pure. The motive was mission-based, but the way that the relationship between the student and the institution had been established had created this great distrust. And so we see these things over and over where people worry about students only worried about grades or the credential or these sorts of things.
I think this underlying dynamic is at work in all of these things. So if we can see the ways, To align the mission, even in the absence of this sort of big structural change that I advocate for. But if we can think of what is the mission here? What are we trying to achieve? How do we communicate that to students?
How do we treat students as stakeholders rather than customers? I think this. This will help, right? It's not a game changer, but it is the mindset around how we relate to students and how we communicate to them, and the sorts of programs and policies we visit upon them. It can make a difference if it feels as though this is not a sort of purely transactional relationship between student and institution.
IE: Yeah, and I think that's where communications play a vital role is really being able to, it, like in that example that you just shared, could we have in some way exemplified the actual reason behind making that operational change and, try to connect, more clearly with the student what the true intent is and somehow clear any of that negativity or perhaps that misconception. I think in terms of the disconnect that you described between mission and operations and this overarching market factor or this market pressure that creates a misalignment between mission and operations. I think you see that not only in the ways that. The institution enrolls and recruits students because they are after all where the cash flow comes from. But it's also, I've seen it on how the curriculum is designed, so you get a lot of courses and programs retooling their curriculum to be more career focused, which isn't necessarily the mission, especially. Say, within a liberal arts education, it's not necessarily the mission to get a job after college.
So this market factor is playing a role, I think, not only in the way that the universities are being run but also in the way that the education and the learning outcomes are being designed. Would you agree with that?
JW: I couldn't agree more. I think we've gotten in a sort of doom loop of this where students feel pressure, because of the cost of higher education, a pressure to go into a good major that's gonna pay off in a job. Universities then in turn feel the pressure to give them sorts of programs that will lead to these good jobs. But really, and this is rooted very much in my, career as a just frontline instructor primarily of like general education courses, the stuff that students don't actually wanna take and wonder what they're there for. I've actually found if you break underneath that attitude, which they often arrive with, the vast majority of students arrive at college or university wanting to learn things. They do want to learn. They are often skeptical that learning things is actually what the institution and the courses and the major and the courses and the professors are interested in. I would sometimes have to spend a lot of upfront time saying no, I really we're here to learn stuff. It's not just to get past this course and get your credit and move on to the next thing. But this attitude is to your point it's pretty pervasive and it takes some undoing and it's entirely explicable, based on the system as students have experienced it prior to college. They've been told particularly this the current generation of students really has been oriented towards college and career since they were in kindergarten and they've been experiencing what I call indefinite delayed benefit, where everything they do in school is for some future benefit, never in the present never just for its own sake. But because you're gonna get into a good college, you're gonna score well on your SATs, you're gonna get AP credit that will shorten your time to degree, or you're gonna get a job and all these kinds of things. And so that student skepticism, I think is Explicable well earned in a way, like why would they believe otherwise? But I very much agree with your point where we emphasize things other than learning where we emphasize the sort of where we emphasize credentialing, where we emphasize how the degree is going to pay off as opposed to the kinds of experiences that we're gonna go through on our way to a degree. It undercuts that mission. And it tends to make students more suspicious of the motives of the institution itself, cuz they just see themselves as a kind of means to the end for the institution.
IE: I have a slightly different way of, I think, recontextualizing, what you just shared there and communicating the value ultimately that you receive from your educational experience. So we're so focused on the result, the quantitative result that this education will provide to me, the learner. And that's in business terms, RO, right? It's the return on your investment. I'm gonna put dollars in and I'm gonna get dollars out. So I've tried to reposition that ROI as, "No, this is the reach of impact."
This is the amount of impact that you're making on yourself as a transformative experience and to your, I think to your point, you're saying that this is gonna have lifelong lasting changes and impact. The reach of impact of this educational experience is going to be long-lasting, far after graduation. So thinking of ROI, not just on the business and the quantitative side, but also on the qualitative side.
JW: And to your point, I think one of the mistakes the industry has made in general is what I think is an ultimately fruitless search for a quantifier of the value of a college degree, right? That return on investment. The qualitative, like we live our lives in the qualitative space on a day-to-day moment-to-moment basis. And I'm a guy with three English degrees who had a huge variety of experiences and professional experiences. I've been a market research consultant. I'm an education consultant. Now I do speeches all over the country. I write a newspaper column. I've written novels and humor books. It's and I'm just a middle-aged guy who's got some miles under his tires but has some miles to go still. And it's fun, right? It should be interesting. One of the things I worry about the current gen, the experiences of the current generations of students is they're not being shown the possibility that anything could happen to them in the future. And your degree is not your destiny. Your field of study is not your destiny. But if you get curious, if you wanna learn and keep your eyes open, you might have some interesting things happen to you along the way.
IE: All right, so before we get into learning outcomes and what colleges and universities should be teaching in this new era, post-pandemic era, let's touch on the last criterion of your book, which is "free." So part of this framework that you're presenting includes ultimately, free access to education. Is that right? Or do you, are you clarifying the word free?
JW: Part of it is free as intuition free or let me put it more pragmatically where cost is not a barrier to entry for those who qualify and would like to pursue post-secondary education. And I really include post-secondary education beyond just college and university, right? Like I, I'm all for apprenticeship programs and anything else like that. I think one of the problems we've had with four-year colleges and universities is suggesting that those are the only routes toward happiness and prosperity. We know that's not the case, then we should be more mindful of all the different paths people can take. But also free in the sense of freeing, what we were just talking about, where students don't feel pressured to major in something that they're not particularly interested in because they think it's going to pay off. If they wanna be a history major or philosophy major, French major or English major, or creative writing major as I was, these should be options for them that don't feel as though they're consigning themselves to some sort of future life of poverty or deprivation or anything like that. And to also have everybody who's in the institution feel free to speak their minds and live their lives according to their own desires and not be subject to Sudden termination simply for expressing a different idea and this kind of stuff. And this gets into issues of academic freedom and this sort of thing. But as somebody who spent his entire teaching career, off the tenure track, just as a non-tenure track instructor, mostly full-time, but occasionally adjunct part-time I never, I never had those things. And the number of times it impacted how I could do my work is off the charts. Accountable and not just in the academic freedom sense. The six years I was working at Clemson University, my, and this was from 2005 to 2011, so it's improved somewhat since, but I was making, my salary was $25,000 a year to teach eight courses a year, and that's simply not it's not sustainable as an individual, right? The only reason I could do it was because I had outside income as a writer and editor and these sorts of things, and a well-employed spouse who could bring home the bulk of our household income. Ultimately, this is just, this is not the route to a well-functioning institution, and it constrains freedom, right? If I had my way, I wouldn't be talking to you right now. I'd be in the midst of my end-of-semester work wherever I'm teaching. But ultimately the opportunity cost of being in my late forties and making many multiples below what I could make going out, even freelance on my own, ended my teaching career. And this is not consistent with values of freedom and choice and this kind of stuff. These institutions should be, in theory, set up to embody these things because they're awesome and they're incredible, and they have all these. The work you get to do inside a university is essentially oriented around freedom. Freedom of your own mind, freedom of inquiry, exploration, all those kinds of things. And yet we've set up all of these barriers to these things cause of the way the system and the institutions are structured. If you remove those things, amazing. If somebody had just come to me and said, "We're gonna pay you $50,000 a year with a cost of living increase for the rest of your life to teach four sections of student writing every semester." I would've taken it in a heartbeat. But those jobs are actually rare and hard to come by, and they shouldn't be because we need people to do that. We need students to learn how to write. We need people to do it. For whatever reason, we have a system that does not support that sort of work, and that's what I mean by free, where we can have those things.
IE: You've covered a lot of ground there. Thinking through the student's perspective, the faculty or the adjunct perspective, and then the perspective of the institution. I, too, was an adjunct for many years, and in the same situation, it was only because I had full-time employment for my agency to support those endeavors. So for me, this was like community service to give back to an institution or to an industry in a way that felt, I guess, very valuable and freeing for me, but not from a financial standpoint. Certainly not. We'll have to double your salary for the, for what we're paying you for this podcast, maybe to make up for lost ground, but thank you for your service. Of course, it just seems like we're in such a gridlock though, right? Because from the institution's standpoint, the reason they leverage adjuncts is that people like us can bring in top-quality talent in order to teach who are maybe giving back. And then adjuncts are also variable costs, right? So it's a way for them to decrease their expense and still keep the quality, the freeing quality of the education alive and well. But it's not working. It's like it's broken in a way. Do you see any, other than this idea of, taxpayers u unifying together, what else can we do? How do we solve this gridlock?
JW: Some of it I do think there are constraints, right? There are constraints about revenue and resources and that kind of thing. I think the first step and really this is a step for leaders on campus, is to have frank discussions about where the disconnects between mission and operations are, and then this only happens incrementally, but you try to bring along the teaching and learning conditions to be commensurate with what you actually believe is necessary for the work to be done. We have guidelines around these things. We have guidelines around I was a writing teacher the National College for Teachers of English says an instructor should have ideally three sections of 15 students total of 45 per semester and a maximum of 20 per section 60. An institution can set that as a goal. We are going to have these conditions, we are going to try to meet these conditions. That was rare in my career. I'd had semesters where I'd have over 200 students in writing-intensive courses. But if we can set these goals and can create actual targets and benchmarks against which to measure ourselves, we can make progress. One of the things that happened at was the College of Charleston which was again, not as far as one would like, but incremental as they took what they called full-time adjuncts. Essentially part-time workers who were teaching were the equivalent of a full load. And we're able to give them a little bit of a salary bump and make them eligible for health insurance now. They were still underpaid. They're still overworked. But being eligible for health insurance through the state plan is a huge benefit. And it's great progress. So it's not that we have to reach the finish line in a week, right? But we have to be able to identify what the good conditions of teaching and learning look like on the ground, and how they manifest themselves. And I look around and I give talks and I consult and I see places where this canon is happening. But it really takes a lot of the cavalry isn't coming in to help. It really is about the inside the institution making a concerted push to improve these things and make these a priority consistent with the values and to be my experience of observing those also is the teaching force, the non-tenure track teaching force, can often approach that with a lot of goodwill. If they see it as oriented around values and the good and the other thing that's happening big picture right now is unionization is having a huge impact on these things in many different contexts. And I'll I'm a pro-union guy. I'm pro-labor. I see myself as a laborer first when I work for these institutions. That's having an effect. Institutions are gonna find themselves in collective bargaining instances where they have less control. So it's, in some cases, it may be in their interest to. Start orienting around these questions. So there's less acrimony and less chance of these sorts of things happening.
IE: In terms of looking within and seeing any disconnect between mission and operations. One thing that came to mind as you were describing that, so in my experience, the learning outcomes were attainable in a shorter amount of class time, so my salary didn't change, but the administration said, "Okay, we can actually move this to one day a week, lecture and lab", versus the two or three days that I was required to be there. And so I think there are ways to innovate or maybe around the operations in ways that don't sacrifice the mission and maybe get us closer to these goals that you're describing. Does this also touch upon how we make education more accessible and affordable to all people, regardless of their socioeconomic background? Is that a similar answer to looking within for ways to work toward this goal? Or are there other ways that institutions can work toward this goal of access and affordability?
JW: External support and incentives play a big role. But again, inside the institutions, if they believe in the mission of accessibility, things can be done to make the institution more accessible. And, there's a lot of folks who are studying these things and finding really pretty straightforward. Things that help students, and not just in terms of admissions, but like transportation or food insecurity or to your point, like how many days of the week a class meets or when it meets. There's just a story in Inside Higher Ed, just this morning as we're recording, about how a lot of working students are taking advantage of the "high flex" course structure, which did not work great during the pandemic for a lot of students because they don't see themselves as "high flex" students. But for the ones who are like, yes, I wanna attend, but I can't always, but I need a way to keep up when I can't. Makes a huge difference in terms of allowing those students to persist. And so if we. Don't look at students as a monolith, but instead, and I think this is I have a, I have this background in research and market research. I'm a big believer in, "Go talk to the students." Even at the class level, if somebody's not showing up, it's like, why are you not showing up? And particularly at 8:00 AM I had a student I have dozens of these stories from over the years. I'm sure you do too, from teaching. The same student who was 20 minutes late every single day to my 8:00 AM course three days a week, and I finally asked her, and she was a good student, diligent in everything other than showing up on time, which constantly had her scrambling to keep up. And she eventually said she just told me she had a young kid who she had to drop off at school, and could not drop her child off any earlier than a certain time, which did not leave her enough time to get to school. It left her enough time to get to school but did not leave her enough time to park because of the way the parking worked at the institution. And that's a problem we can solve. We can say, "I have a student with a unique set of circumstances. She needs a dedicated parking spot that's not a mile and a half away where you make all the students park." And we solved it, and to me, that's just one example. Every student has something like that, right? And likely as you talk to the students individually, these problems will cluster and you can make policies, and you can make arrangements. And these barriers that don't have to exist come down. And soon we have a more efficient use of resources. We're not having students fail out because of parking problems or transportation problems or food insecurity. And we are fulfilling the mission of doing what these awesome institutions are capable of doing in ways other institutions are not. That's my message is, "The role of these institutions in society is unique, so let's take advantage of it and make the best use of them that we can."
IE: And this idea of "high flex", and I'm just thinking of your example there with the parking situation and being "high flex", you as an educator were flexible at that moment. You were able to have that conversation and make an innovative, flexible solution that didn't impact. I'm thinking that idea of High Flex could actually be between faculty and student, but it could be also between the dean and faculty. And it could be between the president's office and the deans. Like how do we become more high flex throughout the entire institution?
JW: That's an excellent point because one of the things that always frustrated me was the steady drain of talent out of the institution. And not just talking about myself, but over and over again, people who did not fit into the prescribed slots that the institution had for them. Maybe didn't wanna pursue a tenure track job or maybe only had maybe could only teach fall or only teach spring. But we don't have the capacity to bring them in and do this because of policy, because of bureaucracy, because of lack of agency and freedom among some of those administrators we're not given the tools or latitude that allows them to solve those problems, right? If I have a great instructor who can only teach half the year but I see the outcomes of their students are like, awesome, and I wanna keep them as part of my institution because hey, maybe someday they can do the whole year and it's just now. I wanna try to find a way to hold onto that person. And this is, I'm a died-in-the-wool lefty, progressive college professor writer type. But a lot of what I think about these things are lessons I learned working in corporate America on sort of the way my employers in those situations worked really hard to hold onto talent because it was If you have somebody who's contributing to your organization, it's much more costly and much much harder to replace them to than to simply give them something that's going to keep them in the fold, happy, productive, you're gonna get much more value out of that person. Unfortunately, higher education institutions with the way they're oriented, let amazing talent, particularly at the staff level where there's nowhere to go, right? If you're a staff person, they walk away constantly. And this is not good for institutions. But the number of times I've heard a dean or a provost sigh and say, "My hands are tied." It's enough to kill you after a while. It's not that they're wrong, but you wonder "Why does this have to be the case?" And if we all agree it doesn't work let's figure out what does work.
IE: So let's turn our focus to a different topic before we look to close here. I know that one of the themes in your book was around student preparation and really making sure that students are feeling prepared for a rapidly changing environment, especially the post-pandemic environment world we live in. I think the pandemic in a way actually prepared students, and that was one of the messages I took to class was, Hey, this might feel really terrible having a. Take your class in the closet on your laptop because mom is making kitchen outside or making dinner in the kitchen outside. But this is actually giving you the skills that you'll need. And now some students are opting for "high flex" because they've learned those skills. So I think in some ways the pandemic trained us on ways to operate in this new norm that we're all experiencing. But how else should we be teaching and preparing students for the 21st century today?
JW: Sometimes I feel old school on this, but I'm very I'm major or discipline agnostic. I'm much more about, "How do we turn everybody into a good critical thinker, a good consumer of media and stimulus and knowing what's true and what's not true and adapting to change and these sorts of things?" One of the things with the release of ChatGPT, generative AI technology has been a huge boost to my personal bottom line because I have this background in teaching writing and I've written a couple of books about it, and all of a sudden everybody wants to talk to me about it. I don't have any tech background. I'd played around with this stuff when it was an earlier version, but what I realized is, "Oh, I learned how to learn. I learned how to get myself up to speed on these things even though I was not familiar with the tech or large language models or anything to do with it." And that's what I want students to be able to do, is to have the mindset and skills that allow them to adapt. The idea that we need to spin up a ChatGPT or generative AI major doesn't make any sense to me. We don't know what this technology is going to look like or be like six months from now, let alone three years or five years from now. So the idea that we need to start training around this stuff, I think is wrong. We need to help students be prepared for that change. And I think that your pandemic example is well taken, right? The whole world had to change how they did things almost overnight. And we learned a lot from that. And I think teaching in a lot of ways has benefited from that. I've talked to a lot of teachers that in the aftermath of the pandemic have jettisoned practices that they clung to prior to the pandemic that they were like, I guess that wasn't important. And it's allowed space for other things to come in. So it's not that we shouldn't have majors, it's not that a degree is free for all and a smorgasbord and this kind of stuff, but we should really, I think we should be oriented around the kinds of experiences that allow people to come out as sophisticated thinkers, knowing themselves, understanding how they interact and intersect with the world, and giving them the confidence and agency to know what direction they wanna go. I think that's a huge part of the process, particularly for traditional-age college students, some of the older students often know what they're there for. But for me, college was like, I don't know what I'm here for. I don't know what I wanna do. And because I'm old enough, I went to college in an era where I was allowed to figure it out and stumble and make mistakes and keep learning and growing over the course of four years and beyond. And that's what I want to give to students today to have the kind of resources and the chance to try and fail and make connections and have mentors. I think that's the stuff that ultimately pays off long-term.
IE: You've hit a number of points. I'm just gonna mirror back some of which that I heard, which resonated with me. In an era today where there's so much AI technology available. So many deep fakes. You layer the algorithm onto those deep fakes where you're actually getting served media that is specific to your behaviors and that media may or may not be true. So the idea of critical thinking as it applies to the good and responsible consumption of media learning how to be a responsible consumer of media. Amen. Yes, that is a great skill. We should be teaching learning how to learn. I feel like that is an evergreen one and, is super applicable today in light of this influx of information overload and media. And then maybe circling back to just the somewhat of the theme that we've touched on today is being mission-focused as a provider of educational media as a provider of, the media or the content that happens and occurs within a learning environment. So being mission-focused in that regard, but then also maybe being mission-focused as a consumer of education, as a student, and really aligning around your values and the mission of what you want as a learner.
JW: The traditional, "Go to college to figure out what you wanna do with your life." It's a pretty good reason to go and to live a life that's happy and fulfilling and interesting, not just where you think about how am I gonna make the most amount of money possible. And then we all wanna be comfortable, we all wanna be secure, but I'll take happy under that umbrella any day. And we all need help figuring that out. And college is a great place to start to learn that.
IE: Any, that's a great final thought, but any other final thoughts that you'd like to leave the listeners with?
JW: I waffle between skepticism that we can change. When I look at the big picture, I'm like, "Oh man, this is a really big thing." But then when I travel to give a talk, one of the things I try to do if I give a talk somewhere is set aside time to talk to students or staff or faculty. And every single place I go, I see amazing things happening. I see great change. I see mission-oriented people. I see a lot of people who are trying to make the lives of the people who intersect with the institution better. So I know it's happening and I know it's possible. And so really we just need to give those people more time, more resources, more space, more freedom in order to do that because. The will is there among a lot of people. The person-power is there. There are some barriers in the place and there's a lack of resources, but it's not for lack of knowing what we need to do. And so that's when I get encouraged. Big picture. I get a little despairing, but then when you get on the ground, you're like, "Man that's cool." This spring I've been to seven or eight different in-person after the pandemic for the first time, not giving virtual talks, in-person talks, and every single stop along the way, all different kinds of institutions, something amazing is happening, and if you can identify those things and build on them, then progress can happen.
IE: Thank you, John. It's a delight to sit down. I feel like we should bring you back the half of our conversation we didn't even get to. But I'm really grateful for the time that we did share today. It's just been a pleasure. And as always, you've provided your listeners, your readers, with a lot to think about a lot to chew on, and it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
JW: It was really fun for me. Thanks for having me.
Grow your enrollment with our SEO, SEM, and GA4 packages!