Two important news items came across my desk yesterday that has me thinking again about the flattening of higher education, something I started writing about back in 2007.  My use of the word “flattened” comes from Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat and is defined as “When the impact of the Internet and globalization render and industry unrecognizable, and in many cases, obsolete.” We are seeing evidence of this in higher education including IT staff being laid off by the hundreds on a single campus, academic programs and tenured faculty being eliminated and, the one that hits closest to home, web positions being eliminated.

The first news item was an announcement from SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher which provided details on how SUNY plans to share services among schools and the creation of SUNY Campus Alliance Networks.  To quote from the official SUNY announcement:

Campus Alliance Networks call for collaboration on administrative functions – among leadership and within information technology or human resources, for example – while increasing efficiency and enhancing educational opportunities by making the business and academic resources of other campuses in the region available to students, faculty, and staff at each site.

The second news item was a white paper from Deloitte called “Higher education must adapt to avoid ‘perfect storm’”. This report details how higher education is starting to function as a market economy and that higher education institutions must transform the way they do business. The report lists 10 areas that colleges and universities need to address to improve their performance. The first of these details how higher ed institutions are over budget and underfunded, and cost management is key. It predicted that some institutions “will improve efficiencies by reducing program duplication and fostering cross-institutional collaboration at the state level.” This sounds very similar to the SUNY Campus Alliance Network to me.

Taken together, these two news items paint a clear picture that the flattening of higher education has begun. Our system of higher education is based on a model that is centuries old.  It was built for a world that no longer exists. Change is coming, and faster than you think.

As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see a future where students can take classes at multiple SUNY campuses and get a SUNY degree rather than say a UB degree or a Fredonia degree.  Several writers including Don Tapscott and Anya Kamenetz have questioned the notion of the ivory tower as the fundamental unit of higher education. In a digital world, why shouldn’t a student take a course from another university?  If the best economics professor is at Binghamton or the best history professor at UB, why shouldn’t all SUNY students be able to take that class? Tapscott takes this one step further by  envisioning a world where a student receives a custom learning experience from a dozen universities from across the globe.

As the news broke yesterday about the SUNY Campus Alliance Networks, many of my SUNY friends and colleagues were up in arms. They are worried about their jobs, and rightfully so. But the fact is that the number of administrative positions on college campuses has doubled in the past 30 years and this is no longer sustainable.  I’m personally taking a more pragmatic approach. It’s time to think about how my skills can best be used in the flattened world of higher education.

I give Chancellor Zimpher full credit for thinking strategically and realistically about how we can move SUNY forward in the 21st century. I heard her talk at SUNYCUAD this summer and spent a few minutes with her afterwards talking about what SUNY will look like in 2025. While the idea of Campus Alliance Networks will not be popular, it is an important first step. Will this be disruptive? Absolutely.  Will there be some pain? Absolutely.  Welcome to the new normal. As Charles Darwin said –  “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

As I said in 2007, higher education is going to be flattened. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.