Unbundling Higher Ed: An Insider’s Perspective

Shrinking state funds, increasing oversight from foundations, competing for-profits, underemployed families, rising tuition, technological disruptions, the uncertainty of future employment sectors, the diminishing perceived value of higher education, and incessant calls for “change” challenge the public university system at its very core. That challenged core affords opportunities, most notably for the private sector — opportunities of which faculty need to take note.

What sort of opportunities? Michael Staton (2012), cofounder and CEO of Inigral, argues that since the collapse of music albums, newspapers, and the industries that depended on them, our constant online engagements transform the conceptual framework for understanding all services, even educational ones (p. 3). Staton goes so far as to define “college” “as a packaged bundle of content, services, experiences, and signals” (p. 4). He insists that this conceptual framework screams “market opportunity” that the university system won’t be able to conceal or protect (ibid). While collecting and analyzing more data than overworked faculty can, entrepreneurs can unbundle and more efficiently produce or distribute many of higher education’s component parts: course content, content sequencing, content delivery, feedback, credentials, coaching, professional networking … (pp. 6-9).

Jeffrey J. Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education recounts a conversation with Clay Christensen, Harvard business professor and expert on disruptive innovation. In that conversation, Christensen argued that prohibitive costs warrant new models for higher education. According to Christensen, “The history of innovation tells us those new models are not going to come from within higher ed. They will come from new entrants” (Selingo, 2013, p. xiv).

We already see new entrants and the start of this unbundling process. In 2011, venture capitalists devoted $429 million to educational companies, with an unprecedented 124 educational start-ups (Selingo, 2013, p. xi). Former senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation of Education and president emeritus of the University of Northern Colorado, Robert C. Dickeson (2010) claims, “The extent of the privatization trend has gone beyond outsourcing and now includes both tactical and strategic alliances that hold great promise” (p. 4). The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, for example, endorses collaborative partnerships to improve productivity and efficiency (Eddy, 2010, p. 23). At the 2013 SXSWedu Conference, the president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education shared his having had a recent meeting with a university president who sought a public-private partnership to improve the university’s student-success rate (Lyman, 2013, par. 4). Entrepreneurs no longer have to “seize” opportunities. University administrators solicit entrepreneurial solutions to their most pressing problems.

Companies provide expansive online course supplements with videos, assessments, plagiarism-detection services, essay-grading features, and instant feedback. Here at Austin Peay State University, Degree Compass offers insights into the future of course registration: a third-party service informs student progressions through degree pathways based on individual and comparative historical data. In Fall 2013, we began piloting institutional coaching through InsideTrack. Are these problems?

Instead of digging-in our heels, Staton (2012) argues, we should dig-in our shovels and build the foundations for not only stability, but more importantly institutional, faculty, and student success (p. 11). As best-selling entrepreneurial author Seth Godin (2010) reminds us, “If we can put it in a manual, we can outsource it. If we can outsource it, we can get it cheaper” (19). Cheaper can lower tuition and decrease the amount of debt students and their families incur. So the question becomes, What do we do that can’t be outsourced or automated? Or put more melodramatically, If digital or other services unbundle us, what of value do we have left?

Of course, this melodramatic search for a ghost in the educational machine overlooks the obvious. The professorate and on-ground collegiate experience provide well-documented, irreplaceable value — most notably, in faculty-student interactions and engagement with peer diversity. Professors model the thinking patterns, attitudes, and behaviors — what Staton (2012) calls the “meta-content” in faculty-student interactions (p. 24) — that lead to student success and lifelong learning. Sustained engagement with diversity fosters critical-thinking skills and prepares students for global citizenry. Entrepreneurs couldn’t easily unbundle or more efficiently distribute what, in its core, is a collection of quality human relationships.

If we were to play devil’s advocate in support of the disaggregation of higher education, we might conclude that what entrepreneurs can unbundle and redistribute can enable faculty to concentrate their efforts where they have the greatest impact. Any degree of “flipping” a course, for example, aims to relegate solitary learning practices (like watching lectures and taking quizzes) to online engagements and, more importantly, to open the classroom to in-depth peer-engagements and faculty-student interactions. Automated course-registration systems and outsourced institutional coaching — another two examples — can liberate academic advising for more valuable faculty-student interactions. From this perspective, the faculty’s time is not only precious, but also poorly allocated. Disaggregating the professorate does not necessarily diminish, but rather potentially augments the professorial role in student development and learning.

Since the 1950’s, the faculty’s role has changed from scholar to “academic professional” (Sorcinelli et al., 2006, p. 2). In large part thanks to Ernest L. Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), the professorate transcended “the tired old teaching versus research debate” (Boyer, 1990, p. xii), specifically by shifting attention from teaching to learning (Sorcinelli et al., 2006, p. 3). Faculty redirected their attention from defining their responsibilities to exploring the different means and venues for student learning. This new direction enabled a more diverse interpretation of the professorate. In Boyer’s (1990) words, “The richness of faculty talent should be celebrated, not restricted …. Such a mosaic of talent, if acknowledged, would bring renewed vitality to higher learning and the nation” (p. 27). While temporary-faculty contracts centered on teaching, tenure-track and tenured positions exploded with responsibilities, ranging from the acquisition of grants to the performance of administrative duties (Sorcinelli et al., 2006, p. 4).

In part due to the disaggregation of services that can be standardized or automated, faculty responsibilities continue to diversify, most notably to include co-curricular learning opportunities. Academic advising, for instance, is in the process of transforming from course registration to “an educational process” with its own distinct learning outcomes (Campbell and Nutt, 2008, p. 4). Similarly, George D. Kuh (2010) highlights student employment for its potential integration with the curriculum (para. 4). In fact, Kuh (2008) speculates that higher education can frame both on- and off-campus employment “so that work enriches, rather than competes with or is orthogonal to, an institution’s learning goals for its students” (p. xii). One might go so far as to claim that service-learning has enabled universities to formally explore, beyond internships, how to expand educational oversight and credit to community practices. From advising to other co-curricular interactions, faculty increasingly impact student learning inside, between, and outside classrooms with greater intentionality. In other words, this process of automating or outsourcing low-value work in fact has the potential to concentrate the faculty’s high-value efforts on the very essence of education, while broadening the physical and temporal domain of student learning.

But that potential utopia can give way to a potential nightmare if faculty don’t take the lead in these externally imposed frameworks for change. We operate in an environment in which the only way to warrant funding from foundations, private donors, or even certain components of state funding formulas is to make constant changes, regardless of whether those changes clearly benefit students before broader implementation. If the faculty do not take the lead by proactively (but selectively) implementing national trends, then foundations or entrepreneurs might influence administrators, state legislators, or the governor to implement them without faculty insight or oversight, and student movement to a degree could supplant the primary reasons for the degree.

Disaggregating services can help us identify, assess, improve, or even reimagine the packaging and delivery of services we already, albeit often unconsciously, package and deliver to students, alumni, and the community. Unbundling, automating, and outsourcing services can improve efficiency and liberate otherwise encumbered human, technological, spatial, or financial resources.

But if faculty willfully ignore or blindly reject the growing number of external models and pressures for such approaches, then those who reside solely outside the classroom will doubt and ignore the ghost in the educational machine. Unaware of the differences between content and meta-content, they will manage these changes in the absence of those who should lead them.





Boyer, Ernest L. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate. New York, NY: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Campbell, S. M. & Nutt, C. L. (2008). “Academic Advising in the New Global Century: Supporting Student Engagement and Learning Outcomes Achievement.” peerReview. 10 (1), pp. 4-7. Web. 7 July 2013. <http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-wi08/prwi08_AcAdv.cfm>

Dickeson, Robert C. (2010). Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Eddy, Pamela L. (2010). Partnerships and Collaborations in Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Godin, Seth. (2010). Lynchpin. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.

Kuh, George D. (2008). Forward. Five Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality. Jayne E. Brownell and Lynn E. Swaner. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, George D. (2010). “Maybe Experience Really Can Be the Best Teacher.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 15 July 2013. <http://chronicle.com/article/Maybe-Experience-Really-Can-Be/125433/>

Lyman, Frank. (2013). “Making Public-Private Partnerships Work in Higher Education.” The Huffington Post. Web. 16 June 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-lyman/making-publicprivate-part_b_2884747.html>

Selingo, Jeffrey J. (2013). College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. New York, NY: New Harvest.

Sorcinelli, Mary Dean; Austin, Ann E.; Eddy, Pamela L.; Beach, Andrea L. (2006). Creating the Future of Faculty Development: Learning from the Past, Understanding the Present. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Staton, Michael. (2012). “Disaggregating the Components of a College Degree.” American Enterprise Institute Conference, Stretching the Higher Education Dollar. August 2, 2012. Web. May 2, 2013. <http://www.aeig.org/events/2012/08/02stretching-the-higher-education-dollar>


Perception Management in the Campus Workplace

Higher education thrives on debate. Faculty and staff have diverse expertise, and the resulting conflicts force campus representatives to reevaluate their positions and develop broader frameworks for their actions. In the end, different understandings yield stronger operations and more effective services. Ultimately, interpretive differences strengthen an institution.

University employees who assert opposition, however, run the risk of not only making enemies, but also sabotaging their career opportunities. Far too often, I encounter faculty and staff who have irked enough colleagues that their careers hit walls. These employees routinely offer their services, but no one takes them up on their offers. They apply for administrative positions, but they go nowhere.

Faculty and staff have to manage how their colleagues perceive them. But perception management does not mean avoiding conflict. The university system depends too much on conflict for its employees to avoid it. Instead, perception management means offering a different perspective without others feeling attacked.

How do you do that?

1) Provide sufficient opportunities for others to speak. Many refuse to interrupt when they can’t find significant pauses or other conversational cues. They need opportunities to enter the conversation gracefully. Also, people process information differently. Whereas some process verbally — that is, by discussing — and jump quickly into conversations, others mull-over new information or translate it into a more familiar framework before responding. They need more time. A simple solution would be to ask periodically for others’ thoughts or questions and to sit back quietly until they finish responding.

2) Acknowledge what others say. Simply rephrasing others’ statements before developing or changing a topic can improve the social dynamic. So too can validating others by openly appreciating their ideas.

3) Help develop ideas before arguing against them. Arguing about minutiae kills ideas before they develop, and nobody likes a serial idea killer. Instead of starting with why not, first explore how to.

4) Smile and laugh. Smiles and laughter are contagious and feel good. If you want to promote positive feelings about you, then you have to promote positive feelings while people are around you, especially during disagreements.

5) Focus on people’s strengths. In higher education, we work with the same colleagues for decades. In an environment where so many people can’t get fired, finding fault with others gets old fast.  Search for positive characteristics in every single one of them, or risk a lifetime of a hostile work environment.

Many of us have advanced degrees in fierce autonomy and contentiousness. Professionally, we identify flaws and propose alternatives. Those are our strengths. Those are our institutions’ strengths. Ironically, the very characteristics that strengthen the institution can weaken its sense of community. Our professional strengths can cripple our careers.

These five simple tactics can help us manage our colleagues’ perceptions of us. They allow us to provide alternative perspectives without others feeling attacked. They synchronize both professional and institutional success.

Higher Ed Faces Daunting Challenges, and Opportunities


Higher education faces daunting challenges. It struggles to meet the demands of an economic crisis in which people need jobs and employers want higher-quality job candidates. Our computer-infused work environment requires greater technological, visual-thinking, and critical-thinking skills for even entry-level jobs. Globalization necessitates not only enhanced critical thinking, but correspondingly, the capacity for sustained engagements with ideological and cultural differences. Also, both citizenry and a growing number of work environments require the skills to navigate an increasingly rhetoric- and statistics-based world. In the face of rising student debt, students and their parents, legislators, and potential employers, however, now question the value of higher education. They most overtly question degrees in the humanities — which foster many of those skills, only without a clear career path. This conflict has resulted in new entrants in the market who then compete with at least the public colleges and universities, which have had to raise tuition to replace diminishing state funds.

This conflict reinforces the ongoing transformation of faculty in the university system. Especially to circumvent administrative bloat and its costs, faculty have had to harbor more and more administrative responsibilities, part of a growing trend of reframing faculty as academic professionals with a growing number of non-teaching responsibilities. These responsibilities demand a new social architecture, and we can achieve it only through innovative professional development.

Social architecture has two goals: distribute responsibilities and “integrate diverse efforts in pursuit of common goals” (Bolman & Deal, 2013, p. 44). The social architecture of higher education effectively distributes responsibilities, but it also creates silos. In fact, the extreme specialization by which higher education distributes responsibilities also creates the silos. Compounding this problem, a myth of solitary genius betrays reality: knowledge and innovation are not individual pursuits, but rather the result of collective practices. Extreme specialization and its resulting isolation permeate the culture of higher education and impede integrative initiatives that can facilitate common goals. To meet the demands of today’s challenges, the social architecture of higher education needs reform.

Higher education needs more diverse partnerships and collaborations. Whether in teaching, problem-solving, or creating new ventures, partnerships and collaborations diversify knowledge and expertise; expand the available human, technological, spatial, or financial resources; and distribute and diminish risks (Eddy, 2010, p. 21). Partnerships and collaborations can conserve resources, mend overextended departments, and improve sustainability and effectiveness.

Far too often, however, university representatives confine collaborations to a single division, like Academic Affairs, rather than explore collaborative opportunities between university divisions or with community partners. Pedagogically, many faculty look only to each other, particularly within their own departments, for collaborators. For new initiatives, some turn solely to their chairs, deans, or the provost for funding. In the end, stretched human and financial resources limit success.

Campus stakeholders reside in all university divisions. Student Affairs houses an array of departments that focus on developing student capacities for time- and stress-management, personal health and wellbeing, diversity awareness and appreciation, civic engagement, global citizenry, teamwork, and leadership. Under the direction of Human Resources, student employment can expand the range of immediate stakeholders for student development and success to the entire university.

The call for collaborations between university divisions is not new. At least since George D. Kuh’s 1994 keynote, “The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs,” student-affairs professionals have called for student- and academic-affairs collaborations that can produce what Kuh (March/April, 1996) calls “seamless learning environments” (p. 135). The term refers to curricular and co-curricular learning objectives working in tandem to overcome an otherwise fragmented learning process in order to foster lifelong learning.

The more faculty and staff interact, the better they can get to know each other, overcome inter-departmental or -divisional communication barriers and misunderstandings, foster a greater sense of campus community, collaborate, share knowledge and resources, innovate …. With shared imagination and support, a university’s faculty and staff can accomplish anything.

But partnerships and collaborations have to extend beyond the campus. The surrounding community also has a stake. The educational attainment of local citizenry can attract national employers, raise the competitiveness of local businesses, increase local tax revenue, improve community problem-solving skills, and in general expand both the pool and circulation of available resources. Imaginative administrators, faculty, and staff can identify and raise the awareness of potential stakeholders, collaborate with them, harness their vision, and empower, motivate, and mobilize community champions for student success.

Each university digs deep channels into the community that ferry students, workers, funding, and other resources back and forth for mutual sustainability and growth. Service-learning has enabled universities to formally explore, beyond internships, how to expand educational oversight and credit to community practices, but that and other integrative concepts need greater exploration. The university system’s further integration with the community can only benefit both it and the community.

Even to develop the skills and venues for partnerships, collaborations, and intentional explorations, faculty and staff and even community partners need innovative professional development. Differences in reward systems, norms for communications, reporting and authorization structures, and organizational objectives can convolute the incentives, decision-making process, documentation and assessment process, and expectations. Research indicates, on the one hand, that obligatory partnerships do not last past their mandates; on the other hand, partnerships that spring organically from pre-existing relationships foster mutual understanding, shared expectations, and more sustainable practices (Eddy, 2010, p. 21). After those human relationships yield collaborations, offices or personnel who maintain relationships with partnering organizations can nurture them and develop organizational bridges. But the human element has to happen first.

Here at Austin Peay State University, the Faculty Leadership Program (FLP) fosters campus interactions that can lead to student, faculty, and institutional success, and we’re expanding its framework to integrate faculty and staff through a Women’s Leadership Program (WLP). Unlike other universities’ leadership-development opportunities, the FLP and WLP do not cater to administrators. They do not support “leadership” as an official position. Nor do they promote campus success as a managerial responsibility.

Instead, the FLP and WLP promote leadership from the ranks. Adrianna Kezar (2001) reminds us that anyone, regardless of position, can serve as a change agent (p. 7). Through wide and deep personal networks, any individual can draw from diverse resources and knowledge to solve problems and develop campus innovations (Eddy, 2010, p. 29). At very least, a person can serve as a “node to connect disparate networks” (p. 64) in problem-solving and innovation.

Wide and deep personal networks expand personal awareness and influence. Diverse relationships enhance a person’s “cognitive flexibility” in an academically and operationally complex environment (p. 30). Close relationships improve that person’s influence in leveraging changes. A campus of change agents has the power to transform and strengthen the university, but it demands heightened faculty and staff awareness and interconnectivity.

Leadership from the ranks also responds more effectively than administrative managerialism does to external calls for change. Faculty and staff agency enables the “flexibility and adaptability that are particularly important in meeting external demands” (Kezar et al., 2006, p. 111), like those imposed by disruptive technologies, changes to the state funding formula, rising tuition during an economic downturn, social calls for increased accountability, decreased availability of state and federal grants, and the increased role of private donors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Educause, Complete College America, educational entrepreneurs …. The current climate demands heightened individual awareness and collective adaptability.

So long as state contributions fail to meet budgetary shortfalls, let alone continue to shrink, the public university system will need dynamic faculty and staff who can lead rapid changes in response to powerful external pressures, particularly those tied to monetary incentives. In an environment where only consistent, large-scale change initiatives can attract the funding for even essential university operations, strong faculty and staff leadership can shield students from harmful trends while developing and implementing bold practices that truly lead to student, institutional, and community success.





Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (2013). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, & Leadership; Fifth Ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Eddy, P. L. (2010). Partnerships and Collaborations in Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Kezar, A. J. (2001). Understanding and Facilitating Organizational Change in the 21st Century: Recent Research and Conceptualizations. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kezar, A. J.; Carducci, Rozana; & Contreras-McGavin, Melissa. (2006). Rethinking the “L” Word in Higher Education. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Kuh, G. D. (February, 1996). The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs. Retrieved from

Kuh, G. D. (March/April, 1996). Guiding Principles for Creating Seamless Learning Environments for Undergraduates. Retrieved from www.uwf.edu/studentaffairs/assessment/documents/StudentLearningReadings/GuidingPrinciples_Kuh1996.pdf