The conference was billed as a symposium on the future of higher education.
But, by and large, speakers at the forum organized by the New School, part of its conference series on social research, were focused on the challenges of today, not on the possibilities of tomorrow—or those 20 years down the road.
Indeed, to underscore the immediacy of the problems facing American universities, protesters angered by tuition increases at the City University of New York interrupted the opening session, drowning out the system's chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, who was one of the panelists.
The demonstrators' tactics may have been confrontational—with the signal shout, "mic check," protesters who were scattered throughout the audience chanted their grievances about adjunct benefits and tuition hikes in unison. Their concerns, however, were echoed in milder tones from the stage, as speaker after speaker at the conference, which began Thursday night and ran through Friday, expressed fears about the growing affordability crisis facing higher education.
Jamshed Bharucha, president of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, called access to college "as serious a problem today as it has been since World War II."
"Socioeconomic barriers," said Mr. Bharucha, who is mulling ending Cooper Union's century-old no-tuition policy, "are more and more skewed."
Neil Grabois, dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School, lamented the "de-homogenization" of higher education, in which financial wherewithal separates the haves and have-nots, both individual and institutional.
Perhaps, suggested Mr. Grabois, a former president of Colgate University, the time has come to reform American universities' approach to tuition, in which the sticker price rarely represents the true cost of a college degree. Even upper-income students frequently receive financial aid, he noted, and he argued that those who can pay their way ought to.
Mr. Grabois's idea generated some buzz among conference goers, as did a proposal by Jonathan R. Cole, a professor and former provost at Columbia University, to form "intellectual leagues" of like-minded universities that would permit shared course work for students and greater collaboration among faculty members.
Scarcity of Solutions
But, in general, the visions of innovation offered up by panelists—more online learning, greater engagement with public schools, new forms of financial aid—were far from revolutionary and frequently short on specifics. During Thursday night's keynote talk, the panelists, all academic heavy hitters, were pressed by a questioner from the audience to give one example of transformative change they would like to see enacted. Most of the panelists demurred, with Mr. Bharucha finally volunteering, "More vibrant, multidisciplinary projects for students and faculty."
If speakers were short on prescriptions for change, they were long on the diagnoses of what ails higher education, from unprepared students to public officials preoccupied with standardized testing.
Mr. Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor, said his system's colleges and universities were enrolling more high-performing students than ever before and more who struggle with college-level work. Providing both honors courses and remediation is costly and complicated, he said.
Henry S. Bienen, a former president of Northwestern University, concurred that fixing elementary and secondary education is a critical challenge for American colleges. Mr. Bienen, speaking on a panel Friday morning, said just 8 percent of the graduates of the Chicago public schools, on whose board he sits, are college ready. That's 8 percent, he noted, of an already-diminished population—only 57 percent of students who begin high school in the nation's third-largest city finish.
Universities shouldn't simply complain about poorly prepared students, Mr. Bienen said. They are responsible for educating those students' teachers, and they must improve the quality of that education.
M.S. Vijay Kumar, senior associate dean of undergraduate education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said colleges need to become more comfortable with online and hybrid forms of learning. Some 215 institutions already make some of their courses available and free online, said Mr. Kumar, who is also director of MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology.
While many colleges are wary of technology, Mr. Kumar said, their students are not. Online education not only has the potential to reach many more people, but it also could upend the longstanding business model of higher education, he warned.
Mr. Cole, of Columbia, lamented the anti-intellectualism behind arguments that colleges should foremost be vocational training, as well as what he saw as the politicization of science, particularly under the Bush administration. He dismissed the notion that educational improvements overseas pose any threat to American universities, contending that increased competition will make all institutions better.
The real risk to American universities, Mr. Cole said, is closer to home, from state legislatures whose spending cuts are causing harm to public higher education.
"It's infinitely harder to rebuild greatness once it's been dismantled," he said.
Likewise, several speakers agreed that the true impediments to change are internal, from faculties and an academic culture that are inherently conservative.
Universities are "engines of innovation intellectually," said Cooper Union's Mr. Bharucha, "but they're extremely reluctant to innovate pedagogically."
And James J. Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, suggested that many in academe may not see a need to do things differently. In a time of cultural and economic turmoil, universities may be "out to sea as a tsunami of change comes through, destroying everything on land."
The upheaval is felt on campus, he said, as merely "a few ripples."
Still, the conference ended with a speaker who can hardly ignore the profound societal shifts happening today: They are occurring on the doorsteps of her campus and are often led by her students.
Lisa Anderson is president of the American University in Cairo, whose historic campus is on Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focal point for pro-democracy demonstrations. The protests that have convulsed Egypt and much of the Middle East have not only toppled governments, they've "upended authority" in all its forms, she said. Political-science professors are now assigning essays written by activists in their own classes; students on her campus have demanded a greater role in university governance.
Still, Ms. Anderson said she was optimistic about the future of higher education in the Arab world. This generation of students, she said, is "eager to learn."