Governor Doug Burgum Is Netflix and NDSU President Dean Bresciani Is the Cable Company

Gov. Doug Burgum presents his vision of challenges and opportunities facing the North Dakota University System in the face of technological disruptions. He spoke to an interim legislative committee meeting at North Dakota State University on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Patrick Springer / Forum News Service

My colleague Patrick Springer wrote a very astute article recently about two different visions for higher education presented by Governor Doug Burgum and NDSU President Dean Bresciani.

The venue for these views was this week’s meeting of a legislative committee that’s reviewing the state’s university system. At it Burgum spoke about a world where information and instruction is more readily available than ever before. Where traditional institutions of education such as universities are no longer gatekeepers to knowledge.

This change is already happening, Burgum warns, and the state’s universities can either adapt or die:

Burgum, reiterating a message he has delivered before, said traditional universities are increasingly under threat because of new modes of “knowledge transfer” enabled by advancing technology.

As a result, colleges and universities that fail to adapt could find their economic foundation crumbling as students and other constituencies—notably employers—flock to more attractive and efficient ways of learning and career preparation, including large online courses, some of which are free.

“We’re in a world today where knowledge transfer can occur anytime, anyplace, on any device,” said Burgum, a former software executive and technology entrepreneur. Meanwhile, he added, more people are questioning the worth of a college education, and interest in certificate programs is growing, threatening to undermine the traditional higher education model.

“That cultural shift is happening,” Burgum said. Employers want qualified applicants, he said, not credentials.

Contrast that with the point of view of President Bresciani, who advocates for a more traditional approach to higher education where students are lured to campuses where they live and work and learn:

But Bresciani, whose presentation to the legislative panel immediately followed the governor’s, outlined a strategic vision for NDSU that focuses on students wanting a traditional, four-year experience at an affordable, competitive research university. …

Bresciani said his belief in a traditional model of higher education is the result of spending 35 years in the field, at nine universities spanning the coasts and Midwest. Throughout his career, he said, people have been prognosticating the end of traditional higher education.

“Thirty-five years later, there are more people enrolled in traditional higher education than ever before,” he said.

One might argue that the surge in enrollment has a lot more to do with a bubble created by government policies subsidizing matriculation than the traditional university model, but that perhaps is a topic for another post. Bresciani is also suggesting that his university has become more selective in its admissions, valuing quality over quantity, which is a bit of history revision at odds with the quantity-over-quality policies he’s advocated in the past.

At issue here is the contrast between Burgum and Bresciani’s views of education, and more importantly what is motivating each point of view.

I perceive Burgum to be motivated by a desire to serve students in the way they want to be served. Streaming services like Spotify and Netflix have upended the entertainment industry by fundamentally changing the way people access content. They made it easier, and cheaper, and so the market is moving away from purchasing music or subscribing to cable television plans.

People don’t want to go to the music store and by CD’s any more. People don’t want to wait around for their favorite shows to come on the one channel out of a hundred or so they’re forced to subscribe to.

Increasingly people investing in higher education don’t want to pay for the rigmarole of a traditional, campus-based experience. Part of that is because the cost of the traditional college experience has grown prohibitively expensive even with expansive government subsidies for student loans and tuition.

Bresciani is arguing that students still want the campus experience, which is a bit like the cable company arguing that customers still want to pay for a hundred channels they don’t watch instead of just streaming the content they want when they want it.

Maybe some people still like their cable plan. And some students, certainly, still want the campus experience. But Burgum is right, things are changing.

North Dakota’s universities can either be Spotify or Sam Goody.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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