Machiavelli and the New Order of Things

I begin with a favorite quote :

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it.”                    Nicolo Machiavelli, “The Prince”

Most reading this know that my work involves advising institutions in the private higher education industry.  The institutions with which I work are part of a concept that has grown to maturity relying on certain maxims.  One of them, “Never be the first to do anything,” is reinforced by stakeholders who long for a world that never was and hope that it never changes. The hue and cry of those who are inconvenienced by the new order will drown out the muffled words of timid supporters.  And, if the cry is loud enough from those married to the old order, allegiances of the lukewarm may conveniently change.

Recall the excited and boisterous crowd of supporters that first Palm Sunday and the throng exclaiming, “Crucify Him” the next Thursday.

The generational forces that have sustained the grasping of what is and disdain for what might be are worth an extended conversation; but not today.  Instead, I want to challenge the variety of stakeholders who inform private higher education as an industry and who share responsibility for the delivery of each institution’s individual mission to think outside the box – or the steel cage.

What if we were free to reinvent private higher education?  What would it look like?

The presumption is that the forces the constrain even a hint of reform would be silent while free-thinking and experienced leaders consider what might be.  We all loved the close community and personal interaction of alma mater.  We recall conversations with revered faculty and attendance at soccer and basketball games. Some of us experienced first dates, followed by the first in series of heartbreaks.  We may have been challenged spiritually or physically.  Our bodies may have been subjected to liquid toxins on a repetitive basis.  Road trips, all-nighters, pranks and difficult conversations with our parents about grades are all a part of that collective memory.

Are we suggesting that all of this might go away?

While I personally hope not I do recognize that the material world and the role of technology in that world create a different set of expectations for today’s traditional student.  Most will have had some sort of online instruction before arriving at college.  Few watch cable while most have Netflix accounts.  Sitting at a booth in the snack shop, two couples might spend all of their time texting others outside their group along with those who are in front of or beside them.  They video chat with high school friends at other institutions, some of whom are half way around the world.

The point is that physical proximity does not have the lure it once had. While some of us fifty somethings complain about the lack of socialization, our offspring are interacting with more people in an evening than we used to in a week … or a month.

Try as we may, institutions have cut costs here and encouraged more efficiency there but still are winding up with a very expensive product.  With the wages of parents stagnant, students are leaving college, graduating or not graduating but many carrying along a boatload of debt.

And so the conversation as I see it is to synthesize as much of the former world with the technologies and dramatically lower costs possible today.  Perhaps the commitment to physical spaces would be diminished.  Dorms would be replaced by independent apartments or students living at home.  “Gatherings” would occur in larger social spaces at times pre-arranged online.  Courses would be both synchronous and asynchronous with the flipped class more of a norm than the exception.  “Community” would be defined by both physical gatherings and online interactions with multiple groups.

The brick and mortar footprint thus shrinks to a fraction of what it once was. The virtual footprint becomes the world.  And physical (face to face) connections for social, academic and spiritual remain in various sites all over the place.

I can’t really envision what all of this looks like but am convinced that bold stakeholders somewhere will begin embracing a radical reduction in physical investment while the virtual explodes.  They will be the survivors in 2030 and beyond.  Those who retain the current paradigm had better have national debt-sized endowments so that the old order of things can be protected.

What do you think?