Wednesday, October 21

Review of Academic Next: The Futures of Higher Education, by Bryan Alexander

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by Chris Mayer

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought institutional preparedness to the forefront as many campuses are discovering that they could have been better prepared to do such things as shift to remote teaching, transition employees to telework, provide support for students who are no longer living on campus, and develop a post-pandemic plan in an uncertain environment.

Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education. Bryan Alexander. Johns Hopkins University Press (January 14, 2020). Baltimore.

Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education. Bryan Alexander. Johns Hopkins University Press (January 14, 2020). Baltimore.

In Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, Bryan Alexander explains how institutions can foster conversations about and develop plans to address the challenges and opportunities of the future. Doing this now is more important than ever because, as Alexander writes, higher education is in a time when the [p]ossibilities of excellence and extinction stand in conflict” (2). To survive and thrive in these times, Alexander urges those who work in higher education to adopt a “future-oriented mind-set” and to employ “the practice and imagination that strategic foresight provides, along with a willingness to thoughtfully experiment, in order to shoot the rapids that loom before us” (4). Throughout the book, Alexander thoughtfully and systematically uses strategic foresight in a way that demonstrate its value for strengthening institutions’ readiness for the future.

Bryan Alexander describes himself as a “futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher.” His diverse background includes completing an English language and literature PhD; teaching literature, writing, multimedia, and information technology; serving with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education; leading the Future Trends Forum; speaking to higher education audiences around the world; and consulting. His insights on the future of higher education are well regarded, and his most recent book will certainly change how higher education thinks about and plans for the future.

Academia Next focuses on the time period from 2020 to 2035 and employs two approaches: trend analysis and scenario creation (13). “Trend analysis identifies major drivers of change from recent history and current events” (16), while scenarios are stories “told about one possible future” developed “by starting with some part of the present, such as a geographical area or organizational type, then imagin[ing]how it would change under the impact of one or several trends” (20). It is interesting to note that early in the book Alexander asks readers to “imagine a future academy after a major pandemic has struck the world, perhaps along the lines of the early twentieth century’s Great influenza” (23). He then presents numerous questions to help readers think about the impact of a pandemic on their institutions and how they might enhance their preparedness for it. The fact that this was written before the current COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the value of scenarios, and the futurist perspective in general, for helping institutions prepare for the unexpected.

In the first half of the book, Alexander explores a wide range of trends. Many of the trends are focused on higher education issues and include sexual assault on campus, alternative certification, the decline of for-profit education, and how students finance their education. The section on the adjunctification of higher education is especially interesting as Alexander explains why institutions have increasingly used adjuncts and the consequences of this, which include the weakening of the protections offered by tenure, economic challenges faced by adjuncts, and the devaluing (both economically and politically) of academic labor (37-38).

The connections that Alexander makes between trends outside of higher education are the most interesting. Some of these trends, such as demographics and inequality across U.S. society, have already received a lot of attention. What makes the book’s analysis so interesting and useful for higher education readers is Alexander’s ability to concisely describe the essential aspects of these trends and draw out insights relevant to higher education. In a chapter titled, The Marriage of Carbon and Silicon, readers find a range of topics that highlight the impact of digital technology. The same is true for the chapter on the virtual learning environment, which would be especially helpful for those unfamiliar with this type of learning. Alexander explores almost 100 trends that include a range of topics, which he brings together into mega trends. It is these megatrends that inform the book’s seven scenarios.

Alexander’s scenarios are informative, cleverly constructed, and connected to the evidence presented in the first half of his book. The first scenario, “Peak Higher Education,” imagines that the declining enrollments experienced between 2012 – 2018 (-6.7%) extend for another decade (148). The scenario identifies challenges and opportunities for higher education in general as well as for specific segments of higher education such as liberal arts colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Another scenario, “Siri, Tutor Me,” begins by describing how the higher education landscape has changed: “In the year 2030, automation has powerfully reshaped post-secondary teaching and learning” (188). Alexander goes on to explain how in this scenario tutoring software provides students opportunities to complete courses for credit without human interaction and allows institutions to replace some of their faculty members to reduce costs (191). As with all of the scenarios in the book, he explains why this scenario is plausible given the trends he identified earlier in the book and asks readers to fully immerse themselves in the scenario so they understand what it would be like, the consequences of this future, and how institutions might prepare for this future today.

In the final two chapters, Alexander seeks to both explore beyond 2035 and return to the present. As he returns to the present, he describes strategic moves some institutions are taking now that are posturing these institutions for the future. These moves include curriculum reform, both internal (224) and through technology enabled intercampus teaching (226), as well as significant investments to improve teaching and learning (230). This chapter offers many ideas to higher education leaders as they think about their own campuses and where they should be headed in the future.

Academia Next provides a wealth of resources about current challenges and opportunities, highlights two methods (trend analysis and scenario development) that can be used to prepare colleges and universities for the future, and identifies possible challenges and opportunities they might face in the future. The 84 pages of notes demonstrate that the trends Alexander identifies and the scenarios he develops are informed by meticulous research. Near the end of the last chapter Alexander provides the following advice to colleges and universities regarding the challenges they will face in the future: “Only by growing the capacity to look ahead can we effectively meet these challenges” (239). After reading this book, it will be difficult to disagree with this statement, and I suspect many higher education leaders will begin looking for ways to strengthen their institutions’ strategic foresight capability.


About the author

Chris Mayer is Associate Dean for Strategy and Initiatives and an Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He teaches courses in the areas of moral philosophy, the ethics of war, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion, and his research focuses on ethical theory, the ethics of war, and higher education. He serves as an evaluator and workshop leader for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and was a Teagle Assessment Scholar with the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College from 2011-2018. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and a B.S from the United States Military Academy.

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