Higher Education in the Information Age

President's Panel: Agenda for Action and Experimentation

Harry Payne


Gregory Farrington: It's wonderful to be energized in a sense with a sense of change. What now? What are organizations, the organizations represented in this group, going to do to insure they stay in the lead? There are actually other questions that I posed for the three people who are going to end, or going to get us almost to the end, that is: What now? What do we take home? What should we do together? What are the next steps? Beginning with Harry Payne from that favorite small college of mine, Williams, where I spent a great deal of time during the summer stock years ago, not known for it's liberal education but for it's great summer theater at least in my mind. So we'll begin with Harry.

Harry Payne: Well, Mark Taylor, who unfortunately has left, will tell you it's all theater-summer, winter, spring, whatever! Well, I want to thank you for this occasion. The time to deliver these remarks was relatively brief, so they'll be somewhat scattered, but reflect some ideas. I just want to reflect a little bit philosophically on what I've been listening to and then just tell you practically about some of the things we're doing on our campus. I should explain to you what I do at small colleges. The Internet II, I have no idea what to do with J-STOR-haven't a clue, am excited and interested with the kinds of things going on at CSU-Monterey and everything, but what I do are colleges, and if there's anything generalizeable from this it's up to you to decide. I work and live at a wonderful college, a college that's pretty change-oriented and has been change-oriented, sees itself as a leader, but leadership involves the right mediation between tradition and change, and that's something of the tone and texture of what I'll be indicating today.

I describe myself on campus as an enthusiastic skeptic about the new technologies. The skepticism's just in my nature. Say anything and I just tend to at least try out the opposite almost immediately. It's a long, ethnic heritage I think. And so I think that we should always be testing because there's an enormous amount of rhetoric and hype surrounding this technology, and we've heard a lot of it over the last day and a half. And it can be exciting, it can be energizing, it can be frankly mind numbing, and we should be honest about that and deal with it and grapple with it. I'm enthusiastic about it because I actually think it's kind of fun. At least it's made my life fun, my teaching fun, my administrating fun. I just think the new information technologies have made our campuses livelier places, made my life more interesting, more efficient in some ways. And also self-evidently, since communication and information are coins of the realm-they're not the realm itself, but they're coins of the realm in educational technologies-any technology which vastly multiplies the speed and capacities of communication and information we ought to be enthusiastic about. We have a great enthusiasm.

If I have a general critique of the last day and a half that I've spent here it's just that my sense of fun has diminished. It's been just a little grim. I fear we're starting to take the joy out of all of this and just want to remind you of that. I think the students that we heard were having fun. Some of the people working in high tech environments expressed a certain amount of joy. But mostly we're adopting the language of the marketplace, of production, of delivery, and all those kinds of things, and I really, truly, profoundly worry about that. If we're going to have fun, and if we're going to in fact embrace these technologies well, we have to do it on our terms. And from time to time we've been told that we don't have that choice, that it's there and either-we're given several choices, none of which I choose to take, quite frankly. I'm not afraid of change. I'm certainly not where Mark is, though I enjoy talking with him. I don't share his somewhat apocalyptic, post-modern vision of the future. I'm certainly not a Luddite. The only thing I'm sure of is that the future will be absolutely different from either of what our visions of what it will be 20 years from now, and so the trick is how to position yourself in a deliberate and thoughtful and measured way so we do what's smart and do it right and frankly just don't be bullied by other people's rhetoric and our own rhetoric into really doing wrong things. So we have to be poised to deliver with it and to deal with it-embrace it and dance with it-whatever. We've got to get a little bit of a grip on it and get a grip on our own conceptualization of our relationship to it.

So my practical suggestion is a defiant declaration of a moratorium on all millennial, futuristic talk-that we should go at least a year without ever saying the word "2000". I did an experiment the other day. The odometer on my car turned from 9999 to 10,000. And you know, nothing changed. It was exactly the same. I really do find it odd, interesting, important, and somewhat troubling that there is this kind of millennialist talk around information technologies and other things. As a historian I guess I understand it. It has something to do with the end of the Cold War. It has something with a kind of triumphalist sense of market capitalism and dynamism, downsizing and change and everything, because the true radicals in our society are the people involved in those kinds of enterprises. It does seem to have something with an odd superstition about the year 2,000, which is a wonderful boon to COBOL programmers I'm told, but otherwise I don't think has much real meaning. I think it has a lot to do with the public questioning of higher education and our role and uncertainty about where we stand and our own loss of sacredness, our own sense of loss of turf and certain defensiveness.

We were told at one point that we should be looking out 20 to 30 years, not 2-5 years. I think that would be a terrible mistake. We don't have a clue what's going to be around in 20-30 years. We can in fact take measured steps to understand and move over the next three to five years, and that's the rational horizon for grappling with information technology, our curriculums, and education. I think we have to be sure of our mission. The mission of Williams College is, I am quite sure, nurturing the academic and civic virtues and the associated character virtues in a small, self-governing, residential community. That has been its mission for about 200 years. I see absolutely no reason why new information technologies will change that mission, and I see no reason why we can't have a lot of fun with it, be creative with it, why it can't be helpful to us in how we can be helpful to our students by an artful embrace. We're going to be different 20 years from now. We're quite different from where we were 20 years before. But we don't know what that difference is, and so we have to again take measured, evolutionary, thoughtful steps.

Another suggestion I'd make is that we try on a somewhat different conceptual model. We're being told that these technologies are going to change us and that if we don't allow them to change us, we'll be run over or deleted. In Mr. Drucker's Forbes interview a few weeks ago he deleted both liberal arts colleges and research universities. I'm glad to see he's thought more about it and only has deleted the research university. But let me say something. It's awesome, these technologies. And it's different. And somehow we're going to have to grapple with it.

Let me try a different model. The college that I superintend, on a good day, is a well ordered anarchy. I mean on a real good day. And I'd say that's true of every institution in COFHE. And I think that's good and right. I think it's part of our great strength. If I understand theories of Internet and all that it's going to do for us, in fact it's described as creating an interesting, dynamic, well ordered or semi-ordered, but semi-chaotic anarchy. I would say the Internet may well ratify and strengthen who we are and what we are and our relationships together, rather than fundamentally changing us at all. It may be very energizing.

When I've been told in the last day and a half about some of the really good things that will come out, in so far as it's focused at all on education as I understand it, it's that knowledge is what students can and will learn, it's that students will be partners and not simply consumers; that they're going to learn how to learn; that it will be advice based; that it will involve creative combinations of fields; that education is what's left over after the sort of the content, the information, has been forgotten; that teachers will be like good coaches. You know, we've been saying this about liberal arts education for hundreds of years! It doesn't sound all that different. And I at least invite us all to try that on, rather than immediately jump to some transformational models.

So we've been told that we can fight it, we can accept it, we can leave it, and I just don't accept those as the full set of options. I think the right attitude for the next few years is one of sort of creative play with the new technologies and in a more thoughtful way than we've done, certainly, at Williams in the past. We have because we're blessed with reasonable resources and a lot of energy bought a lot of stuff, put in a lot of network architecture. We've got a lot of software. The stuff is way ahead of the people and the curriculum right now, and so the next three to five years ought to be one of creative play to bring those things back into some kind of thoughtful conjunction.

The first thing we need-and this will be the goal for next year-is to articulate a philosophy of the curriculum and our mission, then look at the people and how they act in that, and then really think about the best uses of technology in that environment and measure it a little bit about cost because costs, our capacity to pay, are limited. Look at best practices at other places. But to develop about a three to five year horizon driven by curriculum and philosophy and by the needs and capacities of people, and then move towards the kinds of technical staff and infrastructure we really need. I think that will give us more of a sense of time, more of a control of cost, and more emotional control and intellectual control of the whole process, because all of the emphasis is put on speed and quick, but you know, we're not fast places, and that's good.

Next we are creating an atmosphere of controlled experimentation. That is, rather than just everybody fiddling around, it kind of creates centers of experiment and discovery. The library has been the best center for many, many years, and I think that we're becoming more aware of just how important the library is as a continuing center of experimentation. We have a working group on technology and teaching which is funding various projects, talking about the meaning of it, advertising and illustrating good practices to other faculty. We've created a center for technology and the arts in the humanities in which we've turned loose our guru of cyberspace, the most enthusiastic and futuristic, and invited him to work with faculty and students in a kind of laboratory, a kind of sorcerer's laboratory, in our arts center, and again to share those ideas with other people and see what comes. I think the foreign languages will be the next area where we'll set up experimental centers-but a finite set of galvanizing centers on the campus to mess around, discover, and share.

I do think we have to spend a little more time looking at and understanding the students who are coming to the college now. I really do think the session with the eighth graders was interesting and important. I've sat through other sessions like that. We do have this feeling that they do think a little differently, what they respond to-they're different. Not better or worse, but different. Our arts faculties think they're better. Our science faculty think they're terrific. Our social science/humanities faculty are somewhat unnerved by their habits of thinking and their somewhat non-linearity. I know in the papers that I grade in my history course the micro-rhetoric is perfectly fine, the paragraphs are fine. Their sense of dynamics, that things have a beginning, middle and end-they do tend to write a little bit in hyper text. And it's-and I'm not going to give up. I mean, they need me. That's good.

But what's really exciting is this is a wonderful opportunity to work with and harness student energies and capacities. They really are ahead of us. They are more adept than we are. We need their talent. We need their cheap labor, quite frankly. We enjoy any and all ways in which students and faculty work together, especially in the science laboratories. But this is a whole new laboratory. So again, this summer we're beginning a very thoughtful, disciplined approach. Rather than just looking for the local student cyber-techie, we're creating an army of high level student authors and Web site authors and people who are really disciplined in the creation of Web sites and Web technology. They in turn will train other students. Those students are going to work with us. I have one who will be designing a Web site for my French revolution course for the next time I teach it, and this is a wonderful new opportunity for a whole different world of relationships among faculty and students, which if we do it in a disciplined and thoughtful way-right now I think it's going on randomly on most of our campuses-really could be extremely important for our schools.

And I do think the term was a wonderful one: learning upgrades for alumni. I actually do think the new technologies do create excellent opportunities for how we relate to our alumni. I keep my union card as a teacher-I'm mostly in sales-and relations with alumni are more complex, more demanding, in many ways more interesting even than ten years ago. They want a brainier, more intricate relationship with the campus, and the best way to relate to alumni is how we related to alumni when they were on the campus: as teachers and learners. And I do think new technology-that this is a world worthy of exploration.

So I propose an attitude, which you may find right or wrong, and offer a local model, which may or not be applicable to your own situation. I don't describe an end to anarchy, but a kind of middle ground of more thoughtful organization and experimentation. But I think that we have to do it in which the language is the language of education, is the language of human presence. It's the language where we understand that students study you and me, they study people, they study each other. It has to be based on the integration of teaching and research. It has to be done with an understanding that is absolutely and should be in many ways inefficient. We were never designed to be efficient. We shouldn't be efficient. We should resist efficiency within limits of fiscal prudence. Because above all we have to keep a sense of play about it. Thank you.

Farrington: I love your points, especially the words "play" and the words "experiment" and the words that say if we spend too much time wondering what we're going to be doing in 25 years, we won't know what we're going to do on Tuesday, and Tuesday's the next step.



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Last modified: 21 January 1998