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A truly Brandeisian strategic plan

Published: March 23, 2012
Section: Opinions

More than anything else, Brandeis is about widening access to education. When Brandeis was founded, that meant opening admission to people of all racial and gender identities.  Later on, that mission matured to include the creation of programs like TYP, and Wien and Slifka Scholars.

Like graven idols, all barriers to learning should be destroyed.

The Brandeis five-year Strategic Plan should take that mission seriously. Truly keeping that commitment in today’s society means much more than just having an open admissions policy. Given the spread and maturation of technology, we have an opportunity to achieve something of a much greater magnitude. Just as libraries democratized access to knowledge for many in industrialized societies, online teaching initiatives can democratize access to learning for so many more people worldwide. The plan should make provisions for expanding the reach of Brandeis teaching to non-students worldwide through channels like public domain courseware, online classes and video lectures.

If Brandeis implements these policies, then we still need a compelling reason for people to pay tuition to attend physically. Even if we don’t, online educational programs like Khan Academy, OpenCulture, MIT OCW, iTunes U, Stanford Engineering Everywhere and Code Academy will still force the question: Why bother attending when I can learn so much at home for free? The answer lies in our community and our values.

Learning will always be a strong part of the Brandeis experience, but formal learning will become so available that we need to supplement it with something else. One approach is to focus more on the values that make us distinct: the aforementioned smashing of academic inequity and the broader pursuit of justice. We need to start practicing justice more than we are now. A complementary approach is to pursue a more holistic learning experience than the Internet could ever provide, in the form of personalized teaching and a much stronger “learning by doing” ethic.

Brandeis can’t rely, however, on hiking tuition to pay for the cost of personalization. The growth of tuition is unsustainable. Soon, the student loan bubble will burst.

Luckily, we have a huge untapped resource in our alumni. Brandeis spends four years nurturing a bright committed corps of people, building a strong network between them and giving them valuable skills. Then it destroys that network, forces them out and scatters them to the four winds.

Imagine a Brandeis where the distinction between students, professors and alumni is a bit more blurred. Imagine a Brandeis that is a self-conscious community, where students and alumni collaborate to make archeological digs in Mexico together, or spend a semester building an IT network for Louisiana schools, or go found a startup for a few years and then come back to finish their degrees.

By involving alumni more in off-campus flexible experiential learning, Brandeis can offer learning that no Internet course can match, allow alumni to give back in a fulfilling way, and sponsor worthwhile projects that pursue knowledge and justice throughout the globe. While Brandeis would still offer degrees, the gap between students and alumni would be less stark—after achieving a degree, alumni would be welcome to stick around campus once in a while, meet
students, and then lead groups of alumni and students back off-campus for “expeditions in pursuit of knowledge and/or justice.”

By adopting this two-step plan of democratizing access to information as well as fostering a lifelong community of scholar-social entrepreneurs, the Strategic Planning Committee can best position Brandeis for the future. Services like Khan Academy, Code Academy and Open Course Ware will eventually be competitive threats to the traditional university model. By embracing their best elements and also focusing on our own strengths of teaching, community and justice, Brandeis can flourish in the coming decades.

Brandeis was founded as a grand experiment: Rather than pass laws challenging discrimination, can we instead create a top-notch college that uses competitive pressures to force other universities to strike down their admissions quotas? Turns out we can. Now it’s time for phase two: Can we become the educational utopia of the future? Yes, I believe we can.