Through the Arcs of Time

Students walk near the former library (now Lubbers Center for Visual Arts) in the early 1960s.

Students walk near the former library (now Lubbers Center for Visual Arts) in the early 1960s.

We want it right now. At least that’s how we sometimes act. The tyranny of the urgent overtakes our commitment to the important. In the end, we sacrifice sustained value for immediate convenience. In our effort to achieve something demanding our attention, we fail to protect that which matters most.

Our society is in a hurry. We check boxes on our lists quickly and with temporary satisfaction. Later we realize our rush placed us on a path to pursuing seemingly worthy goals that were not as beneficial as we had hoped. “Ready-fire-aim” is a trap worth avoiding.

As a student of change, I find it interesting to map the histories and trajectories of organizations, communities, regions and nations. What I find most interesting is the assumption of permanence many leaders make for decisions and actions that are necessarily limited by the term of their influence. We are in the end all marginalized by age and death and the changes we have designed and implemented will be renewed or replaced by future leaders. Often, they see the world differently than we imagined.

During my nearly 35 years working in higher education, I have seen many initiatives come and go. Management fads have surfaced with advocates assuring us that “this will change higher education as we know it.” This has been true for technological innovations as well, from the printing press—through the era of recording and broadcasting of audio and video—to the advent of the personal computer, and now on to the Internet and digital technology. Each has been described as an innovation that will supplant the core of teaching and learning as a human experience between the teacher and the learner. Yet each has failed to “save” higher education from its inherent inefficiencies as a human enterprise. I often remind people that higher education has been on the brink of disaster since the University of Bologna was founded in 1088.

Seen through arcs of time, our great institutions have evolved gradually for a very good reason—in higher education, we tend to protect that which matters most. Pedagogical innovation has been part of our collective higher-learning history for centuries. Such innovations will continue to be tried and tested, yielding a change process that preserves our very best qualities while embracing revised platforms for learning. This is a great strength that is expressed through time.

We live at a moment in human history when the rush to judgment and action is becoming more normative. Yet the fits and starts associated with this approach erode our capacity to manage change properly and we see the negative collateral effects at all levels of our society.

Continued failure eventually will lead us back to our intellectual roots. The best lesson we learn in a liberal arts education is that we do big things a little at a time.

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