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Disrupting the Higher Education Content Cycle

keep-calm-and-disrupt--6Nicholas Kristof spent the weekend reviving the old canard that academics have removed themselves from the public sphere through obscure prose and interests. Among the problems we might identify in Kristof’s essay—there are, obviously, many—is the irony of a writer with the resources of the New York Times supporting him chiding the rest of us for not writing in outlets such as the New York Times. But who gets to write in the New York Times—and to whom is the New York Times accessible? My point here is not to perform a Sarah Palin-style take down of the Times’ elitism.  But if we’re talking about accessibility and inwardness, it’s worth looking at the New York Times’ own content generation cycle and the relationship between press junkets and patronage.

So, instead of confusing intellectual meritocracy with access to outlets, let’s look at how the New York Times itself generates content about something that matters greatly to professors, and further, something that many professors study: higher education. In September 2013, I attended the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference (theme: “Virtual U: The Coming Age of Online Education) held at the conference center of the Times’ new building in New York (video archive streaming here). What I learned there—besides how weird corporate-sponsored conferences are, right down to the commercials they loop on screens between talks—is that there is a system of content generation that feeds thinkpieces and thinkfluencers with greater ease and speed than even the most excellent professors can offer. It’s important to note that the only professors on stage at this conference on the future of higher education had left teaching and research for academic upper administration or to launch their own MOOC companies. Another way to put this would be to say that the only professors on the stage were former ones who no longer have substantive daily contact with the main public sphere universities are supposed to serve: students. But while Kristof might see this as more evidence of academic self-cloistering, I see it for the closed system that it is: “influence” comes mainly from those who might be in the position to take out full-page ads in the Times.

Sal Khan talked about globalizing access to education while corporate sponsors had reserved seats in an overbooked auditorium. I watched on a screen in the basement. This seat was part of a section reserved for reps from Blackberry, one of the major corporate sponsors along with Bank of America and Capella University.

I saw the conference advertised in the Times’ Sunday Magazine, and I looked into registration online, only to find that it cost $795 for a one-day event. For reference, I just registered for a four-day conference in my field for $150. I wrote to the registration office and asked if they could lower the cost for actual professors, bringing it in line with typical registration fees between $75 and $200. They could bring it down to $495. I found some institutional money for online teaching development and paid the “reduced” fee. The $495 did not, however, guarantee me a seat when I got to the conference. Three figures is a lot for professors and their limited (if existent) travel support, but in this world it just got me through the first door. It turned out that Sal Khan’s (of Khan Academy) plenary talk on globalizing access to education was overboooked, so while corporate sponsors like Bank of America and Blackberry enjoyed reserved seats in the auditorium, a lot of self- or university-sponsored folks like myself ended up watching on screens in the basement. This was the first lesson in sponsored access to influence and content creation. Because Khan’s talk led into the panel discussion “Has The University As An Institution Had Its Day?” a lot of professors sat out the Q&A in the cheap seats. Not even, really. We were in a different arena altogether.

This, the second lesson.  I was wrong for thinking that going to this space of industry, academic, and journalistic overlap would allow me to contribute to the conversation. This was a sales pitch and I was a potential buyer. A parade of highly-polished representatives from government, finance, education administration, the New York Times, non-profit policy tanks, and private-sector business came on stage in various combinations to deliver pitches. These weren’t deep probing conversations; these weren’t arguments. Mainly, these were rehearsed pitches of products, policies, and industries in which presenters had considerable financial or political stake. Some presenters, like former Senator Bob Kerrey, had a foot in several categories: he was in the Senate, he had been president of The New School, and he is now starting a for-profit university. At various points it became clear that the speakers were used to talking to one another “on the circuit” as one said to another, suggesting that they’d been on the online education junket a lot together that year. And some cycle back through the Times conferences. Having missed Sal Khan at the education conference, I could have caught him the next month at the DealBook business conference.

The third lesson of the conference, however, came when I picked up my New York Times at home. The November 1st “Education Life” section titled “The Disrupters” is drawn almost entirely from the conference. One conference reviewer quipped that “so many Times newsroom staff members are participating in the conference, they might not be able to put out the paper on Wednesday.” To the contrary, it seems to be built into their content generation strategy. “The Disruptors’” lead article, “Innovation Imperative: Change Everything, Online Education as an Agent of Transformation” was written by Michael Horn and Clayton M. Christensen. Both hail from the non-university affiliated Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. The latter is a business professor at Harvard and the former was a panelist at the conference. Here’s Horn’s bio from the conference webpage, and here he is on stage doing a one on one with the Times’ Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt:


Credit where it’s due for disrupting that conservative suit with snappy yellow argyle. But here’s a guy who moved from the Yale Daily News basketball desk to an MBA, and parlayed that into a platform as an educational innovation consultant at Arizona State, the editorship of a “journal of opinion and research about education policy,” and invitations to testify on issues relating to education. He does so not from a university, but from an institute that operates in the world between academia and lobbying. Then he gets paid to speak (assuming they weren’t up there for free) at this conference on education, which is immediately funneled into featured space in the Sunday Times. He’s the type of academic Kristof’s been looking for, although he isn’t one.

Even if the Times itself might be forgiven for seeking out breathless think tankers over professors who lack their own Center for Thinkfluencer Excellence, we might be more critical of the blurry line between content and advertisement. Elsewhere in the issue you’ll find Senator Bob Kerrey’s Minerva University, a for-profit liberal arts venture, featured prominently. It gets mentioned in the Horn article and is the focus of this article on “affordable elitism.” And then there’s major conference sponsor Capella University. Their “credit for competencies, not credit hours” model is the subject of this article. It was also a major topic of conversation at the conference, discussed at length by Capella University president, Scott Kinney.

Branded emails. Branded articles.

 How much money did Capella pay for this multi-platform marketing strategy? They were in the email of all registrants. Their logo was all over the conference and in full color on the back page of the Times Sunday Magazine. Policy changes crucial to their success were discussed favorably at a conference with Education Secretary Arne Duncan in attendance, and they got an article focusing on them in the Times just below an editorial praising their sort of educational “disruption.”

When Kristof’s piece dropped, I was reminded of the cycle of influence I witnessed moving from the $795/$495 per person corporate conference to the pages of the newspaper of record. Professors, we need you!  Who, then, is the “we”? As lots of people have pointed out, if the “we” is the American public, then you’ve already got us as teachers, popular and specialist writers, activists, and more. If the “we” is pageview ad-metric revenue-hungry online content providers and writers, then that’s another question. Do you really want us? And if we come to you, how much will it cost to get in?


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  1. His is an excellent discussion of a challenging subject. I have been focused on trying to find objective information on a variety of issues on the Internet. If they aren’t covered in the Chronicle, the primary sources of information are from those outside academia who have an interest in a share of the academic revenues. Not all of them are bad, but it is truly a challenge to weed through the fluff.


  2. Ann mesle commented on Avidly:

    His is an excellent discussion of a challenging subject. I have been focused on trying to find objective information on a variety of issues on the Internet. If they aren’t covered in the Chronicle, the primary sources of information are from those outside academia who have an interest in a share of the academic revenues. Not all of them are bad, but it is truly a challenge to weed through the fluff.


  3. Education as Industry

    As an erstwhile former college program director and professor, I am afraid that all forms of “education” in the US are ineffective, inordinately expensive and increasingly useless. Professors are beleaguered by funding cuts, paperwork and administrative meddling. Education is now seen as a product to be peddled and paid for with massive debt that creates stressed graduates who compete for unpaid internships or are dumped on a pitifully sparse job market.

    Professors are micro-managed and scrutinized for heretical thought by other colleagues, the admininstrators and students. They are nitpicked to into a state of lethargy and innovation within the traditional college is usually stifled or sabotaged. Increasingly a majority of students are taught by adjuncts, impoverished highly-educated wage slaves. This is a sad state of affairs that will hasten the demise of critical thinking by future generations. Online courses are soul less and distance all participants from actual dialogue.

    Degrees signify little nor do they command respect. Teachers are treated as if they were menial chattel who serve consumers. Dissent is stifled. Professors and departments engage in constant intercine warfare with each other.

    We are doomed by forces beyond our control.


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