As some of you may remember, it was in the year 2003 that the State of Kansas repudiated all financial responsibility for the universities and community colleges of the state. Few new appointments at the University of Kansas have been made since that time. The periodic updating of electronic courses has replaced almost all instruction, just as other applications have eliminated almost all administrative and staff positions. Adjusting to this situation has been a slow process, but the University has now reached what we believe to be a stable state. A staff of 198 presently serves the needs of about two thousand students in residence, most of whom are devoting their retirement years to the joys of college life. The University now supports its operations entirely from parking fees, the revenues generated by the Watson & Spenser Rare Books and Art Collectibles Emporium, and the income it has gained by leasing unused campus buildings, streets, and parking lots to the Athletic Corporation.
These developments have brought a welcome sense of equilibrium to the University after a long process of change. In the Commencement telecast that marked the close of the academic/fiscal year of 2028, the Chief Executive Officer of the Endowment Association announced that, given the present rate of interment and the technology available for the compression of remains, the present area of Pioneer Cemetery will be sufficient for the needs of University employees through the year 2863. Even more cheering was the e-mail message from the University's new Chancellor Emulation System stating that the University of Kansas was ranked fifth among the nation's seven remaining state universities, and that our parking problem would be solved sometime in the near future.
Now that the troubled years of adaptation are happily over, it is time to ask ourselves how it all started and what it has meant. What swept away the Old University and made way for the dynamic and progressive institution of today? We may answer that question by looking backwards to the University's situation in the closing years of the twentieth century.
The end of the Forty Years War with Russia had left the United States virtually bankrupt. The sudden outbreak of peace severely dislocated an economy that had been shaped by the demands of that long conflict. Basic research and development were almost entirely abandoned, and the primary and secondary sectors of the national economy declined swiftly. Full-time salaried employment was replaced by part-time contract work, and the standard of living for most Americans eroded slowly but steadily. The economic frustrations of the American public led to a wave of anti-elitism, anti-traditionalism, and as has been common enough in American History of anti-intellectualism. Higher education had long advertised the economic advantages that would be enjoyed by its graduates, and so higher education became an obvious target for popular hostility when those advantages were no longer to be had.
Legislatures and trustees attempted to satisfy this public dissatisfaction by deprofessionalizing University faculty and, in the name of "accountability," reducing them to the status of service employees. Students burdened with constantly higher tuition and fees demanded that the University provide them with service of a quality commensurate the prices it was charging. In an economy in which labor costs were everywhere being reduced though automation, there was no real reason to assume that the University would not follow a similar course. Higher education was ripe for such changes.
On a philosophical and pedagogical plane, most colleges and universities in the 1990's clung to visions of what higher education should be and preferred not to discuss what it had become. Education was often defined as the transmission from teacher to student of "an ordered body of knowledge." Students were expected to construct a specialized data base from a variety of media. Students read a non-searchable printed document called a textbook. The Jayhawk Memorabilia Mart at that time was crammed with millions of other printed documents in which students attempted to find additional data. Yet more data was accumulated by cutting up dead animals and other activities. Finally, students were expected to gather physically at specific times and places to record from oral dictation yet more material. Twice annually, their level of accomplishment was measured by how much of their various data bases they could correctly output from memory in a limited length of time.
Given the nature of education a quarter-century ago, one can only wonder at the insistence of the faculty of the time that their functions could not be performed by electronic facilities. Their students apparently knew better than their mentors. After finishing their college preparation, those who would be competing for admission to professional schools or facing qualifying examinations hurried home to work with the CD-ROM programs that provided them the skills and knowledge necessary to compete successfully.
This should not be surprising. Higher education in that era had long been pursuing the conflicting goals of mass education and individual enrichment. From our vantage point in the year of 2028, when many of us spend our entire teaching careers without ever physically meeting a student, it may appear incredible that some university instructors taught classes of three hundred or more students and were assisted by teams of graduate students training to teach similar classes in other institutions. Such education offered little in the way of personalized instruction and even less in individual direction. There was little opportunity to take into account the widely varying backgrounds, abilities, and motivation of members of the student population. As a result of the steadily increasing costs of a university education, many of these students worked long hours at whatever salaried jobs they could find or lived at home and commuted long distances to meet the University's demand that they be physically present at specified places and times. Faculties encountered growing difficulties from absences, inattention, inadequate preparation, and a general air of rebelliousness.
It was about this time, and probably for these reasons, that some faculty began the process that we now recognize led to the end of the Old University system in America. In about 1995, some University faculty began making their classes more accessible to students by creating on-line course supplements. The practice spread rapidly, and enthusiasts began adding lectures, reviews of the text-book, supplementary readings, on-line discussion forums, graphics, and other amenities. A critical point in this development was reached in 1998, when true interactivity was added to these on-line presentations.
It is no longer possible to determine where or when this began. Some instructor may have decided to employ cgi scripts to provide students with on-line practice examinations that would be graded automatically and immediately. Or it may have been that someone decided to save on the expense of acquiring dead frogs by adapting some antiquated arcade game to allow students to cut up an inexhaustible supply and infinite variety of electronic images.
Neither technology was original nor even new, but the effect of their application to university instruction was profound. Most faculty had never enjoyed grading examinations, and those practice examinations were swiftly supplemented by automatically graded examinations for credit. Virtual reality 3-D walk-throughs, complete with magnification, sub-surface scanning, full spectrum read-outs, integrated notebook and graphics generation facilities, and a host of other facilities soon provided laboratory simulations that were far more reliable and flexible learning tools than attempts to reproduce processes in real time and space had ever been.
It was also in the Fall of 1998 that finances came to control the development of these instructional initiatives. Under strong pressure from the State legislature, the Kansas Board of Regents directed its member institutions to produce a series of integrated, independent, and fully-automatic "Learning Units." It also announced that the construction, maintenance, and upgrading of such facilities were essential parts of responsibilities of all faculty members.
In the Fall of the year 2000, after the first hundred such Learning Units had come on-line and a schedule of charges for "Credit By On-Line Examination" had been set, the University experienced a sudden decline in new-student enrollments. Facing a shortfall of over eight hundred FTE, a state of financial exigency was declared. The College departments of Mathematics, English, and History, and the School of Law, units that had been the first to develop a satisfactory series of on-line courses, were also the first to experience massive losses of tenured faculty.
The University attempted to compensate for its financial straits by leasing on- line courses from other institutions. During that summer, three hundred courses of studies were collected, and, with these, the University was able to announce ten complete programs of on-line studies. New student enrollment that semester totalled less than 1500 FTE, some five thousand students failed to return to the University, and another state of financial exigency was declared in which thirty-two college departments and the School of Education completely vanished.
In the Spring of 2002, the Board of Regents forestalled probable mandates from the State legislature by eliminating duplicate on-line courses and selecting those for which the highest student evaluation scores had been recorded to form a single State-wide curriculum of on-line courses. In the Fall of that year, new student enrollments at the University totaled ninety-eight FTE, all registered by students from Lake Forest, Illinois, and the Board of Regents, by unanimous vote, invited Washburn University to join the Regents' system.
In the following year of 2003, the State Legislature learned that, except for their football and basketball programs, the last of the State's community colleges had been dissolved and that resident enrollment at the Regents' institutions now totalled less than eight thousand. The category of Higher Education was removed from that year's budget, and it has never reappeared. The Board of Regents merged with a greatly expanded Division of Continuing Education to form the Regents' University of Kansas. Since that time, the University of Kansas has been dependent upon its own resources.
Looking back upon those crucial times, we find ourselves troubled by an unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, question.
Some at the time protested the progress of automated education, and claimed that there was something unique in higher education, something that could not be conveyed by even the most sophisticated of information systems. Moreover, as they fell victim to financial exigencies, these people did not protest so much the loss of their livelihoods as the disappearance of what they called the "essence of education." They seemed unable to define the nature of this essence, however, and could only suggest that it was connected with other undefinable concepts such as "creativity," "joy of learning," "critical thought," "the educated citizen." They made frequent references to the uncomputable term "humane" before their discussion of these matters suddenly ended and they disappeared from campus.
It would be easy for us to dismiss this short-lived protest as involving simply another of those popular illusions and murky semi-thoughts that disappear when subjected to an intellectually rigorous analysis. It might be easy, but by so doing we might only be avoiding the paradox in which we now seem entrapped. It was recently suggested in a conference of machine logicians that not all true statements can be digitized. I realize that this concept is uncomfortable. perhaps even painful, for many of you even to consider, and I assure you that I have raised the matter only because of the importance of its possible implications. What if there were in fact some special quality to education that could not be reduced to a computable expression? Is it then possible that what we have seen has not been the natural evolution of higher education, but its transformation into something quite different? Is it possible that the Old University really did possess some essential character that has been lost?
Why, for instance, did generations of graduates each in turn send their sons and daughters to this ridge in eastern Kansas to live and study for four or more years? Why did these generations give the Old University millions upon millions of dollars without expecting any yield on their investment? Why, even when they had become old and frail, did they travel hundreds and even thousands of miles just to return to this particular place for a few days? Why did they tell each other stories about their "old profs," as they called them and happily recall the most difficult and laborious of the tasks that had been set for them? Why did many of them say that their days at Mount Oread were the happiest of their lives? Was it because the Old University actually did signify something unique and unmeasurable to those who studied here?
Unfortunately, it now seems impossible to provide answers to these and similar questions. It is not that suitable programs for analyzing the data are not available, but that effective means have not been found to collect the necessary materials to analyze. The questionnaires periodically sent to former students are not returned. Both the Endowment and Alumni Associations gave up reporting new contributions a decade ago, and Commencement had not been held since the shameful episode of the Class of 2010. Perhaps most telling is the news that Ye Olde University Gift Shoppe has dropped University of Kansas sweatshirts from its inventory on the grounds that no sweatshirt has been sold for the past five years. An alumni reunion of the Class of 2001 was held recently in Seoul, Korea, but no invitations were extended to current members of the University. A gulf far greater than that created by the passing years seems to have separated us from the Old University and the people who inhabited it.
So we can only speculate what might have happened if the University at the close of the twentieth century had not been so driven by economic forces and lured on by the potential of the new technology. We can only imagine what might have occurred if the proliferation of approaches and applications characteristic of the technology at the time had not been subsumed in massive developmental programs which were soon outstripped by the continuing natural flow of technological development, or if uniformity, regulation, and general policies had not stifled the creativity of the hundreds of individuals then applying their knowledge, ingenuity, and imagination to what many called the greatest challenge of their professional lives. What might have happened if fuller play had been allowed their experience, their enthusiasm, and their vision of what the future might be
It is quite possible that the men and women, students, faculty, and staff of the time might have guided technological development in a different direction from that in which it actually went and created a university quite different from that in which we now work. What might that difference have been? It could certainly not have been in greater efficiency and economy since the road that was taken at the time led directly toward those particular goals. One can only suppose that they would have tried to preserve a university that was more "humane" whatever in the world they may have meant by that incomputable word "humane."
Lynn H. Nelson
Department of History
University of Kansas