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Guest column: The ‘self-directed university’ would be advance
by Melvyn L. Fein
Guest Columnist
May 01, 2014 03:19 PM | 4668 views | 0 0 comments | 65 65 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Melvyn L. Fein
Melvyn L. Fein

Education matters. It matters so much that many of us have opinions about how it should be reformed. Certainly politicians have introduced a variety of measures designed to improve learning outcomes while lowering costs.

As for me, I have been taking potshots at many of the programs promoted to overhaul higher education. Among the policies I have decried are Complete Georgia, 15 to finish and the e-core. All of these, I have argued, reduce quality without improving efficiency.

So what do I have to offer in their place? Just as opponents of Obamacare are asked to provide a superior alternative, I can reasonably be requested to put forward a substitute.

As it happens, I have done exactly that. My latest book, “Redefining Higher Education: How Self-Direction Can Save College,” is now out. It explains what caused the recent “college bubble” and proposes a path to solve this dilemma.

I am therefore calling for a “self-directed university.” What, you may ask, is that? The answer is that it is a way to re-conceptualize the mission of higher education. Too often when we talk about fixing what is broken, we never inquire into what would constitute an advance.

My answer to this question is that a mass techno-commercial society, such as ours, requires a democratic and professionalized elite to provide the leadership for decentralized decision-making. We need more people who are capable of providing the self-motivated expertise a democracy and market economy demand.

The mention of an “elite” may be off-putting, but it does no more than recognize an ineluctable fact. No complex society has ever been all chiefs and no Indians. All have found it necessary to delegate leadership to some, rather than others.

Complex tasks require coordination. They also demand common objectives. Leadership, including decentralized leadership, provide these. What is not needed is vesting authority in particular persons because of accidents of birth. Democratic societies have to provide opportunities for merit to rise to the top.

This is what self-directed universities are designed to facilitate. The goal is not to convert everyone into a manager, but to allow individuals to move up as far as their abilities and efforts will take them. They must not only want to succeed; they must demonstrate the skills and motivation to do so.

Nowadays, many observers regard higher education as either meaningless or a glorified technical education. Colleges are equated with trade schools — with the exception that the trades they impart are more difficult than those taught by their predecessors.

While our colleges provide training in engineering, business and nursing, they also deliver more generalized proficiencies. Although they are sometimes described as instilling “critical thinking,” at their best, they teach “independent thinking.”

Competent leaders need to be able to make competent choices, even in an environment of uncertainty. They must also have the courage to make mistakes and the flexibility to fix them. In short, they must be dedicated to getting the right answers and resilient enough to cope with failure.

But this is a matter of motivation. It does not depend on memorizing lists of facts. Or being incredibly smart. Or being appointed to supervise others. Competent leaders have to be able to produce, because they personally take the risks and assume the responsibility to do what’s best.

It is these sorts of persons self-directed universities are designed to groom. Their ranks, however, will never include everyone. Nor ought they be filled exclusively by the sons and daughters of the wealthy and well placed.

Self-direction is not easy. Nor should it be. Our colleges must maintain high standards if they are to turn out independent thinkers and courageous leaders. As such, they must allow people to explore their strengths and to build upon their abilities.

Shortcuts designed to save money are a waste of scarce resources. Unless our tax dollars are spent wisely — i.e., in cultivating self-direction — they are being thrown down a bottomless pit.

Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University. He can be reached at

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