Our Underacheiving Colleges by Derek Bok

“Without a compelling, unifying purpose, universities are charged with allowing their curricula to degenerate into a vast smorgasbord of elective courses.”

We have a problem in higher education. Everyone seems to agree on that. What is the problem? Well, that’s the problem. No one can really pinpoint the problem. Former Harvard president, Derek Bok does his best to answer this question in his comprehensive work Our Underachieving Colleges.

To sum up his work as simply as possible: colleges do not know their purpose, they do not know how to assess themselves, and they do not know how to implement change.

What is the purpose of college? To prepare students for jobs. To create critical thinkers. To explore the brilliant minds of the past. All of the above? Each administrator, faculty member, and their respective departments could answer this question carefully and methodically and their answers would be scattered all over the map. Once you throw in legislation and accrediting bodies, the purpose of college gets even messier. With no true direction for colleges and students, it is no surprise that higher education appears fractured.

How do colleges evaluate their own programs and students? Standardized testing. Internal assessment. External assessment. All of the above? We have seen the dangers of evaluating education across the board; soon you simply get teachers teaching for the test and developing critical thought.

How do you implement change? This is an epic question. Faculty will, rightfully so, fight for academic freedom. Administrators are fighting for efficiency and effectiveness. Who should get the final say? Who should get any say?

Bok knows his stuff and understands that fixing higher education is not simple. This is a decent book that addresses the academic imperfections of higher education. Basically, it’s everyone’s fault.