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Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities Hardcover – August 26, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


This book will provoke debate. Presidents and trustees would do well to ponder the set of 10 rules for the 21st century set out in the final chapter. They seem pretty smart to me. Survival may well depend upon it.
Charles Middleton (Times Higher Education)
Full review: timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=417810&c=1

DeMillo believes that the leaders of the "universities in the middle" in the US are often too inward-looking, set in their ways and inclined to romanticise their weaknesses. 
Their UK equivalents might be well advised to sit up and take notice.
Matthew Reisz (Times Higher Education)

Best of the "Higher Ed Must Change" Books? In the last few years, there have been quite a few books advancing the idea that higher education is on the brink of revolutionary change, and I think DeMillo's is the most persuasive among them.
George Leef (National Review Online)

"Both those who welcome and those (like me) who view with alarm the linking of undergraduate education to student career goals should read this wide-ranging and deeply informed analysis of the issues." -- Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law, Florida International University, New York Times columnist, author of How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

(Stanley Fish)

"This thoroughly engaging book provides a view of higher education that is future-oriented and technology-savvy yet rooted in the sweeping historical pageant of the world's universities. It brings more than a little tough love to our sometimes self-satisfied American research universities while acknowledging and encouraging boldness in facing today's challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities. It is a unique volume and should be read by all who care about the future of higher education." -- Charles M. Vest, President, National Academy of Engineering, and President Emeritus, MIT

(Charles Vest)

"Using a plethora of examples, quotes from intellectuals, and his own analysis and experience, DeMillo beautifully and forcefully argues for change. University administrators, including the Presidents, Provosts, and the Deans, will find this book an asset as they consider curricular and structural changes in the face of the immense popularity of the Internet." -- Aditya P. Mathur, Professor of Computer Science, Purdue University

(Aditya Mathur)

"This book will provoke debate." -- Charles R. Middleton, Times Higher Education

From the Author

When academics get together to talk about the future, they talk mainly to each other, but the American system of higher education has many more stakeholders than that. Over the course of months, the intended audience for what was now clearly becoming a book manuscript shifted noticeably from my academic colleagues to a more general readership--parents, students, taxpayers, elected officials, employers, decision makers at all levels--citizens who have a stake in what happens to the nation's colleges and universities and want to be informed about the forces shaping their future.

This book is intended to reach the many stakeholders in America's higher education system who are outside the academy, who are not involved in higher education on a daily basis, and whose voices are seldom heard from within. It is not a book of secrets, but I suspect that many readers will be surprised by what they read here. Some of my colleagues will be shocked that the curtain has been parted, but many more will welcome the daylight.

I resisted the temptation to write a business book for universities, although I have tried to identify the milestones that should be on any roadmap for change. I have no recipes for success. Beyond the Rules for the Twenty-First Century inchapter 20, there are no concise chapter summaries that can be transcribed to executive briefings. This book should be read like a novel. Each chapter reveals a little more about the forces shaping our institutions, the character of American higher education, and why some universities make good choices while others do not.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 344 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (August 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262015803
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262015806
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,355,028 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Richard B. Schwartz TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an interesting book which I would recommend to all those concerned with the opportunities and challenges of contemporary higher education. At the same time, I would argue that its central thesis is undermined by its foci, its examples and its overlooking of key issues.

The thesis is that we have a number of elite institutions in America which are capable of riding out any storm (intellectual or financial) because of their reputation and their resources. While these institutions will be affected by the changes around them, the changes do not pose a mortal threat. Princeton will survive.

Other institutions will not be so lucky. The schools in the middle, i.e., the schools which 80% of American students attend, will need to either change and adapt or die. That is because there is so much `disruptive' (the new favorite word) change on the scene or on the horizon that the middling schools will be swept away by it.

There is some truth to this. For example, the regional public institutions which enroll a vast number of students have had their budgets cut for the last forty years, as have their flagship counterparts. The flagships, however, have other options. They have expanded research; they have expanded fundraising; they have created research incubators and tech transfer offices and they have increased patent income. As their nationally-prominent athletic teams have succeeded, they have increased licensing income and television revenue. The bottom line is that they have created new revenue streams and moved, to varying degrees, toward privatization. The regional publics, by and large, do not have these options, so what are they to do?

What they do, very often, is cut costs by deleting programs and increasing the number of contingent faculty.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I learned from this book, so in the end I'm glad I read it. Moreover, it is an interesting book to place into conversation with two other books I've reviewed here, Benjamin Ginsberg's "Fall of the Faculty" and Martha Nussbaum's "Not for Profit."

The author, Richard DeMillo, offers a number of sensible points about the state of higher education in the U.S. (and around the world). In particular, I like his critique of the "factory system" that so many universities have fallen into, essentially a Procrustean bed whereby every subject or topic is neatly stretched or cut to fit a set number of credit hours in an academic term of a specified length (as if in real life that's how we learn anything). Looking to a number of innovative institutions and programs, the book suggests several ways that universities can become, as they need to be, more nimble, more flexible, more adaptable, and more responsive to the needs of the future.

But the book has a few blind spots that bothered me.

First, (and here's where Ginsberg's book comes in), DeMillo seems to suggest that top-down approaches from innovative college presidents are the answer to higher education's problems, and that faculty-centric institutions are somehow less likely to be centers of innovation. I found Ginsberg to be more persuasive; he argues that blunt top-down approaches are less likely to produce real innovation and creativity than a regime that privileges (and risks) real intellectual ferment from below. In my own almost 30-year experience in higher education I have seen too many grand top-down initiatives flounder while low-level faculty initiatives made a real difference (if often unrecognized) for students.
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Abelard to Apple very carefully builds a strong case for the claim that we are a fundamental transition period in higher education. Historical context is given about past great disruptions, and data about our current pedagogical issues and economic dangers. The perspective it gives me, as a university professor, is tremendous. 500 years ago the printing press was a huge disruptive technology that was viewed with terror by university professors, who thought they would become redundant because students could read the writings by the top person in the field, no matter how far away. The disruptive technology of today is the Internet with its ability to let students see lectures by the top person in the field. MOOCs will not make professors redundant anymore than books idd; our duties will change, but we will still be essential. This book also gives great perspective to the recent study that found that most universities in the US are on an unsustainable economic path. These are the same universities that DeMillo describes as the universities in "the middle". The waste of resources on patents that only pay dividends for a handful of universities; the huge cost of sports, which only return a profit for a few universities; the true cost of research; the unrelenting growth in the number of administrators, which threaten to drown academics in overhead; and the mistake of universities in "the middle" chasing the few "top tier" universities with huge reputations and endowments, a losing strategy in a zero sum game ... all of these issues are explored in great detail. The book does not tell us WHAT to do, but very clearly and convincingly explains the current problems.

Abelard to Apple is a must read for every university administrator, should be read by every university teacher, and will be very informative for every student and parent.
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