Uneducated at Any GPA: Is the Ivy League Today Big 3 Auto of the 1960s?

July 19, 2018 by Joshua
in Education, Models

[On March 2, Quartz published my piece, Schumpeter Strikes Again: Why the Ivy League could end up like the big 3 carmakers: utterly disrupted. Here is an earlier, unedited version. Unedited means it has its flaws—too long for a magazine, too short for a book—but it develops some ideas beyond what Quartz had space for.]

Uneducated at Any GPA

Is the Ivy League Today Big 3 Auto of the 1960s?

America’s top universities today are like America’s Big 3 car manufacturers of the 1960s: hugely profitable, projecting growth for decades, the envy of the world, dominating their markets, dictating terms to customers and employees, and accelerating to bankruptcy.

Cars aren’t diplomas, but besides the obvious differences between the fields, the systemic similarities suggest a need to act for leadership asleep at the wheel.

The Problem Then and Now

American car makers in the 60s delivered style and status over what customers wanted—safety, efficiency, economy, and reliability. They saw themselves as right and authoritative, so when competitors arose to serve that unmet demand, they didn’t adapt and gave away most of their market.

American universities today deliver intellectual knowledge, abstract analysis, and credentials over developing students into mature, thoughtful citizens. Administrators and faculty also see themselves as right and authoritative. Despite warning signs, will universities also not adapt and give away their market?

I am a member of that community, with five Ivy League degrees, including a PhD in astrophysics and an MBA. I teach and coach leadership and entrepreneurship at NYU and Columbia. As an entrepreneur, my goal is not to complain but to solve problems—in this case, to help universities serve students, families, and future employers, as well as their staffs and society in general.

These problems hurt the schools themselves, which have competition and can lose, as the Big 3 did in the 60s to Volkswagen and Toyota, then puny car makers. The problems don’t directly affect administrators’ and faculty’s paychecks, which exacerbates the problem. They may be materially immune, but I believe they care about helping students, and may find the case compelling enough to act to change the system.

Problem 1: lecture-based teaching

Nearly all my teachers lectured. I started teaching that way too, relying on my grade-giving authority. I learned with experience, including more effective teaching models, largely influenced by experiential teachers in K-12, especially the Philadelphia public high school, Science Leadership Academy, and its annual Educon, which hosts hundreds of teachers and administrators who practice experiential learning. Their techniques developed students into thoughtful, independent people, not just test-takers and future workers. I saw their techniques would apply to students of all ages.

Educon’s participants’ experience and passion led me to convert the graduate-level entrepreneurship course I was to teach that semester from lecture-based to experiential. With their help, I rewrote the syllabus during the event.

The results? Here is every word of every qualitative student review from that course (“Poly” being NYU’s engineering school. Not all spoke English natively):

“This is one of the best courses I had during my studies in poly. He taught us a lot of important and practical knowledge.”

“Greatest course I have taken in poly. Thanks for everything.”

“This is the best class I have ever taken in US. The prof is nice and the course is very useful. I hope I can take this class again.”

“He is the best prof I have ever seen in this school. I strongly recommend him to continue teaching this class for our engineering students. It is practical and really useful in our future career and social networking.”

“The prof is excellent.”

“The structure of the course was very instructing and informative at the same time. Prof was very kind and answered all the queries. Feedbacks on assignments were given effectively. I enjoyed the class and the course totally.”

While students credited me, I credit the teaching style. Experience showed me its beliefs and practices. I later attended SLA’s Summer Teaching Institute, where experienced teachers taught experiential teaching experientially. The documentary Most Likely To Succeed showed me the greater nationwide trend. I saw that what most university professors call experiential learning more resembled students getting internships or following recipes than facing the social and emotional challenges needed to mature.

The following student reviews from later courses show the qualitative difference between traditional lecture-based teaching and how I teach now—between learning about leadership and learning to lead (in my leadership class) or between learning about entrepreneurship and learning to think and act entrepreneurially (in my entrepreneurship class):

“As a senior, this was the first course that challenged me, asking me to think outside my comfort zones. Yet, it is also where I developed a strong network of supporters through group projects.”

“I truly hope other NYU students have the privilege of taking this course. It is the exact material that students of my generation need in order to tackle the unknown beyond graduation and in our everyday.”

“This class gave me the opportunity to apply the skills I am learning straight to the real world. We haven’t just been learning about what social entrepreneurship is with a textbook and memorizing different definitions or case studies to then regurgitate back on an exam. The main goal of this class is for us to get a head start in the real world and try to acquire real experience that will be useful to us in our careers.”

“Message for future students: Take the course seriously. Take advantage of every aspect of the course. In my seven semesters at NYU, it’s easily been one of the most valuable courses I’ve taken; please give it the time it deserves. Don’t be scared to reach out to people, anyone at all, for advice. The worst they can say is no and the best is invaluable.”

These reviews illustrate a systemic problem. American university administrators and professors tend to lead students and adjunct and junior faculty in a command-and-control style. The content may be intellectually stimulating, but the behavior they promote is compliance. Compliance doesn’t help students, their families, nor future employers.

Universities can earn similar reviews, to replace the criticisms of producing dependent, entitled graduates drowning in debt. If America’s top schools don’t, others will. I’d rather see America’s schools succeed. The alternative could be a scene like the Big 3’s CEOs petitioning Congress in 2009 to bail them out, obliviously flying their corporate jets there.

Differences between then and now

The biggest difference between then and now is that companies no longer take forty years to go bankrupt. We can also learn from the past.

The academic equivalent for endowed, nonprofit institutions like Ivy League universities isn’t bankruptcy, though. It’s the world’s top students go elsewhere or to forgo college altogether.

While few today could imagine Harvard losing its status, fewer would have imagined General Motors bankrupt either. What was good for GM was good for America. Yet bankrupt it went, as Toyota, whose cars Americans laughed at in the 60s, became the world’s largest car company. The Big 3’s share of the American market dropped from 90% to 45%. Their share of the global market fell from 75% to just over 20%.

The Root Problem

The U.S. car makers in the 60s ignored big red flags. Universities today face similar red flags with similar solutions.

The first red flag for U.S. car makers was Unsafe at Any Speed. The dull book for actuaries became a bestseller, propelling its author, Ralph Nader, to become America’s most trusted person, condemning the car manufacturers to suspicion.

The book documented how the Big 3 made cars big, fast, stylish dreamboats with chrome and tailfins. They valued size, speed, comfort, and style. But Unsafe at Any Speed showed that consumers valued safety, efficiency, and reliability, which the Big 3 found unprofitable and neglected.

The second red flag was the Volkswagen Beetle and Japanese imports. These then-puny cars embodied the safety, efficiency, and reliability consumers wanted. Their sales grew for decades under the Big 3’s executives’ noses. Losing half their share of a market of this size took decades, but the trend became irreversible.

The clearest equivalent of Unsafe at Any Speed for universities today is Google’s 2013 decision to stop requiring college diplomas of its applicants. This change was not an arbitrary decision by a maverick company. On the contrary, Google looks has its pick of the top students from the top programs of the top universities, and researched its decision thoroughly. Google found no correlation between employees’ academic performance and their performance on the job.

Preparing students for jobs is only one purpose of a university. Others include developing students into responsible adults able to create meaning and purpose in their lives and work, as well as fulfilling, meaningful relationships. Some students may only want intellectual learning and not care about social or emotional development or future jobs. I’ll start with an economic perspective and return to others below.

Today’s university’s equivalent of the Big 3’s speed, power, chrome, and tailfins are students’ GPAs, double majors, triple minors, student club positions, and other credentials. Google’s choice shows that the world outside academia devalues academic credentials. Focusing on GPAs leads to inflating grades. Membership in too many student groups leads to groups that don’t do anything meaningful, and so on.

What Google found predicted success was entrepreneurial activity—not necessarily starting new ventures, but taking initiative. While universities increasingly teach entrepreneurship, many teach about entrepreneurship but not how to take initiative and the accompanying challenges. Or they teach flashy but very domain-specific skills like pitching investors instead of fundamental skills applicable throughout life, such as taking responsibility, taking initiative, and marshaling resources. Whatever their intellectual knowledge, few professors have leadership or entrepreneurial experience. They have experience publishing or perishing. Whatever content they teach, the behavior, skills, and beliefs professors teach are academic.

Many of today’s most successful entrepreneurial leaders left universities: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Dell, Sean Combs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Russel Simmons, and so on. They knew traditional academia would hold them back. Meanwhile, Enron’s Kenneth Lay had a traditional academic PhD in economics and his colleague Jeffrey Skilling a traditional Harvard MBA. Historians rate Ronald Reagan, graduate of the non-elite Eureka college, in the top ten presidents and George W. Bush, with a Harvard MBA and Yale BA, in the bottom ten.

So students don’t need universities to teach them what employers value. Universities don’t teach what employers value. “For every 100 kids who start college, just 25 get degrees and attractive jobs. Some 45 drop out, and another 30 graduate but end up under- or unemployed,” as reported Harvard Innovation Lab’s Expert in Residence Tony Wagner and venture philanthropist Ted Dintersmith.

Consider students considering applying to top universities. While Stanford administrators may take pride in Sergey Brin and Larry Page having left Stanford, students may see them as having left and not care about the school. If a school doesn’t teach skills to succeed, most of its value lies in its network, but experiential learning can teach students to create their own networks.

Speaking of alternatives, the Beetles and Civics of today’s universities are popping out of the woodwork: General Assembly, its peers, online educations, Kahn Academy, incubators, accelerators, and so on, as well as simply skipping college.

Why did so many leaders reject academia? Because universities offer little to help and much to hold them back. Why? It’s a question of values. As the Big 3 said they valued transportation but focused on conspicuous consumption, universities talk about developing leaders and initiative, but teach facts and abstract problem-solving. Facts don’t hurt, but they don’t develop emotional and social skills either. Most tenured professors only know academic skills. Adjuncts who would bring in outside experience, meanwhile, are increasingly sidelined to the point of unionizing.

universities big three table

Academia in Action

A committee to promote entrepreneurship that I participated in illustrates faculty’s bureaucratic views. Consider two items that came up in one meeting.

Item one: a goal to attract more large companies to campus for students to intern with them (leaving aside that interning with large companies is not particularly entrepreneurial).

Item two: delays building a web page from difficulty finding developers.

Do you see the disconnect? In a school full of students learning to build web pages, professors trying to promote entrepreneurship overlooked their web page as an opportunity for students.

Trying to promote entrepreneurship, professors are moving students into big, established companies and paying outsiders to do what the students could do. Professors know bureaucracy, which they promote Instead of allowing students to struggle, take initiative, and be accountable.

What led to this situation? I suspect the professors wanted to give students internships and saw students as not ready to work professionally. After all, undergraduates lack the credentials academics respect. Outside universities, however, few care about web designers’ GPAs. They look at portfolios, which this project could have helped some students create.

Why would another company hire students the university itself won’t hire?

What does not considering your own students signal to the world? To the students?

What other opportunities for students to participate in are universities missing?

How much more effectively would teachers teach if their students were accountable to the school itself?

Why don’t universities change?

Why don’t top universities change? Despite their misaligned interests, many are growing. Their admissions more competitive than ever. They’re building new dorms, centers, and institutes, hiring more staff to support them.

How? For one thing, universities still monopolize a gateway to power. For another, they’re lucky.

The Big 3 in the 60s saw similar growth despite not serving their customers. Unrelated to their cars, the government was building an interstate highway system and the population was moving to the suburbs, ensuring hundreds of millions of car sales for decades. The profits of these windfalls hid that they were lucky, not serving their customers.

Today’s universities’ equivalents are China and India opening, nations of billions who want American education. Ten minutes at any elite university will show its large and growing Asian population. Luck is boosting revenues and admissions competitiveness, not administrators’ or faculty’s decisions. But capitalizing on Asia doesn’t address the rot of neglecting student needs.

What’s the problem? Aren’t schools improving?

What’s the problem with easy money? Isn’t raising applicants’ competitiveness good?

How long do we expect China and India to send their top students to spend unthinkable amounts of money in the U.S., many never to return, without improving their own schools? When they do, do we expect them to create schools based on failing pedagogy?

Or will they learn from the past? As VW, Toyota, and Honda met customers’ values that the Big 3 neglected, will they look at students as people to serve, not dictate terms to?

China’s and India’s schools may now teach by rote, but the question is their motivation and ability to change. Losing people and money motivates. They will likely build new schools with freedom to experiment. The world has many successful experiential-learning schools to model.

America’s elite schools’ dominance discourages change, as did the Big 3’s. No American car companies formed since World War II until Tesla (whose founder, by the way, left Stanford graduate school after two days) and existing ones killed their electric car programs. The Big 3 didn’t expect Japan to evolve to make the powerful cars and pickups they do today.

We can expect China and India to improve on the Ivy League if it stagnates. Third world countries skipped land lines in favor of cell phones and are skipping centralized power plants in favor of local solar. Why would they not skip more rote learning in favor of experiential?

The systemic similarities continue. The Big 3’s labor were their factory workers. Labor relations became adversarial. Strikes raised costs and crippled production, research, and development.

execs workers customers

The Big 3’s power structure. Executives dictated terms to their workers and customers.

Universities’ labor is their junior and adjunct faculty. They are unionizing, including their graduate students. Any business is in danger when its customers organize against it.

faculty adjuncts students

Universities today similarly dictate terms to their workers and students.

Toyota did the opposite. The “Toyota Way” empowers employees at all levels to share information and act. It has lower labor costs than the Big 3 and their legacy costs borne of adversarial relationships.

execs workers customers 2

Toyota’s “Toyota Way” created two-way relationships between the management, workers, and customers.

If today’s universities continue motivating adversity with its labor, it may find itself saddled with long-term agreements impeding their ability to react to competition. Can today’s universities learn to see their employees as Toyota sees theirs, as assets to value for knowing their jobs best? Or will they continue fostering adversity?

faculty adjuncts students 2

Can America’s top universities today change? Or will others take their lead, as Toyota did to become the world’s largest car maker?

The oil shocks of the 70s exacerbated American car companies’ weaknesses. Their misaligned values forced them into death spirals of retreating to smaller markets leading to fewer resources leading to more retreating and so on. Retreating to trucks and large cars made them more profitable, which hid the death spirals but didn’t stop them, because those markets were smaller. Only time will tell if an academic equivalent of an oil shock will affect top American universities. The internet may already be it.

The non-functional chrome and tailfins of the 60s have their counterparts in today’s universities’ deluxe new dorms, ice-cream study breaks, and other coddling perks. Besides their costs, extra parts break and distract from a car’s purpose. Universities challenge students intellectually but socially and emotionally coddle them. School-sponsored ice cream and massage study breaks distract students from challenges. Too comfortable a ride hampers your driving. Likewise, too comfortable a collegiate experience protects students from challenges that mature.

Protecting students from social and emotional challenges leads to campus debates of great emotional intensity, neglecting to act on great problems such as global warming, pollution, prison population, infrastructure, and the students’ own educations. Universities protect students from these issues.

The result? Students learn intellectual knowledge but not how to apply it. They learn about values, but not how to act on theirs. They learn about struggle but don’t struggle.

For example, students fly around the world for courses, contributing more to global warming and pollution than nearly any human who has ever lived. They don’t evaluate their behavior or see how to change it. The most successful such students become professors who promote internships at big companies and call it entrepreneurship.

Education doesn’t have to be so abstract to blind students from the results of their actions. Employers want people who take initiative to apply what they’ve learned based on experience. Such skills help students create more meaningful lives.

Beliefs and Systemic Change

To summarize so far, universities value abstract learning over skills, experience, and beliefs, which students, their families, and their future employers value. Competition is developing to meet students’ values while universities are doubling down on frills. They feel they don’t have to adapt because external factors are growing their markets. U.S. automakers acting similarly under similar conditions went bankrupt.

This is a systemic leadership issue: the decision-makers’ values conflict with their communities’. Windfalls from China and India blind them to the results of their decisions.

This situation was a stable, self-reinforcing system for the Big 3 in the 60s and it is for universities today. The problem is that it motivates behavior that loses the market, as illustrated below, unless they change the system.

flow chart

The main alternative is to change the beliefs or management structure driving the motivation and behavior.

To influence a system, you have to treat it as a system. Changing an element like a faculty member or course here or there won’t change the system. One of the key levers in human systems are the beliefs and goals driving it. Three main beliefs drive this system.

Belief #1: “We are stewards of an enduring tradition.”

The first major belief driving the university system is the tenured faculty’s beliefs that they are stewarding a thousands-of-years-old tradition and that their methods are getting the results they think. They see ideas to change universities as transient distractions from traditions begun in Plato’s Academy that they feel responsible to maintain. This belief lets them feel justified and self-righteous in dictating terms, just as the Big 3’s executives did, in believing what was good for them was good for America.

A cursory review of today’s universities belies this belief. No department today would hire Plato or Aristotle, whose writing with such diversity about the arts, sciences, political science, and more would rule them out of faculty positions. Plato and Aristotle didn’t just work interdepartmentally, which universities like. They worked. Both founded schools, practiced politics, and created new methods. Beyond writing about others changing the world, they changed the world. Their work outside academia would distract tenured faculty from seeing them as academics. A school might hire them as adjuncts with short-term contracts.

Almost no university would hire the historical figures that they teach about—not Shakespeare, Da Vinci, or Benjamin Franklin. Albert Einstein wrote his four great papers as a patent clerk, unable to work at a university. Compared to Einstein’s situation in Europe, American universities today are more Balkanized.

Belief #2: “Teaching facts leads to growth and maturity.”

The second belief driving the system is that intellectual knowledge changes behavior, skills, or beliefs, or creates social or emotional growth. Universities focus on content. Look at the behavior they promote: sit here when we say, do what we say, choose among these options, this is important, that’s not, and so on. They teach compliance.

In this system, compliant students excel. Independent ones rebel or leave, or at least feel motivated to. When firms employed people their whole lives, they wanted compliance. Such firms are hard to find today.

Moreover, the internet devalues information. Relying on knowledge is increasingly a handicap today and can hold people back. It’s hard to call the internet transient rather than part of a thousands-of-years trend including the printing press, the telegraph, radio, television, and universal literacy.

Who succeeds in academia if the great historical figures wouldn’t? Academically credentialed people do—those with advanced degrees, who published without perishing for decades to the exclusion of all else. Knowing only academia, academics teach students to become academics, but the world doesn’t want academics, nor do most students want to become academics.

The system penalizes students with other beliefs and skills. Mark Zuckerberg was successful despite leaving Harvard, but how many who want to follow in his footsteps want to pay for a program they might leave?

Belief #3: “Professors know best how to teach young adults.”

The above wouldn’t be a problem if universities met the needs of students, their families, their future employers, and society. They often don’t, as I saw when I spoke to a Columbia University Medical Center student group called “The 92% Alliance,” for the percentage of students who don’t find work in their academic field. Feeling trapped, the students brought in outsiders like me that their departments didn’t.

This disparity leads us to the third belief driving this system: that universities and professors know best how to teach young adults. This belief leads them to “lead” though authority. The result, again, is compliance and dependence.

Criticisms abound, starting with Google’s decision to devalue college diplomas.

New York Times columnist David Brooks’ 2001 “The Organization Kid” and related works recount the emotional emptiness and social complacency on elite university campuses.

Ivy League professor and provost Robert Nisbet’s 1971 “The Degradation of the Academic Dogma” recounted how government funding since World War II degraded universities’ purpose of knowledge, scholarship, and reason in favor of professors’ self-serving pursuits of creating centers and institutes.

One 2016 peer-reviewed paper, “Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition,” describes how much deeper that degradation grew as the funding that fueled it dried up.

Over the last 50 years, we argue that incentives for academic scientists have become increasingly perverse in terms of competition for research funding, development of quantitative metrics to measure performance, and a changing business model for higher education itself. Furthermore, decreased discretionary funding at the federal and state level is creating a hypercompetitive environment between government agencies (e.g., EPA, NIH, CDC), for scientists in these agencies, and for academics seeking funding from all sources—the combination of perverse incentives and decreased funding increases pressures that can lead to unethical behavior.

A 2014 article by William Deresiewicz, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” went viral, to the extent education articles do, followed by one of the best-titled books I’ve seen, Excellent Sheep. An Ivy League graduate and educator like me, he saw the situation evolve over decades intimately (unlike me, as far as I know, he hadn’t worked outside academia, which I’ll get to below). He described and lamented how Ivy League schools prepared students for the workplace over developing them as people, goals he saw as exclusive. He saw students’ double majors, triple minors, student club memberships, and academic honors leading them to lucrative careers as consultants, bankers, and other professionals, but not to meaning and purpose as thinkers, doers, and changers of society. He calls them “entitled little shits,” despite their not having created the system creates them.

Everybody seems to agree on the value of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but Deresiewicz explains the cost of neglecting other facets of education:

Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic—the development of expertise—and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.

He also described the early stages of a death spiral of retreating to smaller, more prestigious markets (the parallel of car makers’ death spiral I described above):

Students are regarded by the institution as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged. Professors are rewarded for research, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.

He criticizes too great of an influence of commerce. He suggests reforming admissions and restoring the liberal arts to parity with STEM, thereby restoring knowledge, argument, analysis, thinking, writing, speaking, and reflecting.

I’m skeptical that shuffling requirements by subject will change much. However intellectually stimulating the content, as long as schools teach compliance, neither STEM nor liberal arts will mature students. Writing papers, no matter how intellectually challenging, won’t force the social and emotional challenges of struggling with their values, living with consequences of their choices, having others depending on them, and so on. Learning about values doesn’t teach your values, nor how to act on them.

Social and emotional growth result from working on projects students care about with people they care about, with personal responsibility, accountability, and results outside the classroom.

Last summer, for example, my entrepreneurship students were quietly creating financial projections for their projects. One student spoke up to ask if she had to budget the new minimum wage New York State had legislated, stating that she couldn’t afford to start her business if she did. Another student said he had the same problem. A class conversation emerged with students surprising themselves to consider opposing sides of an issue they had considered closed. The conversation evolved to exploring motivations besides money, such as ownership, listening, empathy, and so on. They connected current events to their lives, cared about issues, challenged themselves, and persisted. My traditional education had few such spontaneous experiences. They’re common in active learning.

I suggest the problem is not STEM versus liberal arts but traditional, fact-based learning versus experiential learning. My student reviews show they value active learning and didn’t see it elsewhere. In particular, they valued it for its challenges and work, not for being emotionally or socially sheltered.

My prescription

What can we do instead?

Besides my degrees and experience teaching in the system, I’ve started companies and immersed myself in experiential learning communities. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but what I’ve incorporated to my courses applies beyond just my leadership and entrepreneurship courses. Students value the results, despite, or because of, working harder and struggling more, as these reviews attest:

“10/10 would take again! I loved every second of this class, but what’s cooler, is that I think I may have loved the homework even more.”

“This is one of the greatest classes I have ever taken. It was engaging, thought provoking, challenging, and fun. Josh is an incredible teacher, mentor, and friend to everyone in the class who is passionate about the subject matter. If I could take this class all over again, I would”

Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean I want to teach students to become entrepreneurs, although some do. My goal is to help the people I serve, which means learning what’s best for them, not necessarily what’s easiest or most fun.

Changing Beliefs

The most important changes are to the system’s beliefs and goals.

I first recommend that administrators and faculty adopt new views about themselves. Instead of viewing themselves as authorities I suggest seeing themselves as leaders who serve the communities they lead. Instead of deriving power from grading and withholding diplomas, serving their communities by learning their interests and values, putting them first, and supporting them. These communities include students, their families, junior and adjunct faculty, and students’ future employers.

Second, I recommend that administrators and faculty adopt new views of students. The predominant view sees students as vessels to fill with knowledge. They view students as immature, needing schools to choose their values for them. Academia calls the end of school commencement because it thinks of “real life” commencing then.

I propose seeing students as living “real life” here and now. They’ll find more meaning in projects where their work affects people they care about than in papers destined for one professor to judge by academic standards only. They can build web pages for their school. They can lead communities. People younger than college students have become CEOs, led troops into battle, and won a Nobel Prize. Universities can put “real life” into the curriculum, not something students have to leave school for.

Many professors bristle at treating students and their families as customers. I do too, though I don’t reject it entirely. I propose viewing them as young adults whom we can learn about and serve. They’re younger, but not so much that they can’t understand their values and act on them.

Leadership and entrepreneurship mean more than commerce and business, though even in those areas, most universities miss how they have evolved recently. My entrepreneurship courses are as distant from Shark Tank as any other courses, though my students still win business plan competitions. My leadership courses are as distant from America’s presidential campaigns as any other courses, though my students consistently take on leadership roles.

Changing Behaviors

I also propose new ways for faculty and administrators to act.

Many professors hold a few class discussions or other token activities and call their courses experiential. If they know the outcomes, they’re still teaching compliance. Experience in education doesn’t just mean burning calories, but acting on one’s values, accenting both “acting” and “one’s.” Acting means doing. One’s values mean what you care about, not what others do.

I suggest professors learn experiential learning experientially from experienced practitioners, which a recent Economist article, “Teaching the Teachers,” reported as effective and cost-effective. One trip to Science Leadership Academy’s Educon and its Summer Teaching Institute transformed my teaching. One day universities will support educators in this area. Until then, I recommend learning from those with successful experience. Today that means K-12 teachers. The Big 3 eventually learned from Toyota. I also recommend watching the documentary Most Likely To Succeed as a first step.

Do I mandate my proposals for everyone? No, but I recommend considering them. I suggest administrators clearly state support for faculty acting on improving their teaching, even if it means publishing lass, even university presidents and provosts.

American elite universities value research and intellectual knowledge. No one denies those things have some value. The main point of this article is that size, speed, and style had value in the 60s too, but the Big 3 didn’t put their customers’ interests first. They didn’t lead by serving their customers. They imposed on them, which pushed them away.

Finally, I’ll address the opposite of compliance and passivity—the skills of perseverance, persistence, resilience, handling failure, teamwork, vision, self-awareness, empathy, compassion, listening, and so on. Experiential learning teaches them, which my students appreciate.

Some university departments have taught this way for generations, largely undervalued and unrecognized by faculty—in particular, arts and athletics. I recommend restoring arts and athletics, not as extracurriculars or academic pursuits like art history, art appreciation, or sports management, but their genuine, disciplined practice to some degree of mastery, including public performance.

Practicing fields that are active, social, expressive, emotional, and performance-based, such as most arts and athletics, teaches skills, beliefs, and experiences that academic fields don’t. Many professors see the value of art and athletics in appreciating them, their history, and other academic perspectives that aren’t creating art or competing. I value those perspectives too, but I’m proposing restoring them for their experiential teaching style. We teach them through integrated comprehensive progressions of exercises from basics to mastery, involving public performance that forces people to face and overcome their vulnerabilities, beginning on small scales in low-risk environments.

Practice leads to mastery and skills that no amount of reading, case studies, and debate can.

Leadership and entrepreneurship are active, social, expressive, emotional, and performance-based fields like arts and sports. I teach them through integrated comprehensive progressions of exercises from basics to mastery, which I find incorporate my prescriptions and leads to the student development and satisfaction that their reviews of my courses expressed.

Jobs Are a Side Effect

As much as I’ve framed the criticisms and improvements in terms of jobs and economic benefits, they are only side effects.

The results of the style of leadership and education I suggest—the skills of perseverance, persistence, resilience, teamwork, vision, self-awareness, empathy, compassion, listening, and so on—produce productive, desirable employees because they first produce productive, desirable people. Such skills enable people to create happiness, emotional reward, meaning, value, importance, purpose, passion and so on in themselves as individuals and members of society. They enable people to create and maintain meaningful and rewarding relationships. They engage students to learn on their own. As John Dewey said,

The goal of education is to enable individuals to continue their education.


Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.

My suggestions won’t solve everything, but professors and administrators who lead by serving and who learn experiential learning will be on the forefront of an evolution to their craft that will come whether they want it or not. I predict they’ll like them.

What’s Next

Many readers likely think that China and India’s educational systems teach so much more by rote that no American school should worry. They look up to us. Even if my prescriptions are needed, how could China and India catch up? Why worry?

For one thing, Bloomberg reports large increases in investment and experiment in education in China in “If the U.S. Won’t Pay Its Teachers, China Will.”

China's educational investments

One could have asked the same of Japanese industry, decimated after World War II, and building cars. Again, American university educators can learn from history.

Why did Japanese cars come to dominate the American market and not the other way around? A big part of the answer was decided well before the competition of the 60s. Japanese industry was destroyed and known for poor quality.

The Japanese significantly credit the American W. Edwards Deming for the industrial part of the Japanese post-war economic miracle of 1950-60. Following his pre-war work in the U.S., Deming developed industrial techniques based on systems perspectives to improve quality, reduce costs, increase productivity, and increase market share. He applied his techniques from industrial processes to management techniques.

After the war, U.S. industry largely ignored Deming, while the Japanese embraced it. In the 50s, while the Big 3 ignored quality and fostered adversity, the Japanese implemented his work. The 60s and subsequent decades played out the results.

America began to recognize Deming’s work in the 80s, when Ford, coming off years of losses in the billions, sought his help to improve quality. He focused, to their surprise, on systems, management, and leadership. Following his advice, Ford became, in a few years, America’s most profitable car maker for the first time since the 20s. Ford’s chairman said, “many changes that have been taking place here have their roots directly in Deming’s teachings.”

Still, catching up to its American peers is one thing. Decades later Ford and its Big 3 peers are still catching up to its Japanese competitors.

My question to the administrators, tenured faculty, and decision-makers of America’s top universities: if you find the above compelling, do you want to risk academic bankruptcy and take decades to catch up or, as the Big 3 did, take a systems approach, take initiative, and lead though service, empathy, compassion, and humility?

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