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Higher Education and the New Society - Review

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Having set out to right a conceptual wrong perpetrated by generations of commentators on higher education-the failure to integrate higher education with its social and economic context- Keller concludes with a plea for a radical transformation of the purposes and structures of American higher education.







The posting below is a review by Thomas C. Logan of the book, Higher Education and the New Society, by George Keller The review originally appeared in Planning for Higher Education. July-September, 2009. Planning for Higher Education.  37(4): 43-45.  © 1998-2009 by Society for College and University Planning ( Reprinted with permission. Planning for Higher Education book reviews appear at: (




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Higher Education and the New Society - Review


George Keller needs no introduction to Society of College and University Planning (SCUP) members or readers of Planning for Higher Education (PHE). Most of us knew him as the father of "academic planning;" the author of Academic Strategy (Keller 1983), likely the most influential book ever in the field; and the founding and long-time editor of PHE. And yet, it is important to keep in mind who George was and all that he accomplished in the realm of academic planning as one ventures into this, his last book. Certainly not his greatest literary accomplishment, this book must still be counted as a monumental attainment-monumental in its call for radical structural change in American higher education and monumental because it was written while George carried on a valiant struggle with leukemia. The book, not published until shortly after his death, is superbly written and intentionally provocative; it manifests George's passion for and dedication to higher education as well as his willingness to offer radical solutions for difficult challenges.


For those who had the privilege of hearing George Keller present at SCUP annual meetings in his later years, the landscape of this book-really an extended essay-will be familiar. Fascinated as he was with educational change, in this little book he is sharply focused on the breadth, magnitude, and pace of contemporary social change. He had earlier concluded that American higher education needed to recognize "that the society has been going through revolutionary changes and that new, outside forces require educators to rethink and redesign some of their operations" (p. xi). Here, while defending American higher education against charges that it has persistently resisted change-he clearly delineates numerous significant changes-he nonetheless chides his colleagues about the kind of change initiated in contrast to the kind needed: "Change in higher education can no longer be incremental. It must be fundamental and structural" (p. xii).


After lamenting the fact that most historical analyses of American higher education have been "remarkably insular" (p. 3)-that is, detached from their full social and historical context- Keller identifies two kinds of social transformation with which American higher education needs to deal: (1) the movement away from a more agrarian, small town, local, and self-reliant society toward a more urban, corporate, educated, liberated, and international social life with greater emphasis on "equality of gender, race, and ethnicity, dependence on numerous entitlement programs, lessened moral taboos, and e-mail and Web pages" (p. 5) and (2) a more recent "collection of fundamental shifts, new conditions, technological innovations, and changing behaviors" (p. 6).


Keller devotes nearly half of the book to cataloguing and chronicling a plethora of social changes that appeared to him to be eroding the social fabric of America. Demographic changes abound: everything from declining fertility rates in developed countries to "an inexorable aging" (p. 10) of the population in many countries, to burgeoning (nearly uncontrolled) immigration in the United States, to the "crumbled" (p. 19) nuclear family and the decline of traditional family life, all with dire consequences too numerous to mention. Second among the drivers of change is technology or, in Keller's  mind, the communication (digital) revolution of the 20th century with its ubiquitous impact on both research and teaching in higher education. Keller identifies economic change broadly conceived as the third driver of social change, noting that the "growth of America's economy in recent decades is a chronicle of astonishing success" (p. 41). Focusing particularly on the 1970s-a decade he selects as showing the greatest transformational change since industrialism unfolded on the American scene-he cites the rise of global competition and international terrorism; an excess of "blunders, lapses, and failures" (p. 47) in U.S. government and politics; and the "rending of the nation's social fabric" (p. 48)-drugs, sex, divorce, teen pregnancy, and abortion-as causes of a notable economic softening. By contrast, he also notes a monumental shift from domestic capitalism to a more international market economy and from industrial and service labor to knowledge work. In the midst of the decline of the old, Keller finds the foundation stones of a succeeding and unprecedented 30-year growth spurt, an era of prosperity in which the United States "performed admirably" (p. 56). At the same time, American higher education reshaped itself into four segments in response to socioeconomic change, with each serving an identifiable national need: (1) research universities (public and private); (2) elite liberal arts colleges; (3) the "huge, polyglot array of state colleges and universities, polytechnic institutions, proprietary schools, and regional, often underfinanced private colleges" (p. 59); and (4) community colleges and struggling private colleges. And finally, Keller touches briefly on the fourth driver, sociocultural change, emphasizing particularly the "press toward full equality of opportunity for all" (p. 61) since the 1970s. Noting the significant gains made by African-Americans, women, handicapped persons, gays and lesbians, and immigrants, he counters with a perceptive critique of excessive individualism and self-centeredness that manifests itself in a lack of common learning in higher education and a growing division among classes in the society at large.


Having thus chronicled at some length the elements of transformative change on the American scene, Keller then turns in three shorter chapters to higher education's response to change. He concurs with higher education's critics regarding the failure of governing boards and presidents to monitor the external environment in a systematic way and the lack of clarity and strategic focus in governance. We have done well in modernizing the admissions/recruiting process, but have not done well in responding to the needs of most adult learners. And, the response to "the torrent of immigrants" (p. 72) and "the dissolving nuclear family" (p. 73) has been half-hearted and ill-conceived. As for technology, higher education's responses have served administrative process well, but have resulted in subtle losses of learning on the education side. Keller finds similarly mixed results in the higher education response to economic change: neither business nor government leaders have been satisfied. Efforts to contain costs have been minimal and a number of cost-cutting endeavors have actually reduced productivity and quality. Finally, "egalitarianism" (p. 86), for all its positive potential, has engendered a level of "political correctness" (p. 85) that has "lifted political transformation above the age-old importance of objectivity, the pursuit of truth, and fairness to all sides of life's complex issues" (p. 87).


What should come next? While Keller credits higher education with modest institutional and educational changes in response to transformative social and economic change, these changes are simply too modest to satisfy the old master. He concludes that "only through considerable and profound restructuring can U.S. higher education continue to serve the nation in a powerful way" (p. 90). For his model, Keller selects the 1870-1910 era-an era when stronger central leaders inspired a "pluralism of academic emphases" (p. 94) by preparing youth for the world of work, infusing them with a sense of service and the importance of character, pointing them toward humanity's and our nation's highest achievements, and preparing them to create new knowledge. In the end, he concludes that "a bold, inventive structural overhaul of higher education" (p. 96) is imperative: "massification" (p. 98)- expansion of access-demands both different institutions and different pedagogy, faculty, and educational goals; the information technology revolution demands a total renovation of instructional methods, processes, and formats-in short, superior teaching; the "throng of new competitors" (p. 99) requires a transformation of delivery models; and the needs of business and society at large require a change in basic purposes from knowledge for the sake of knowledge  to education in service to society, the economy, and a higher quality of life for all people.


And how is all this to be accomplished? In response to this ultimate question, Keller reiterates an earlier observation about making segmentation a blessing rather than a burden. The solution, he writes, is "to structure America's higher education system for a mass of students who range from the brightest, most gifted, and intellectually keen to those who mainly want a good job and are underprepared for demanding undergraduate studies" (p. 111). Yes, Keller boldly proposes a purposeful refocusing of the evolving higher education segments-research universities, elite liberal arts colleges, career-oriented public and private colleges and universities, and community colleges and nonselective private colleges-by societal purpose, maybe even by social class to be served. To complete this radical restructuring, Keller strongly urges three specific structural innovations: (1) responding to the needs of adult students by creating "two universitiesŠwith different purposes, schedules, and faculty" (p. 118) on many campuses; (2) rethinking departments and disciplines with an emphasis on wresting control of curriculum, purposes, degrees/outcomes, and governance from traditional disciplines and turning them to the service of institutional effectiveness; and (3) revising cost structures by firmly establishing three-year degrees and four-semester, year-around operating schedules and by professionalizing big-time athletics.


Having set out to right a conceptual wrong perpetrated by generations of commentators on higher education-the failure to integrate higher education with its social and economic context- Keller concludes with a plea for a radical transformation of the purposes and structures of American higher education. In traveling this challenging road, one encounters not only an exceptional array of facts, factors, and provocative ideas presented in an engaging manner, but also confronts an enlightened professional's sense of awe and a concerned elder statesman's sense of trepidation (even, at times, disdain) in the face of such transformative change. Moreover, the pace and tenor of the book are sometimes uneven: voluminous chronicling at times juxtaposed with a lack of deep and penetrating analysis; the persuasive power of hard evidence sometimes jarred by the intrusion of strong but unsubstantiated opinion. Now and again, one is left too with a sense of incompleteness, of a more fulsome manuscript intended but never to be completed. In the end, though, this is an engaging, exciting, and stimulating journey and one to be recommended to all who would characterize themselves, like George Keller, as academic planners, designers, or builders.




Keller, G. 1983. Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.