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James Shulman on The Synthetic University: How Higher Education Can Benefit from Shared Solutions and Save Itself

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James Shulman, vice president and chief operating officer of the American Council of Learned Societies, discusses his book, The Synthetic University: How Higher Education Can Benefit from Shared Solutions and Save Itself, with Mitchell Stevens, professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education. This conversation took place January 24, 2024, as part of the Academic Innovation for the Public Good series. 


This transcript has been edited; introductory and closing remarks from the live event have been removed.

MATTHEW RASCOFF: I'm pleased to introduce today's author, James Shulman, vice president and chief operating officer at the American Council of Learned Societies. In his book, The Synthetic University: How Higher Education Can Benefit from Shared Solutions and Save Itself, James draws on his extensive experience building collaborative solutions in higher education to present a vision for how universities can tame unfettered spending and reduce costs. During his work at the Mellon Foundation in the 2000s, he noticed that digital image technology was replacing slide projectors, which were ubiquitous in art history classrooms.

I remember them myself in the late '90s, studying art history. Many universities were embarking on costly ventures to manually scan and digitize tens of thousands of images in their libraries, but they had little incentive to collaborate across institutional borders. In short, they were doing lots of redundant work. To address this problem, James and his team built Artstor, a digital library of images with many of the commonly used images in one shared location.

Over the next decade and a half, as they navigated the incentive systems within and between universities, they gained insight into the mosaic of self-interested parties coexisting within every college and university they encountered. On a personal note, James's approach to coordination challenges in higher education has influenced my own and our own strategy here at Stanford Digital Education, as well as this collaborative book talk series that we're all part of.

I, myself, spent three years working at ITHAKA, which is the umbrella organization that includes JSTOR, Portico, and now Artstor, and I had the good fortune to get to know James and his team and to work alongside them in my early days, making my way in the world of higher education, technology, and innovation.

In the book, James shows how partnerships in the post-secondary sector that leverage economies of scale can create much needed efficiencies, and he explains how such an approach need not undermine colleges' and universities' independence — that institutions can still distinguish themselves while working for the collective good of the community.

Today, he's in conversation with my colleague Mitchell Stevens, professor of education at Stanford. Thank you so much, James and Mitchell, for joining us today. We are so grateful to both of you for being part of this series.

Before we begin our conversation, I just want to briefly lay out the format for the program. James and Mitchell would love to entertain your questions in the second half of the program. Please submit them using the Zoom Q&A feature at the bottom of your screen. We'll leave the Zoom chat room open and invite you to engage via chat with others in the audience, and we'll monitor the chat for instances of inappropriate or disruptive language.

Auto-generated captions are enabled, and you'll see them by clicking the Show Captions button in your meeting toolbar. We'll provide edited captions when we make the recording available later. Mitchell, I am so pleased to turn it over to you, with thanks, again, for being our moderator today. Very excited to hear from you and James.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Thank you, Matthew, and thank you, James, for joining us in this digitally mediated world that you've helped us understand so much about. I wanted to start by encouraging you to tell us a little bit about your own academic career. My sense is that that career has sort of shaped your angle of vision in this book. And so maybe if you could start with your doctoral work and graduate school, and narrate forward to today, that'd be great.

JAMES SHULMAN: Great. Well, thanks Mitchell, thanks Matthew, and to the whole team for putting this together. It's great to have a network of people interested in these questions and working on things well worth working on to be in conversation with.

So my graduate work was in Renaissance literature. I wrote a dissertation about really specific moments of how a hero made a decision in the Renaissance epic poem. And so it was literature. It was literary criticism. But as my colleague Harriet Zuckerman at Mellon used to say, it was the most social science-y of humanities dissertations.

And the part of it that really has carried through is by looking at specific moments of decisions. And when I started the dissertation, what I wanted to write about were, like, split-second decisions and the brilliance of split-second decisions. But there wasn't anything to unpack there. And what I found was I wrote about decisions that were thought through and were complicated, and the complicated times of the rise of the nation state and the changes that were taking place in the Renaissance.

So my whole career, I've been really interested in how people, individual people on campuses, and that's really where my work has played out, make decisions in the context of missions, like the mission of their institution, and how they resolve what they're interested in and what they value and what they think is important with what the policy or the mission of the place is. And that's something we all do every day. And that's how places move forward. That's what we do as individuals, make decisions.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Well, and I like the way some of those Renaissance heroes make little cameo appearances in The Synthetic University as well. I wanted to just give a line or two about what I see as some of the kind of anchoring theoretical insights in the book. And as an organizational sociologist, there's a lot for me to recognize in the tools that you build.

But one of the biggest insights that I get from that tradition, generally, is that it takes a lot of cooperation to compete. In order to compete in a systematic and an ongoing way, collect — actors need to figure out what the rules of the game are. And those rules of the game need to be monitored and enforced so that collective action can happen. And when I teach that basic idea to my students, I give a couple of examples.

One is scholarship in any field. Science or any kind of cumulative inquiry requires people to agree on what the problems are, what increments of progress look like, what a viable piece of evidence is. Even while we compete with each other for scholarly prestige, we compete according to established rules of the game.

Another good example of that is the Common App, which we all know. Selective admissions has only become more competitive but that's a very, very highly structured competition. And one of the things you talk about in The Synthetic University is, this dance between cooperation and competition is part of what has propelled excellence in American higher education, which resonates with me, certainly.

But also your motivation for the book seems to be that we've gotten ahead of ourselves on the competition side in ways that are sort of negatively consequential. And so I found myself, in much of the book, thinking, well, if there's always been this dance of cooperation and competition, like, what is it that's changed in the last decade or so, or in recent years, that motivates you to write a book with this strong polemic in it?

JAMES SHULMAN: So there are about four questions there. So I'll take them one at a time. I think, Mitchell, let me start by — a wise person once reminded me that when you're talking about a book that you've recently written that you have to remember that no one's read it, which is fine and fair. I'll give you — first, I'll give the audience and the interlocutors a sense of the main point of what I've written and then come to your Common App and competition questions.

So when I went to Mellon in the '90s, I worked with then-president Bill Bowen on policy issues. And what was interesting about being at Mellon was everything in the DNA was about the sector. It wasn't about the good of individual institutions. It was about thinking across the sector.

So when we worked on policy issues like race and college admissions or intercollegiate athletics, these were all sector-wide issues that affected the lives of individual institutions. So after doing policy work — Matthew was very nice and said that I came up with the idea of, recognition that everyone was digitizing their teaching slides. But the reality was every day, the Mellon Foundation was getting an application.

One day it was one college saying, will you give us $800,000 to digitize our teaching slides? And the next day, it was another university saying, will you give us $950,000 to digitize our teaching slides? We weren't brilliant people, but we were smart enough to know that if you gave $1 million to 1,000 different places, not only would you blow through $1 billion but you'd have 1,000 isolated pools of the old digital slide library.

And what was fascinating about this, I mean, it made sense to apply to Mellon, Mellon's interest in humanities, Mellon had done JSTOR, started JSTOR, so it was a good mix. But it was such a perfect quintessential example of how institutions are inclined to do things on their own, because it's so concrete.

Like, you had the slide of the Mona Lisa, it was just a picture taken out of a picture in a book. But they were going to scan it. And then they were going to catalog it. And then they were going to get the general council to spend a third of her time deciding if they could even do that.

So seeing these applications, one after another, and Don Waters, a program officer, and Bill and others, we were all involved in this, we realized we — there was a better answer. And the better answer was to do something collective.

So the Common App impulse, or as I write about in the book, the National Student Clearinghouse, there are different examples of where a collective solution is so sort of irresistible that institutions get the idea. Now, carrying that out — it might be a simple idea but carrying it out is complicated.

And that's to get to your question about competition. I mean, some things — so you asked, has it always been this way? And US higher education is very unusually, as you know, fragmented, thousands of institutions — thousands of institutions teaching the liberal arts, which is like nowhere else in the world, a lot of state funding but many private institutions, large, small, diverse community college system, HBCUs — big country with a lot of different institutions. Built into that has always been a level of competition.

And one of the things that just reminds me of is, in 1789, it wasn't clear at all that Delaware and Maryland weren't going to have their own currencies. I mean, we have a state system, we have a light federal touch. So we're used to competition. So it's always been there. But yes, I think, it has grown more intense.

MITCHELL STEVENS: And you talk about that in the book too, you make the comparison with currencies and that the United States may well have had a multitude of currencies, depending on different legal jurisdictions. But let me ask then, so what's your provocation about how the scale has tipped in the direction of competition? What motivates this work, at this moment, in higher education history?

JAMES SHULMAN: So maybe I'll torture you a little bit, because you wrote that great article about entrepreneurship and the rise of Stanford and other institutions in the time of Sputnik. The '50s and '60s were a time of expansion. And as [Louis] Menand says in his book about disciplines, everything could be added in. English could take media studies, could take film studies, and grow and grow. And we're not in a time of growth anymore.

So with declining state funding and the cost to families and students becoming increasingly unsustainable, we're in an extended period of contraction. So in a time of contraction, the competition is going to get more intense. And we compete for everything.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Yeah. No, I think that makes a lot of sense, that the way in which universities learned to do business was in a period of abundance and now there's — relative abundance. And now, there's a scarcity of public resources. Increasingly, there's a scarcity of 18- and 19-year-old students who are eager to sign up for four years of full time higher education. And then another, I think, is that the rise of spectacular wealth in the philanthropic sector encourages universities to go after individual patrons in ways that nationally and internationally —

So a decline of public financing means that the spoils of philanthropy, which are often competitively allocated one way or another. So yeah, that resonates with me. And I think it's important for us all to think about the material conditions that have created this transition. You spend a great deal of time in the book, in a good way, I think, organizing your analysis around some concrete examples of —

And let me tell the audience a central part of the provocation here that James argues is that universities would do very well if they would allow a good deal of non-core activities to be supported by third parties, be they nonprofit or for-profit third parties, and be willing to organize their operations in ways that some of those services can be standardized so they don't have to replicate them. And James speaks from experience. We've heard a little bit already about Artstor.

But there was also, perhaps regarded as the success — but there was a non-success or a less success, Shared Shelf, which had a similar ambition but really did not make nearly the change that Artstor did. What are some of the big lessons you learned by looking at that success and that failure, that are portable insights for the rest of us?

JAMES SHULMAN: So think — so as Mitchell said, and this is discussed in the book, the first thing we did was try to solve the scanning Mona Lisa problem. And that basically worked. We scanned a lot of slides, we worked with the libraries and photographers and artists. And we built a big, an ever-growing collection of primary source material. We worked hard with libraries and visual resource curators and faculty to win people over and to respond to their needs, to over-serve their needs, because we sort of thought, oh, we'll just scan some images. And everyone asks for a slide library, and they'll all say, oh, thank you so much. And no one said thank you so much.

So a lot of the lessons learned were about how to integrate, how to work with librarians, how to work with everyone, you know, threatened by digital, and also seeing the potential. So one of the lessons on the positive side, on the part that worked, was do have to offer something that's better. You're not going to make a progress with mission-driven people by saying, you should do this for efficiency's sake. It's just not going to work.

The nonprofits and universities and colleges are meant to do things that don't make financial sense. And thank God they do. But that can become a justification for doing everything that doesn't make financial sense. So you can't just argue that it's more efficient. So in that we were gathering up primary source material from all over the world, we were doing something that even the best and the biggest slide libraries or campus libraries couldn't do.

The next stage was to then say, hey, we're getting a lot of interest from campuses to provide cloud-based software for them to manage their own image files. They had image files, they had audio files, they had media files, they had pictures of the lacrosse team. They had all kinds of digital images that were growing up in thousands of fragmented databases across campus.

And some of the libraries said to us, hey, it would be great. You guys know how to do this stuff. Why don't you build something where we can build collections, share them with you, share them with the world, keep them private? And so that was the beginning of Shared Shelf. It's a really interesting idea. And it might have been the right idea, and we might just not have executed.

I was in charge of the organization. Ultimate responsibility was for me, lands on me and my board. And we just — there are plenty of reasons that products don't work. But part of it was that it also may have been too hard. We might have been pushing back against too much self-interest on the part of people wanting to manage their own softwares, build their own softwares, or provide their own solutions.

I mean, as you know, Mitchell, Bill Bowen and I wrote a book about college sports 20 years ago. It had a lot of data. It made a lot of sense. It changed nothing, changed nothing. Some things are too big to push back on or too big to work on all at once. And so the software side of what we're doing was harder, and there are parts of it that JSTOR has taken up and, I think, are working really well. But trying to just assuming that everybody will welcome an idea because it makes sense is not a good place to start.

MITCHELL STEVENS: For the next couple of questions, I'm going to put on my Silicon Valley hat. I've lived out here long enough to have absorbed some of the objects in terms of thinking here. And I might be a little bit hyperbolic but just for purposes of provocation.

The book talks a lot about mission and how important a sense of mission is in higher education. But part of me says, well, I mean, why do colleges and universities get the luxury of this thing called mission? Why can't we just bottom line to, does it work? Does it work well? How much does it cost? And is it cost-efficient? Why is that an inadequate basis for making decisions in this sector?

JAMES SHULMAN: Well, I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of mission, so let me just confess that up front. So I have been working in mission-driven institutions my whole career. I use the phrase mission-driven, and yet at the same time, the definition of mission is so inevitably vague and fuzzy that it's a big part of our problem.

And what I mean by that is — I mean, Stanford's mission or University of Iowa's mission, anybody's mission is basically the same — to provide leadership in all walks of life, to create new knowledge, and to serve communities. I mean, it's big and broad. What happens then is that everybody in the institution — faculty, staff, administrators — get to define that mission however they want, right? And they do so in two ways that are really fundamentally important.

So one is, they're always working on a symbolic plane. They're working about, this is why I do this. This is my version of that mission that does something bigger than today, bigger than the forces of the market and that really is going to make the world a better place. I'm defining my own symbolic mission.

The other thing they're doing, though, is they're living a material life. They're living a life where they want to get paid, which is perfectly reasonable. They want to get paid more. They might want to grow. They might want more power. They might want to move up to a bigger institution or a better post somewhere. We're not so good at talking about that.

So when you have a faculty member, or a librarian or a lacrosse coach, or a swimming coach or a director of admissions who's making decisions, that person is making a decision based on symbolic definition of that vague mission — here's what, I think, the most important thing we do is — and also on some level, on his or her own material interests, like, do I look good in doing this?

And so we leave that all in a very fuzzy terrain. And we just say that we're mission-driven. And sometimes, the loudest voices or the most forceful people get what they want, and de facto define what the mission of the place is.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Yeah, and I just want to applaud and thank the people who are contributing to a parallel discourse in the chat. I'm only glancing at it occasionally, but it's really nice to see these ideas having an expansive place elsewhere too.

Yeah, so I'm hearing two things in what you just said, James. One is that if we live in a universe or an organization where mission is a legitimate thing to talk about, then it can be, shall we say, strategically used or, dare I say, weaponized to come up with some fancy ways of saying yes and no that might not be available in other organizations because, where, say, the bottom line or efficiency is the primary criterion. Is that a reasonable summary of what you said?

JAMES SHULMAN: And I think what's interesting because a lot of people in the academic world fall into good versus evil, for-profits, nonprofits, I mean, certainly there are mission-driven for-profits. And there are institutions that use a guiding idea as a way of driving behavior. Now, there is a bottom line and in higher education and nonprofits, the bottom line is not what's driving things. But that can lead to chaos or is it, as you say, it can lead to managerial drift.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Right. The other one I like is when a rich university makes a decision in the name of cost-cutting, which is another interesting paradox here. So there's ways in which — have we gotten to a world in which a handful of universities are, in fact, so wealthy that it doesn't make sense to their own constituents to talk about money saving or cost cutting? I'll just leave that there, don't expect you to address that.

But there's something else that you're making me think about is, one of the things I tell my students when I work with students and inevitably in higher education, scheduling, getting the same people in the same Zoom room at the same time, is always the hardest thing. And I ask them to hypothesize about why it is that that's the case. And we get to the point where a university is a place where very few people can tell other people what to do when.

There is a hierarchy of authority and influence, but so many times, the stakeholders who are relevant can't tell each other what to do. And so it's one of the things I also hear in your book, is just the sheer organizational complexity of colleges and universities can mitigate against the kind of collective thinking that would enable the solutions like you advocate. Is that a reasonable — is that a reasonable takeaway from your book, on your view?

JAMES SHULMAN: Yeah. And, I think, that we need to celebrate the creativity and the autonomy that you're talking about. I mean, faculty members have wonderful autonomy —

MITCHELL STEVENS: I'm going to push you back — I'm going to push back on that in a second. But go ahead. Make the case.

JAMES SHULMAN: Yeah, I'm doing that — set it up and say something positive and lower the hammer. We do compete, like, institutions compete. And that competition fosters a lot of creativity — intellectual creativity, creativity on faculty's behalf, but also on staff, I mean, staff. So in my world, where I was working at, there were a lot of libraries wanted to scan their own slides or build their own platform, or come up with their own way of linking data in interesting ways. And there was a lot of wonderful services created.

What we're not good at is knowing when to stop. We're really good at the competing, and that's why US higher education is still the envy of the world. We create an enormous innovation, but we then keep competing, because without the sort of regular market clearing forces saying, OK, at this point, Uber and Lyft, they are the great ridesharing platforms. We don't need every city and every town creating a ridesharing platform. We've sort of cleared the market of the competition. And we don't do that in higher education.

So what we do is we celebrate — so the autonomy does make decision, making complicated, it makes the acceptance of an external solution that provided by some outside provider difficult because people say, well, wait we can do that ourselves. There's good there and there's bad there. There's just a point that the curve breaks.

MITCHELL STEVENS: So I'm going to — and, again, one of the things that I find frankly refreshing about your book is that this is somebody — I'm going to call you an insider to elite higher education, whether just, and joining me in this rarefied world of having the privilege of being in these sort of extraordinary institutions like the Mellon Foundation and Stanford.

It's heartening, on my view, to hear that, in fact, this critical of higher education, this self-critical of higher education, as opposed to so many books, which decry the assault on the university or the decline in funding, or — I really see it an important kind of critical self-reflection in The Synthetic University that I hope we can encourage more of.

But there's quite a few people I spend time with in the tech sector and the venture capital sector who are basically saying that the enterprise that we inherit from the 20th century, the legacy colleges and universities that were built on Cold War largesse, are just not fixable. And they often cite decades of efforts to make the sector more efficient, more transparent, more driven by measurable outcomes, more cooperative.

And you mentioned some of this in your book as well, like, some nontrivial number of patrons are just walking away and creating new organizational forms. What do you say to those folks? What's your argument to the people who say, just forget the form, take the sunk costs, and let's move into the 21st century with new organizational forms and practices?

JAMES SHULMAN: The system can be disrupted externally or internally. And externally is Clayton Christensen. You're the old-model, you're not paying attention to the realities of today. You're going to get — you're going to get disrupted just like General Motors.

I think that's not my preferred mode. I think internal disruption, where innovation that recognizes that we need to do things better, we need to be a little more focused on the problems that we need to solve, has a lot more going forward. I worry a lot about the things we lose when we lose the legacy institutions, as you call them.

I mean, I don't think that there's a lot of interest in research out there. I don't think there's a lot of interest in basic research. I don't think there's a lot of interest in supporting fields like the humanities that institutions still care about while the market doesn't really see the immediate return. I think in terms of social mobility, where we need to do better, and in terms of diversity, where we've started to do better. I think in equity — I think there are things that we depend on mission-driven institutions to do that the market won't solve.

So I look at things like Georgia State and the University Innovation Alliance. And they sat there and they said, what's the problem that we want to solve? Not what's the rankings and how do we be like Harvard, but how do we solve the problem of graduation rates? How do we get people to get degrees?

And so then they work on that and they use new tools to do that. And then they build a new set of peers in terms of the university innovation lines. We're like, we're all working on the same problem, let's figure out how to do it together. And that's a kind of disruption that is a change of course. But it's also not saying, how to, we come to this enterprise and either start over or extract from it.

MITCHELL STEVENS: So I think one of the — I mean, you mentioned Christensen, and since for better or worse, I was very much involved in the massively open online course phenomenon. Remember those world-changing innovations? We heard a lot about — Clay Christensen was kind of gospel in this world. And the idea was that other organizations would compete with legacy providers.

But mysteriously missing from a lot of those conversations, on my view, was the federal government as a primary patron of colleges and universities. Last I checked with my friends in economics, organizations change on the basis of material incentives. And as far as I'm able to determine, the basic ways in which the federal government has funded higher education have done nothing to reward the kinds of practices that you're talking about.

Even at the height of the pandemic, the best that the higher education establishment could come up with was more Pell Grants, which is essentially a direct subsidy to colleges and universities to do whatever they want. I'm wondering, if you could influence the next presidential administration and the next department of education to create a financial or material incentives that would encourage the kind of behavior that you think is important, do you have any thoughts about what those policy recommendations might be?

JAMES SHULMAN: Well, I don't see a lot of federal interest in support for higher education. But if I were to try to shape it, I would think that it is a public-private partnership sort of approach. I think the types of organizations that I'm talking about — and I don't mean to pretend that the financing of how you do new intermediary organizations is solved. Philanthropy is very good at starting things, not very good at growth equity, not very good at all.

So their reward system and their prestige system in philanthropy is not based on how do we build a few things and sustain them for the long run and keep them going and growing and expanding. It's based on starting new cool things and being society's risk capital. So I think, there are the impact investing world, which has a lot of resource and is still Wild Westy and how has it figured out, not figured out, not evaluated — lots of work to do there and lots of ratings agencies.

But bringing capital into enterprises that can force this kind of collective action is what we need. Now whether it's government capital or whether that's private capital, I think that clearly, if we're going to try to solve collective problems, I only have two strong feelings — one is that we cannot hope that institutions that compete day in and day out for everything are suddenly going to get together and collaborate.

They might collaborate intellectually, as you say, but they're not going to build things together. They're not going to — it's just not in their DNA. It's not in their reward structures. It's not how presidents get rewarded. No such committee has ever interviewed a president and hired a candidate who said, what I really want to do is collaborate with other institutions. I don't really believe in distinguishing ourselves from others. I think we should work together to solve collective problems.

So there's nothing in — there's very little in the reward system that says collaborate. And so I think what we — so whether it's government support of ventures that can do this or private support or some — and a mixture of philanthropy starting things and working capital to build them, we need ways of solving this problem. But we need to agree that these are problems that we should solve.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Right. And I'm going to ask James — I'm going to make one comment and ask James one more question, then I'm going to turn it to Q&A. And so please, some folks have started questions in the Q&A channel, which is different than the webinar chat. So please, please fire away and we'll open it, open this up.

But it does seem to me one of the things that — for whatever reasons Americans have created a public sector in which it's increasingly difficult to mobilize public sentiment to create surplus capital on the public side, the rhetoric of scarcity has so profoundly shaped Americans' willingness to invest their tax dollars in collective goods.

That it is the case, that there's essentially no surplus capital in the public post-secondary sector, which is dramatically different from the middle of the 20th century, when, as I tell my students, more or less, the federal government put truckloads of cash and headed to universities and dumped it on places like the Stanford Oval and said you guys figure out how to get a great university to help us win the Cold War.

And it was fun while it lasted, but that's just not the world we live in anymore. Now, virtually all of the surplus capital is in either philanthropy or extraordinarily wealthy individuals and their private charities. And that's where most of the action is happening.

And one of the things that I think might — to the credit of your book, I think that's where the new stuff's going to come from. The open question is how that new stuff will or will not change the internal operation of, again, what I'm calling legacy institutions.

And I think Michael Crow's Arizona State University and the University of Southern New Hampshire and the University of Central Florida are excellent examples of how, substantially, legacy institutions can change. The open question to me is if we go frankly further up the prestige hierarchy or out to the vast majority of colleges and universities that you see a huge reluctance to embrace those kinds of changes.

So I guess, 2023 was a pretty complicated year for higher education, and 2024 is probably going to be a complicated year as well. I'd be eager to hear you think tell us about what you think the stakes are here. What on your view do academic leaders really need to figure out? And if they don't figure out those things, what, on your view, is at stake for the present and future of American higher education?

JAMES SHULMAN: Though going back to, Mitchell, what you said about private capital and the big pools of money, I mean, we've seen in the last few weeks the capacity of donors to reach from the back seat and grab the steering wheel. I mean, the — and one thing we've never had in higher education is a shortage of good ideas and worthwhile ideas. So then we look to finance these things.

And there are two sources — one are donors. And as we've seen, when donors give a lot of money, they don't feel like saying, I trust you, run the institution as you see fit. And that's just one of the exposures we have. But the other one which you didn't mention, but we all know is there, is it falls on tuition-paying families and students. That transfer from public subsidy has been to families and students, undergraduates who are funding — and graduates, but master's programs, particularly — but undergraduates, who are funding the whole enterprise, the whole running cost of higher education.

What happens when we do that shouldn't be any surprise. As we lean harder and harder on a Gary Becker, you're investing in your future, well, it becomes a pretty direct investment. So I need to study things that are going to get me a job, I need a study things right away that are going to help me pay off these loans, which I'm going to be paying off from the very beginning.

So I think, we're getting what we deserve if we just sort of say, well, it keeps growing but that's OK, because it's not OK. And so what we need to do is, we need to find ways to, and you mentioned earlier, sort of support sides of the enterprise and in library systems and things like that are certainly — some of the examples I use in the book. But we also have to talk about how to share classes.

And MOOCs are not the answer. And there is a review of my book that said, oh, Shulman talks about MOOCs, so he must think that's the answer. I don't think that's the answer. Your colleague John Mitchell at Stanford has written brilliantly about all the many components of teaching and learning that we have to start working on together if we're going to actually talk about some sharing of classes that will help make the enterprise more sustainable.

This is not MOOCs. This is not just, like, let's start all over and send people just into a factory of online education. But there are things — there are ways of working on at the craft of teaching that we could share that would be helpful. And I don't have all the answers, and we collectively have to build the answers. But we have to recognize that we can't just keep going like this because projected out 50 years and what's tuition going to be.

MITCHELL STEVENS: So we've got some — I appreciate that, quite, and also speaking of problems, the California State University faculty are now on strike. And I learned that a full-time lecturer — the median income for a full-time lecturer at San Jose State University is a hefty $55,000 a year, for a region of the country that is like living in Manhattan. Clearly, we haven't worked out the economics of basic instruction very well. There's a lot to consider.

There are a couple of questions in the Q&A about consortia. What role do you see for this legacy of consortia in higher education? And one person, Joana Jebsen, asks that and also Richard Navarro talks specifically about consortiums within the Big Ten such as CIC and MUCIA. There are also international consortia such as CONAHEC linking Mexico, Canada, and the US. So maybe just a little bit about the organizational forms and what role they might play in what you're asking for advocating.

JAMES SHULMAN: Yeah, it's a great topic because we can't do anything by ourselves. Like, individual institutions can foster change and can experiment and obviously do internal change work of many kinds. But when it comes to the norms of how we shift things in the enterprise, we need to have consortial relationships and associations that save institutions from doing things on their own.

And the other CIC, not the Big Ten alliance, but the CIC, the Council of Independent Colleges, with 700 liberal arts colleges, work together on core sharing in very modest and thoughtful and supportive ways of the member institutions. And I think, we need those collaborative sort of trans-institutional networks in order to, A, move forward together, B, move forward collaboratively, and align norms in ways that allow the members, the institutions or individuals, to feel like that in fulfilling their mission, they're doing so collaboratively and doing so in the ways that fulfill the goals of the entire enterprise and not just their local departmental goals.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Here's someone who asks the following question. I'm just going to read it. Given that our interpretations of our institutional missions are necessarily to some degree at least self-interested, how do we ensure that we continue to serve in a way that is congruent with our institutional values? She says having just gone through the shared exercise of putting together my unit vision, has anyone else on the call ever put together a unit vision, where no small number of senior administrators pushed to have their own interests represented? How do we stay innovative in this space when the middle ground is often some version of the status quo?

JAMES SHULMAN: Yeah, it's really sort of continual negotiation to carry out change. Like, one needs support from above, one needs bottom-up support. I mean, my experience with this goes back to Artstor where I didn't ever meet anyone who said oh, yes it makes perfect sense for 3,000 institutions to scan their own slide of the Mona Lisa. No one ever said that. But no one also ever said, I want someone else's image of the Mona Lisa.

Until you got a good enough image of the Mona Lisa that they said, OK, I'll take that, but I also need you to do this. So the resolution of how an individual version of a mission moves forward is that one has to recognize and respect that mission. One has to co-author with that person a new mission. And the literary term I always refer to about this is mythopoesis. And mythopoesis means to create a new myth out of fragments of an old myth. And it's a big long fancy word.

But we all know that storytelling is essential. Storytelling is how you sell an idea, it's how you teach, it's how you sell a product. Storytelling is everywhere in the world. But mythopoesis sort of says OK, this person believes in something different deeply. This art historian or this scholar or this librarian or this staff member is driven by some vision, and has probably written a vision statement, of what their role in the enterprise should be.

And you can't just come in and say, here, buy this product or you're just trying to override their mission. What you need to do is be able to say, I recognize your mission. I can reconcile what you need, both symbolically and materially, with what we do. And if you can't do that, you're not going to get anywhere. But if you can do that, you can move things forward.

MITCHELL STEVENS: All right. So you brought up your mythopoesis, not me. So I'm going to challenge you on it. I love that that came in. I'm going to challenge you to do a little mythopoesis here.

You are a candidate to be the next president of Harvard University, and one of the questions that you get from the board of overseers is that Harvard is accused of doing too little for the public good with or — maybe you're a candidate for president at Stanford, because that job is open too.

And someone on the trustee board is saying, Stanford is accused of being of doing too little with too much of its resources, and we have always responded that one, we make 100% of financial need to every undergraduate who applies and, two, we produce things of immense value to the American people and to the world at large. But somehow that myth isn't working anymore. How do we work on that myth, right, what story do we tell that is both congruent with that past but recognizes the kind of present that you're telling us about in the book?

JAMES SHULMAN: I read today how the price-fixing case among a set of institutions was resolved with the institutions basically admitting guilt and paying out millions of dollars. I don't know if Stanford was in that. But a lot of other elite institutions —

MITCHELL STEVENS: I don't know that.

JAMES SHULMAN: It had a lot to do — the case revolves around whether need-blind institutions who were now able to share information because they were need-blind, actually were completely need-blind when they were going the waitlist and things like that. This goes back to the MIT, Brown case of the 1990s where it was decided by the Department of Justice, and in a complicated settlement, that institutions weren't allowed to collaborate because the good of the customer was what was important.

And of course, the good of the customer has ended up with people being able to negotiate their aid package — individuals end negotiating their aid package at the expense of the enterprise where collaboration has now been made clearly illegal. And collaboration among mission-driven enterprises that are tax benefited for the public good.

So you're absolutely right. To get a new myth of how institutions could think and work towards the public good means a lot of redefinition. It means redefinition around some of those government policies. It certainly means redefinition about, around trustees. If the law of the land and if the coin of the realm is going to be distinction for that institution and advancement in the rankings, which we all know is paramount to institutions and how they see, how trustees see, how administrators see themselves as fulfilling their mission, we're going to be in a lot of trouble.

And the only way to force change are making irresistible changes, from the outside, that make sense and can pick away at the inefficiencies and the unbridled autonomy-at-all-costs kind of system. But until then, no president of Harvard or any other institution, any point in the range, is going to say, well, not at any point in the range because there certainly are institutions that are sitting here saying they recognize they can't win this battle for prestige. And what they need to do is serve their students, serve their mission, serve their communities, you know, and serve the country. And to do that they're not going to be able to just enter arms races without end.

MITCHELL STEVENS: On this question of mission, I think, we have been very much focused on, shall we say, the peculiar culture and political economy of higher education in the United States. And I think it's very important to recognize the peculiar character of culture and political economy in the United States.

But could you — and given your range of experience, and this is a question — this is channeling a question by Santiago Martinez, how does this play out differently in different parts of the world? Because presumably, these issues of efficiency right are important all over the place. How is it your understanding that these same issues are negotiated variably in other nation states?

JAMES SHULMAN: It's really interesting to look at the power of centralized state funding. And when I get to my point of being most frustrated with our fragmented system and our endlessly competitive system, I think, about how when Bolsonaro in Brazil was able to get rid of sociology and philosophy with a stroke of the pen. So centralized funding has its pluses and it has some very big minuses. We have bulwarks that the pluralism and the diversity of our system, that we really need to value.

Now, what's really scary, and if you look at certain states in the union right now, there are powers that are recognizing that state funding can be wielded in that same way. So the honeycombed protection that we've had, that protects our freedom and our autonomy and our academic freedom, is really at risk. So I think, unfortunately, we're learning some of the scarier lessons from other parts of the world and at risk of losing some of the very good things about the pluralism of our system.

MITCHELL STEVENS: So as we were talking, I was thinking about the Bologna Process in Europe, which it strikes me might be a sort of poster child for the sort of collaborative innovation that you're talking about.

And for those who aren't familiar with the Bologna accords, they are a substantially voluntary but nevertheless normatively obligatory set of agreements between universities in countries throughout the European Union that enable remarkable porosity and movement of students' academic credits and degrees across organizational and national space. Would you put that in the category of positive collaboration, or how does how does how does an instance like Bologna kind of fit into your scheme?

JAMES SHULMAN: Absolutely. I mean, I think, sometimes when you write a book or make an argument, it gets simplified and reduced. And what I would hate is if my book and my argument, get reduced to, all autonomy is bad, we need off-the-rack solutions for everything that we do in higher education. I think nothing of the sort. I think what we can do, though, is we have room for a little bit of collective action and accords like that.

Steve Mintz at the University of Texas wrote something about my book. And he pointed out, which I just felt incredibly stupid for not having written about myself, is the many people who are working on community college transfer have been pulling out their hair, and how difficult we make transfer in this country. I mean, it's insane. And the wasted resources of individuals and of society on making students take courses over again or not having them articulate well besides — there's been a growing attention on this in the last 10 years and 15 years. But it's terrible.

And this is some form of systemic agreements and collective thought and some collective policies doesn't mean that we have to throw away institutional autonomy. It just means there are some places where we can work together a little better.

MITCHELL STEVENS: Well, and that may be something for us all to consider in conversations forward, are there particular intractable problems that we need to deal with head-on? For example, the chaos of transfer in the United States. And number two would be the problem of stranded credit that our colleagues at ITHAKA are dealing with, where people can't get access to credit that they've earned because they owe debts to the schools that have paid it.

But another, which I find remarkable, almost no social scientists are talking about, is when do we get this — when do we stop talking about debt forgiveness and have a conversation about financing higher education in a way that does not require subsidy by consumer debt? It strikes me that conversation is not even being had.

And so I wonder if one way forward from The Synthetic University is to identify a handful of, I don't know, national emergencies, essentially, that are going to be emergencies regardless of the party of the presidential administration that comes into office, and see if we could organize some collective action solutions around one or two big problems that any some tractable solution might make us look a little better in the eyes of the public than we currently do.

James, I'm going to give you the last word before I turn it over to our hosts to have the last word. Is there anything you'd like to say or any question you'd like to ask me or? You have the last word.

JAMES SHULMAN: Great. Well, just, I thank you and I thank the chat, which is really exciting. I think that the answers aren't going to fall from heaven and they're unfortunately not going to fall from the federal government. Now, maybe things will change. And if they do, and if we think about the financing — and if there could be changes in the financing of higher education, public financing at state level or federal level, it would be terrific. It would be welcome and we would do good things with it.

In lieu of that, what I think we need to do is we need solutions that are not external in the sense of vendor relationship where someone is selling an answer. That's not — it will work unfortunately, in some ways, but it's not the best solution. And I think involving faculty, involving staff, building on the good ideas, figuring out how to finance these and come up with collective solutions is something that we all have to be a part of. It does mean getting outside of our local department and our institution.

But I think we can do that. And I think it's — we just need some agreement that, as you say, it really worth doing. So really I'm so glad to be here and so glad to have this conversation with you, Mitchell.