Colleges and universities are indecisive, slow-moving, and vulnerable to losing their best teachers to the Internet.
That’s the shared view of Google (GOOG) Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Department of State official and until this month a tenured professor at Princeton University. They explored the problems of higher education on Friday in a one-on-one conversation sponsored by the New America Foundation, where Schmidt serves as chairman and Slaughter is the new president.
Colleges have the luxury of thorough, democratic deliberation of issues because “they never actually do anything,” Schmidt said during the event. He cited Princeton, where he graduated in 1976 and once served as trustee, which spent six years deliberating over whether to change its academic calendar—and in the end did nothing. “Don’t get me started on that,” Slaughter laughed.
Schmidt was more positive about the un-Princeton-like Khan Academy, on whose board he serves. He said the academy, which offers free online video tutorials on dozens of topics, has begun to analyze students’ answers to figure out which questions do the best job of assessing mastery of a topic.
The Google boss also had kind words for EdX, a nonprofit created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that lets students take “interesting, fun, and rigorous courses” for free. Google and EdX announced this week that the tech giant will host a platform called Open EdX in a bid to make it easier for anyone to create online courses. “The fun will start,” Schmidt said, as new ventures smash up against incumbents that resist change.
Slaughter agreed that traditional colleges and universities, with their high fixed costs, are at risk. “They’re going to lose their top talent,” she said. “We can become global teachers. The best people can become free agents.”
Speaking from the audience, BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg said he doesn’t think his young children will need to attend college. “I don’t want my kids to go to college unless they desperately want to be scholars.”
That was a bridge too far for Schmidt. He said college “just produces a better adult.” While acknowledging that Google’s college recruits aren’t equipped to contribute immediately, he said, “They are phenomenal employees after the training program.”
Schmidt said entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who pays young people to launch startups instead of studying in college, “is just fundamentally wrong. We want more educated people.”