Do Elite Universities Need To Limit the Number of Seats at the Table?

Kerry Washington’s inspiring acceptance speech inspired me. She talks about marginalized groups that have often been pitted against one another (Malloy, 2015).

Now you would think that those of us who are kept from our full rights of citizenship would band together and fight the good fight. But history tells us that no, often we don’t. Women, poor people, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, intersex people — we have been pitted against each other and made to feel like there are limited seats at the table for those of us who fall into the category of ‘other.’

Her comment on the ‘number of seats at the table’ got me thinking. Do elite universities need to limit the number of seats at their table? Why can’t they clone themselves by opening up branch campuses, as David L. Kirp suggests (Kirp, 2021)?

Alternatively, why can’t they expand the number virtual seats at the table via distance education. In other words, why don’t they emulate the British Open University (Kirp, 2020)?

If existing institutions of Higher Education are unwilling to emulate the British Open University, then perhaps the federal government should create a US Open University, one which creates free online textbooks and is also tuition-free (Beshears, 2020).

Now, to return to the question of seating space, highly selective universities can be thought of as ‘tables’ that do seem to have limited seating. While I was at Berkeley (1987-2007), I tried to get the faculty and campus leadership interested in distance education. With online learning, we could infinitely expand the number of virtual seats at the table. Unfortunately, my suggestions fell on deaf ears.

Those debating the question of who should get into Berkeley implicitly accepted the idea that those who ‘got in’ were special in some way. If we made Berkeley degrees available to anyone who could virtually attend the same lectures, do the same homework, pass the same tests, then the fear was that Berkeley would no longer be a ‘selective’ university. In other words, the powers-that-be at Berkeley were afraid that distance education would dilute the value of a Berkeley degree.

So while I was at Berkeley, instead of debating how we might expand our course offerings via the internet, the faculty, students, and administrators spent a enormous amount of time debating who should physically ‘get into’ classes on the Berkeley campus. Some thought the selection process should just be about SAT scores, others thought the criteria should include diversity related criteria, but almost no one was willing to talk about distance education.

Why was this? In my opinion, it was because they wanted Berkeley to be highly selective, they just cannot agree on the criteria for being selective. But whatever the criteria for selection, they all seem to want to limit the number of seats at the table.


Beshears, Fred

How to Create a Tuition Free, Public, Online University to Produce Free Online Textbooks and Courses

Kirp, David l.

Why Stanford Should Clone Itself
If elite colleges are serious about diversity of class and race, there’s a simple solution.
By David L. Kirp
6 April 2021

David L. Kirp on the British Open University

Molloy, Parker

Now that’s what I call an acceptance speech. Amazing job, Kerry Washington.
Seriously. What a great speech.
by Parker Molloy
22 March 2015

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