I just finished Annie Jacobsen’s book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base. It tells the story of the shadowy instillation from its origins, through its connection with Roswell, nuclear tests, spy planes and the Pueblo Incident. Jacobsen also examines the conspiracies associated with Area 51 including whether the moon landing was faked there. Are there alien new product developers at Area 51? She addresses this issue too. The ending will shock you. Is it true? Decide for yourself.
Area 51 was (and still may be) arguablyAmerica’s greatest skunkworks. Insulated from politics and bureaucrats, physically isolated, and conducting business on a “need to know” basis, it was able to experiment and innovate outside the rules. Some experiments were scary. Failures were common. But the successes were remarkable: the U-2, stealth technology, and sophisticated drones were all brought to reality there. Area 51 helped America maintain its technological edge during the Cold War.
Today, it is American higher education that needs a skunkworks. I say this not because I believe that the system is broke. On the contrary, as with Area 51 and the Cold War, a higher education skunkworks is necessary to help us maintain our lead in an area critical to our national interest.
Make no mistake: A graduate degree from an American University is coveted by students from around the world. Frankly no other country’s higher education system comes even close. But educational sputniks abound: Our leadership in undergraduate education is eroding. Students across the globe are reading American-authored textbooks while attending classes in their home countries taught by faculty educated at American universities and employing American pedagogy. Add in funding cuts to U.S. higher education that have produced much larger undergraduate class sizes and the deskilling and de-professionalization of the faculty through the use of part-time instructors (not because they are better, but because they are cheaper) and it becomes clear that some new thinking is in order: ideas that go beyond selling the convenience of asynchronous learning done in your pajamas in front of a computer or ipad.
So it is time to get a group of free-thinking faculty together from a variety of disciplines and give them a free hand at radical innovation. The boys at Area 51 (they were all boys) had a blank check, but I would settle for $15 million per year to employ faculty to work with one thousand students. Before the students ever show up, I want these innovators to debate the sacred cows of higher education and look for disruptive ideas about the business of educating students. Some questions I would ask the group to wrestle with: What if we had universities without lectures? What if students didn’t have majors, but instead we exposed people interested in science, engineering and business to the same curriculum? What if instead of paying faculty entirely based on their time, we offered them incentives based on the post-graduation success of their students, revenues from their inventions, or the number of students who want to get into their courses? I could more questions, but you get the idea.
Will all of these queries bear fruit? Nope. Some will go nowhere. Others will be tried and fail miserably. A skunkworks for higher education won’t need unlimited resources to succeed, but it will require the people in charge to have the same patience, tolerance for risk, and willingness to promote success in the face of bureaucratic opposition as those who led Area 51.
Harvard or Caltech won’t do this. They are at the top of the heap and have few incentives to engage in such speculative endeavors. It will take an institution like UNLV–one looking to develop a distinctive student experience and use it to improve its national visibility and reputation. Something about the high dessert attracts free-spirits wanting to change the rules: the strip, test range, Area 51 — let’s focus on higher education next. Is anyone out there listening? If there are alien product developers north of town, they aren’t going to do this for us.