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Mike Jacobs: Of railroads, newspapers and education

The circumstances facing higher education these days remind me strongly of the situation facing newspapers a couple of decades ago.

Industry meetings in those days often included discussion of the situation facing newspapers. We amused ourselves by comparing newspapers and railroads. The railroads, we chuckled, had lost their way. They had abandoned the core of their business and so they were fumbling for a future.

This wouldn't happen to newspapers, we confidently reasoned, because our business was vital and couldn't be replaced. We were wrong in several ways.

First, our analysis of the railroads was mistaken. The railroads didn't abandon the transportation business. They shed those parts of it that weren't profitable anymore. Initially this meant passenger service, which was lost to automobiles and then to airplanes. Later, it meant local freight service. Neither of these changes killed the railroads, though. They shifted focus to long-haul freight service, a phenomenon any motorist can appreciate while waiting for unit trains carrying coal and grain to move through.

Of course, there are fewer railroads than there were, and many communities no longer have rail service. We can bemoan these changes, just as we can be nostalgic for the days of rail. But here's the bottom line: The railroad business is doing fine.

We in the newspaper business didn't anticipate that technological change would overtake us as rapidly as it did. We were ill-prepared to react because we had heavy investments in printing presses and other old-fashioned technology.

Worse, we imagined that we were indispensable. Weren't we serving the common good by publishing the news? And after all, where would people turn for information? We were arrogant and short-sighted, in other words.

Today our business is a kind of canary in the consumer culture, an example of what happens to entrenched and self-confident undertakings.

All this is by way of introduction to the circumstance facing higher education. Colleges and universities are in the same spot that newspapers were 20 years ago. What's more, we are in the same business, providing information. Plus, those involved in higher education seem to have put on the same blinders that we newspaper people were wearing.

Gov. Doug Burgum has argued (most recently to Forum columnist Mike McFeely) that "knowledge transfer" is much easier these days than it used to be. It doesn't require textbooks. It doesn't require dorm rooms. It doesn't require student debt.

Yet many in higher education can't conceive of a future without colleges any more than we newspaper people could imagine a future without newspapers.

Of course, newspapers have survived, though the number of newspapers published has fallen and the survivors have grown thinner. Still, newspapers provide the bulk of information about public life today. Listen to television's talking heads and you'll hear newspapers cited frequently. It's the same online, where most of the reliable information originates from newspapers.

Colleges and universities will survive, too, and likely in a form not too different from the campus-based system we have today. That doesn't mean that higher education won't change, though. That's evident already in the proliferation of online colleges.

Here's another similarity between higher education and the newspaper business. Both have lost the confidence of a big part of the population.

Newspaper bashing has always been popular political sport, though its volume and impact have seldom been so widespread as today. Higher education has enjoyed popular prestige as both valuable and vital. The degrees that colleges and universities offered were eagerly sought and willingly paid for.

But that is changing.

The newspaper business might have retained its vibrancy, even its paramountcy, if we newspaper people had reacted more quickly to the trends that we saw emerging. Higher education has time — though perhaps not much time.

"The country's most powerful instrument of upward mobility is under assault," David Leonhardt wrote in Sunday's New York Times.

He pointed out that in nearly every state taxpayer support for higher education has been declining. North Dakota was a shining exception. No other state was as generous to higher education in the last two years. In a footnote to his graphic display of this information, Leonhardt noted, "North Dakota's state revenue surged due to the fracking boom and the state spent some of the additional money on education."

A sharp downturn erased that distinction, bringing cuts in the existing budgets and then an overall reduction in funding for the upcoming two-year state budget cycle.

The impacts of these cuts aren't yet clear. In fact no full analysis has been made of what's been lost at each of the 11 campuses in the statewide system. Nor has there been a clear-eyed assessment of how inefficiencies in the system can be addressed.

Those are two important first steps toward strengthening higher education in North Dakota, making it more relevant and rebuilding public confidence.