A Public Higher Ed Confab With a Private-Sector Vibe

IRVING — Extolling the virtues of technology in higher education, a virtual all-star cast of academics and politicians gathered last week at a swanky two-day, invitation-only conference on the future of public higher education. The hosts even lent out iPads to all the attendees.

It would come as no surprise that the private company behind the event — Academic Partnerships, which helps public universities convert courses into online offerings, recruits students for the online courses, and provides subsequent support — has a strong interest in such technologies. The company and its founder, Dallas-based entrepreneur Randy Best, also have the political and financial capacity to attract a high-caliber line up of speakers hosted by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt.

“We have a mutual relationship and admiration for Randy Best, who is a great Texas entrepreneur,” Bush explained during an interview with the Tribune. “Higher education reform and how we transform it for the 21st century is just top of mind right now.”

After the first day of talks, Bush concluded, "What everybody in their own way was advocating was mass customization." And those advocates were a heavy-hitting bunch.

Big draws such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, and former U.S. Census Bureau director Steve Murdock were on the agenda. So were heavyweights in the education world, including Arizona State University President Michael Crow, University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, the heads of major accrediting agencies, and Salman Khan, a former hedge fund analyst who has garnered national attention for founding Khan Academy, which has developed an extensive library of free instructional material.

A number of the participants, including Bush and Hunt, have or have had financial or professional ties to Best. Arizona State University is a client of Academic Partnerships, as are a number of Texas universities, including the University of Texas at Arlington. One speaker, Richard Ferguson, recently joined Academic Partnerships as a vice president after more than two decades as CEO of ACT, a national testing organization.

So it was perhaps with a grain of salt that participants listened to a series of insights from high-profile thinkers on higher education. But, with state funding drying up and tuition increases causing concern over mounting student debt, as Hunt put it, “technology is a big, maybe the biggest, part of the answer.” And many private organizations, like Best’s, are looking to stake their claim as the public arena shifts.

The event ended on a Texas-centric note, with Cigarroa presenting his widely lauded framework for the future of the UT System, which includes investments in technology and blended learning. The UT System recently struck a deal with private software company MyEdu as part of that plan.

Cigarroa’s framework grew out of turmoil caused in large part by the so-called "seven solutions" for higher education proposed by Jeff Sandefer, an Austin-based entrepreneur with a strong interest in higher education. Sandefer's proposals were unveiled at a much lower-profile, invitation-only gathering of UT System regents in 2008.

Cigarroa reiterated his enthusiasm for technological advancement, but also asked those at the conference interested in addressing higher education’s problems to do so “in a holistic manner.”

For everyone who didn’t get an invite, here’s a sampling of the two-days worth of lectures (condensed into roughly four minutes) for your listening pleasure. Fair warning: The furious typing of nearby reporters, and the occasional mumbling of the audience, is audible.

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