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Brantley: Change is gonna come 

click to enlarge University of Arkansas System president Donald Bobbitt image

I had occasion in the last week to hear smart and passionate university leaders deliver the same message:

We can't keep doing things the way we've always done them.

The first was Donald Bobbitt, a chemistry professor by training who now heads the University of Arkansas System.

Bobbitt was among the influential Arkansans who participated in the first Arkansas Times Festival of Ideas. Twenty-one of them gave presentations at different venues downtown Saturday. Every one I saw was informative and/or entertaining.

Bobbitt's presentation on the need to make fundamental changes in delivery of college is well-honed.

It really is crazy, isn't it, that we hold to a two-semester system conceived to conform to an agrarian economy. Classes had to end in time to put the crops in and couldn't start until they'd been harvested.

Few students work on farms now. Why shouldn't students work intensively in six-week or four-week "semesters"?

And why shouldn't public universities look to private higher education providers like the University of Phoenix, reaping billions of dollars in government assistance payments to teach students on-line. (It is teaching that is perhaps not up to the level of excellence the state's university system believes it provides.)

Bobbitt believes an on-line experience can match the classroom experience. It will require assistance from graphic designers and web experts to translate the lectures and notes of Luddite professors into more engaging on-line courses. But Bobbitt thinks it can be done. He also thinks the quest for efficiency doesn't necessarily mean the sacrificing of limited interest courses. There's still a place for the teaching of philosophy, he said.

Bobbitt is sure, though, that something has to change. Government financial support won't grow significantly. Indeed, a decrease in Pell Grant support for poorer students is a certainty. Students are at the limit of the tuition increases they can absorb, he said.

Monday, Dr. Dan Rahn, the chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, visited with me about the campus' exploration of a joint venture with St. Vincent Infirmary on a blended health care network that could provide the same or better services for less money without sacrificing either public accountability or St. Vincent's faith-based principles that can affect available health services. (Think vasectomies, for example.)

Rahn didn't paper over the difficult questions — from anti-trust to personnel to religion's influence on allowable services. But he was as adamant as Bobbitt that things HAD to change if UAMS is to be preserved as a teaching hospital with a clinical network suitable for the task and the state's needs.

Rahn has even greater short-run worries than Bobbitt. The controversial expansion of Medicaid is critical to the survival of medical institutions throughout Arkansas, Rahn said. He expressed wonderment that a state that is a net beneficiary of government health spending would be so resistant. Agreed. More amazing still is the reality that there's a cadre of Republican legislators sufficient and inclined to defeat the Medicaid expansion, never mind the wreckage of medical institutions and their jobs. Many of them represent huge numbers of the working class voters who'll be most affected. And still more amazing is that many of those affected voters won't blame the fallout on those who deliver them to a world without a safety net.

This is the central question, really, in Election 2012. Both sides agree the status quo must go. But the competing vision of the new normal — the Tea Party/Republican vision versus that of the Bobbitts and Rahns — could hardly be more different.

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