Trustee Spotlight: Walter Blass, Guilford College

By    //    Volume 20,  Number 6   //    November/December 2012

Walter Blass, who serves on the board of trustees of Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, has led an eclectic life: As a child in Germany, his family fled the Nazis not once, but twice. He lived in Belgium and France before coming to the United States and attending Swarthmore College and Columbia University, where he received an M.A. in international economics. He served in the U.S. Navy and as an assistant desk officer for the U.S. foreign aid program for Laos and Cambodia, then became director of strategic planning at AT&T before taking a leave of absence to serve as country director of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan for two years. He now operates his own management consulting company, specializing in strategic planning and telecommunications, and has spent several weeks each year teaching graduate business classes to international students in Grenoble, France.

How has your background shaped your attitude toward service, both as a board member and in the global community?

At age 82, I am in reasonably good health and financial shape and can now give back some of what others have given me, in terms of mentoring, support in difficult times, relationships, and inspiration. I was greatly influenced by my professors in prep school, college, and graduate school. It’s time to invest in the next generation.

You have an interest in online education. What do you see as its role in the future of higher ed?

I believe online education may ultimately have as great an effect as printed books did. After Gutenberg, knowledge if not wisdom, was easily transmissible. Now we are at the cusp of yet another profound change: the availability of massive knowledge transfer in a format that allows access to millions. At the same time, I see an important element missing that a live professor can have on impressionable minds: inspiration, dialogue, advising in its fullest meaning, answering questions in a way that empowers the student. I think online learning is best at conveying cognitive knowledge and skills; affective subjects (theater, music, art, psychology, even medicine, and most of all, leadership) require a dialectic with a live person or several. A trusted teacher, classmate, or friend can combine knowledge/wisdom/questions in a way a massively open online course (MOOC) cannot.

How should liberal arts colleges like Guilford think about online education? How should they respond, for example, to the trend to offer MOOCs?

Just as with swimming and skiing, you can only learn by doing. As technology improves, we administrators, professors, and trustees will have to devise ways of maximizing the educational experience. We have already seen the failures of high-school graduates to master pre-college subjects—writing, critical thinking, originality, and sometimes ethical integrity such as not cheating—even with high SAT scores. Colleges spend a fortune in academic support programs, but those lacunae in knowledge may make it more difficult to use MOOCs for mere knowledge transfer. MOOCs, like science in medicine, allow practitioners to improve vastly the delivery of services, but we need to rethink how higher education can take advantage of this new technology and accept the “disruptive innovation” that Clayton Christensen has so admirably described in industry as a huge challenge to the existing structures and personnel in academe.

You’ve worked at universities overseas. Are there any significant governance differences between those institutions and American institutions?

In most countries, universities are run either by governments or religious institutions. My experience is with government-run and NGOs. Abroad, the professoriate has a lot less power and influence and the ministry of education a great deal more. For example, American research universities like Stanford and Cornell grant professors 20 percent of the week off to do whatever they want—typically consult, run start-ups, or work on commercial applications of their expertise. That is all but unknown in Europe; it is even looked down on by some academicians. The role of professor is limited to lectures, research, and publishing. Office hours are unknown, advising rare. The upshot is less interaction between faculty and students, and far more didactic vs. interactive teaching-learning. By that measure alone, our higher ed institutions are regarded with envy by foreign ones.