For more than 25 years, Jamshed Bharucha, PhD, has studied how chords, harmonies and musical complexity affect our brains, fill us with emotion and inspire us. Now he's attempting to create harmony among academic departments and inspire greater global cooperation among institutes of higher learning as the new president of the private college Cooper Union in New York City.
Bharucha, who headed the departments of psychology, music and neuroscience at Tufts University for nine years, contributed a number of key findings in musical cognition, such as the fact that people identify in-tune chords more quickly when the chords relate to each other, and that listening to polyphonic music (which consists of multiple melodies) engages the brain's working memory and attention circuits.
He's also written essays about the challenges facing higher education, arguing that the ways schools design their curricula go against our neuropsychological understanding of memory and that if schools are to succeed under increasingly restrictive economic pressures, they need to reach out globally to share resources with other institutions.
His drive for social change and progress underlies Bharucha's educational mission, and it's what drew him to Cooper Union. The university is well known for providing every admitted student with a full-tuition scholarship and for its rich history of supporting progressive causes such as women's suffrage and civil rights.
Bharucha plans to leverage that progressive inclination to serve as a model for other higher education institutions as colleges and universities in many parts of the world experience a dearth of educational opportunities, while education costs in the United States skyrocket. He hopes his tenure at Cooper Union will give him a forum to discuss these changes and implement collaborations that allow institutions across the world to help solve each other's problems. The result, he hopes, will be a globally united higher education network and an increased emphasis on social responsibility.
What motivated you to seek this position?
Ever since its founding in 1859, Cooper Union has been a leader in so many respects. The Great Hall at Cooper Union launched Lincoln into the presidency. The NAACP hosted its first meeting there. The suffragettes got started at Cooper Union. There were major conferences of Native American leaders. To this very day, it's a forum for presidents, major speakers and leaders and there's tremendous possibility to leverage that in a modern context, providing a world forum and a forum that can also be taken into cyberspace.
What do you want your legacy to be?
It's too early to tell about specific goals, but I certainly think a better integration of the sciences and the arts is needed. Higher education needs a more dynamic and global perspective. We must prepare our students to work on a global stage, whether they're in the arts or humanities or sciences or engineering or social sciences. All fields are going to be influenced by the increasing crossing of borders by ideas and people. That will definitely be one of my goals.
Another area that interests me is how to preserve academic disciplinary excellence and rigor while at the same time preparing students to tackle the important problems of society. I think many institutions are thinking about that balance. We need to find a way to combine both the pure value of self-realization and intellectual development and the other, more worldly value of producing leaders who can actually lift up those less fortunate.
How do the challenges in the United States compare with those faced by institutions globally?
My studies suggest that the biggest challenge is the ability to expand higher education opportunities to more people. In emerging nations like China and India, that problem is huge. It's relatively easy to start a university, but you need to hire qualified people. It's a dramatic challenge in a country like India where you've got a billion people and half the population is under 25. How do you provide more colleges and universities fast enough to provide them with educational opportunities?
In the United States, there's a college for every kid who wants to go to college. The challenge here is the price. There's been no real growth in U.S. median household income for 20 years, yet tuition has gone up by about 3 percent a year.
If you project that out for the children of college students who graduated this year, it'll be well over $1 million for them to go to college. While today's tuition for top-tier colleges is around $50,000 including room and board—more than the median household income—when tuition hits a $1 million, it's going to be several times the median household income. If you're talking about professional education and medical education where students sometime have debt loads of $300,000 today, in the future the debt loads will be 18 or 20 times the median household income. The country cannot sustain that.
Why do education costs seem to be rising so dramatically compared with the inflation rate?
When we say "inflation," we're typically referring to the consumer price index, which is a fairly arbitrary basket of consumer goods and services. For many of those goods, prices come down over time due to changes in technology. A generation ago, if you wanted to buy a color TV, it might have cost $300 or $400, even at a time when that was a lot more money. Today you can buy a much more advanced TV for half that. The same thing is true for cars and other kinds of manufacturing; costs can be reduced by replacing labor with technology. In high-end professional services like education and health care, they can't. Or at least you can't yet. Obviously, there are attempts to do that with distance learning, and technology will play a huge role, but right now we aren't able to drive down costs with technology.
Also, institutions are getting more complex. There are more compliance regulations. Library costs have double-digit inflation. Even our administrative and institutional technology costs have inflations rates that are much, much higher than the general national inflation rate.
We've tried to provide better, fancier dorms and fancier student centers, fancier athletic facilities and so on, and these things keep pushing up the budget. That can't be sustained.
Can American, Indian and Chinese institutions partner to help solve each other's problems?
Yes. What's needed are innovations in which American colleges and universities partner with education centers in Asia where there are win-win opportunities that increase the education value while controlling the costs.
At Tufts University, we've started a public health program at the master's level with a medical school in Vellore, India. Some of our students and faculty will be going there for various periods of time. The reason it's win-win, first of all, is that for students in the United States in a place like Boston, getting some experience in a place like India or Africa is going to be much more powerful than anything they can get in Boston. Working on the ground and experiencing actual public health conditions in many other parts of the world will greatly enrich their education. They get to see diseases, public health problems, infrastructure or the lack thereof and modes of treatment they would never see in Boston.
At the same time, for the time that they're there, the cost is a fraction of what it is in Boston. The costs of putting up infrastructure there, whether it's classrooms or offices or clinics out in the field, are a fraction as well. They're getting a more powerful learning experience for a reduced cost.
What do the overseas institutions get out of it? They get the science, technology, faculty training, expertise and curriculum of the American universities. You can have partnerships in which some Indian students are involved in joint teaching and research opportunities. All of that enables a transfer of knowledge. That's one example of win-win.
But there are broader models, too. For example, an American university could have a small satellite facility in a place like a secondary city in India. If students spend a semester or a year abroad at one of these satellite facilities, the costs are greatly reduced and universities can pass along those savings to students in the form of lower tuition or financial aid.
Did your psychological training help prepare you for this new role?
Absolutely. Never forget that organizations are about people, and people are very complicated. In an academic environment, you can't just order people around, so addressing their aspirations and fears and getting them to move an institution forward is one of the most complex leadership challenges there is. I often joke with CEOs of corporations that they wouldn't last in a university for six months. [Leaders] need to put themselves in the shoes of others to be able to really understand what makes them tick. Doing so greatly improves your ability to move the institution forward. There I think psychology comes in extremely handy.
How can psychologists help improve education?
First of all, psychologists can help advance the science of learning. We continue to teach based on fairly traditional models of teaching and learning, and yet all the data [show] that learning is much more powerful if it's active. Instead of giving students lectures in class or telling them, "This is the way it is," and then testing them on it, we need to create opportunities for students to frame the questions, to discover the answers, whether through undergraduate research or other active learning opportunities.
The dirty little secret about learning is that we forget. You assess your students' learning of chemistry during the course and then at the end you give a final exam and stamp a grade and that's your assessment of what's been learned. Then we send them out into the world and their transcript follows them everywhere, and yet forgetting is dramatic. In the past, we've tended to sweep that under the rug by saying that it's not important that you specifically learn the chemistry, it's that you learn to think critically. And that's true, but even there, there's dramatic forgetting. Active learning has the advantage of promoting much better retention than passive learning.
Psychologists can also help in other things, such as the sequencing of courses. We tend to think that if we organize a curriculum so that first you learn this, then you move on to something else and so on. But it turns out that that's not the best idea. Studies show that mixing things up, even though it seems messier, promotes better retention in the long run.
We might also think about fostering creativity, innovation, leadership and teamwork. These are very hard things to incorporate into an education, and yet that's really what we want. The United States continues to lead the world in creativity, innovation and leadership. We need to find ways to promote those in higher education.