My grandmother, my mom’s mom, was a 10 year old when FDR was elected. She grew up in a small town in southeastern Oklahoma; during the worst of the Dust Bowl her mother would spend the morning sweeping off the red dirt that had accumluated on the front step from the dust storms 300 miles west. Unemployment in Oklahoma at one point reached 33% -1 in every 3 adults who wanted a job didn’t have one.

And while times were lean for my grandmother’s family, my great-grandfather never lost his job, and they never suffered the indignities of unemployment and foreclosure that other Okies did.

Why? My grandfather owned a tire store. You can’t run a car without tires.

As we look down the barrel of what will be the worst economic crisis since at least the 1981-82 recession, I think we’re at a critical juncture in higher education. The budget cuts will be deep, and they will cripple American higher education for a generation. In a time when countries like China and India are rapidly building out their higher ed research and teaching institutions, these cuts will almost guarantee an end to the US domination of graduate education and scientific research that has existed since the 1940s.

At the same time, we’re starting to see the web batter at higher ed the way we have seen it overwhelm media companies. Teaching is moving online. The desire for extended learning grows greater as people work more hours to keep food on the table. Some are starting to see tuition as a costly barrier to entry and are turning to DIY learning and open courseware. People are starting to ask the question we all don’t want to hear: Is the college experience really worth the expense when you can get most of what you need online?

The present budgetary nightmare is going to lead university presidents and chancellors and deans to consider whether it’s worth keeping their web geeks around and whether it’s worth investing in the web. But this isn’t a world where paring back on web expertise will win you anything, and the coming changes in higher ed will only exacerbate the impact of paring back on the web now.

Just as tires are essential to a car, the web is now essential to any institution of higher learning. Any institution that thinks they don’t need to invest in the web will be stranded on the side of the road waiting for someone to sell them tires — at a price much higher than they would have paid if they hadn’t neglected them.

For the web in higher education, this is a time of incredible opportunity. A paucity of resources will mean relying on free web applications, open source software, duct tape, and bailing wire. Paucity will breed innovation. The low cost and the reliance on open source will mean lower overhead and the ability to be on the bleeding edge of the coming revolution in higher education. The lessons learned in the next couple of lean years will form the backbone for how post-secondary education evolves in this country for the next generation.

I’ve been worried of late that I’d be fighting to keep my job amid the economic calamity here on campus. I’m not as worried now. I realize that, like my great-grandfather, I sell tires. The web is not only vital to running a higher education program now, it’s critical and essential to keeping that program relevant in the future.

We in higher education can no longer pretend that the web is just some toy for geeks and nerds. If we do, it will be our undoing, just as it has been for the newspaper industry. I think most people in higher ed get this fact now. But there are still those who don’t. And I expect we’ll be driving past a lot of them in the coming years, sitting on the road shoulder, staring blankly at their latest blowout.