Design, Reflection

Decluttering

This morning I was reading about some really great projects being led by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). AAC&U has been a leader in developing strong arguments for liberal arts education. When the political world started clamoring for evidence of outcomes, AAC&U championed the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education and the development of the VALUE Rubrics. The work done included faculty from all over the country who worked to define, test, and revise the rubrics to help focus assessment work in meaningful ways. Noticing gaps in outcomes in STEM disciplines, Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) created a network of educators focused on improving teaching and learning in these disciplines. AAC&U continuously publishes material that explores and solidifies the connections between what employers are looking for and the role of strong liberal arts education. They provide a wealth of helpful information that helps me think through campus initiatives.

Today I was examining the Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Framework (TLA Framework). This initiative is designed to help an institution find ways to ensure students are learning (a combination of focusing on assessment and pedagogy). This is linked to the Guided Pathways models which tend to live in the world of community colleges, but as a university within a system that relies on the transfer of students from community colleges, it is imperative that we are aligned with these pathways. In fact, pathways work very well for students who start at four-year colleges, too. But pathways are just a start to better outcomes for all students. Focusing on the learning is an equally important part of this equity project. This is what the TLA Framework helps to assess:

The TLA Framework process centers student success and equity, and recommends measurable steps that faculty, staff, and institutional leaders can take to address persisting gaps in student learning outcomes. (https://www.aacu.org/initiatives/tla-framework).

I was excited to read about this initiative. The questions asked get at some of our nagging questions about equity and learning. The Framework gives a neatly defined process that could help us get some answers. Hooray, I thought! Then I thought again.

Here’s the trouble. Although I know that I have many colleagues who would be very interested in this work, I also know that every one of them is already over-extended. This is the result of two problems. First, those who are most interested in these questions always step up to explore them. This means the same people are doing the majority of the work of moving new things forward on our campus. They are tired. I don’t want to ask any more of them.

Second, we have too many committees and tasks already. Between short-term initiatives (ad hoc committees), to standing committee work, to initiatives originating outside of our campus (our System Office), everyone is drowning. This is on top of the regular work we all do – you know, teaching, advising, scholarship, supporting student activities and events, organizing registration, recruiting new students, working with clubs, assessing our programs, preparing for accreditation, and so on. Whew!

I suppose the good news is that we are a highly engaged community. Whenever we see a problem or have an idea, we establish a committee, task force, or some other mechanism to work on things. We should be proud of this. I might add that it isn’t just an impulse to understand and possibly solve a problem; it is a collaborative impulse. At WCSU, this means that most of these groups include faculty, staff, students (when they can join us), and administration. This is healthy and an indication of the level of commitment that all members of our community have to the success of our organization. Sometimes we forget to recognize this collaborative spirit in the day to day of the work, but it is clearly there in all that we do.

Unfortunately, that same impulse can undermine the very things we hoped to support. By continuously adding to our work we end up overtaxing our resources (time and energy, most of all), and end up with initiatives that do not result in action. As excited as I am about the TLA Framework, I do not want to add anything else to our endless to-do list. It is time to do some decluttering.

For me, decluttering is fun. I like going through folders and getting rid of things that are no longer useful or productive or necessary. I have never really liked having too much stuff, so cleaning out attics, basements, cabinets, and files leaves me feeling unburdened and ready for action. But I know not everyone feels this way. For many people, letting go of something can signal failure or at least a loss. The reason we started down a path was due to a genuine commitment to the need for the work. How can we just stop doing it? Perhaps we can focus on the desired outcomes, instead of the committees themselves. This might just give us a path forward.

When I look at all that we do, I see a lot of overlapping initiatives (both internal and external). Instead of trying to do them all, perhaps we can start by listing the desired outcomes for each group/committee/project/initiative we have started. Then let’s line those outcomes up and see what can be collapsed and what can be eliminated. What can be refined and focused into work that needs to happen right now. What no longer seems relevant to our current circumstances? Let’s ask what has been accomplished, prevented, or supported by this group/initiative. Has the same thing been supported by something else? Is this group/initiative duplicative? Does it undermine the work of another group/initiative? Have there been any meaningful outcomes for this group lately? Ever?

I’m not trying to be clever here. I am seeing a lot of hard-working people feeling tired and overwhelmed. I also see important ideas and recommendations stuck in reports because we are busy reading or writing the next report. Our endless lists of committees and initiatives have not left us enough room, time, or energy to take action. I don’t want all of that good work to go to waste.

The TLA Framework is exciting, but it will have to wait. I won’t start a new initiative until we put a few to bed. Unlike the diets everyone will commit to after the holidays, I’d like to see this reduction plan actually get done. It’s time to review our objectives and let the decluttering begin.

Diversity, equity, Inclusion

A Simple Question

After a two-year hiatus, WCSU hosted a full, in-person, open house again. No more heads on screens with strained or lagging interactions. We had two waves of visitors, eager to ask questions, discover the opportunities we offer, and get to know our campus. I had the pleasure of presenting an overview to a large group and then mingling as families visited with representatives from our academic departments, our student support services, and our co-curricular programs. As grateful as I am for all of the variations on Zoom that allowed us to proceed during the pandemic, there is nothing like the energy created by a bunch of excited folks gathered together. It was a great day.

As I strolled around the O’Neill Center where we set up our tables to display all we offer, I found myself answering lots of simple questions.

  • Which department has the cybersecurity degree? Talk to the folks over there in the Management Information Systems.
  • Can I major in Biology and still study art? Absolutely – check in with the Biology faculty, then stop in to learn about a minor in art. By the way, did you know about the field of scientific illustration?
  • What do I do if I don’t know what I want to study? Stop over and see the folks in Academic Advising, they can tell you all about our exploratory pathways.
  • Is there support for students who have learning differences? Absolutely, make sure you visit with AccessAbility Services.
  • Do students have the opportunity to do internships? Sure. Go see our Career Success Center.

I was feeling really proud of all of the great work we are doing. I had the answers and they were good ones. Then I started speaking with a mother and her son and, well, it did not go as well as I’d hoped.

  • Mother – What are you doing for POC? (People of Color, she explained.) Me: Oh, we have wonderful club opportunities if your son is interested in joining a particular affinity group.
  • Mother: No, I mean what about curriculum? Me: Oh, we have courses that focus on African-American, Latin-American, and other cultural histories, literatures, and so on.
  • No, I mean, will my son see himself in the curriculum throughout his education? Me: To some degree, but we can do better. The mother smiled at me and said, we all can (she’s in higher education, too). I appreciate the thoughtfulness of her response, but I left wanting to do more.

At WCSU, faculty have been engaging these questions in a variety of ways. Some are looking at the material they assign in their courses with an eye toward greater diversity. Some departments have taken the step to compare the readings and assignments across the whole of the major to look for balance. Some programs are looking at their guest speakers and trying to be more inclusive in the guest list so that all students have a chance to see themselves as professionals in the field. Some departments have worked together to consider how questions of equity can be infused in all that they teach. Still others are focusing on developing more inclusive teaching practices, exploring best practices and research to help them re-design their courses. In short, lots of work is going on as we try to become a more intentionally inclusive organization.

But we aren’t there yet. You see, nearly all of my sentences in the prior paragraph start with the word “some.” As long as it is “some” — well I can’t reassure that mother that her son will feel a pervasive sense of inclusion. I can’t reassure her that his exposure to scholars and mentors who look like him will be routine, rather than a special moment, topic, or focus of one course.

I have tried to have this conversation with my colleagues before, but I see now that I did it all wrong. I was looking for a common evaluation tool, to be used as a self-assessment by departments. In doing so, I ran into concerns about how this assessment would be used. Of course, I really had no plans other than for the departments to take a look at what they were assigning and make adjustments that were appropriate to their areas of expertise. But a common tool felt threatening and the conversation ended.

But I don’t want the conversation to end forever, so today, I am starting it again. Building on the many good impulses and edits to syllabi that I know have already informed our curriculum and teaching strategies, I am asking every faculty member to address the core question that was asked of me: Will all of our students see themselves in the curriculum? If the answer is “some” then we have more work to do. Let’s get to it.

Design, Evaluation, Quality

Designing for a Smaller Future

The news about projected high school graduates in New England is not encouraging. Here in Connecticut the projected drop in high school graduates over the next ten years is 12%. We are all still reeling from the COVID drop and the impact of the last ten years of declines in high school graduates (@ 9%). In a nation obsessed with continuous growth, we are now in a conundrum. How do we balance our budgets in the face of continuous declines? Even if those projections turn out to be overly pessimistic, it seems it is time to design for less.

We often start this conversation as “how do we do more with less?” This is not a good idea. We can’t do more than we’re doing. In fact, we are already doing too much. In the lovely period where student populations kept growing, we allowed ourselves to add programs, courses, departments, and schools as ideas arose. This was exhilarating, to be sure. The freedom to just keep adding bolstered inventiveness and creativity (both wonderful things), with little concern for a future with fewer students. But trying to sustain all that we have created is not a path to sustainability. Nor is it a path to excellence. It simply strains resources so that nothing is properly supported. No, we should not try to do more with less. We should try to imagine our way to something that is smaller but still infused with inventiveness and creativity.

As soon as I suggest that we need to be smaller, our natural response is: “what will we stop doing?” This is both a reasonable question and a necessary reality. We have to stop doing some things because the spread of what most universities are doing is unsustainable without continuous growth. All institutions know which academic programs are thriving and which are not. They also know which co-curricular programs are thriving and which are not. All of this is pretty easy to see. This knowledge can point us in a direction for getting smaller, but it doesn’t tell us where we want to go. I think we need to start with a different question. Instead of asking about what we should cut, it might be more productive to consider what we want to achieve.

It is at this point, that I always think about missions. This is ours:

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

This statement is similar to those at peer institutions in the region and as such it does reflect some about how we see ourselves. But to make it truly useful we need to be a bit more specific. Here are some ways we might do so.

Let’s start with our desire to provide a high quality education. What are the essential elements of a high quality education? Universities were not always this sprawling and they did not always have so many choices of programs, courses, and majors. Since there were obviously some high quality experiences a century ago, it is clear we can achieve quality education with fewer options. But we need to figure out what the essential elements should be. This should be clearly defined in the general education curriculum, and in the balance of programs offered. How can we define that essentialness and then design from there? Can we do it without just defaulting to our favorite lists, but instead map it to our learning goals for our students? Can we consider some evidence-based practices? Can we approach this process as designing for quality, instead of cutting for financial reasons?

The same can be said of the structure of our majors. I’ll show my age when I note that the entirety of a liberal arts major used to be around 30 credits. This slim approach to the major seems to have disappeared over the last 30 years, as we all added more specificity to our programs, trying to reflect the breadth of ideas and respond to new skills or other developments. Well, I have no hope of a 30 credit liberal arts major, but I think it might be time to rein things in. We all have program learning outcomes: how might we achieve those outcomes with fewer requirements? Can we redesign courses to that end? Will this allow us to produce schedules that deliver the promise of a well-rounded major, without overwhelming our students? Can we approach this as designing for learning, instead of reducing choices for efficiency?

As for our co-curricular programs, might we consider how they help students grow as individuals, professionals and leaders in a global society? Our habit is to let our co-curricular programs emerge with our students’ interests each year. Some of this is to the good, but attendance and participation levels tell us that we could be doing better. Is it possible to have fewer programs, but get them focused on specific university goals? Could this foster greater coordination and collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs? Can we see this as supporting our mission to change lives, instead of over-direction?

The questions I am asking are not specific to WCSU. Every regional comprehensive in New England is facing this demographic shift. Every regional comprehensive will need to figure this out in a way that leads to a sustainable future focused on great education. As we all adjust to the projected demographics and the process of designing ourselves for a smaller future, we might be well-served by focusing on the idea of design. Instead of focusing on what we currently offer and how it should be reduced, we should focus on what we want to achieve and design to that end. This will give us the map to how to be excellent, even as we get smaller.

It will also make clear what we don’t need to do anymore. That will be a result, to be sure, and one that is uncomfortable. But starting with the goals in mind could create excitement about what we are building. It might inspire our imaginations, leading us to something altogether new and interesting. Most of all, it might help us see the power of what we are building instead of just feeling the losses of what we are cutting. This might just be a productive strategy for imaging a smaller, more sustainable future.

Dialogue, Free Speech, Higher Education

Embracing Discomfort

It is election eve and all the pollsters and news outlets are busy predicting outcomes. Well not really. The margins of error seem large this year, with predictions so hedged as to appear meaningless. Issues (or single issues) seem to have taken a backseat to strategy, power, and control. We wait with bated breath, uncertain about the future but certain that we want something to change.

What is that change we crave? Well, of course, most of us have a few specific issues about which we care deeply. We care about the future of our social programs, how we fund education, access to healthcare, and the state of the economy. There are concerns about energy and transportation infrastructure and the impact of international relations on how we live. Everyone cares about the supply chain, even if the complexity of it all eludes most of us. There are plenty of specific issues to attend to in this election. But, I don’t think that any of these are at the heart of the something we’d like to change. It’s a change in the discourse that we crave.

I see it in myself. Like all elections, as we near the finish, the coverage is “horse race” coverage. There is no new information, just a kind of gamblers’ commentary as we bet on winners and losers. I’m no gambler, so I switch to music instead of the morning news. But even before the final weeks of the campaign, I have been wanting to switch to music, because I could see no honest conversations taking place. Everyone has staked out their corner, ignoring all chance of finding common ground.

Honest conversations? Common ground? What on earth am I thinking? I know, I know. The politics of running for office is always about those corners. People are playing margins and stirring up discontentment on purpose. This is the only way that candidates seem to be able to differentiate themselves. This is how they win their seats. But this conforms with only one definition of politics “the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.” It has nothing to do with the other definition of politics “the art and science of guiding or influencing government policy.” (Thank you Merriam Webster).

I admit that you need some of the control to have the influence. Nevertheless, I’d like to see the path to that control more concerned with the substance of what that influence would mean. I dream of conversations that are less focused on winning the margins and more on the lived experiences of our communities. I know from my own experiences, that those conversations are sometimes very strained as we try to listen to those with whom we disagree. But they can also be extremely rewarding, because we often find that we are far closer together than those strident yells to (from?) the margins would let on.

I was struck by this today as I read “What a 1960s Housewife Can Teach Us about Politics in Higher Ed” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article details the ongoing debates on the rights and responsibilities of faculty to speak freely about controversial issues. It is a timely story that helps me think about the “conversations” we are having about twitter posts that offend some sensibilities, potential and actual policies banning discussion of Critical Race Theory, and the complexities of discussing Roe v. Wade, or other cultural flashpoints in the classroom. I say “conversations” because the arguments about what to do are mostly happening in the same manner that our political “debates” are happening – at a yell, often decontextualized, and without nuance.

At the heart of the Chronicle story is the notion of “indoctrination.” This word is invoked whenever a teacher or professor, school or university brings forth ideas that contradict widely held beliefs. The adoption of evolution in the science curriculum was a moment when educators were faced with accusations of indoctrination. So are those moments when things get uncomfortable in our discussions about religion, economic structures other than capitalism, political structures other than democracy, civil rights in total, and examinations of power structures in total. Questioning the status quo is often politicized as indoctrination. But according to Merriam Webster, to indoctrinate is “to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion.” To my way of thinking, then, to not discuss alternatives to commonly held beliefs is indoctrination. To discuss them is what I’d like to call education.

But it isn’t that simple, because to do this well is to be able to navigate fairly a lot of discomfort. We are comfortable in our world views and we experience discomfort when they are questioned. This discomfort is one of hardest things we navigate in education. If one believes we are a Christian nation, then questioning that will cause discomfort. If we believe that capitalism is the right economic structure, then we will experience discomfort if alternatives to that structure are discussed. If we believe that “normal” families look a specific way, we will experience discomfort when discussing alternatives to that definition of normal.

Responses to that discomfort are often feelings of anger, shame, and a sense of being diminished in some way. Indeed, one definition of discomfort acknowledges the experience of grief or distress. I might describe this as a feeling of loss, and that sense of loss can be profound indeed. That sense of loss can drive people to the extremes of a subject, defending rather than listening. Discomfort is often what convinces people that rules against these conversations are reasonable. They are not.

What is evident to me in all of this is that higher education is in the business of discomfort. Our job is to ask questions about what we do/know/believe, how we came to do/know/believe those things, and how they might be understood differently. It is also our job to try to navigate the discomfort these conversations inspire in ways that allow people to recover from feelings of anger, shame, or disempowerment they may cause. This is hard work, indeed, but it is imperative that we do so, because there is no other social structure designed to support these honest and difficult conversations.

As we approach election day, I see clearly that higher education must play a vital role in helping people move from discussing the horse race and the politics of power to discussing the paths to a better world and the politics of policy development. It is in our classrooms and our research that we can take the time to sort through the jolts to our worldviews and explore the potential for common ground. We will find ourselves deadlocked over some things, to be sure, but I think we’ll also find that those things are far rarer than we imagine. That discovery alone is worth the effort of cultivating difficult conversations in our classrooms.

Higher education must continue to cultivate these difficult and, one hopes, intriguing conversations. It is how we prepare people to become productive participants in the governance of their towns, schools, states, and the nation. It is our job to get folks used to engaging ideas that challenge their worldviews, and by extension, people who do the same. Those people are usually our neighbors, classmates, and colleagues with whom we must find a way to co-exist. Limiting the scope of our conversations will never achieve this.

Engaging dissent, disagreement, and differing worldviews is the most important job we do in higher education. It is the best way for us to support a productive democracy. It will never stop causing discomfort. But, perhaps, with practice, we can learn to embrace that discomfort in the service of finding more common ground.

Affordability, equity, Inclusion

Admissions, Equity, and Outcomes

The Supreme Court will be taking up two cases related to higher education and admissions practices this week and everyone is poised for, well something. (See the Chronicle’s summary here). I know the arguments are important in as much as they set precedents for how we talk about structural inequities in the United States. The schools in question were doing their best to try to counteract the hundreds of years of biases that shape who gets the opportunity to attend college. In taking race into account, they are accused of creating new discriminatory practices, and there is a piece of that accusation that rings true to some. It is complicated unraveling generations of discrimination based on race, sex, and economic status. It is hard to get it right.

While the impact of the Supreme Court decisions in these cases may have important consequences for less elite schools than those under review, if we want higher education to serve the diversity of students seeking a college education, well, look no further than regional public colleges and universities. For example, if I look at the student body that my university serves, I see that we are rapidly approaching enrollment distributions that reflect our community.

WCSU enrollments compared with the city of Danbury and the state of Connecticut.

You can see from this chart, that the city of Danbury is more diverse than the state, so our percentage of Latin-American students is lower than that of the city of Danbury, but higher than the state. The percent of African-Americans enrolled at WCSU reflects the city population but is slightly lower than the state. We are above the state percentages with Asian-American Students, but slightly lower than Danbury. We have a lower number of Caucasian students than the state percentages, but higher than the City of Danbury. These numbers suggest that we are recruiting classes that are representative of the students in the region.

As a relatively affordable public institution, with admissions standards focused on access rather than exclusion, this achievement makes sense. We do important things like committing to non-discrimination policies, developing pathways through college that are transparent and navigable, and working to differentiate the supports for our students, so we meet their needs. But above all, the diversity of our student body is related to our desire to admit students from our region who want access to the opportunities that higher education can bring. In other words, who to leave out is not a big priority for us.

Nevertheless, we also regularly examine our practices, because legacies of access (or the lack thereof) are woven into neighborhoods, K-12 education, and our assumptions about what a “quality” program looks like. Just last week, we were examining our admissions standards for our education degrees. It is really important that we contribute to the development of new teachers. Public higher education is the best place to pursue such a degree, given the cost of education to earnings potential that all teacher candidates must evaluate. We want our graduates to be highly prepared and capable of serving their students well. Right now, we have excellent outcomes in these programs.

The question of where to set the minimum high school GPA for admission to the teacher education degrees was the focus of our conversation. We discussed the ways in which the current minimum might be excluding talented candidates with promise. We also discussed how lowering it might reduce the very positive outcomes that already exist. It was a spirited debate, but we landed on that slightly lower GPA to broaden the opportunities for more of Connecticut’s high school graduates (and align us with our peer institutions). Central to this decision was a deep understanding of the contexts of the K-12 districts from which we recruit and a deep understanding of the kinds of supports that can help our students succeed. We opted to continue to invest in appropriate levels of support as we work to overcome those long evident biases.

We also voted on adding a new degree, the BA in Popular Music. WCSU has long been known for high-quality music programs, all of which rely in students having an interest in and access to music education starting in middle school. I say middle school because that is typically how long a student needs to have been reading music and playing an instrument to get through our audition process. The new degree acknowledges both that lack of access in some school districts, or in some families, and the reality that sometimes students learn to make music in different ways. It isn’t just about what genre of music students want to create; it is about when they will learn to read music (in college or before), and how we make room for the new ways music is made (on computers, for example). We hope we are opening doors.

There is so much more to say about the equity work that goes on at a public, access-oriented, university. We develop strategies to support students who are first in their families to attend college, knowing that our policies are a mystery and resources are not always easy to uncover. We spend time examining the data of who is succeeding and who is not, and then invest in things like structured tutoring, peer mentoring, cohort models, and so on. We are trying to share information across divisions of the university so that we can continuously uncover practices that might be inadvertently impacting particular clusters of students. We are obsessed with helping all students earn a degree.

So, as the Supreme Court argues about race-conscious admissions policies, I hope the arguments are thoughtful and enlightening. We’ll see. But I must remind everyone that these cases are about schools who trade in exclusivity by design. Ok, I guess those are necessary (maybe). But, if we actually care about equity, then the focus should be on adequately supporting (funding) the universities that are already diverse (and have the capacity to be more so) so that students are not just admitted, but also supported to the finish line.