Higher Education

Do Less!

Help!  It is Monday and I am faced with a list of priorities that is impossible to complete.  There is the usual business of running academic affairs.  At this time of year that clusters around graduation planning, student problems surrounding graduation, attending to the usual curricular issues (new programs, revisions and external evaluations thereof), program review and associated actions, personnel decisions, participation in events, and meetings of all kinds. Added to the mix this year are university assessments of our enrollment patterns (demographic dips), and the allocation of resources related to those facts and, now COVID-19 preparations.  Whew!

I would like to complain, but I will not.  What I am thinking about is a question I have raised in this column in the past … can we do less?  I do not mean can we do more with less.  I mean simply, can we just do less than we are doing now and still create a great educational experience?

Let’s face it; everyone’s to-do list is too long.  I am not unique. The question is why are our to-do lists too long?  Why do we consistently add things, without taking things off the list?  Why do we think we can absorb new duties without dispensing with the existing ones?  Why do we have no clearly defined ends to our goals so we can take them off our lists? I don’t know, but it is definitely time to try to figure it out.

Here are my starting points:

  1. How many events should a university have? Until now, many of us have operated on the assumption that things should happen organically so that everyone has the opportunity to host interesting talks, events, etc.  The result is lots of good events with tiny audiences.  There is no coherence to the programming, so there is no way to think about appropriate representation of our community.  There are also budgets involved in all of them.  Perhaps, we could consider a new planning model that sets the number and the budget and makes a clear and coherent plan.  Maybe that plan could include a maximum number of events overall.
  2. How many clubs do we really need?  Like events, we have tried to facilitate an environment where all interests can be met.  This encourages action on the part of students in very productive ways.  However, like the events, the participation is varied, there is no sense of balance of interests, and there are overlapping themes.  Perhaps, we can set a few targets in this area, too.
  3. How many curricular options do we need?  Without considering majors (yet), I notice that we have many options within majors, often overlapping.  We also have lots of general education options for our students. This leads to a certain amount of sprawl with some courses oversubscribed and others with low enrollments.  Perhaps we could focus on the heart of a discipline with just a few options. This might help us plan more coherent schedules that yield fewer cancellations.
  4. How much can we really cover in a semester?  When we plan our syllabi, are we being overly optimistic? Are the goals set out achievable in a meaningful way?  By meaningful, I mean something more than simply “covering” material. Instead, I’m hoping for some level of understanding and, ideally, a few “ahas.”  When we consider that our students are taking four, five, and sometimes six courses in a semester,  there is some doubt as to the room for true engagement. We may be setting up a situation in which students are forced to divide their attention so dramatically that little depth of understanding can be achieved.
  5. How many meetings do we really need?  How long should those meetings be?  Are they leading to action?  I struggle with this one on a regular basis.  It is important for me to have direct conversations with many university constituencies, but I am not sure all of those meetings are productive.  I think, if I could reduce more of them to very clear and meaningful agendas, we could have fewer meetings and complete the work discussed in a timely manner. (NOTE: The next question must be how many committees do we really need.)

If we take seriously all of these questions, we might significantly reduce our to-do lists.  Then we might even have time for lunch with our colleagues.  Think of all the good work that gets done when there is actually time for lunch!



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