Higher Education, Quality, Resilience

Thinking Small(er)

So here we are. We’ve worked hard all summer to prepare our campuses to receive students in this topsy-turvy COVID-19 world. Some of us had to delay our starts due to local outbreaks, others have had to send students home due to campus outbreaks. We invested in masks, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass barriers. We significantly reduced class-size and moved a lot to online or hybrid modalities. We tried to improve some of our technological infrastructure. We invested in more training opportunities for faculty moving to online teaching. With each step we spent money.

While we prepared, we saw a predictable drop in first-year students. They and their families are waiting it out in hopes of a better (normal) environment next year. With the switch in modalities, a fair number of returning students opted to complete their studies from home. They are sticking with us, but no longer see the value in a residential experience that is mostly virtual. It is a rational economic choice, but it is also a huge hit to the university budget plan.

And, of course, all of this is hitting campuses at the same time as funding streams tighten. States are juggling financial challenges for education, but also social services, health care, and unemployment insurance. Private universities are likely to see weakening donor bases for the next year. Indeed, private universities saw this coming early and started furloughing staff as early as April. For the publics, the realities are hitting home now. It is not that we didn’t know that we would have budget challenges, we just held out hope a little longer.

Now what? The inevitable hiring freezes have begun, and we are bracing for the impact. But I don’t think hiring freezes are going to solve the scale of this problem. They are too arbitrary, and they often hurt performance in key areas. No, I think we need to think more carefully about the whole of our institutions and make more thoughtful decisions than a freeze allows. Is it time to consider growing smaller?

For those of us in New England, enrollment projections have been troubling for some time. Higher education news has been filled with discussions of strategies to manage the demographic trends of the region. Some have focused on widening the recruiting radius, others on adding attractive new majors, and still others on merging campuses for greater efficiencies, particularly around administrative costs. While each of these strategies might offer partial fix, the reality is that there are limits to their impact. With COVID-19, I think we’ve hit that limit. To put it plainly, I don’t think we can grow our way out of this one.

I am sure everyone who just read that last sentence is thinking about layoffs and furlough days, etc., but I would like to think about this a little differently. What I would like to do is imagine a process by which we develop a plan for slightly smaller, more focused university. As normal schools became colleges became universities, we all aspired to a breadth model. We chased after ideas and expanded our offerings, with no end point in sight. That is natural, perhaps, for people who are curious by nature, but it is simply not sustainable without continuous growth, and continuous growth is a myth. It is time to stop buying into that myth and build something more sustainable.

Every university has academic programs that are no longer attracting students. Then there are co-curricular programs with low participation. Our impulse is to try to save them all. Maybe we shouldn’t. Instead of preserving the programs, perhaps we should ask ourselves two important questions: 1. Can we deliver a high quality liberal arts education without this program? 2. Is it possible to discover better ways to use the expertise devoted to the program in support of our students?

This first question is particularly challenging because we all love our disciplines. But let’s face it, not everything is essential to providing a quality liberal arts experience. If it were, we’d still be requiring Latin. We want to help students become adept at analytic thinking in multiple formats (quantitative and qualitative), competent and thoughtful communicators in multiple contexts (writing, speaking, various digital forms), and aware of the contributions to our knowledge and values from many cultures over time. None of this tells us which ideas are most important. It simply suggests that we want our graduates to be able to navigate the world after graduation with a broad set of skills and understandings, and hopefully, some degree of curiosity. Can we achieve those goals without every program? Probably.

But what of the talented faculty and staff involved? Since we are not working on a growth model, we should really think about how to successfully reimagine the resources we already have. In the case of an academic program, that might mean asking talented scholars to re-group and work with another department to make something new (or stronger). This is hard because all members of the faculty have spent years pursuing a passionate interest in a discipline. They are doing what they have prepared to do. For co-curricular programs, our staff members have honed their skills in particular areas. It is what they are happiest doing. Now they might need to let go of some of that specialization and reimagine their passion in a new context. It is not necessarily what they planned for, but it might help preserve the demand for their expertise by repositioning its place in the path through education. It might also improve the experience of our students.

As I write this, I can hear the collective shudder. We do not like thinking this way in higher education. We are experts at expanding expertise and offerings. The history of departments and initiatives tell that tale very well. We are also experts at arguing for the value of every single thing we have ever done. Unfortunately, that’s just too much for us to manage, at least not without continuous growth. (Still a myth.)

It is time to start making some tough choices. But let’s not just talk about cuts and losses and wish for the status quo. Let’s recognize how many resources we have on our campuses already. Let’s ask ourselves about our goals for our students and the ways in which the talent we already have might help us better reach those goals. We won’t get bigger, but we might just get better.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Inclusivity Check-In

Over the last year, I have discussed inclusivity in our curriculum on several occasions. I have focused on hidden barriers to access to education (SATs or owning a computer, for example). I have talked about how some of our rules for how to be a student might be discouraging full participation from those who are new to higher education culture (no assignment extensions, ever!). I have questioned our reward structures, wondering if we are systematically excluding students who must support themselves while in college, because we are inclined to praise those who participate in everything. I have considered the potential gaps in our offerings and wondered if the stories our students encounter represent the truly diverse culture in which we all reside. I have made suggestions about course design that might help us improve learning experiences for all students, including those with specific cognitive challenges. Well, it is nice to discuss, suggest, and ponder but are we doing anything?

This, of course, is impossible for me to know in any real detail. The structure of higher education favors decentralization of most things and a necessary commitment to academic freedom. These are good things because they are meant to foster experimentation and creativity, and help us learn from the varied perspectives of our faculty. It is problematic, however, when striving for structural change. I have to rely on the anecdote and the occasional survey and trust that incremental change is taking place.

There is no doubt that the students we are serving are getting more diverse. This is a wonderful thing and reflects a positive trajectory for higher education and the nation. To meet the needs and expectations of students of all ages from a wide range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, we have to be more thoughtful about how we organize, well everything. We have been responding in sections of our organizations. From first year experiences, to intrusive (proactive) advising and tutoring, to guided pathways and alternative scheduling structures for adult learners, to honors programs that recruit from things other than SAT scores, we are evolving. Hooray. But is this evolution visible to our students? Probably not. I measure its impact in standard measures of retention and graduation and hope that they feel the benefits, even if they do not see them.

Then there is the question of inclusivity in the classroom. Over the summer, I suggested that our efforts to be diverse in our curriculum and inclusive in our teaching practices might not be visible to our students. Perhaps our course outlines reflect the diverse range of contributions to the field of study, but is it visible on the syllabus? Perhaps we say all students should contribute to class discussions, but do they all feel welcome to do so? Perhaps that group project you assigned seems like a perfect opportunity to support collaboration among diverse groups of students, but do all of the students feel respected in that group? In other words, are the efforts we are making to be inclusive in the classroom, reaching our students? Maybe we should ask them.

Today, I am encouraging every professor to conduct an informal inclusivity poll. This is an informational item for the professor only. No one else ever has to see it. I suggest some variation on the following questions:

  1. Does your initial review of the syllabus and course materials leave you with the impression that we will engage diverse perspectives as we explore the course topic? Please provide evidence or an example to support your answer.
  2. Is it clear from the syllabus and/or introductory sessions that all students are encouraged to participate in class discussions and activities, even (especially) when there are conflicting opinions and experiences?  Please provide evidence or an example to support your answer.
  3. When interacting with your peers in groups, do you feel free to offer your perspective or ideas? If not, how might I help you feel included or welcome to contribute?
  4. Are there any steps I could take that could help create a more inclusive classroom environment? 

Like all teaching, our strategies for inclusion will be iterative. Questions like these can help reveal what our students are seeing and help us make necessary adjustments. They might start some unanticipated conversations, but those are probably conversations worth having. Dare to take them on. Dare to be transparent in those conversations. Dare to deal with the myriad opinions and experiences in your classroom. Dare to learn from your students.

It may not always be necessary to make our inclusive pedagogies visible to our students. When we have a habit of this, it will probably just be a given. Then those standard outcomes measures might be sufficient. I long for that day. But for now, this is hard but necessary work. It will help us inch toward a more inclusive campus, one class at a time.