Here is a question that I am frequently asked: Why would you want to be in administration? It started with my first truly administrative role, assistant dean, and it persists even now that I have served as provost for nearly six years. As a person whose career began as an adjunct faculty member, then tenure-track to tenured faculty line, it is not lost on me that there are losses when one leaves the classroom. That dreams that led me to higher education were built around love of my discipline and the desire to help students see its value. Teaching is hard work, often frustrating, often rewarding, but it carries with it a clarity of purpose–teach the students in front of you. Living that purpose is exhilarating.
So, why move to administration? Well, for me it was about an ever-widening circle of concerns about how students were experiencing their education. One of my earliest questions was about whether or not students were getting the most out of the totality of their degrees, instead of just focusing on the major. I worried about the connections students were not making between those required humanities or social sciences or science courses and their major. Once I opened that can of worms, my attention moved away from my discipline and toward education as a holistic. Thus, an administrator was born.
What does that holistic perspective mean now that I am a provost? It means I continuously examine data about who we serve, who is thriving, who is not, what students are learning, where our programs are strong and where they need support, what new ideas about teaching are emerging and how to engage faculty with those ideas, and of course, since WCSU is in New England, what to do about enrollment. There’s more. There are questions about equity for everyone (students, faculty, staff). There are questions about processes and organizational structures, and whether they are doing what we want them to do. There are questions about the balance of scholarship, teaching, service, for faculty and appropriate support for professional development for everyone. There is no shortage of things to think about when you are trying to imagine an effective and rewarding whole.
Unsurprisingly, I do a lot of reading about higher education developments and trends. Indeed, this Sunday, as I settled in to review the news and enjoy my morning coffee, I found my attention drawn to a publication from the Chronicle of Higher Education, called The Truth about Student Success. I know, why ruin a perfectly nice Sunday? But I am worried about outcomes and so I downloaded the document and read it through. When I was done, all I could think was, but we’ve done all that already!
Except we haven’t quite. Despite my best efforts to foster an environment where ideas are welcome, strategies for improvement are implemented, and then results are examined, I think I am falling short on the part where we learn from it all. It reminds me of my early days in administration when I realized that higher education is very good at starting (adding) things, but terrible at finishing (subtracting) things. Even worse, we are often missing the part where we examine results and act on them, you know, closing the loop.
Over the last twenty years, higher education as a whole has developed some reasonable habits around the use of assessment to improve curriculum. Everyone has learning outcomes now and assessment plans to trigger reviews of the results. Some plans are better than others, and some programs are more committed to the meaning of those outcomes than others, but overall, folks are trying to learn from their efforts at assessment. At WCSU, I can see the impact of this work on curriculum and to some degree on teaching strategies. This has room to grow, and the sharing of this information is spotty, but it is going on.
We are (I am) less successful at systematic use of the data about the rest of what we do. For example, has the implementation of Degree Works improved academic advising? Has asking about advising practices in annual reports resulted in any changes in strategies at the department level? Are the pre-major pathways (meta-majors) reducing the time to graduation and the accumulation of excess credits? When faculty have participated in teaching institutes, has it changed their teaching strategies? Has it improved outcomes? Has the transition to embedded remediation reduced the number of students stuck in foundational courses? When we see that some courses have very high withdrawal or failure rates, are we acting on that information? There is so much more, but this is the main idea.
As fast as I run, I can’t seem to stay on top of all of this. I have not even managed to implement a good data dashboard to try to keep people in the loop on these things. I hope to complete one this semester, but in the meantime, things are filtering through Deans to Department Chairs to Faculty (maybe), listed in my weekly announcements (sometimes), announced at our University Senate meetings (when time allows), and listed in annual reports (usually). I have to do better.
Without consistent examination of information by the whole community, all of those good things we are doing will just be in pockets (silos). Departments (academic and otherwise) will continue to try new things, but we’ll never see the full impact. We risk not learning from each other and duplicating efforts that would be better if coordinated across areas. We risk abandoning strategies too soon or simply forgetting they are underway. We risk under-investing in things that show signs of working. Most of all, we squander the value of a shared effort to be better, and that is a fundamental waste of talent and resources.
So, as I finished my coffee and that darned report on The Truth about Student Success, I realize that there is no more pressing initiative than establishing good processes for gathering, analyzing, and distributing the information we already have. There is nothing new to do but that. We’re doing all of the other things that everyone else is doing. If we get this part right, we might be able to re-double our efforts on things that are working and stop doing the things that are not. That’s the follow through, folks. We need to learn from what we do.
Examining our processes and making sure that a data dashboard gets done this semester is one more thing on my endless list of duties, of course, and I wonder how I’ll get it done. But I have to because there are no magic bullets to discover; there are only evaluations of what we have already done and plans for next steps. The data dashboard is on me, but I hope that the result is for everyone. I’m hoping with better follow through many more members of our community will work together to improve the whole of the university experience.