Change, Reflection

The Sacred and the Profane

As I write this final post for 2021, the many holidays that we observe at this time of year urge me to think about the meanings we attach to our celebratory practices. For me our December rituals help mark endings, prepare for new beginnings, foster connection to family, friends, and community, and most of all, pierce the seasonal darkness with our festivals of lights. These activities, regardless of particular religious affiliations, set this time of year apart from others, imbuing it with sacredness, even in the face of the commerce that we have woven through it in the United States.

It is in this context of that I am thinking about the lines between sacred and profane in higher education. The sacred part is that part that is characterized as a social good that can help weave together our society; the profane is a regular business that lives or dies by its ability to generate sufficient income to survive. As we complete the final tasks of the year, I find myself pondering the impact of ordinary commercial considerations on the more exalted goals of higher education. (Apologies to Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade. Read them if you haven’t already).

You see, I just returned from the annual conference of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), and if I’m honest, the news was not good. Despite several lovely panels reporting on new strategies for supporting transfer students, improving our efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion on our campuses, and even innovative new degree structures, the final session focused on the realities of demographics in the United States and it was sobering. Nathan Grawe’s review of the projections nationwide through 2037 tell the story. What we have been experiencing in New England for the last 8-10 years is now a national trend toward a shrinking population of young people. Here in Connecticut the projections are an 18% drop in potential students by 2037. Something is going to have to change.

But adaptation is complicated. Our potential students are changing, and we should attend to their needs and expectations. But, if we focus on the career development opportunities that so many students and families are looking for, we end up in conversations about the value of the liberal arts. No longer an assumed good (a once sacred component of what we do), we are faced with defending liberal arts education. If we decide to explore some of the new academic models being tested right now – the NEXUS degree (an employer/experiential learning focused two year degree) or the three year BA (90 credit equivalent) that looks a lot like the European model of a BA – we find ourselves having to make a case for the four-year degree. If we focus on new disciplines, we are faced with questions about how many majors/degrees we can effectively support, and inevitably what we might cut. Cutting things that are unpopular is the opposite of what many of us thought education should do. In all of this is a sense that we’ve abandoned the sacred world of education for the profane world of commerce.

In the 20th century, higher education took liberal arts and the four-year bachelor’s degree on faith. We believed in their ability to transform, without necessarily articulating how it did so. We believed the BA experience was enough to prepare students to navigate the world post-graduation and that opportunities would emerge. We also believed in the power of higher education, particularly public higher education, to create the opportunity for social mobility, supporting our faith in access to the American Dream.

Over the last two decades, this faith has been reshaped with questions focused on outcomes instead of experiences. We have found ourselves defining course outcomes, major outcomes, and degree outcomes as part of our routine practice. This is spurred on by the growing cost of education. It is also spurred on by the need to meet the needs of a broader group of students, who are seeking the opportunities that higher education provides, but would like some evidence that the investment is worth it. These explanations have led to a clear tension between our faith in the transformation that occurs as we ponder great ideas or conduct research or engage in interesting conversations and the seemingly necessary world of recruiting pitches that make us a means to an employment end.

My mind is juggling these tensions as I consider the realities of the projected population changes in CT, New England, and the nation over the next 15 years. It is clear that we must change to survive. Faith in our value has been shaken, so has our own faith in past-practices that we now recognize as exclusionary. We are worried that if we change too much we will create a new kind of exclusion: the kind that sends some students to places to explore ideas and other students to places that prepare for careers. If we are honest, that has been happening in higher education forever, so, I am not writing off new approaches, though I can hear the concerns about access to a traditional liberal arts degree, even before the conversation begins. We must explore them to be more inclusive. We must explore them to survive.

But will all of this adaptation eliminate the sacred part of education? I don’t think so. We must remember that the sacredness is not really in the structures we have built so far. Those have evolved over time to meet changing expectations and to include more people. No, changing how we organize education will not take away its place as a sacred institution, which at its core reflects faith in the betterment of both the individual and society.

We will always argue over the how of education because we should. Those arguments reflect our commitment to learning about learning. We will always argue over the cost, because as a society we have made this a cost we share, even if not as I would have it shared. We will always argue about purpose, because we have a healthy habit of questioning our assumptions about all institutions, even churches. This is the only way for us to uncover our good and bad ideas. It is the only way for us to grow.

No, the sacred part of education is not in the structure, it is in our faith in its power to transform, not just the individual, but all of us. It is a wish for better and a belief that better can be achieved. That is a powerful belief indeed. It gives me hope and brings a little light into the darkness of all the gloomy forecasts.

Happy holidays, happy new year, happy rest to all.

Change, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Finding that Perfect Blend

Like everyone in higher education, WCSU has worked hard to return to campus this fall. From vaccinations to health monitoring to emergency shut down guidelines, we planned for a reversal of the proportion of online vs. on-ground course offerings established last year. We were successful in this planning, with an overall in-person course schedule for undergraduates landing at 86% (last year we were 74% online.) At last our labs and performing arts are in person again and the back and forth that occurs best in the face-to-face environment is pervasive. Our graduate students are mostly online (73%), but they were already moving in that direction prior to COVID-19. Graduate students are jugglers and increasingly prefer the flexibility of online learning.

Now it is mid-semester and so far so good. Most of our students opted for vaccinations as did faculty and staff. Our testing protocols are revealing very low infection rates and there hasn’t been much in the way of objection to wearing masks while we weather the Delta variant. Our events calendar is starting to be populated with in-person experiences and, well, it almost feels like we’ve got the hang of this environment. I don’t want to tempt fate, but it feels good to have gotten to this point.

Now it is time to get on with figuring out the future of online for WCSU. As happy as we are to be back in the classroom and to see our students moving about the campus, the last year has revealed that online and hybrid opportunities should become part of our regular mix of offerings for many students, but how much, for whom, and under what circumstances? These are important questions to answer as we begin to build a post-pandemic university. Here are a few things we already know.

Our graduate programs benefit greatly from the online format.

For years, WCSU has offered a low-residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing. Bringing students to campus for residencies twice a year has proven to be an effective way to build community and it has helped our cohorts thrive. Indeed, many of our graduates are published authors and all have found great relationships with mentors and peers to help them develop and grow as writers. Similarly, our more recent MS in Applied Behavior Analysis has been highly effective in helping students to degree completion and in passing the licensure exams, all while remaining employed. The schedule structure (year-round) allows students to complete the work relatively quickly and the constant assessment of outcomes has led to regular program modifications to support online learners effectively. The outcomes and the enrollment show us this is a strong model. Our EdD in Nursing Education has a similar tale to tell.

For many of our other graduate programs, the push to online necessitated by COVID-19 has led to an aha moment and most are going to be online going forward. Some will have residencies, like the writing program; others will include some on-campus experiences (hybrid) as part of particular teaching and learning strategies, and others are building some shared experiences that students may participate in both online and on campus. Still others will maintain the on-ground format but are considering using a few online courses as part of the overall experience. This blend solves some scheduling issues for students, making room for on-ground experiences overall. All have found that building community is important, but so is the flexibility online can bring for adult learners.

Overall, this move for graduate students appears to be to the good, but as it becomes a strategy instead of a reaction, we must not neglect the close examination of our students’ experiences – from overall learning outcomes and degree completion rates to their sense of connection to faculty and peers – so that we don’t just stop at the flip, but instead become expert in online instruction for graduate education. We have a strong foundation here, but to thrive, we’ll need to engage the literature on adult learners and refine our program assessment strategies. Luckily, we have some highly developed programs to work with and the faculty teaching in them can serve as important resources for those programs emerging post-COVID.

Our undergraduates benefit from some online learning as well.

WCSU has had some online courses peppered throughout the undergraduate curriculum for years. Largely at the lower levels (100-200), with a few high demand junior and senior level classes often offered in the summer, these courses are often great options for students who need to catch up or those managing very busy schedules. For years we have seen that these courses fill up very quickly, so there is obviously a demand for them in the student body. As we transitioned back to campus, it was clear that more students wanted online than prior to COVID-19. But how much is good for our traditional undergraduates and how do we develop a strong schedule model? Right now, we’re working on percentages, but this approach needs to driven by pedagogy, outcomes, and a detailed scheduling model.

Here are some things we know (kind of) from the last few years with online learning.

  1. Overall, students who take at least one online class in their first year have a higher retention rate than those who did not. This is intriguing, but there are many more questions to ask, particularly about the characteristics of students who opt for an online course in their first semester.
  2. Class sizes for online courses seem to have a sweet spot between 22 and 30 students. Looking at course completion details, too small seems just as bad as too big. This may inform decisions about which courses belong online. It might also suggest a look at pedagogical strategies for supporting courses outside of this range, if appropriate.
  3. Online courses are very helpful for students in highly structured programs, such as STEM, Education, Nursing, Performing Arts, and Honors students more generally. Being able to fit in a non-major course requirement provides some breathing room in their schedules. It is important, however, that these classes be asynchronous or they won’t provide that schedule relief. Do we need to consider priority scheduling for the online seats available to these students?
  4. While many students want some online, too many online courses can be, well, too much. This was particularly true for our residential students who accidently ended up with all online courses last year. It was also true for the many students who found it necessary to drop courses to make it through a mostly online semester. We need to understand how different types of learners navigate the demands of online learning. We also need to understand how this might change at different points in a student’s educational experience. There are answers to these question, but we need to do the work and arrive at a clear strategy.
  5. Some amount of consistency in the online learning environment is warranted. While the many pedagogical approaches employed by faculty are part of the joy of the higher education environment, the many log in and navigation experiences for students were a confusing headache. Getting the right blend of offerings must include consideration of learning platforms, orientation practices, and some uniformity of the first steps in getting “to” our online courses.

Although there are more questions than answers right now, last year’s naturally occurring experiment is filled with good lessons, providing us with clues about where to start. In addition, research in online education is mature enough to suggest some maps for how to proceed, even if it wasn’t fully developed for blended environments. Most of all, our community is fully immersed in the online experience now, so we’ve got a lot of expertise right here to help us learn. Now it’s all about bringing that knowledge together and looking to the future.

How wonderful to be in a moment when we can start this conversation. It feels like the beginning of something exciting, instead of the triage of the last year. Hooray. I’m ready to dive in.

Change, equity, Inclusion

Demonstrating the Gains Inclusion Can Bring

I read with great interest A 30% Author Experiment in last week’s Inside Higher Education. This article highlighted the results of a research study in political science that explored the relationship between graduate students’ self-efficacy (belief that they will succeed in their field of study) and the proportion of women scholars represented on the syllabus (from the typical 10% to 30%!). What they found was that increasing the representation of women to 30% did not significantly increase women PhD students’ self-efficacy, but it did lower the self-efficacy of the men. Oh dear.

I had lots of questions, and so should you, so here’s the link to the full study: “Having Female Role Models Correlates with PhD Students’ Attitudes to their Own Academic Success” by Shauna N. Gilooly, Heidi Hardt, and Amy Eric Smith. They get into many important variables, not just the sex of the respondents and the authors. Most tellingly, the respondents’ pre-existing attitudes toward diversity overall had a predictive value.

As the authors delved into the details of their results, they posited some explanations for the negative impact of a more inclusive syllabus. One explanation was backlash. Drawing on research by Wilkins, Wellman, Babbitt, Toosi, and Schad (2015) they observed that “male students may have equated rising women’s representation in syllabi with their own group losing status and control, and responded with backlash.” For me the key word here is loss.

Anyone who has tried to champion change knows that one of the biggest factors in slowing or derailing such efforts is the sense of loss. Sometimes it is a seemingly small loss of routine that can follow reorganizing physical spaces (small, but annoying, no doubt as we change our routes and habits to fit the new layout). Sometimes it is the obviously large loss that comes with reorganizing power structures, social rules, and privilege. Even if we are rooting for the progress that the changes may imply, we cannot help but feel the losses that go with them.

The losses are real, even if they are just. As a woman in higher education, I am anxious to see syllabi and research investments that reflect women’s interests and contributions to my field. It is important to build our repertoire of readings and potential mentors in higher education in a way that is truly representative of many perspectives and experiences. In practical terms, this means more women and more people of color on my reading lists because they were underrepresented in my years as a doctoral student and in the textbooks and journals I have frequently consulted. Without reducing everything to a zero-sum game, I must admit that this change will necessarily mean my reading lists will include fewer men. I can’t just add; I can’t keep up. So, yes, the loss is real.

As we attend to the voices of more diverse scholars, we also subtly undermine presumptions of authority. This does not happen overnight; it probably takes a generation. Still, little by little, the assumption that doctors and scientists and serious scholars of all kinds are male will fade and with it that little (or not so little) leg up that these assumptions give will wane. Although some may claim that “privilege” isn’t real, the sense of loss of privilege is palpable. It is that feeling of loss that seems to be clearly expressed in this research study.

Among the important nuances of this study is the attention to the intervening variable of the respondents’ predisposition towards diversity. Those who saw increased diversity as a positive did not suffer the lowering of self-efficacy that the students who were less enthusiastic about embracing a diverse society. This is not at all surprising, but it is very important. It leads to what may be the most important question facing us in higher education right now – how are we contributing to the understanding of the value of diversity?

Well, some things are obvious. Our students come to us with attitudes that have been formed by family, school, and media of all kinds. Observing this we have rightfully argued for increased attention to reading and viewing lists from a very young age. But, I think higher education can contribute more to this conversation. We’ve done a lot of good work showing how negative exclusion is, but not nearly enough time has been dedicated to identifying the tangible benefits of inclusion. Moral arguments are great, and I fully embrace them, but in this case we need a clear research program into the value of including diverse perspectives.

Yes, I’ve just added more to our collective to-do lists and I’m sorry, but this is really important. We can’t just attend to the range of voices on our syllabi; we must attend to the impact of those voices on the research in medicine, science, diplomacy, social institutions, and cultural practices. We must be honest about how complex that inclusive stance can be and how the actions that follow from a new perspective may change our priorities in ways that may be uncomfortable for the few in the short term, but benefit the whole in the long term. And if we argue for the long view, we must be able to provide evidence for that benefit for the whole. This is a hard but necessary next step in our pursuit of equity.

It is time to focus our research on the tangible gains that inclusion can bring. There are already countless stories in medicine that can top the list. There are similar moments in history, literature, art, and psychology. Let’s start talking about how diverse perspectives have reshaped the questions we ask and even how we live. Let’s not talk in the abstract, but focus on concrete results. Maybe we can inspire increased curiosity instead of decreased self-efficacy. Now that would be a real win for everyone.

Change, Higher Education, Inclusion, Resilience

The Balcony View

Managing a campus under crisis conditions is, well, challenging. All campus leaders, and I mean everyone not just the academic leadership team, have been immersed in the details of health and safety and the related enrollment challenges that came with COVID-19. At the same time, higher education has been grappling with the social injustices laid bare in this environment and heightened by the events surrounding the death of George Floyd. We have been running at high speed from problem to problem for a year now, and our ability to keep running may be reaching its end. Even Olympic athletes need to rest now and then.

So, at this one year mark (our campus closed on March 13, 2020), I am taking a moment to step back and consider our next steps. I’m taking a “balcony view” (coincidentally, I have just finished a course that introduced me to Heifetz and Laurie’s (1997) work on this subject, and now it is in the higher education news), and asking myself, “In light of all that we have experienced in the last year, how should our university evolve?”

Why ask this question, now? Why not just chart a path back to “normal”? After all, the vaccination roll out in Connecticut is progressing well and I feel very optimistic about our ability to be fully open next fall. It would be easy to just focus on that project, attending to the normal recruiting and scheduling questions and reveling in the knowledge that we can finally reduce our dependence on Zoom. But I can’t do that, because COVID-19 was not just an emergency for the last year: it was a powerful tool for surfacing structural issues that were already pervasive in our society and on our campuses. No, I can’t just breathe a sigh of relief. I must help our entire campus community dig into the necessary conversations about equity that have been made abundantly clear in this crisis.

So, as I invite my colleagues to engage in questions of what we should learn from life in a pandemic, I have a list of questions.

First, how should we respond to the access issues laid bare by COVID-19?

Questions about access to education and healthcare are not new, but they sure did move front and center over the last year. Last March, as students, faculty, and most of our staff shifted to remote learning and work environments, it became abundantly clear that the distribution of technology and wi-fi was not equal. We scrambled to deploy resources to students, only to find that our faculty and staff needed them, too. In 2020, this was kind of shocking. The world of work and the work of community has been at least partially digital for many years now, so how could we have found it acceptable that members of our organization did not have the basic tools necessary to interact remotely? As we return to “normal” let’s not lose sight of this fact. As we face the many budgetary challenges ahead, let’s not forget that this access issue is our responsibility. What can we do to reorganize our priorities so that the gap in access does not return?

While we are not in the health care delivery business, we are in the health care education business. The last year has made clear to many what some of us have known all along – not everyone has access to quality healthcare. But there’s more; communities do not just have financial barriers to medicine, they have cultural histories that lead to distrust of the health care system. As we work to educate future health care providers, how might we make those cultural and socio-economic barriers to health care a central component of our student’s education? How can we bring those same issues to the forefront of the education we offer to future educators, social workers, police officers, lawyers, and politicians? Can we become an organization that keeps these realities and histories central to all that we do?

Second, what should we learn from the experience of online and remote learning?

While none of us loved the abrupt move to online everything, it has become clear that this should be available to us for specific audiences and scenarios. Some of our students really benefitted from the flexibility of online courses and are hoping to continue in that modality for more of their education. The string of snow days in February was a good reminder that having all faculty prepared to hold some of their classes remotely is important for continuity. But not all students and faculty thrive online and not all disciplines are great experiences online, so we need to really explore what just happened. Perhaps the most important questions to ask right now are 1. What should we offer online to support our students and, perhaps recruit new ones? 2. How will we discover who is ready for online learning and who is not?, and 3. How can we ensure that our course design for online learning is as robust as it is for on-ground learning?

Third, how should we respond to the social justice issues surfaced by George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movements?

As we struggle to have the important conversations about race and equity in the United States, we must remember that these issues are not new. The differential experiences of communities of color in all social institutions has been real forever. As important as the questions around policing are, and they are incredibly important, the reality is that we should be focused on our own practices, practices that are re-enforcing inequity. So, while I do ask that my colleagues dedicated to educating law enforcement professionals carefully scrutinize the ways in which they are addressing social structures and racism, I am looking in the mirror first.

Among the things we should be considering are differential outcomes that cluster around race (retention, graduation, debt, and, yes, who enrolls in each major). We should be asking ourselves if the curriculum we offer reflects, at a minimum, the interests and histories of our students? We should be asking ourselves why we are still struggling to attract and retain faculty from diverse backgrounds? In other words, we should not let a demonstration last summer, end in a demonstration last summer. How can we keep ourselves engaged in meaningful and frequent examination of our own practices so that we progress toward greater inclusivity and equity?

Yes, it would be easier to “go back to normal” now that we can see the light at the end of the pandemic. But going back to normal is not a good idea. The pre-pandemic normal was not adequate or fair or just. So, I’m looking at this moment as the end of a yearlong sprint and the start of a marathon. We’ll just call that sprint the training I needed to go the distance, because I don’t want to go back to normal. I’ve taken the balcony view and I see at least part of the big picture. Now it is time to get back into the details and work with my colleagues to find some answers.

Change, Hope, Resilience

Optimism Lives in the “We”

I’m not going to lie; it is hard to tap into my normally optimistic perspective right now. The pandemic, social injustices, budget crises, and yes, the election, are all testing my reserve of hope. Keeping up with the daily news is enough to drive me under a rock, or at least under the covers, indefinitely. The problems are so vast as to appear insurmountable, and they are making me tired. We’re all tired, I know.

But this is no time to give in to this feeling of helplessness. It is time take a deep breath and find ways to manage this barrage of bad news and ill feeling. Higher education has a particular responsibility to illuminate paths forward because we have the skills to find those paths. We spend our lives invested in the idea that the pursuit of knowledge will make the world a better place. To be an educator is the purest expression of optimism.

Let me be clear. I have never been a blind optimist. Those who know me are well acquainted with my snarky side. I can laugh at, and be cowed by, the fallibility of human impulses as easily as anyone. I am cognizant of hidden agendas or just plain bumbling plans, and I am only surprised by these things occasionally. I am probably best described as a pragmatic optimist, accepting the hazards but seeing the potential for good anyway. It is the potential for good that I am reaching for today.

So, here I go. What is the potential for good in COVID-19? This pandemic is daunting to be sure. Most of us have never experienced anything like this level of disruption. But, of course, historians will remind us of the precedents for this experience. Whether the Bubonic Plague or the Spanish flu or Polio, we have been here before. The pace of spread may have been enhanced by the airplane, but massive outbreaks of deadly diseases are not a new thing. That doesn’t make this easier, but it helps me see the path to optimism.

For example, despite all of the political shenanigans, I remain hopeful about the development of a vaccine. We are better at this process than ever before and our tools are improving daily. Although I frequently shudder at the ways in which profit motives impact medical research, I do have confidence in scientists and their desire to get to the right answers (right for now, at least). It is in their DNA. In recent decades, we have lost our commitment to science as a social good, at least in the United States. We have ceded investigation and experimentation to for-profit entities, while slowly eroding our investment in the education and research arms that are fundamental to advancing scientific knowledge. Perhaps this pandemic can remind us of the need for science for the common good. Perhaps, in this moment, we are ready to reimagine the structure of scientific inquiry for good first and profit later.

I am also heartened by the relative effectiveness of our basic protective measures – masks, social distancing, and washing our hands – in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Where people are following these rules, we are seeing excellent results. Although we see the ridiculous politicization of these measures in the news, many of us are indeed following the guidelines. We are desperate to avoid both the illness and the next lockdown, so we comply. That is good news. But the hope comes here – most of these actions are as much about protecting others as ourselves. Our masks keep us from spreading the disease. So does that space between us. Compliance with these measures reminds me that it is possible to engage that sense of the greater good that we have been ignoring for a generation (at least). It helps me see the possibility of a return of the notion of “we.”

As for social injustices, I am grateful that this conversation has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Our history is fraught with discrimination and ill treatment of groups of people. It is also filled with steps forward (albeit, with lots of steps backward). The confluence of Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 has helped many more people understand that there are persistent injustices that need everyone’s attention. The differences in how communities are treated are no longer hidden in spread sheets; they are visible in the nightly news reports for all to see. This is the (next) moment to do that hard work of finding better paths to equity. It is the perfect opportunity to re-engage notions of our responsibility to community, not just ourselves.

In higher education, that path to equity is just as complex as it is for the larger society. This, too, has the potential to overwhelm and quell my sense of hope. But then I think about the history of education in this country and I see how far we have come. Our history of growth and change for the better helps me press ahead with ad hoc committees, climate surveys, and an honest assessment of how we are doing. These steps are daunting and, like the world outside of higher education, they are fraught with politics and fear. But the time is now, and I won’t ignore it.

As I see it, higher education has reached a point where we must be willing to fully reimagine our goals and the paths to achieving them. I know too well how challenging this is, and how many times I will rethink the questions and reorganize strategies to move forward. I could sink under the weight of it all because I feel such a deep responsibility for it. But as I write these words, I feel the optimist coming through. Why? Because I also know how much my colleagues care about their students. None of us wants to live with unfair practices and outcomes. We are predisposed to wanting to do better. It is in our DNA.

This big mess of challenges and complex problems will not keep me from hope and optimism, because I know I am not alone in the task of addressing them. That is where optimism is sustained, in the sharing of the struggle for something better. I am heartened by the opportunities for something better and I am sustained by the “we” because “we” is where optimism lives.