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.

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.