Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Dream Big

At the end of this year-and-a-half long effort to create great educational experiences in the face of a global pandemic, it is easy to get too focused on triage instead of big ideas. We have all been busy monitoring COVID cases and becoming experts in contact tracing. We’ve been transforming student support to try to reach out to students who are drowning in the online environment. Faculty have been trying hard to reshape their teaching strategies for online and hybrid modalities, all the while worrying about the learning taking place and the missing interactions that take place in the normal classroom settings. We’re developing strategies to encourage our students to get vaccinated and wondering if we’ll ever get to remove our masks. And, of course, we are all worried about surviving the fiscal challenges that we face due to this disaster because we know it will take multiple years to get back to normal enrollment patterns. In short, we have a lot on our collective minds.

While every single detail matters, when we stay too long in the slog of managing those details, there is a tendency to reduce our dreams to the immediate future. Well, consider this a reminder to step back, look up from the spreadsheets and grading, and take a moment to dream big.

I’m thinking today about the graduates that I will greet next weekend. They have had a heck of a finish to their education. They have attended to the details necessary to complete their programs in less that optimal ways. I am proud of them for getting to this point under these unique conditions. They are now facing a world of work that is strange to say the least. It would be a normal reaction to feel despair in the face of so much uncertainty. It would also be normal to limit the scope of one’s job search to safe bets, nearby things, and the less than ambiguous, just to mitigate all of that uncertainty. But I urge them not to do so.

Now is the time for our graduates to dream big. It is time to think clearly about what a good life looks like, what a rewarding career looks like, and what contributions to the world might be possible. This is a time to reflect on one’s values and align one’s goals with those values. It is time to think about the arc of one’s life and some long range goals. This will make that job search more rewarding and fruitful. It may be that the first post-college job is not a big step up from the work done to pay the bills during college. That’s fine. But make sure that the next job has something for you to learn on your path to your bigger dreams. In short, aim for the most that you want, not the least, and build a plan accordingly.

For my colleagues at WCSU, we need to heed the same advice. We have worked so hard this past year just to survive this crisis. The work has made me very proud. Faculty have reimagined pedagogy, experimented with new technologies, and kept the struggles of their students foremost in their minds. Our Information Technology team and Instructional Designers have continuously supported faculty and students as they’ve navigated new tools and connectivity. Student Affairs has worked hard to develop a semblance of student life in this virtual context and invested in more mental health support because it was so desperately needed. Athletics has managed to achieve some big wins, even with such limited opportunities to compete. Yes, we’ve done an excellent job of triage.

But we are going to face a few more years of challenges because of COVID-19 and the continued drop in high school graduates in New England. It would be normal to look at our chances to recover as something that can be managed by small cuts and status quo behaviors. That won’t work anymore. It is time to think clearly about what we want to look like in five years and in ten years. What does a great university look like for the students we serve and the communities that depend on us? How should we evolve to achieve that greatness? What steps do we need to take to feel that our work is rewarding and exciting? What contributions to the world do we want to make and how should we organize ourselves to get there? It may be that the next year or two of working toward this great university might feel mired in minutia and even more triage, but if we are working toward greatness together, it will be purposeful triage that can inspire us, rather than drag us down.

Yes, as we come to the end point of our academic-year and finish up reports, grades, and the usual closing of the year details, it is important to rekindle the capacity for big dreams. It is the dreams that make room for good ideas and inspire us to continue re-imagining all that we do. They give us hope when we need it the most and they are the start of any good plan. Let’s lift up our heads from the day-to-day and take the time to dream big. We owe it to ourselves and I know that good things will come of it.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Educational Equity: The American Families Plan

In President Biden’s American Families Plan, he proposes increasing free education by four years (2 in pre-school, 2 in community college) and increasing college affordability by raising the maximum Pell Grants by $1,400. Halleluiah! As our nation rebuilds for a post-COVID world, I am thrilled to see so much attention given to that oh so necessary component of our economy, education. It is clear that Biden and his team recognize that access to education is one of the most important equity issues in America.

Equity in the pre-K world is essential and we have long known that students who have access to quality pre-K options do better than those who do not. Starting with the need for lots of interaction so that the right paths in the brains are developed to the muscles developed when holding crayons to the social skills like sharing, taking turns, and playing together, pre-school is just wonderful for child development. We have long understood the benefits of this investment as we supported Head Start for low-income families and pre-K for students who have identified learning needs. But access to Pre-K is inconsistent and the quality of programs varies. Putting pre-K into our assumptions about what public education means can invigorate conversations about what pre-school should be and how it might align with the larger goals of K-12. So, yes, pre-K for everyone. Let’s take the leap.

Free community college is great, too. There are very few careers that do not rely on some education beyond K-12. Yet, access to education, even at the reduced costs of most community college systems, can be elusive for many families. Here in Connecticut our community colleges offer a variety of straight to career options, advanced manufacturing and RN degrees, for example. They also provide lots of support for English Language Learners, which is vital for students and the state. And, most important for my university, they provide a pathway to the four-year degree. Like many states, we have worked on Transfer Articulation Pathways (TAP) to ensure that students who start in community college can move on to the four-year degree without having to backtrack on various degree requirements. This important effort is benefitting students throughout Connecticut.

If you dig in further, you’ll also note that Biden’s plan reflects a much more informed understanding of higher education than we’ve seen in, well ever. Perhaps it is the influence of Dr. Jill Biden, but someone is finally reading the data and realizing that the way we have been evaluating university outcomes incentivizes creating more barriers to entry instead of improving support for the many students interested in striving for an undergraduate degree. It is easy to have great retention and graduation rates (and therefore rise in the rankings) if you simply do not admit students who may need support beyond financial aid. Those of us who have been supporting students who have those needs know this only too well. We’ve been ignored or punished for years, by way of inadequate funding and low rankings, while we strive to meet these needs and make access to public education a reality for the many, not just the few. We try to squeeze retention efforts into our existing budgets, often sacrificing other university needs or underfunding these programs. So, I was thrilled to see that 62 million dollars in the plan is being focused on retention and degree completion. This must be what the world looks like when we actually commit to equity in education.

Finally, the new plan will increase Pell, $1,400. This is long overdue, of course. Pell has not increased at anywhere near the pace of the cost of education. Students from families of limited means desperately need these funds to keep them from having to skip college or, worse, try to succeed while working three jobs. While I am proud of our students who are managing this juggle, too much work often leads to slower progress to degree completion, which just costs more money in the end. Sufficient funding at the start is a much better approach.

As thrilled as I am with all of this, though, there is just one more piece that I’d like to see. For public universities, the cost of education has increased because our fixed costs have risen. This is just normal living wages for those who work in higher ed and the cost of maintaining our facilities – not extravagant salaries and lazy rivers. As those costs have risen, our state appropriations have not kept pace, and we have had no choice but to raise tuition. I want to be clear; we are not doing a lot of “nice to have” things. We are simply supporting quality educational experiences, aligned with the expectations of regional and specialized accrediting bodies. We are working hard to be as efficient as possible, but education is a labor-intensive endeavor and you just can’t job it out to packaged learning products. The ever-increasing costs of tuition at public universities is making higher education a stretch for the middle class, not just low-income families.

So, here’s the ask– let’s fund the state universities enough so that we do not exceed $10,000 a year in tuition and fees. It is true we’ll still have to charge another $10-12,000 for residential experiences, but for the many (majority) who commute to our campuses, this cap will mean a cap on the debt they will acquire as they piece together their contributions and some student loans. It is still a lot of money, but even if a student needed loans for all of it, the earnings benefit from completing their degrees would make this manageable. I don’t love it, but it is so much better than the endless creeping up of tuition and fee costs for students.

What is invisible in the funding of free community college is the way that it disrupts the four-year economic model. There is just no way for us to keep our costs low and take the enrollment hits as students opt for the free two years. Add to that shifting demographics and the fact that state colleges and universities are increasingly tuition dependent as the percentage of our funding from the state has dropped, and you can see the extent of the strain we are feeling. The entire mess is leading to the reality that we will need to reduce the number of programs we offer and keep raising our costs. This does not further educational equity.

So, let’s re-write the way we fund four-year state colleges and universities. Instead of just looking at the number of students enrolled, let’s add keeping tuition and fees to $10,000 to the formula. We will have to increase the percentage of state funding to meet this target. I know that this is difficult for our elected officials who manage many constituent opinions about education, but if we talk about the benefits to all families and to the state economy, I think it just isn’t that tough a sell. While we’re at it, align the maximum Pell with that tuition number so all students can choose two- or four-year programs from the start. It isn’t perfect, but it is a start. Or we could go ahead and make the four-year universities free, too. But I’m guessing that’s too much to dream of at this time.

Higher Education, Quality

Time for Reflection and Celebration

It is the end of April and my calendar is filled with opportunities to celebrate. There are award ceremonies, commencement ceremonies (yes, plural for COVID reasons), student research presentations (for us that is Western Research Day) and even our system awards for teaching and research. Despite the restrictions we have had to navigate this year, there is a lot to be proud of. We have managed to create lots of wonderful opportunities to learn and thrive, as is our purpose.

As I begin to make the rounds, attending as many events as I can, I am reminded just how wonderful higher education can be. For example, last week I interviewed three students who will serve as our commencement speakers this year. Several years ago, WCSU decided to make our students to focus of our commencement ceremonies, instead of trying to bring in a celebrity speaker. As a public university that is proud of the many paths our students take to complete their degrees, we want the spotlight to shine on their accomplishments. Their stories never fail to inspire.

This year, we have three ceremonies to allow for appropriate safety protocols, so we have three speakers. Former police officer, now entrepreneur with a social justice focus, Isaac Jean-Pierre will represent the students of the Ancell School of Business. The Macricostas School of Arts & Sciences will be represented by Bakhtawar Izzat, a first generation college graduate who truly embraced every opportunity that our university offers and plans to make a life of helping other first generation students do the same. Music Education major, Serena Valentin, will speak at our combined ceremony for the School of Visual and Performing Arts and the School of Professional Studies. As a future teacher, Serena has a deep appreciation for the personal experiences of her faculty and how they have shaped her development as a future teacher.

Not only are the commencement speakers impressive, but so are the graduates. Thanks to the efforts of media services and the social media working group, we have a beautiful display of our graduates on our home page.

Under the leadership of Dr. Michelle Monette, WCSU will host its first virtual Western Research Day. Usually this is an in person affair and it is so much fun to talk to the many students presenting the results of their hard work in laboratories and libraries over the last year. This time it will be a three day online event, so that we have time to look through and interact with our students and select this year’s award winners. This is such an important opportunity for our students, but also our faculty. This is the time when get to see all of our efforts come together. I am always inspired.

This is also the time for our spring productions. The students and faculty in the arts really had to reimagine how to operate in a COVID-19 world. They rose to the challenge with the kind of creativity we’ve come to expect from them. So, check out the theatre productions this week https://www.wcsu.edu/news/2021/04/15/wcsu-theatre-arts-announces-spring-virtual-production-series/, and the virtual exhibition of the work of our MFA graduates https://www.wcsu.edu/news/2021/04/05/wcsu-master-of-fine-arts-students-present-virtual-exhibition-3/.

There will be lots of other smaller ceremonies to induct students into honor societies, and I will do my best to provide the appropriate congratulatory remarks. I don’t really matter – the work was done by our students and faculty – but I am so grateful to be part of all of the results. This year, more than ever, we need that opportunity to reflect on the work we have done together.

We must extend congratulations to two of WCSU’s faculty members, who have been honored with awards from the Connecticut Board of Regents.

Dr. Maya Aloni, associate professor of psychology, has won the system-wide award for Teaching. Maya has been a strong contributor to our First Year program and served as an important resource as our university transitioned to online instruction last year. She is a truly student-focused professor, who continuously strives to create great learning experiences.

Dr. Josh Cordeira, associate professor of biology, won the campus award for research. His research focuses on factors that are linked to obesity and to its reduction in mice. Josh shared the results of recent research on potential links between exercise and a reduced desire for fatty foods at the fall 2020 Scholars in Action Program. He regularly engages our students in his ongoing research projects, while continuously revising topics in Anatomy and Physiology to engage his students in this important line of inquiry.

And dare I mention it, but we have had an excellent year moving forward initiatives in our strategic plan. Two weeks ago, I took a few moments to gather some updates on strategic planning activities and was delighted to discover so much progress. The director of our Education Access Programs, Rob Pote, launched our re-imagined Bridge Program (EAP) last fall and the results are very positive. The hard work of Julie Hunter, First-Year Librarian, and Lauren Arvisais, Tutoring Resource Center Coordinator (with groundwork done by many others) has resulted in a new Peer-Mentor Program that will start in the fall. New career courses are on the schedule, thanks to the work of the director of the Career Success Center, Kathleen Lindenmayer, assistant professor of management, Alexandra Galli-Debicella, and assistant professor of Writing, Michael Lewis. All of these are great initiatives for recruiting and supporting our students.

There was so much more that I’ll have to wait until the strategic plan updates to get to the rest, but as I review the work, I am incredibly proud of all that my colleagues have managed to accomplish this year. But that is what the end of the year is all about, noticing the work we’ve done.

So, let’s not forget to reflect on our efforts and celebrate our accomplishments. This year is more impressive than ever because we’ve risen above so many challenges. Yet all along the way, people met those challenges and pushed ahead for the real goal–creating great educational experiences.

I am humbled, as always. Thanks everyone.

Free Speech, Higher Education, Technology

Education as Sacred Space

Well, here we are on what we hope is the brink of the end of the pandemic, and the impact of the last year has begun to emerge. Last week’s higher education news tells an interesting tale.

  • First, there was the Zoom story. As campuses jumped into digital platforms, many opting for (fighting for) Zoom, no one understood that they had usage clauses that allowed them to refuse to support potentially controversial campus events. We worried about Zoom Bombing, but not about censorship of us. As Zoom addresses this part of their contract (see Zoom Addresses Academic Freedom Concerns in Inside Higher Ed) because they want to continue to work with higher education, I find myself wondering how we are thinking about technology and censorship overall.
  • Second, Florida legislators have proposed legislation that allows students to record classes. They need permission to post their recordings, but the intention of this documentation is clear: The bill, which sailed through Florida’s House of Representatives and Senate, says that a student may record video or audio of class lectures not only for their own personal educational use but also “in connection with a complaint to the public institution of higher education where the recording was made, or as evidence in, or in preparation for, a criminal or civil proceeding.” (Lights, Camera, Teach)

Couple these with the countless instances of parent complaints that administrators and faculty have experienced over the last year because the parent happened to walk by and hear something they didn’t like when their student was “in” class, and it appears that these digital learning platforms are undermining the sacred spaces for learning we depend on in higher education.

Technologies are not just tools–they have power to fully re-define the organizations, communities, and cultures they inhabit. This is Media Ecology 101 (see Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman for primers). Leaping into these new environments without thinking them through can be a dangerous thing. The last year has been nothing but leaping in without the time to think things through. As we emerge from this pandemic and regroup about what universities will look like in the years to come, we must not neglect fundamental questions about the interaction between our technologies and our definitions of education.

Here are some things I’d like all of us to consider.

Exploration of controversial topics is a necessary component of higher education.

In K-12, we may introduce some of the tough things about our history, culture, and the nature of human existence, but we tread lightly because the students are young and potentially fragile. At universities we educate adults (beginner adults, perhaps, but adults nonetheless). As such, this is the time to stop mincing words and get to the heart of some of the most difficult conversations about “life, the universe, and everything” (thank you Douglas Adams). These conversations are a necessary part of education and we are all likely to be uncomfortable. Too bad. Controversial and/or ambiguous subjects are at the heart of learning, creating knowledge, and changing the world. Think Darwin, Wright, Arendt, de Beauvior.

Classrooms must be seen as sacred spaces.

As educators, we like to say “there are no stupid questions.” In reality, there are lots of stupid questions. These are questions that reveal we weren’t listening carefully, didn’t read the assignment, didn’t read the syllabus, etc. Nevertheless, we want our students to trust us enough to go ahead and ask. Questions are the path to clarification, understanding, and sometimes great conversations about where misunderstandings come from. Students must feel free to speak without being humiliated, and so we cultivate that openness to every question, not just the good ones, in all that we do. Being recorded asking these questions is just not fair.

At the same time, in the flow of an explanation, faculty are likely to make statements that they would then like to re-phrase or clarify. They may be exploring a novel idea that they are thinking through out loud, or they may simply stumble in describing something and then step back to rephrase. They may also take on a delicate topic and bravely work through difficult ideas in collaboration with their students. Those conversations frequently lead to words and phrases that can look controversial if taken out of the context of the whole. Allowing students to record these conversations will fundamentally undermine a conversational and exploratory (Socratic) approach to education. Under the threat of recordings, faculty will be forced to read from notes and PowerPoint slides without engaging in anything but short answer questions.

University students must be treated as adults.

This is not just about the family members listening in to their student’s classes and intervening inappropriately. Those violations of the walls of the classroom are a curious outgrowth of the pandemic when online learners have been surrounded by their families. Post-pandemic, online learners might find a room of their own once again. That is as it should be.

But even before the pandemic I was being courted by technology vendors who wanted to help me take attendance via students’ phones. This was posed a solution to the vagaries of faculty attendance taking, and as an opportunity to intervene if we notice that students are missing too many classes. While attendance is, indeed, the number one barrier to student success at my university, I roundly refused this technological intervention. I do not want the power to track our students’ every moves. They should be able to move freely, outside of our view, because they are adults. Adults are responsible for their own attendance. To make it our job is to re-enforce adolescent behaviors and worse, keep the motivation for education externally located. This is a terrible idea for higher education.

Post-Pandemic, higher education will continue to use technologies to create educational opportunities and experiences. That can be to the good. We should explore pedagogies, imaginatively blend learning environments, and expand access to education wherever possible. But make no mistake, adopting new technologies will change what we mean when we say higher education. As we adopt them we should not lose sight of the critical experiences that are central to learning as (young) adults. Those experiences will include conversations that are informative, imaginative, controversial, and uncomfortable. These conversations should not be sacrificed as we adopt new technologies.

It is imperative that universities continue to create environments designed to support the development of our students’ abilities to think independently and critically as they navigate difficult and confusing ideas. Universities provide an opportunity to hone those skills in a community devoted to drawing out ideas rather than shutting them down. Those conversations will not take place in a censored or surveilled environment. They can only happen if we continue to create sacred spaces for learning.

Affordability, Higher Education

America’s Strategic Plan

When I started writing this blog a couple of years ago, I decided on the following tag line: Public Higher Education: America’s Strategic Plan. Honestly, I was chaffing at the notion that public education institutions were being charged with developing strategic plans that were focused on defining our place in a market of educational institutions. Public higher education is not meant to make a profit. In most cases, we were set up to serve a particular region’s educational needs and we were not designed to compete across regions (although, of course, we do). As I see it, we exist to support two fundamental goals of the nation – cultivate an informed citizenry and support the potential for social mobility. If we are to strategize, we should be focused on better ways to meet those goals rather than identifying market share and seeking improved rankings.

I am less snarky about institutional planning today but I still balk at the market focus. The funding models for higher education have changed significantly and public institutions are now tuition dependent with no choice but to find ways to compete with each other to survive. In New England, where the opportunities for education are vast and the student population dwindling, this need is particularly acute. Public universities that can focus on prestige (higher admission standards and big ticket research opportunities) are working their way up the ranking lists. Some schools have niche programs, carving out a focused identity and usually staying small. Regional comprehensives that focus on access are doing their best to focus on the transformative power of education, largely in terms of socio-economic gains. None of these strategies are negative, but they are trapping us in a competitive cycle that loses track of our essential value.

The good news is that infrastructure is the hot new buzz word, and a big re-think is going on. President Biden is proposing all kinds of investments in higher education, from increasing the Pell Grants and NSF funding, to funds specifically focused on equity. At the state level there is a strong focus on community colleges as an important part of lifting people out of poverty through specific career training. Somewhat more broadly, all of higher education is being incentivized to support particular career trajectories in STEM and Healthcare. This is a good first step, but at this important, once in a century moment, when infrastructure is the word of the day, we need to think bigger.

Let me put it plainly, without a fundamental shift in how public higher education is imagined in relation to the core goals and values of the United States, we will continue to find ourselves chasing rankings and students instead of focusing on learning. While I know it strikes some as a nice-to-have, higher education is essential to the economy we have built so far and the one to emerge. Just as the nation progressed from providing a 6th grade education to a comprehensive K-12 education, and increasingly a pre-K education, it is time to think of public higher education as something that must be universally available (yes, free). It is the essential component of our national infrastructure.

I am not saying we are more important than healthcare. I am saying developing a good healthcare system relies on educating scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers, actuaries, community liaisons, bilingual front line support for treatment and benefits administration, culturally aware people to navigate community norms that might keep them from following healthcare instruction, and so on. From two-year entry level degrees to doctoral degrees, the whole system relies on education.

Transportation infrastructure is the same story. We need engineers and urban planners, supervisors and pavers, economic development professionals and safety specialists, environmental and computer scientists, people with an understanding of the barriers to usage of public transportation and those who understand how to optimize work schedules to stagger demand. From two-year entry level degrees to doctoral degrees, the whole system relies on education.

Economic development is 100% connected to the educational opportunities available in a community. But it isn’t just the narrow focus of trained financial managers or skills in advanced manufacturing. It is the fullness of ongoing access to education over the life of a career so that people can retrain or refocus their knowledge as the world and/or their interests change. Supporting ongoing access means reframing our thinking about education as a one-time investment (2 or 4 years) to something that people keep returning to throughout their lives.

And, of course, all of these professionally focused arguments for education totally neglect the rest of our value – fostering the insights into human culture, behavior, histories, and discoveries that help us put our world in context. An educated society does not stop at understanding how elections work and how to get a job. It must continue to the why of it all. Obviously, the question of why and the meanings we ascribe to our existence grow with us. The value of the more broadly focused liberal arts thinking often comes into focus long after we encounter them. Each phase of our lives might compel us to think further, ask new questions, and pursue ideas ancient and new. This broad and inquisitive thinking is also infrastructure, with foundations laid in our early education so that there are opportunities to follow up later. It provides room for the growth that we say we value and the emergence of new perspectives that can literally change the world.

So, I’m glad that infrastructure is in fashion and I hope that we can use this momentary embrace of long-term thinking to truly plan for the long-term of public higher education. Let’s commit to our true value as an essential component of a just and thriving society. Let’s fund education in a way that allows us to focus our strategic plans on learning instead of market share. Let’s recognize that public education is America’s strategic plan for a great society.