Higher Education, Quality

The Vision Thing

I have been thinking about vision statements this morning. In the midst of this pandemic and the accompanying financial and enrollment impact, it is hard to move from crisis management to preparing for the future. It is hard to think long term while still addressing the daily trauma that makes up this COVID-19 world. But it is time to think long term. It is time to be less reactive and more visionary.

Vision statements for universities are a relatively new development and, honestly, I am not sure they are helpful. I mean, isn’t our vision to educate people? Public education, at its core, is a strategy to achieve the national vision of equal opportunity for all. It is a vision not yet achieved, but a vision of where we hope to be as a nation at some point in the future. We hope public education also gives us an informed citizenry but mostly we support it to create pathways to opportunity. Public higher education creates access for those who are not born to privilege (money) and who are regular people seeking opportunity (as opposed to those lucky few getting full scholarships to Harvard). It is a counterweight to our socially and financially segregated society.

While public higher education institutions vary – from Community Colleges to Research Universities– it seems like the vision should echo that commitment to opportunity. Now you might be thinking that perhaps I am mixing up mission with vision. Not really, but I am linking them together. Let me demonstrate. Here is our mission statement.

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.

Following the guidance provided by this perfectly reasonable definition of a mission: “A statement of why the organization exists, at the most meaningful level. It is aspirational, in that it can never be fully achieved,” I think our mission hits the mark. We know who we serve, and the goal is never fully achieved because education that transforms is always evolving.

But who do we want to be? That is the vision piece.

Visions are supposed to help us set goals to work toward. They are meant to help us figure out how we want to change or grow or evolve over some next period of time (usually attached to a five year strategic plan). I have nothing against this desire to aspire to be better, but I do wonder about the focus of those visions.

I note that many vision statements use words like “best” or “first choice” or “school of choice” or “premier” or other externally focused, competitive language. When we move from describing our purposes to defining a vision, we tend to aspire to win something. Here’s ours:

Western Connecticut State University will be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.

This is externally facing language. It does not extend or define our strategies for changing lives. It strives for some kind of ranking among our peers. It asks for attention and acknowledgement of our value. It is nice to be recognized, but it has no path to that recognition. Honestly, it is a market focused idea, not an educationally focused one. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if our visions were internally focused instead?

This brings me back to our mission. Our purpose is to change the lives of all students through education. Doing so requires continuous reflection and a willingness to adjust our practices to better suit the needs of the students we are serving. There are so many actions to take to do this better. For example:

  • We can improve our pedagogies, our scheduling, our support systems, the structure of the learning experiences, and so on. Those improvements should be based on our experiences and outcomes and supported by good scholarship and data analysis.
  • We could pay attention to emerging trends in careers and research and adjust our offerings to support paths to and preparation for those opportunities.
  • We might want to re-think what should be a degree and what should be a refresher or a certificate and create opportunities for our graduates to re-tool or enhance their knowledge for their own growth.

And there is so much more because our mission is so ambitious. Changing the lives of all students is a big job.

As I grapple with moving forward instead of staying in crisis mode, the difference between externally and internally focused vision statements is on my mind. We are in a difficult situation. The population of New England is shrinking and the cost of education is too steep, even at a public university. We must have a vision of what we will look like in five years, just to be able to make decisions about how to sustain ourselves in this competitive and shaken environment. But I don’t really embrace the version that is about our place in the list of other universities. It seems superficial and subject to the whims of ranking systems that do not readily apply to a university that is designed to serve the many, instead of the chosen few.

I am looking internally instead. I am thinking about how to make good decisions that support changing the lives of all students. If I had to put it into a statement, which I am not sure is truly necessary, I guess it would be something like this:

WCSU will become an organization committed to the systematic and routine analysis of our programs and processes to ensure that all students have the chance to benefit from the educational opportunities we provide.

It isn’t a glamorous vision, but it does give me a clear path forward.

Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Productive Conversations

Eons ago (last Tuesday), before we learned that the President and First Lady had COVID-19, I was thinking a lot about the first presidential debate. As an educator, I’ve always encouraged my students to tune into these events as part of their obligation to be informed citizens. As a communication professor, I used to put these debates in context in terms of media employed and the stylistic elements that followed. I would provide them with excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, show clips from the Nixon and Kennedy debate, and remind them that hyperbole and mudslinging are in no way new. We would discuss the impact of the medium on these events, thinking through the biases of sound, image, and the differences between being in the room or watching from home. We also discussed rhetorical strategies and the key points of argument and persuasion. The students may have groaned at watching the debates, but they perked up in the discussion. It was fun.

Last week we saw what media ecologists might describe as the obvious “debate” style, when living in a world of instant, participatory communication, fueled by for-profit media structures. These media are antithetical to a true investigation of ideas and are devoid of a commitment to evidence. Television fully succumbed to shouting matches when we moved to 24-hour news cycles in the 80s. Time had to be filled, advertisers had to be bought with good ratings, and in the crowded world of cable TV, yelling was the winner. Indeed, through the 90s, I watched most of the shows with any kind of deliberation, become shouting matches or go off the air. Deliberation is lousy TV, after all, and not nearly “amusing” enough to survive. (1) Websites of all kinds then added immediate feedback to these shout-fests, and Facebook and Twitter helped us all promote our shouting to the world. We don’t just watch shouting, we shout along with the debaters, much in the way an audience at a pop concert no longer listens to the music but sings every song with the band. That’s not debate, that’s a chorus.

I am not going to go over what we saw on screen last Tuesday, smarter people have already done their best. What I am really thinking about is how to create some opportunities to foster productive conversations between regular people, off screen, and in non-monetized contexts. It seems to me that education is an important counterweight to all that cyber-yelling. (2) We absolutely cannot stop what is happening in all forms of electronic media. We can, however, model another way.

The good news is that education is the perfect context for this kind of modeling. We are all about argument (not yelling), evidence, and reflecting on different perspectives on a topic. Indeed, if we are not doing this, then we are not doing education. Whether we are talking about critiques of art and literature, arguments among philosophers and political theorists, or competing hypotheses about DNA, we are modeling arguments. As we sort through differences, sometimes the evidence is clear enough that we might even support a side/perspective/hypothesis (at least for now). But, not necessarily. Usually, we live with ambiguity.

But maybe it is time to be even more intentional about this, so that students really see that they are developing some good discussion skills, not just learning about a particular subject. In the past I have mentioned the idea of Debate Across the Curriculum (3) as an interesting educational strategy. Today, I am thinking about the civic learning initiatives from AAC&U. Drawing on A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future (4), they have spurred on several initiatives to try to promote teaching practices that foster engagement with democratic ideas. Well, it seems to me that productive conversations are at the heart of democratic ideas.

In a nice short summary chart called A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement two things really jump out at me (in 5).

  1. Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public. (Knowledge).
  2. Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives. (Skills).

Both of these are essential to supporting productive conversations. They ask us to think about our opinions/values, examine their sources, and reflect on how they shape our interactions with the world around us. This isn’t just argument for a right answer, it is a path to understanding. It is such a thoughtful phrasing, that does not seek to demean, but rather to examine. This seems like an excellent way to start showing our students that our goal is to prepare them for productive conversations, not yelling.

I think about the times I tried to discuss the semiotics with my students. Roland Barthes is engaging, but sometimes culturally distant from students in the United States (or in the 21st Century). To translate the ideas in Mythologies to my undergraduates, I often talked about hamburgers, yes, hamburgers. As a nearly life-long vegetarian, it is easy for me to access to symbolic value of hamburgers in the US. We usually had a lot of fun unpacking the ways in which refusing a hamburger can be, well, un-American. Then discussions of flags, national anthems, etc., would start to flow.

From this approach, and using myself as a foil, it seems like we could start to honestly discuss things like not standing for the national anthem or skipping the pledge of allegiance without hostility. It is not that we were all convinced of the validity of these moments of dissent, but we were all civil. We could better access understanding of that dissent by looking at our own values, their sources, and then thinking about those who disagree. On a particularly productive day we might even get to that most important of next steps –

3. Deliberation and bridge building across differences. (Skills)

This is the part that is so sorely lacking from our world right now. Our habits, like the media we use, tend toward taking sides and staying there. But important questions don’t have sides, they have nuances, deeply held convictions, counter-evidence and the need for reflection. I know I am not alone in yearning for more opportunities to build understanding with my students, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. So, let’s seize that desire and do something about it.

No, television, Facebook and Twitter “debates” are not going to improve. The media they occupy just do not support the details and the slow transformation that a depth of understanding requires. They are excellent places for slogans and barbs, but not for evaluating policy or supporting community engagement with important ideas.

But education, now that is the right place to be working on this kind of thinking. After all, we love slow. We live in an older kind of discourse that requires evidence, reflection, and fallibility. We absolutely have the time to go ahead and examine why we are disagreeing and potentially identify some paths forward.

So, let’s make modeling productive conversations a priority and let’s make sure our students recognize these as the core of what education does. In doing so we just might make the world a better place.

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
  2. Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity
  3. Alfred Snider and Max Schnurer, Many Sides: Debate Across the Curriculum
  4. AAC&U, A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future
  5. Caryn McTighe Musil, Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Curriculum

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

A Million Little Things

Fall is settling in and the project of running campuses during a pandemic is well underway. As we get used to the constant stress of monitoring the health of our community, many of us have started to think about the other urgent things – budgets, enrollments, and most of all equity. These other urgent things may look like separate items, but they are really all of a piece. Addressing equity is addressing enrollment, which is addressing budgets. In higher education, the questions of equity must focus on four big issues: access to education, degree progress and completion, diversity in the curriculum, and diversity in the university community. This requires attention to a million little things.

Access to Education

Obviously, access to education starts with the cost of attendance. We have all heard the nightmare reports about excessive student loan debt for an undergraduate degree. Well, most of those large numbers, $100,000+ in debt, have to do with private universities. Most people (75%) attend public universities, and they should never have $100,000 in student loan debt, when public university tuition and fees range from $9,000-$14,000 per year.

Except….

Well, if you include room and board the cost of undergraduate tuition at a public university becomes $22,000-$25,000 per year. Four years equals about $100,000. Oh dear. Now, I must acknowledge that there are grants for the neediest students, which may cover a lot of the tuition and fees part, but it still leaves them with $11,000-$12,000 per year for room and board. This is still a debt of around $45,000, which is not an insignificant monthly payment after graduation. For students who can live at home and commute, there may be significant savings. But for many of those students there is an expectation of a contribution to the household income, which they struggle to provide. Yes, cost is an issue, even at public universities. State appropriations keep the cost well below private colleges and universities, but the incomes of many who attend public universities make those subsidies insufficient. We must shore up the funding for public higher education if we want to achieve equity in access.

Degree Progress and Completion

The second question about access must focus on a student’s ability to succeed in college. Was their experience of education in K-12 adequate preparation for a university education? Well, when we look at the statistics for K-12 as they relate to income and other demographic variables, the story is not a good one. Insufficiently funded K-12 districts absolutely correlate to gaps in preparation for college. It is not that students in these districts cannot succeed, they do all the time, but they sure aren’t set up to do so.

As a university committed to supporting students from all backgrounds, it is imperative that we invest in support systems for students who have not had the full benefit of a strong K-12 education. It does not matter why they did not, just that we must help them succeed. To do so requires investment in support programs, review of the funding we make available to needy students, and a review of barriers to receiving those funds. The details in our data and the investment in student success deserve attention.

It should be noted that the cost of attendance and the K-12 educational experience are directly linked to our students’ abilities to successfully progress through their four year degree program. If a student needs to build foundational skills in their first semester, they are likely to be out of step with their four-year plan. This often translates into an extra year (or two) of attendance (more tuition). It can also mean that they are systematically excluded from the majors that are designed for students who performed well in high school or on the SAT. No, we have not yet set things up so that all students have the opportunity to succeed.

Diversity in the Curriculum

When we talk about welcoming students who are the first in their families to attend college, we are frequently talking about an increasingly diverse student body. This is a wonderful thing, as it reflects our national commitment to social mobility and, well, equity. However, our policies and practices are often mystifying to these same students. Let’s face it, education as a whole is really good at establishing rules that are less than straightforward. Many universities have focused on first year programs to address the demystification of it all. This is a good first step. But what we have not consistently addressed is the fact that this diverse student body is not well represented in our curriculum.

The national conversation about higher education has focused on a perceived liberal bias in the curriculum. While I am sure that there are liberal and conservative faculty on most campuses, and that their opinions may make it into the classroom at times, the notion that there is an overall liberal bias certainly is not reflected in our offerings. Indeed, our offerings reflect the traditions of each discipline, conserving the past. Most of this is to the good, as we connect our students to the history of ideas. But there are always gaps in those histories, and we are slow to imagine whose stories and contributions we might be missing. Our wonderfully diverse student body has noticed these gaps. There is work to do to broaden those stories and better reflect the breadth of the contributions to who we are today.

Diversity in the University Community

Then there is the complex issue of creating an environment that welcomes and supports faculty, staff, and students from all backgrounds. I was struck by a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that reviewed the impact (or lack of impact) of diversity training. These efforts have mixed and/or weak results. One of the likely reasons for this is that we do not do the rest of the work necessary to support that training. We raise awareness through special months or talks or events, but we do not dig into the routine practices that are keeping our biases in place.

It is not enough to discuss inclusion. We must systematically investigate and address the habits and assumptions that are re-enforcing exclusion. It is time to ask those hard questions like: Why are some departments dominated by female or male faculty? Why do some majors draw students from diverse backgrounds while others do not? Why are we unsuccessful at recruiting faculty and staff that reflect the diversity of our students? We mean well, but there is more work to do.

This is the start of a to-do list about equity. Under each heading there are at least twenty substantive questions that require research, planning, and investment. Taken together, it is not quite a million little things, but it sure is a lot of important things. It can be overwhelming, and that feeling can keep us on the usual path out of sheer exhaustion. But we must not yield to that exhaustion because all of this needs our attention now. These million little things really matter, both morally and for the health of our universities.

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.