Dialogue, Free Speech, Higher Education

Embracing Discomfort

It is election eve and all the pollsters and news outlets are busy predicting outcomes. Well not really. The margins of error seem large this year, with predictions so hedged as to appear meaningless. Issues (or single issues) seem to have taken a backseat to strategy, power, and control. We wait with bated breath, uncertain about the future but certain that we want something to change.

What is that change we crave? Well, of course, most of us have a few specific issues about which we care deeply. We care about the future of our social programs, how we fund education, access to healthcare, and the state of the economy. There are concerns about energy and transportation infrastructure and the impact of international relations on how we live. Everyone cares about the supply chain, even if the complexity of it all eludes most of us. There are plenty of specific issues to attend to in this election. But, I don’t think that any of these are at the heart of the something we’d like to change. It’s a change in the discourse that we crave.

I see it in myself. Like all elections, as we near the finish, the coverage is “horse race” coverage. There is no new information, just a kind of gamblers’ commentary as we bet on winners and losers. I’m no gambler, so I switch to music instead of the morning news. But even before the final weeks of the campaign, I have been wanting to switch to music, because I could see no honest conversations taking place. Everyone has staked out their corner, ignoring all chance of finding common ground.

Honest conversations? Common ground? What on earth am I thinking? I know, I know. The politics of running for office is always about those corners. People are playing margins and stirring up discontentment on purpose. This is the only way that candidates seem to be able to differentiate themselves. This is how they win their seats. But this conforms with only one definition of politics “the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.” It has nothing to do with the other definition of politics “the art and science of guiding or influencing government policy.” (Thank you Merriam Webster).

I admit that you need some of the control to have the influence. Nevertheless, I’d like to see the path to that control more concerned with the substance of what that influence would mean. I dream of conversations that are less focused on winning the margins and more on the lived experiences of our communities. I know from my own experiences, that those conversations are sometimes very strained as we try to listen to those with whom we disagree. But they can also be extremely rewarding, because we often find that we are far closer together than those strident yells to (from?) the margins would let on.

I was struck by this today as I read “What a 1960s Housewife Can Teach Us about Politics in Higher Ed” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article details the ongoing debates on the rights and responsibilities of faculty to speak freely about controversial issues. It is a timely story that helps me think about the “conversations” we are having about twitter posts that offend some sensibilities, potential and actual policies banning discussion of Critical Race Theory, and the complexities of discussing Roe v. Wade, or other cultural flashpoints in the classroom. I say “conversations” because the arguments about what to do are mostly happening in the same manner that our political “debates” are happening – at a yell, often decontextualized, and without nuance.

At the heart of the Chronicle story is the notion of “indoctrination.” This word is invoked whenever a teacher or professor, school or university brings forth ideas that contradict widely held beliefs. The adoption of evolution in the science curriculum was a moment when educators were faced with accusations of indoctrination. So are those moments when things get uncomfortable in our discussions about religion, economic structures other than capitalism, political structures other than democracy, civil rights in total, and examinations of power structures in total. Questioning the status quo is often politicized as indoctrination. But according to Merriam Webster, to indoctrinate is “to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion.” To my way of thinking, then, to not discuss alternatives to commonly held beliefs is indoctrination. To discuss them is what I’d like to call education.

But it isn’t that simple, because to do this well is to be able to navigate fairly a lot of discomfort. We are comfortable in our world views and we experience discomfort when they are questioned. This discomfort is one of hardest things we navigate in education. If one believes we are a Christian nation, then questioning that will cause discomfort. If we believe that capitalism is the right economic structure, then we will experience discomfort if alternatives to that structure are discussed. If we believe that “normal” families look a specific way, we will experience discomfort when discussing alternatives to that definition of normal.

Responses to that discomfort are often feelings of anger, shame, and a sense of being diminished in some way. Indeed, one definition of discomfort acknowledges the experience of grief or distress. I might describe this as a feeling of loss, and that sense of loss can be profound indeed. That sense of loss can drive people to the extremes of a subject, defending rather than listening. Discomfort is often what convinces people that rules against these conversations are reasonable. They are not.

What is evident to me in all of this is that higher education is in the business of discomfort. Our job is to ask questions about what we do/know/believe, how we came to do/know/believe those things, and how they might be understood differently. It is also our job to try to navigate the discomfort these conversations inspire in ways that allow people to recover from feelings of anger, shame, or disempowerment they may cause. This is hard work, indeed, but it is imperative that we do so, because there is no other social structure designed to support these honest and difficult conversations.

As we approach election day, I see clearly that higher education must play a vital role in helping people move from discussing the horse race and the politics of power to discussing the paths to a better world and the politics of policy development. It is in our classrooms and our research that we can take the time to sort through the jolts to our worldviews and explore the potential for common ground. We will find ourselves deadlocked over some things, to be sure, but I think we’ll also find that those things are far rarer than we imagine. That discovery alone is worth the effort of cultivating difficult conversations in our classrooms.

Higher education must continue to cultivate these difficult and, one hopes, intriguing conversations. It is how we prepare people to become productive participants in the governance of their towns, schools, states, and the nation. It is our job to get folks used to engaging ideas that challenge their worldviews, and by extension, people who do the same. Those people are usually our neighbors, classmates, and colleagues with whom we must find a way to co-exist. Limiting the scope of our conversations will never achieve this.

Engaging dissent, disagreement, and differing worldviews is the most important job we do in higher education. It is the best way for us to support a productive democracy. It will never stop causing discomfort. But, perhaps, with practice, we can learn to embrace that discomfort in the service of finding more common ground.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Reflection

What is College for?

When you transition from faculty to administration, you tend to go to conferences focused on institutional questions – assessment, retention, general education, equity, and so on. It is not often that a dean or provost has the opportunity to attend a conference in their discipline, so it is wonderful treat when we do. This past weekend, I spent some time with friends old and new at the annual conference of the Institute of General Semantics, and thoroughly enjoyed the thinking it provoked.

General Semantics is one of the roots of the development of the field communication. It focuses on how language shapes our realities and how a more precise use of language might improve our understandings of all that we encounter. Inspired by Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, general semantics asks us to consider the frames our words are setting (and therefore what is outside of the frame), the level of detail we are choosing (and therefore what details we will ignore), and the impact of time on what we are defining (noting that people and things change from time 1 to time 2). There’s much more, of course, but at its core, this is an optimistic field; there is an assumption that we can improve our circumstances, relationships, and experiences through a more precise and thoughtful examination of the words we use.

IGS attracts an eclectic group of artists, philosophers, mathematicians, and communication scholars. Making sense of the myriad ideas and arguments presented is often a challenge because of that diversity. I enjoyed the presentations by people most closely aligned with my field, particularly Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker’s observations about the links between flashmobs and the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Drucker’s expertise in law and language was particularly compelling. I was also intrigued by the work of Eva Berger as she explored ideas about the ways in which ideas of the self are reshaped (erased?) by the focus on the performative self (selfies and TikTok). Her arguments evoke the work of Marshall McLuhan in the linking of our media not just to cultural practice but to the development of the biological self. But as I endeavored to understand the work presented by the scientists, mathematicians, and artists there, I found myself leaping to the institutional questions that are my focus as an administrator.

The ability to make sense of ideas and arguments developed in diverse contexts from varied perspectives seems to me to be the fundamental purposes of education. We start with our children, explaining that there are clusters of ideas called history, science, literature, religion, and so on, and those ideas explore different questions about the world. In teaching them that these are distinct categories, we put a frame around clusters of learning, helping to organize paths to understanding within those frames.

We also (inadvertently) erect the barriers to connecting ideas across fields. It is rare that we make the space for our K-12 educators to bridge the divides between fields, as we have organized them into class times devoted to each topic. On occasion, a school will coordinate learning in a connected way – by selecting literature, history, and religious texts of the same era across classes. A very creative school might also find a way to weave science into this strategy, but mostly, we separate science from this kind of thinking. We quickly discover that we have not just organized clusters of ideas, we’ve established things called disciplines.

In higher education, we follow the same pattern, dividing things by discipline and major. We are exceedingly proud of ourselves when we manage to link the topics in two courses together, but most of the time students experience their education in course-based structures, occasionally making connections to other courses. This habit of dividing up the learning territory is deemed a necessary element of education, in order to give adequate attention to detail in one’s area of expertise. Surely there is an element of truth to that need, but as I worked hard to draw connections between ideas at the IGS conference, I wondered if we were overdoing those divisions.

Higher education has been reflecting on those divisions of late, most often under two conditions: interdisciplinarity and austerity. These conditions are not mutually exclusive. Interdisciplinarity of subjects seems to be emerge fields evolve. At WCSU, we have a relatively new degree in Digital and Interactive Media Arts, which draws together expertise in film and video, graphic design, and computer science (three separate departments). Professions associated with digital media evolved in such a way that these disciplines had to collaborate to better serve our students. We also have a degree called Interdisciplinary Studies that allows students to make connections for themselves. A student in Justice and Law Administration, for example, may wish to reimagine their degree with connections to history or literature. These new combinations may help us see the emergence of new areas of expertise or just demonstrate the eclectic ways that ideas can come together.

Under conditions of austerity, we see waning interests in long established disciplines driving thinking about new combinations of ideas and disciplines. This change is more disconcerting than those that come when we see new patterns of interest. The apparent loss of interest in any discipline is disheartening at best. I won’t try to pretend that it is easy to move from that loss to invention; it is not. But in those losses there is the opportunity to remind ourselves that all disciplines have emerged from other disciplines, and all have changed over time. Perhaps, we are not so much at a moment of loss, but instead, we are undoing the borders (walls/silos) we have created.

What would be even more exciting, though, is not just to engage in the slow process of realignment of ideas and expertise into new combinations. That is exciting, to be sure, with lots of room for interesting collaborations. But perhaps this moment is an opportunity to be more bold and try to reorganize college around the connections between ideas, instead of separations.

I think that connecting ideas might be what we wanted to have happen in the first place, but we got distracted by the names of subjects and structures of departments. K-12 did the work of establishing the broad categories of learning, the map of knowledge if you will. College is the opportunity to help our students understand just how far those categories are from the lived experience of trying to understand anything at all. Experience always reveals that a single disciplinary perspective will help us solve nothing at all.

Those useful maps of disciplines that allow our partners in primary and secondary education lay a foundation for learning are not very useful after those foundations are in place. Just as the alphabet must disappear if we are to achieve fluency as readers, so should the disciplinary boundaries disappear if we are to become fluent thinkers. Maybe college is where we can learn that the map of knowledge we have encountered so far, is not the territory in which we live and learn at all.

Higher Education, Return on Investment, Workforce Development

The Details: Education & Employers

A series of events last week led me to participate in several conversations about the alignment of our university’s program offerings with Connecticut’s workforce needs. These conversations are not new, nor are they surprising. Since our founding in 1913, WCSU has been responding to the needs of the region by growing our program offerings, assessing their quality, and evolving as new discoveries and career paths emerge. Our professional programs align with industry standards and our more broadly liberal arts offerings provide ample opportunity for students to explore the many paths open to them, through research, internships, service learning, and so on. Call it workforce development, career preparation, or access to the American Dream – this is what we do.

Still, I was struck by the confluence of initiatives coming from all corners, so I spent a few hours reading a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, Building Tomorrow’s Workforce: What employers want you to know. In this compilation of interviews with business leaders and career development professionals in higher education there were some important observations about the complexity of aligning education with what employers say they want. There were also some important gaps in the conversations. Those gaps reflect some important details that we all need to understand.

First, not all workforce needs are equal and conflating them is not satisfying for anyone. In our region of the country and elsewhere, there is a pressing demand for an expanded workforce in healthcare. At a four-year university, the pathways to much of this work is through the nursing degree and allied health programs. At two-year colleges, there are opportunities to become Certified Nursing Assistants, phlebotomists, EMTs, and to earn the first level nursing credential. Each of these paths are great opportunities for students and all of them will lead to employment. They are appropriately tiered in terms of the return on investment, with a relatively low-cost for CNA, phlebotomy, and EMT, and somewhat more for the two-year degree, and more for the four-year degree. All of this makes sense in terms of opportunities for graduates and meeting regional workforce needs.

But we can’t keep up with demand. CNAs move on quickly so there is a need for constant replenishment. EMTs are only compensated in some scenarios, so there is some instability there. Nursing programs are working hard to educate as many students as they can, but there are limits on the number of clinical sites, which slows the pipeline. In other words, the education we provide is aligned with the regional workforce needs, but a combination of factors external to higher education is making it hard to keep up with demand.

Then there is the ever-present need for people who understand all things related to computers and the internet. From coding, to cybersecurity, to web development, the demand is clear. The shortfall in appropriately skilled people has led to boot camps, free online programs, the dropping of degree requirements in favor of tests of competence, etc. These short paths to entering reasonably compensated positions is not a bad thing. The industries making these moves are supporting the preparation necessary for entry level opportunities that can be good for the people who take advantage of them.

But, then they want the rest of what we offer — the maturity, the critical thinking, the collaboration and problem-solving skills, and even the understanding of the nuances of cultures — and those short-term credentials don’t get students there. Employers also frequently need the more extensive education in computer science and cybersecurity that we provide. Certainly, those more robust skills and understandings are the path from entry level to more advanced positions. Without them, those short-term credentials may ultimately limit opportunities, rather than grow them.

Universities and colleges do revise and adapt as quickly as we can, but in technology fields new things emerge at a pace that is breathtaking. The short-term paths may be good opportunities for our students, if the employers will also create paths to the rest of the educational opportunities we provide. Support for continued education for those who come through those boot camps would be a great place to start.

What about the degrees we offer that don’t neatly align with a single career trajectory? Well, most jobs require combinations of skills and attitudes that are not aligned with particular majors and a plethora of studies about “what employers want” keep identifying the essential learning outcomes of a liberal arts degree. We do that well. Still, there are some components of positions that a specific course or two might address. For example, there is a high demand for graduates who can support social media sites, so some grounding in how websites work and how to analyze interaction within them might be useful. Many places need people who are able to interpret and communicate about basic quantitative data, so a statistics class is in order. Then there are the many jobs that ask for employees who are adept at interacting with diverse populations of people (in the workplace and in the community). Those skills can come from any number of courses and experiences in our classrooms and in the internships we hope that many organizations will provide. We can be more intentional about promoting these combinations of skills to our students; we hope that employers will make these skills visible in their recruitment language.

The popular perception that higher education is somehow averse to supporting workforce development couldn’t be further from the truth. But supporting the workforce needs of a state is a collaboration. Employers need to understand the barriers we face in meeting their expectations quickly. Limited opportunities for clinical placements make it difficult for us to increase the desired educational pipelines (healthcare, mental health, social work, etc.). Financial realities often make it difficult for students to take advantage of internships. The pace of technological development makes it difficult to re-imagine curriculum quickly. We are not being obstinate; we just face some practical challenges.

These are the kinds of details that need constant attention as we strive to provide the best opportunities for our students and for our region. They are tricky details, but not insurmountable. We are happy to partner up and sort them out. Let’s talk.

Community, Higher Education, Resilience

A Plan of Action

We are going to have a retreat. Yes, that is the next step for WCSU, a retreat to help us sort through what we are doing now and determine opportunities for a better future. As I made the announcement, I could hear both the collective groan and the impatient calls for a concrete strategy for improvement. We have had retreats before, and strategic plans, and discussions about curriculum, or advising, or even branding, but we keep ending up in the same place. That same place is characterized by small, isolated moves that do not transform the whole. We need to transform the whole.

I understand the collective sigh about the notion of a retreat. From the perspective of the campus community the retreats are not leading to action. That is not quite true. There has been action attached to both the Strategic Plan and the Budget Retreat that occurred just before the pandemic. For my own sanity, I must list a few of those actions.

Goal one of the Strategic Plan asked us to grow our support for a diverse community of learners. To that end we’ve solidified the FY program, added a peer mentor program, and transformed our Education Access Program. These moves positively impacted our graduation rates (pre-COVID) and showed signs of supporting better retention. We hope to see a larger impact now that we are fully operational again.

The other component of that diverse community of learners was a focus on adults. We have done a lot around graduate programs and most recently received approval from our accreditor to expand our online offerings. This will strengthen the opportunities we have available for returning undergraduates. We plan to launch options for that group in the fall.

Goal two asked us to focus on our processes and services for a diverse community of learners. COVID-19 helped us accelerate this work tremendously. Students can now access most services remotely, thus allowing them to get support at the time they need it, instead of between 8:00-4:30. Digital forms & signatures, remote access to advising, tutoring, career support, registration, and financial services all make our students’ lives better.

One other component of goal two (and part of goal one), focused on career education. We improved the offerings in our Career Success Center, with new technologies, trainings, and access to remote internships. We also added career education courses (on a pilot basis), as we had planned in the strategic plan action steps. Evaluation of their impact is next.

Goal three focused on community pride. Several efforts occurred that should be acknowledged. First, we did increase weekend events for our residential students, and we offered more social events for faculty and staff pre-pandemic. We hope to bring them back soon. And the long awaited decision about a new mascot is now complete. Go Wolves!

Goal four focused on branding. We took some initial steps with the help of a consultant, which resulted in new colors and some improved consistency in materials. The recent hiring of new Director of Marketing and Communication should jumpstart this initiative. I can already see an impact on our website.

Goal five focused on creating a self-sustaining financial model. We made some strides in evaluating a limited number of academic programs, but everything else stalled on this one. More focused action must take place now.

There was a budget retreat (pre-pandemic) that included representatives from all campus constituencies. That meeting confirmed much of what the Strategic Plan had outlined. There was general agreement that we should grow graduate programs, focus on adult learners, focus on supporting some of our students who meet admission requirements but need extra attention, find a way to re-imagine summer, and work on become an HSI. It also focused on some cost-cutting measures, but the ideas in that category were few and far between. The items focusing on graduate and adult learners have been underway. The rest has stalled.

I recount all of this because I recognize just how exhausting the notion of a retreat without action sounds. The truth is that there has been action, but the impetuses behind that action and the results have not been well communicated. That is something that is going to have to change this time around. The commitment to action is of the utmost importance for us. Everyone will need to play a part, and everyone will need to be on the same page as to what is happening when.

So, for this retreat, the goal is to establish a plan of action for WCSU. We will first take the time to review the realities of our position. We’ll examine the costs and results of all that we do and, I hope, come to a full understanding of our place in the higher education context right now. Then we will get to work. That work will involve focused conversations about what we can grow and what we should stop doing. We will need to reimagine how we function as an organization and where we might change our structures to improve that function and/or gain efficiencies and reduce costs. We will try to determine a campus focus that helps us carve out our own special place in the higher education ecology of our region. It will be a very busy two days.

The result of this retreat must not be a report. It must be a plan of action that will move us forward together. It must include a clarity of purpose and definitive steps to achieve that purpose. It must describe a path first to stability and then to prosperity. The full community must endorse the plan so that we can move forward together. The retreat is necessary for the development of this plan. The action is necessary for our survival.

Higher Education, Resilience

A United Vision

As I drove to work this morning, I was overcome with concern for the future. Like many universities in the Northeast, we are trying to navigate the “demographic cliff” – long projected and clearly already here in Connecticut. Projections for high school graduates in the region continue to drop for the foreseeable future, and we have no choice but to re-think what we do. This re-thinking of what we do is not in our nature.

Well, that isn’t fair. We actually re-imagine courses and majors on a regular basis. Our program reviews and annual assessments drive some changes, emerging technologies and industries drive others. Indeed, in the last five years – un-slowed by the pandemic – WCSU has added six new graduate degrees – all designed to prepare students for jobs that are in-demand in the region. We also re-imagined our education degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels to help meet the demand for, not just subject matter expertise, but also regional need for support for English Language Learners, and advanced certifications that support career advancement. We also closed two graduate degrees that were not attracting enough students. This was hard, but we did it.

At the same time, several of our undergraduate degrees have been re-imagined. Accounting, for example, has focused on tools for data analytics. Justice and Law Administration is adding a homeland security option. Social Work has strengthened its focus on social justice. Courses are regularly updated, and faculty have added new topics that speak to changes in student interests. History, Anthropology/Sociology, and Political Science have all added courses that call attention to the many peoples and voices that should be represented in a quality undergraduate degree. Important topics like Undocumented Migration, Race and Power in US History, The Irish in America, Model UN, Public Anthropology and Sociology. These additions also required a hard look at under-subscribed courses and decisions to eliminate some offerings.

We are also working hard to re-imagine the balance of online versus on-ground courses we offer. At the graduate level, most programs are now online or hybrid. With a focus on working adults, this transformation has been necessary to help them succeed while juggling jobs and families. We had been moving this way slowly, but the pandemic accelerated our path. At the same time, we identified several undergraduate degrees that could be good opportunities for students seeking degree completion options. Last week we had great news from our accrediting body that will allow us to move forward in offering these online degree completion options.

No, we are not complacent or even particularly slow moving. We have been working hard as part of our regular curricular review processes to evolve to meet the needs of our students and to broaden our offerings for adult learners. All of this has been happening slowly and steadily as a result of our last strategic plan. Unfortunately, our efforts – abundant as they may be – have not kept pace with the demographics. We are in a jam.

Although we are excellent at re-thinking things in constrained spaces (courses, majors), we are less adept at evaluating the full scope of what we do. Despite several recent attempts to work across departments, schools, and divisions, we are siloed.

  • Four separate schools have four separate visions of the university. None of those visions include perspectives from Student Affairs or Enrollment Services. How can we compete for a dwindling number of students without a unified vision?
  • Our student supports are distributed across three divisions, with limited coordination of efforts, and despite intense effort, with limited effect. How can we improve our retention and graduation rates without a unified plan?
  • Our campus is split between two locations, and the strains on one are different from those on the other. Yet, the use of these spaces has not been thoroughly aligned with projected enrollments, costs of degrees (including the types of spaces necessary to support them), costs of student support services and student activities delivered on two campuses. How can we build efficiencies in our operations without a thorough review of everything and a will to do things differently?
  • The coordination of schedules, the most basic of requirements for student success, eludes us every semester. Walking through our classroom buildings tells the tale. It is a sea of over specialized rooms that are empty far more than they are occupied. How can we build schedules that are both cost effective and easily navigable by students, without taking a more centralized view of our scheduling processes?

These are the conversations we have been unsuccessful in navigating. We try in fits and starts, with ad hoc committees, special initiatives, and even in developing our strategic plan, but somehow it just doesn’t come together or stay together. This big-picture thinking is not well-defined in our governance processes and routines. Indeed, those documents are really designed to keep our silos in place. It is not necessarily intentional, but it is the result. Those silos are not working for us. It is from this larger perspective that the real re-thinking has to take place.

I think we are ready to do this work together. I am excited by the possibilities the important conversations ahead might reveal. But whatever we discover together, the most important result must be a united vision and a map to achieve that vision quickly. A united vision is essential to our future: separate initiatives are no longer serving us well.