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.

Evaluation, Higher Education, Hope

Continuous Improvement

With the Passover and Easter upon us and the daffodils beginning to push through the soil, it is that time of year when I feel the joyous rebirth and renewal that comes with spring. It is always a welcome sensation that helps lift me up from the endless to-do lists as I take the opportunity to reflect on all we have accomplished this year. As is natural to our structure, we are heading towards an intense period of productivity – exams, papers, grading, annual reports, assessments, and even a few accreditation visits. It could be too much, except we all know there is a break at the end, so we push ahead in this fury of activity, breathless, exhausted, and I hope, proud.

I have been thinking about our reflective practices a lot lately. In higher education, we have a way of broadening our students’ perspectives while unintentionally narrowing our own. We introduce ideas and worldviews with the passion we feel for our disciplines. We strive to develop the habits of inquiry that have served us so well as scholars, and perhaps even as citizens. But we are also specialists, focused on one field and even one aspect of our field. We train ourselves to attend to the details of that specialty and sometimes we miss the connections to other things that are so important.

If I am totally honest, we also get a little insular, not just in our field, but also within our universities and our departments. This insularity can lead us to think we are better than elsewhere or, much more commonly, thinking that we do not measure up. Neither of these are productive positions for educators. So, as the rituals and rush of spring are upon me, I am thinking about the value of external perspectives on our work.

When I began teaching in an undergraduate program in communication, our department had a habit of cultivating student research so that they might attend the professional conferences in our field. Several of my colleagues routinely took students to the regional and national communication conferences. There was an expectation that I would do so, too. I succeeded in doing so, starting at the regional level, but I must say that I was terrified. I was worried that the work was not good enough and that I had inadvertently set my students up for embarrassment. This did not happen. Participation in this experience showed me that my students were within the normal range of work, some exceeding expectations, and others solidly in the normal range. This boosted my confidence as a professor and did wonders for my students. It was an amazing peer review experience.

Soon I was involved in program review. I contributed to the department report and listened carefully to the feedback from colleagues from two external programs that our department admired. At that university, the norm was to select visitors from programs that we aspired to be. This, too, can make inspire insecurity. Our admiration for the visitor’s programs made us think we were somehow second rate. Yet, the experience was incredibly helpful. There was lots of positive feedback, and some good suggestions for how to improve. We took those suggestions to heart and the impact was clearly visible in our evaluation of our learning outcomes the next year. It was another eye-opening experience.

These days, I spend a lot of time reading reports written for accreditors. While I am fully onboard with regional accreditation, I confess that I have some misgivings about the many discipline specific accreditations that we ascribe to in higher education. Defining the norms and expectations of a field at a national level is incredibly helpful and I have zero doubt that this is productive and supports continuous improvement. What gives me pause is that some of these require overly complex evaluations and, well, the costs are not insignificant. I am not all that convinced that the results are more powerful than the simple peer review provided by colleagues from programs we admire. Nevertheless, there is value in the reflective process and the external perspective that these accreditation processes require.

Really, there is value in all of our self-assessments, external reviews, and even our annual reports. These tasks and processes force us to look up from our to-do lists and think about all we have accomplished. They force us to look around and ask ourselves how we fit into the higher education landscape. They ask us to consider whether we measure up to the expectations of our fields. Best of all, they provide an opportunity to think about what we might do better. For me, that last bit is where the fun begins.

Yes, I said fun. Amid the drudgery of doing assessments, writing annual reports, and preparing for site visits, the excitement is in the possibility for growth. We might revise a course or a program. We might find an opportunity to expand or re-focus our offerings. We might see room for building interdisciplinary partnerships within the university or with external programs and organizations. We might get a new idea. Nothing is more exciting than a new idea.

So, as we welcome spring and face the big race to the finish line, I am inviting everyone to see their to-do lists through this lens. We are not just finishing things; we are looking for opportunities to grow and improve. This is the why of it all and the true opportunity for rebirth.

Community, Higher Education

Collaborative Cultures

This morning, as I sipped my coffee and scanned the headlines of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle, I found myself reading a lot of non-news or news irrelevant to leaders of public, regional comprehensives. Another admissions scandal–not my problem. Those are always targeted at elite schools. More quarantine orders and teams excluded from basketball tournaments? I care, of course, but it isn’t news; it is our daily reality. Yes, there were important articles about equity, articles I continuously scour for new ideas, but, well I didn’t see any new ideas this morning. Then I came across a provocative essay by Janae Cohn, entitled, “Faculty and Staff Often Don’t Trust One Another. How Do We Fix That?” This one woke me up.

Cohn is an instructional designer, and much of this essay reflects the difficult position of this role on most college and university campuses. Although highly trained in pedagogy in general and continuously engaged in learning new strategies for integrating great teaching practices into online environments, her role is one of support, not partner or leader. In the most recent crisis, we might have seen this shift, but we didn’t, at least not on my campus. Cohn goes on to suggest that there are many members of our campus community that have valuable insights and skills that are regularly kept from true engagement in the decisions about the future of the university. She is so right.

When I started at WCSU I was duly impressed with the governance structure. To start, we have University Senate, not a Faculty Senate. Membership includes faculty representatives from the academic departments and the library, student affairs, enrollment services, the student government association, and administration. Everyone has a vote and a voice in the issues under discussion. The standing committees also have a blend of these constituencies, at least to some extent. This governance structure is a powerful signal that our ideal version of ourselves is an un-siloed, collaborative campus. Unfortunately, the signal isn’t the reality.

The truth of the matter is that in nearly nine years on this campus, almost no initiatives that did not come from teaching faculty have come forward. The balance of representation on our committees makes it very clear that the faculty representatives hold the final authority. The message is clear enough that little has been offered for consideration by committee members who are not teaching faculty. While they offer feedback and commentary on proposals, they rarely offer proposals on their own. Since I converse with people from all parts of our campus community, I am quite certain that those who are not teaching faculty have ideas that we might want to consider. But they bring them to me, not to the elected committee structure. I think we might have a problem.

Now, I never raise these issues without considering my own part in creating them. So, let me start by noting that most of my attention does go to the concerns of the teaching faculty. After all, they are the experts on the academic programs we offer, with advanced degrees and research programs to support that ongoing expertise. They bring valuable insights into the teaching and learning environment because they are in the classrooms (virtual or otherwise) with our students. They know the realities of student engagement and attendance. They understand the core skills and habits of mind that any student should master, and ultimately, they define (and should define) what our graduates should know and be able to do. This is normal and indeed what we hire our teaching faculty to do. As the overseer of the quality of our academic programs, it is also normal that this is where most of my attention goes.

Nevertheless, I have learned to listen to other members of our community. For example, it was our coaching staff that really raised the alarms about how our first-year students were faring in our online asynchronous courses. As they worked hard to boost the morale of our athletes who were unable to compete this season, they had a first-hand look at who was thriving and who was not. Their input helped me support more remote instruction as opposed to the online-asynchronous courses appropriate for more mature learners. I should add that this group frequently tries to clue me in about some academic programs that we should consider adding. While they claim no expertise in the content of those programs, they are part of our recruiting team and they hear things from our future students. I’m listening.

It was both the IT help desk and the academic advising group that pointed out that the path to our online classes was unclear. Now, it was a pandemic and our transition to a mostly online campus was abrupt to say the least. We did not really have time for the thoughtful planning that an “online strategy” might entail. Faculty were doing their best, but our students were lost, and we were not fully considering their needs. Allowing for multiple content “classroom” locations (Blackboard, TEAMS, Zoom, WebEx) was a nightmare for our already traumatized students. In normal times, I might want to encourage a controlled testing of these many platforms, but when everything is online, well some uniformity would have been helpful. As IT and academic advising fielded the troubled calls for help, they encouraged me to nudge faculty toward a uniform location to log in, even if they wanted to move to other platforms from there. These groups have direct and frequent contact with our students with a perspective that transcends the department view. Their voices should be heard.

And what about those with expertise in academic support (tutoring, advising, orientation, etc.)? Well, they have lots to contribute as they routinely interact with students as they thrive and as they struggle. Perhaps their insights into how we have organized our services might be meaningful? Indeed, these folks have degrees and continued professional development in the areas of student support. We might want to listen to their ideas.

The same goes for our instructional designers. We have them on committees, but they continue to be relegated to the support rather than leadership roles. The Career Success Center is noticing gaps in our students’ abilities to articulate the value of their degrees. Perhaps we should listen and find a way to bolster the relationship between the academic and the career experience for our students. Our police department might have insights we should hear. Our facilities team might see bottlenecks in our planning. The registrar’s team has a critical point of view. And so on.

Cohn gave me a lot to think about this morning. It is clear that the authors of our governance structures understood that we should learn from all parts of the university. They must have recognized the value of shared ideas and diverse perspectives. It was an incredibly powerful and optimistic impulse. But we haven’t fully realized that vision. So, today, I am considering what I can do to help us fully engage our community to make that vision real. I am thinking about how to reorganize what I do to help us engage the full range of talents and views available to us as we define our path forward, both post-pandemic and thereafter. We need some fresh ideas and new strategies and I’m guessing they are all around us if we just learn to listen.

Change, Higher Education, Inclusion, Resilience

The Balcony View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engagement, Higher Education

Education must be the Fifth Estate

If ever there was a moment to reflect on our national (natural?) inability, to think beyond the moment, it is now. The wrath of COVID-19 and the havoc wrecked across the United States is an unbelievable tale of our narrow focus on the now. From the defunding of the continuous foundational research necessary to stay ahead of, or at least keep pace with, evolving viruses, to the knowing neglect of creating a PPE stockpile, our policies have led us to the highest COVID-19 casualty rate in the world.

Then there’s Texas, who committed to ignoring calls to strengthen their power grid from disastrous storms, in favor of the low-cost status quo. Not connecting to regional power grids left people even more vulnerable than they should have been. The statewide commitment to independence from environmental and other regulations is a statewide commitment to today, not the future.

Whether or not you want to accept the science of global climate change, the fact of it is right in front of us. Without arguing about primary causes, it is clear that our infrastructure needs significant overhaul to deal with rising sea levels and disastrous storms. It isn’t just Texas folks; we’ve seen the impact all over the country. But we are content to do the emergency recoveries (mostly poorly), rather than prepare for the coming storms.

And of course, there is the pervasive economic decision-making that favors quick wins and get rich quick schemes, rather than systematic planning for an equitable society where everyone has food, healthcare, homes, and opportunities. I’m tired just thinking about how stuck we are in reaction rather than long term planning.

Consider the COVID-19 vaccinations. Millions of dollars of emergency funds helped to incentivize the research necessary to get us to the several vaccinations that have emerged. I am so grateful this happened, but let’s not mischaracterize the event as some private industry, entrepreneurial advantage over the slow path of publicly funded scientific research. The knowledge necessary to succeed so quickly was based on years of university based research into mRNA, that had varied levels of success and investment. There were also tremendous gains from earlier research on HIV, and the development of a worldwide testing infrastructure. We made it to several vaccines in record time, but we can’t forget how the foundational research efforts were often hampered as funding dried up. The un-evenness of the investments in this long haul research is a failure of imagination at best, and blatant irresponsible at worst.

The story of our energy infrastructure is a similar tale of unreliable funding streams. The need to change our reliance on non-renewable energy resources has been known for a long time. It isn’t just climate change, it is the math of the number of people in the world, the things we like to do, and the resources available. Yet our investments come in fits and starts, largely due to politics and an inability to think about the long term when there is still cheap oil, gas, or coal available. We have not committed to the sustained investment in the research for the future. Discoveries are made and then insufficiently tested or implemented, and they disappear as we stick with cheap and convenient. The fact that after proper investment, the new resources could indeed be cheaper is no enticement, we live in the now. (For a great read, I recommend Mariana Mazzucato’s, The Entrepreneurial State.)

As educators, I know we can’t cure everything. There are powerful forces beyond our walls that chafe at our input. When we do enter the national conversation, it is our “liberal biases” that are featured. This liberal frame frequently allows hard work to be dismissed or made fun of for its apparent minutia because no one puts the work in context. Even worse, it makes it permissible to reduce funding for education and scholarship because we appear to be out of the mainstream or trivial. But the thing is, we aren’t terribly liberal. Despite the mythology in the reporting about higher education, most of the work we do relies on a slow and measured approach to creating knowledge that is rigorous, peer reviewed, and honest about the scope of our discoveries. It takes time to do this work. It is woven into a million other smaller or larger studies with an occasional big breakthrough. It is work that informs the future and helps to explain the past and the present.

This work happens at every level of higher education. The big, elite, research universities get the big grants and credit for the big discoveries. They, and some in the middle range, have access to public/private partnerships (sometimes fraught with ethical questions, mostly not), that help sustain the slow and painstaking work that brings about new discoveries and solutions to old problems. The teaching universities with less of a research emphasis, often participate in the larger projects through partnerships, regularly conduct original and replication studies, involve students in the process of discovery, and indeed secure the occasional patent. Together, higher education is the home of the slow and steady look toward the future that is grounded in all that has come before.

Universities are just about the only place where slow and steady can happen in our culture. The world of face-paced, profit-centered invention is built on all this work. Innovation doesn’t happen without us. We are the home of measured deliberation and we eschew soundbites (most of the time). As fun as TED Talks are, we are the place of the real work behind those talks, that is, deep reading, thinking, and the long view. We are essential for the long-term planning necessary for a balanced and equitable nation.

In the throes of these recent (yet predictable) crises, I would like us to be louder about this role. We need to be shouting for long-term thinking. We must demonstrate the ways in which our scholarship underpins those beloved market forces, and therefore requires investment. We must provide the context for that “first draft of history” instead of allowing national conversations to focus on recent events as exceptional. We need to support the path to the long-term thinking necessary to protect us from global pandemics and climate change and whatever is next. We must assert our authority and our place in the functioning of a productive and responsible democratic society. We must claim our place as the Fifth Estate.