Affordability, equity, Inclusion, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

COVID-19 & the Neighborhood University

Like all campuses grappling with re-opening in the fall, WCSU will triage the questions of lab sciences, clinical placements, online learning vs. hybrid learning, and the biggest question of all – do we reopen our dorms.  As usual, the press is obsessed with a model of higher education that looks like the movies – a beautiful location on a hillside, usually pictured in brightly colored autumnal hues, with all residential students.  In reality, that model serves a small percentage of undergraduates. Campuses like mine, with predominantly local student populations, are built to serve the majority, rather than the lucky few, and we have designed our curriculum and services accordingly.  In this crisis the strength of the accessible, affordable, local university comes into full view.

Let’s start with the obvious – for students and families stretching resources to attend college, not paying for living on campus is a substantial savings.  In the case of public universities, that decision will reduce the cost of education by about half. That means less debt and/or the ability to support more than one child in college.  For those with the greatest need, it means Pell might come close to covering expenses (not quite, but close).  For those who are more solidly middle class, it means the family can get a return on their tax investment in public higher education and allow their students to graduate with little to no debt. As we discover the true economic impact of this crisis, the affordable option is the best bet. We will be here for our traditional students. We will also be here for the folks who suddenly need to retool for a new career.

Then there is the value of the education itself.  Like most public comprehensive universities, WCSU offers a wide range of majors, enrichment opportunities, an honors program and educational access programs, and our resources have been invested in our educational facilities, not lazy rivers. Most of our graduates earn degrees and stay in Connecticut, working in various fields and frequently sending their children to us as well. Some of them come in with a need for academic support, so we provide it.  Others hit the ground running and go on for advanced degrees at prestigious universities (frequently with full-funding) and we have Fulbright Scholarship winners every few years. Sometimes the same ones who started out struggling end up in graduate programs. Our students have access to faculty producing research that is connected to our community and research that addresses large scale societal questions in all fields. Last year we had a Goldwater winner.  She’s heading off to John’s Hopkins next fall for a Ph.D., in no small part because of the research opportunities she had at WCSU.

These achievements occur because we are focused on supporting the needs of all of our students, not just the most talented. Whether an honors student or a student who needs academic support, education at WCSU is not organized to weed out the weaker students, but to support every student. We have to do this, not just because we think it is right, but because our neighbors are watching, and they talk.  To put it plainly, when a student flunks out of Yale, the public blames the student.  When a student flunks out of WCSU, the public blames us. We must always focus on the long-term relationship with our community and the success of the students they send to us.  If we do not, we will not survive.

All of this has always been true, of course, but what about the current moment makes it so important? Uncertainty about the fall and even spring next year makes it very likely that there will be some disruptions in the operations of traditional campuses.  As we track the spread of COVID-19, we are preparing to deliver our curriculum in online, hybrid, and on ground formats. We want to be sure that whatever happens, students will have a good educational experience.  This strategy will allow us to focus on the most important face-to-face experiences, and we will do our best to make those things happen in the fall.   But if the state and public health concerns determine that we cannot be here in person, education will continue online, and students will have faculty who will get to know them well.

At WCSU, we do not see online learning as a place to skimp on our student-centeredness or as something to contract out to other faculty.  We leveled up our online academic supports right away this spring and we will extend those throughout the next academic year.  That happened quickly because being student focused is the only way we can succeed as a university.  Most of our online classes are small, so faculty can give real feedback.  This is because we have always understood that our students have varied needs that require attention, so large classes are not a good strategy. We are now figuring out how to continue our research opportunities with limited face-to-face contact, and we are imagining ways to create enriched experiences for those most unlikely of online disciplines – performing arts. Why, because we have always experimented with new pedagogies as the expectations of students have changed over time. We are rising to the COVID-19 challenge with the most important thing in view–great educational experiences for all students.

This accessible, affordable, public university has always been focused on student success, precisely because we are accessible and local. We live and die by what our community thinks of us and we want them to trust us with their students. When I finally get to go out and see my neighbors, I do not want to hear that students are at home teaching themselves.  I want to hear about the excellent support their student received in this brand new learning environment or the cool things their faculty tried out in their online course. That is how things work when you are the local option and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

 

 

Agency, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Here Comes the Sun

This morning I noticed the shift in the light.  It happens to me at this time every year.  I see the sun’s rays creeping over the tops of the trees as I drink my morning coffee and I take heart.  Yes, it is only mid-winter but the days are growing longer.  And even though I very much enjoy the hunkering down that the dark days of winter require (I embrace the couch by the fireplace); I confess that a little more daylight lightens my step. Just a hint of the sunny days ahead brings out my optimistic nature. It is with this sense of optimism that I am thinking about higher education this week.

Here in the Northeastern United States, we are in what some have called a “demographic winter.” Simply stated, there is a forecast for a long-term drop in high school graduates.  Lower birthrates and new migration patterns have left us a little stunned by the declining number of students available to recruit to our colleges and universities.  Elite colleges are fine.  So are the well-known colleges in destination cities (Boston, New York), but the rest of us are left to figure out what to do next.  After decades of growth, and budget practices based on ever-increasing enrollments, we are facing new realities.

This is hard.  We are making cuts in our budgets and new programs are facing heightened scrutiny about their viability.  Where we once might have assessed the value of a new major based on the ideas it would explore, we are now thinking about how it will serve our recruiting efforts.  Reflecting on the quality of ideas has not disappeared, of course.  Our nature and our review processes always focus on quality. Nevertheless, in our efforts to be financially sustainable, potential enrollments have become a critical part of how we evaluate the feasibility of a new degree.  This shift, which seems obvious to the for-profit world, has shaken public higher education to its core.

Nevertheless, I see light ahead and here is why: When we discuss finding new audiences for our university, we do not focus on marketing– we focus on student engagement. Where we were once satisfied with the notion that emerging questions in a discipline were sufficient justification for launching a new degree, we now consider barriers to student engagement with those questions.  Our curricular design processes are keeping those barriers in mind.

For example, we know that there are many great careers related to “big data.”  We also know that our students avoid math like the plague. Instead of launching a big data degree, we are weaving data analytics into some of our not so obviously math-related majors.  This helps us avoid the hazards of the stand-alone data analytics degree, which would likely have low enrollment numbers at our university.  By building the data analysis tools into existing degrees, and thinking about how to support students in learning how to use those tools in the context of their major, we are avoiding the typical breakdown of math and non-math students.  We are also increasing the value of the degrees we offer by responding to current trends in multiple disciplines. We hope that the value we have added to multiple majors will become part of our recruiting strategy.

Retention, rather than new degrees, is also an important strategy for a financially sustainable university.  Higher retention is better for students, reputation, and the bottom line.  At WCSU, we know that building community is critical to student retention.  Yet, as a majority commuter campus, we have struggled with strategies for doing just that.  There were hints, however, in several of our programs. Music majors have a weekly Convocation that brings them all together.  Nursing students develop robust study groups to support each other. Theatre students must all contribute to staging productions.  These activities are typical for these kinds of degrees. What can the rest of our degrees learn from them? Lots.

For example, who says convocation is just for music? My Biology Department decided to use their First Year Navigation course as a community building strategy as well.  They opted to bring all of their first year students together in a large group each week (rather than the more typical 25 student classes). In this structure, students meet the biology faculty, hear about the opportunities of the discipline, relevant clubs and projects, and are encouraged to attend events important to their department.  They also stage a faculty talent show, which is lots of fun.  This community-building focus makes us better at meeting the needs of commuter and non-commuter students alike.

Faculty members are also experimenting with pedagogies. In history and social sciences, several faculty have been using a reacting to the past model as a first year course.  Students take on roles of people in a particular era, learning to research characters and debate critical political issues.  This is fun, in itself, but the best part is the collaboration is leading to a new course that focuses on a locally important historical event, which may be even more engaging for our students. It has certainly been engaging for the faculty involved. Others have been trying out flipped classrooms, exploring virtual reality, employing good practices associated with mindset research, and trying out universal design.  It is exciting to see so many people really thinking about how to reach the students we are serving. This climate of innovation and passion creates an attractive teaching and learning environment–perhaps one that more students will want to experience.

These examples of the work we are doing at WCSU tell me that we are going to be okay.  We are not waiting for something to happen; we are getting better. Here is the thing about this numbers conundrum: there are fewer high school students in total number, but there is also a heightened need for college education.  As I do the math, this means we need to set the stage for a higher proportion of those high school graduates to attend college.  To do so is to focus on engagement so we can better serve those graduating seniors, many of whom may require us to examine our assumptions about good learning environments. That is exactly what we have been doing.

We are still going to be working with less.  We are going to have to rethink how we develop our budgets for the enrollments we have, and not count on growth. That will present a challenge, and there will be hard decisions to make. But if we keep leaning into innovation and engagement, I feel confident that we will figure it out. It’s not all sunshine yet, but I can see the rays peeking in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

equity, Inclusion, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Equity in the Co-Curricular

It is Martin Luther King Day, so of course I’m thinking about equity in higher education.  In the many years since King’s March on Washington, and the continuing efforts to achieve equity–Sheff v. O’Neill,  Title IX, the American with Disabilities Act, and Affirmative Action, to name a few–all areas of employment and education have improved. We have not reached equity yet, but we are moving in the right direction. These efforts, though, focus on the body (race, gender, ability).  Today, I’m thinking about the equally important role of socio-economic status in college success.

In recent years, higher education has turned its focus to the experiences of first-generation college students. These students have pushed us to consider the hidden rules that make moving from start to finish in a college environment somewhat mysterious.  Like many others, my university has added courses that are essentially extended orientations (FY) to help level the playing field for students of all backgrounds.  From the simple things (like the extremely baffling R means Thursday on one’s schedule), to how to find an academic advisor and what to expect when meeting with them, to making four year plans, reading transcripts, and getting academic or financial support, this course is meant to demystify the secret codes of the college environment. It is our acknowledgement that universities are complicated and if you have no prior experience of them, assistance is required.

The FY effort is important, to be sure, and we are seeing a positive impact on our graduation rates since implementing this course.  But there’s something else we are missing, and it is very hard to manage.  Simply put, our awards and recognitions (beyond those generated by GPA) are built on the premise that students have time to participate in all sorts of activities beyond the classroom. That time is a cost that many students cannot bear.

Consider honor societies, for example.  Almost all of them start with GPA as a minimum criterion for admission, but then they expect something else. That something else generally requires uncompensated hours to complete.  The same is true for most student government awards.  Awards for great clubs generally mean someone had to have time to organize activities for that club.  And of course, there is research.  Students who conduct research with faculty may or may not receive any compensation.  Those who do receive compensation, are unlikely to receive enough to cover the lost wages of a part-time job.

All co-curricular activities require a lot of time.  Time is a precious commodity for all of us, but even more so for students who are working to support themselves while in college. Time for participation is time away from work.  Factor in the time necessary to study for classes, and these hard working students are likely to opt out of clubs, honor societies, and research opportunities. This means they’ve opted out of a lot of opportunities to be recognized for excellence.  There goes that line on the resume.

For students who live on campus, it may be easier to engage in the many clubs and activities, while holding a part-time job.  They are likely to be around at the hours that events may occur or be able to dash into a lab for a research project, between classes. In the best scenario, they may even have an on-campus job to support them. This is great and I applaud their participation.  But for those students who commute, the cost of the time commitment is magnified by travel time and the cost of transportation.  Add to that the odd hours at which many clubs meet, and these students will frequently just give up on participating. Unfortunately, our focus on participation does not factor in these barriers, and some students may feel discouraged or devalued as a result.

Now, sometimes those are just the breaks.  We figure out how to juggle our workloads and resources and some of us are luckier than others in terms of our college finances. Barring big changes in how we fund public higher education, this is just the way things are. Students who cannot participate in the co-curricular still win by completing a degree and advancing their opportunities post-graduation. If we focus on funding for their tuition, and not on potential prizes, we’ll have done something to assist them and their futures will benefit from their education. But this something is not equity.

It nags at me that we have structured things in a way that rewards students who are already at an advantage.  Like admissions criteria that are stacked in favor of the lucky few, perhaps we should reimagine the other rewards and opportunities, that are systematically unavailable to the less fortunate.  Is it time to re-imagine how time and opportunities are structured at the university so more people can be included in the things outside of the classroom?  Is it time to figure out a way to recognize the efforts of students who are holding down jobs, caring for family members, and figuring out how to succeed in college with little to no family support? Is it time for yet another look at how we inadvertently build barriers to equity? Yes, yes, it is.

 

Higher Education, Inclusion

Inclusivity (Again)

On NPR’s Morning Edition this morning, there was a two-minute interview with Chef Samin Nosrat, regarding favorite books and albums of the last decade.  Both of her recommendations, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the album A Seat at the Table by Solange Knowles, explore the experience of race in the United States in interesting and affirming ways.  As I listened to Nosrat, I was struck by these words:

“I don’t think I really understood that I was being left out until I saw myself in reflected in art and I hope that it just continues to happen, and more and more people feel included and seen.”

So often, the conversations around inclusion, social justice, and equity are argued in accusatory tones, yet Nosrat expresses it so simply here.  She helps us see the positive impact of simply seeing oneself reflected in the culture.

I have written about this same topic as I experienced it, when C.J. Cregg appeared as the White House Press Secretary on The West Wing.  Until that time, I understood some of the structural issues that disempowered me, but I did not realize that I was hungry for a story about who I thought I might be.  It was not that I spent a lot of time complaining or even noticing my absence, but the presence was powerful.  Like Nosrat, I embraced that experience as a kind of affirmation and a wish for everyone else.

However, wishing isn’t enough.  We need to take seriously the important work of reflecting the rich and diverse experiences of all people in our curriculum.  Here is the thing; this is probably the easiest task we face when we consider issues of equity.  This does not require new funding streams or K-12 reform. The only cost is the time required to make these shifts.

On the course level, this is just a little summer homework as we review our syllabi to see that insure that we are broadly representative in the voices and images we include.  If the course is coming from a single perspective, perhaps some work needs to be done.  Since the topics we discuss in education are researched everywhere in the world, it is just not that hard to find diversity.  Indeed, the passage from Americanah that Nosrat references suggests that it need not always be one-to-one representation (Irish for Irish-Americans, Jamaican for Jamaican-Americans). Including some voices about the experience of being different from the majority can make a difference.

At the level of the major, we might ask a broader question. Have we explored the things that drive economic decisions from the perspectives of the many cultures within and outside of the United States?  Is this knowledge woven into our business curriculum in ways that help students see that general notions of rational decision-making are cultural constructs that shift as priorities shift?  How might those differences reflect understandings of commitments to family, community, nation, and self?  There is so much research in business, economics, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy that could inform rich discussions about culturally shaped decision-making.  Reading about these differences might allow for better predictions, but also better understanding of priorities among our friends and relatives.

At the level of general education, have we infused considerations of our positions in society into most of our foundational requirements?  It is not sufficient to check off the intercultural competency box (or whatever variation of this you have at your school) and call it a day.  We must be weaving the impact of social and economic structures into most everything we do.  This is not just for the humanities, it is also urgent in STEM.  On Friday, I was listening to a story about training future physicians to diagnose things like skin cancer on patients who are not white.  The current experience is that most of the images used in medical training are of light-skinned people.  This leaves a big gap in the ability to see and easily recognize the signs of illness on darker skin.  The simple answer, once again, is look at your materials and include greater diversity.  Then we all have half a chance of a timely and accurate diagnosis.

In a world filled with shouting, I hope this suggestion is heard in calm and inclusive tones. I have not suggested excluding those who have had the benefit of attention prior to now. We should still consider the contributions of Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare, Nikola Tesla, and Henry Ford. Their work has important insights and points of argument and they should not be ignored.  However, I believe there is room for Ida Tarbell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ada Lovelace, and Sonya Sotomayor.

What I am trying to say, is there is lots of room for thoughtful inclusivity.  There is time in our curriculum if we simply make that time.  There are abundant examples to help us help our students see themselves in the thinking and the opportunities to which they are being introduced.  If we do this, we can help “more and more people feel included and seen.”

 

Community, Critical Thinking, Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Age of the Straw Man

Two of the six core values that support Western Connecticut State University’s mission are:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the right of all people to be treated with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

These statements reveal a campus that has embraced the difficult and exciting discussions that follow when people of different social, political, and cultural backgrounds gather to address current and ancient societal debates.  This is who we are, and these values should be at the heart of any educational organization. But acceptance of the challenge of exploring differences in civil and thoughtful ways may need more support than just open minds and empathy.  Given the preponderance of fallacious arguments in the ether, it may be time to commit to some direct instruction in informal logic.

For the uninitiated, informal logic springs from the field of philosophy (also embraced in writing and communication curriculum), that provides a toolkit for examining arguments for structure and validity. Much like the old grammatical diagrams that were once used in the teaching of English (helping to break down nouns, verbs and connecting parts of speech), informal logic allows us to diagram arguments in terms of claims, support for those claims and conclusions. This diagramming is a great way to identify places where the supporting evidence or facts under discussion may have strayed from the initial claim or premise.

I recall my first encounter with informal logic as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the 1980s.  Sitting in a room of over 100 students listening to Dr. James Freeman introduce the structure of argument I felt a light go on.  For years, I had felt like there were problems with the statements/beliefs/worldviews that I encountered, but I could not figure out what was wrong.  These diagrams of arguments were a first step to uncovering the weaknesses or other leaps not supported by the claims I regularly faced. That course changed my life.

Now the field of logic has many nuances that most of us will never really dig into or fully understand, but the basics should be accessible to us all.  Among the basic concepts is the idea of a fallacy.  Simply put, fallacies are irrelevant evidence for a claim.  They are included as evidence, with no real bearing on the debate. They are distractions, keeping us from examining the central claim.  Typical examples are ad hominem fallacies (attacking the speaker instead of the argument), false dichotomy (setting up an argument around two choices, when many others are possible), or appeals to authority (invoking opinions of famous people, who may or may not have a connection to the actual topic).  Learning to see these tricks is incredibly helpful as one tries to evaluate a substantive issue.

One particular fallacy that seems to be dominating our lives right now is the straw man. The straw man fallacy is a way of distorting the central claim of an argument and then arguing against the distortion, rather than the actual claim. This tactic usually relies on taking things out of context or exaggerating the initial claim.    Since any example I give at this point is likely to draw some kind of bias claim, I will relate a totally unintended version that happened in an interaction with a six-year-old, twenty years ago. The six- year-old (let’s call her Sally) came to play with my daughter some time in mid-December.  The two began to discuss holiday plans and decorations. At some point, Sally stated that “everyone” would be going to church on Christmas Eve.  Since our family would not be heading to church, I interjected, “You mean everyone who celebrates Christmas.”  Sally responded, “You mean you hate Jesus?”

Sally was not malicious.  Her words were the innocent observations of a child who had never encountered a non-Christian before. I will not say things were easy to clarify, she was young and I wanted to be gentle, but we sorted things out.  However, I think you can see that in malicious hands, this statement is an interpretation of my words that was not in any way accurate.  In adult hands, with intention, this can become very ugly indeed.

This is a strategy that is dominating political arguments from all directions (left, right, and everywhere in between).  You name the issue (environment, immigration, gun control, healthcare, equity, etc.) and you will find a plethora of straw man arguments designed to distract us from the central argument.  At their worst, they are baiting us into discussions that are entirely false or at best, beside the point.  This is not a good state of affairs.

So what of my university’s values?  Well, like all universities, we are engaged in conversations like the one I had with Sally. In nearly every course, we challenge our assumptions about how the world is, was, or should be organized. Whether studying chemistry, biology, criminology, marketing, or history, students and faculty will uncover long held ideas and assumptions that may need to be reconsidered. Our task, then, is to insure that the reconsideration does not go astray with straw man arguments, or any other kind of fallacy.

To put it more plainly, when we ask ourselves to grapple with ideas that contradict everything we have known to be true, we may feel discomfort. That discomfort should not drive us to tactics that distort the question.  We should not start casting complex debates as either/or, us/them, and allow them to be reduced to slogans. We cannot allow simplistic, straw man fallacies, to distract us from our commitment to reasoned discourse on all issues. If keeping this commitment means more instruction in logic for all of us, let’s do it!