Higher Education, Quality

Time for Reflection and Celebration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am humbled, as always. Thanks everyone.

Accountability, Quality, Return on Investment

Outcomes Based Funding Metrics

This morning I read with interest a report from The Education Trust, entitled Re-Imagining Outcomes Based Funding. I was following up on Emma Whitford’s piece in Inside Higher Ed that focused on outcomes based funding (OBF) as a tool for supporting equity. I must admit, I shuddered as I considered the hundred ways outcomes funding goes wrong, but Whitford and the report helped me to think about things in new ways. Chief among those ways was that this approach actually supports a focus on who campuses admit, not just retention and graduation rates, and suggests that funding should take that into account. It seems we are getting somewhere on raising awareness about the bluntness of those measures. Hooray.

As I read through the metrics suggested, I saw some thoughtful connections between the students enrolled and the ways that our legislators might think about funding. Instead of just looking at retention and graduation rates, this approach prioritizes investing in campuses that serve more diverse student bodies. It also brings in an important new variable for OBF–campus climate.

Campus climate is often an invisible component in the retention and graduation rates of a university. We spend a lot of time looking at ways to support under-prepared students and we seek out opportunities for scholarships for our under-funded students and these are really important things to do. But, for first generation students and students of color these efforts are not sufficient. They must feel welcome.

So how do we do that? Well, campus climate surveys are one way. Interestingly enough, they are not inexpensive to administer, and they are even more expensive to use. It isn’t enough to gather the data; we need qualified personnel to analyze that same data and help the campus community find opportunities to improve. The funding for this work has to be new dollars. If it isn’t, it will get cut from the budget as soon as we have to prioritize our efforts. We will always focus on direct student support over the broader climate every time. So, I’m glad this idea was raised in the report, but there are important financial implications to consider.

Then there was another piece in the report that gave me pause. In the section called “Ten Steps for Design” (of outcomes based funding models), the following was step five:

“Discourage institutions from reducing access to high-quality degrees or credentials for students from low income backgrounds and students of color.”

This statement is a response to the negative consequences OBF as it has been implemented in the past. In short, the easiest way to improve retention and graduation rates is to change your admissions standards. Better prepared students do better than those on the margins. Better funded students do better than those who struggle to pay for their education. First-generation college students manage more uncertainty than their second or third generation peers and may be retained at somewhat lower levels. All of these students are likely to take longer than four years to graduate. Yes, the older model incentivized a less-inclusive campus. The new suggested strategies are a marked improvement.

At WCSU about 35% of our student body are the first in their families to go to college. We are a relatively affordable school and find that this is attractive to lots of Pell-Eligible students. We are also an increasingly diverse community, something we view as entirely positive, but our history is less so and we are still learning about our invisible barriers and biases, as we seek to be an inclusive campus. Most of what we do fits well into this Re-imagined OBE Funding Framework with its focus on equity. In theory, we should benefit from greater support for our campus based on this model.

But I must admit I do worry about additional unintended consequences if timelines for effectiveness are not robust enough and if there is not continuous dialog with our state representatives about how they read our metrics. For example:

  1. Even when recruiting and admission standards are comparable, a majority residential campus will do better on retention and graduation measures than a majority commuter campus. It is simply easier to help a student who is struggling when they have a regular presence in the campus community.
  2. Sufficient funding to create comparable experiences for our needier students is also an important consideration. Opportunities for internships, research experiences, or study abroad may require a cash infusion or higher need students will skip them for more work hours. They simply need the funds. Unfortunately, these are the same high impact educational experiences that inspire degree completion, applications to graduate schools, and broaden career opportunities. Without that funding stream, schools who serve the less wealthy are likely to have outcomes measures that look weaker than their better funded peers.
  3. Finally, timelines for evaluation are critical. Improvement of anything cannot really be seen in under six years in higher education. While degrees are imagined in four year increments, the students who need more support tend to take five to six years. The effectiveness of an intervention on retention could show up quickly, but its sustained impact will take time. All other interventions will be better seen over the course of a degree. But six years is also a minimum, because you will only be measuring a first cohort at that mark. Sustained improvement is better captured in 8-10 year cycles.

These nuances are hard to convey when elections are in 2- and 4-year cycles. No matter how invested elected officials are in education, there is opportunity for too narrow a view. So, I remain skeptical about the ability to create an outcomes based funding model that can truly support great education that is equitable. But I am very excited to see equity put at the center of the question. That is a great leap forward.

Higher Education, Quality

The Vision Thing

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

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

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

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher Education, Quality, Resilience

Thinking Small(er)

So here we are. We’ve worked hard all summer to prepare our campuses to receive students in this topsy-turvy COVID-19 world. Some of us had to delay our starts due to local outbreaks, others have had to send students home due to campus outbreaks. We invested in masks, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass barriers. We significantly reduced class-size and moved a lot to online or hybrid modalities. We tried to improve some of our technological infrastructure. We invested in more training opportunities for faculty moving to online teaching. With each step we spent money.

While we prepared, we saw a predictable drop in first-year students. They and their families are waiting it out in hopes of a better (normal) environment next year. With the switch in modalities, a fair number of returning students opted to complete their studies from home. They are sticking with us, but no longer see the value in a residential experience that is mostly virtual. It is a rational economic choice, but it is also a huge hit to the university budget plan.

And, of course, all of this is hitting campuses at the same time as funding streams tighten. States are juggling financial challenges for education, but also social services, health care, and unemployment insurance. Private universities are likely to see weakening donor bases for the next year. Indeed, private universities saw this coming early and started furloughing staff as early as April. For the publics, the realities are hitting home now. It is not that we didn’t know that we would have budget challenges, we just held out hope a little longer.

Now what? The inevitable hiring freezes have begun, and we are bracing for the impact. But I don’t think hiring freezes are going to solve the scale of this problem. They are too arbitrary, and they often hurt performance in key areas. No, I think we need to think more carefully about the whole of our institutions and make more thoughtful decisions than a freeze allows. Is it time to consider growing smaller?

For those of us in New England, enrollment projections have been troubling for some time. Higher education news has been filled with discussions of strategies to manage the demographic trends of the region. Some have focused on widening the recruiting radius, others on adding attractive new majors, and still others on merging campuses for greater efficiencies, particularly around administrative costs. While each of these strategies might offer partial fix, the reality is that there are limits to their impact. With COVID-19, I think we’ve hit that limit. To put it plainly, I don’t think we can grow our way out of this one.

I am sure everyone who just read that last sentence is thinking about layoffs and furlough days, etc., but I would like to think about this a little differently. What I would like to do is imagine a process by which we develop a plan for slightly smaller, more focused university. As normal schools became colleges became universities, we all aspired to a breadth model. We chased after ideas and expanded our offerings, with no end point in sight. That is natural, perhaps, for people who are curious by nature, but it is simply not sustainable without continuous growth, and continuous growth is a myth. It is time to stop buying into that myth and build something more sustainable.

Every university has academic programs that are no longer attracting students. Then there are co-curricular programs with low participation. Our impulse is to try to save them all. Maybe we shouldn’t. Instead of preserving the programs, perhaps we should ask ourselves two important questions: 1. Can we deliver a high quality liberal arts education without this program? 2. Is it possible to discover better ways to use the expertise devoted to the program in support of our students?

This first question is particularly challenging because we all love our disciplines. But let’s face it, not everything is essential to providing a quality liberal arts experience. If it were, we’d still be requiring Latin. We want to help students become adept at analytic thinking in multiple formats (quantitative and qualitative), competent and thoughtful communicators in multiple contexts (writing, speaking, various digital forms), and aware of the contributions to our knowledge and values from many cultures over time. None of this tells us which ideas are most important. It simply suggests that we want our graduates to be able to navigate the world after graduation with a broad set of skills and understandings, and hopefully, some degree of curiosity. Can we achieve those goals without every program? Probably.

But what of the talented faculty and staff involved? Since we are not working on a growth model, we should really think about how to successfully reimagine the resources we already have. In the case of an academic program, that might mean asking talented scholars to re-group and work with another department to make something new (or stronger). This is hard because all members of the faculty have spent years pursuing a passionate interest in a discipline. They are doing what they have prepared to do. For co-curricular programs, our staff members have honed their skills in particular areas. It is what they are happiest doing. Now they might need to let go of some of that specialization and reimagine their passion in a new context. It is not necessarily what they planned for, but it might help preserve the demand for their expertise by repositioning its place in the path through education. It might also improve the experience of our students.

As I write this, I can hear the collective shudder. We do not like thinking this way in higher education. We are experts at expanding expertise and offerings. The history of departments and initiatives tell that tale very well. We are also experts at arguing for the value of every single thing we have ever done. Unfortunately, that’s just too much for us to manage, at least not without continuous growth. (Still a myth.)

It is time to start making some tough choices. But let’s not just talk about cuts and losses and wish for the status quo. Let’s recognize how many resources we have on our campuses already. Let’s ask ourselves about our goals for our students and the ways in which the talent we already have might help us better reach those goals. We won’t get bigger, but we might just get better.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality

Striving for Excellence

I realized today that I have been in crisis mode for four months. From dramatic exits, to traumatized students, families, faculty, and staff, to trying to carefully solve the puzzle that is the fall semester, the pace of my life has been ridiculous. I do not expect this to stop before September, and then only long enough to trouble shoot whatever we forgot to imagine for the fall semester and then pull reports and imagine what spring might look like.

It is not like the regular duties disappeared, either. The usual evaluations of promotion and tenure candidates took place. So did the reading and writing of annual reports, appointments of new directors of various university areas, review of accreditation reports, and evaluation of our efforts to improve retention and graduation rates. I am already planning for fall projects, prioritizing resources for a new academic success initiative, and producing the annual publication of faculty creative activity.

This morning was spent trying to complete a substantive change application to submit to our regional accreditor. Getting that done seems a bit too much right now, but nevertheless I will finish it this week. As I struggled to find the missing pieces and align my document with the needs of our accreditor, I thought the whole thing might just be impossible. Then I looked again and realized that this was a good opportunity for reflection.

Whenever I write about my university, I end up feeling proud. As tedious as an accreditation document can be, it always gives me the opportunity to step back and consider what we are doing well. In the day-to-day, that is not always possible. I am too busy solving problems, which can make it feel like there are nothing but problems to solve. Writing annual reports, reviewing strategic plans, and preparing for accreditors helps to reveal the good stuff, and even some of the results of all the problem solving.

Some of you just laughed. How could these tedious reports be anything but a chore? Too much? Not really. You see, when you have to gather evidence of doing something, you see the big picture. That big picture is pretty darn good.

For example, when WCSU moved online in March, we did not skip a beat in our path to developing online supports for our students. Tutoring, accessibility services, financial aid, advising, mental health and general health services all flipped to remote delivery immediately. That was good, but the better part is that we learned from it. We are now working toward consistency in training for online support, where appropriate. We are talking about developing good online advising practices. We are reviewing our protocols for online learning to be sure that we are meeting accessibility standards. We have moved beyond the abrupt flip in modalities to a focus on improving these services. Guess what…those improvements will matter long after COVID-19.

Then there was the bumpiness of moving all of our courses online. Ouch! It was hard and not all of it was as good as we would have liked. I will say that all of it was as good as we could manage in such a short time. Now we have a little time to prepare for online/hybrid and whatever else is ahead, and great conversations are going on. Never has our campus been so engaged in thinking about instructional design. The necessity of thinking about education in a new modality has invited us to think about instructional design more broadly. Faculty are participating in the workshops, but they are also helping each other by volunteering to be peer mentors. It is a big effort and folks are fully engaged. Guess what… this attention to the overall design of our courses will matter long after COVID-19. I hope the esprit de corps will transcend the emergency as well.

There has also been a great deal of earnest concern for the well-being of every member of our community. Faculty and staff and administration have been puzzling through the safety measures necessary for on-campus experiences. Each time we have these conversations (nearly every day), someone asks, but what about the students/faculty/staff who should not be here? How will we accommodate them? These are excellent questions. We are making plans for those needs. Every time we discuss online pedagogies, someone asks about students who are not well-suited to this environment. This is an excellent question (one that should be asked of on-ground instruction as well). We are making plans for those needs. Every time we consider being fully online, someone expresses concerns about the socio-economic issues that always impact our neediest students. Will they be able to access their education? This is an excellent concern, and we are working hard to address it. Guess what… this attention to differential needs of our community should matter long after COVID-19.

So, yes it has been a stressful time, full of long days, endless questions, and a learning curve unlike anything I have ever experienced. But I am pretty sure that my university will be better for it. This moment of crisis has brought out the true spirit of WCSU and it is one worth admiring. We have broken free of the usual silos and we are working together. We are listening to new ideas while remembering the good parts of our traditional approaches to education. We are trying to develop a plan that helps everyone succeed.

And absolutely no one seems content to just make do. We are striving for excellence and that makes me tremendously proud. As I think about all of this, that tedious report has become exciting after all.