DeVos, Evaluation, Higher Education

Under Construction: Peer Review

On Monday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, released a list of policy proposals as part of negotiated rule making related to the Higher Education Act.  While I have many questions about the goals of these revisions and how they might impact those most susceptible to education scams, I am intrigued by the part of the list that addresses accreditation.

Several of the policies suggested appear to be a direct assault on regional accreditors.  The reasons that they are a target are complicated, but one such reason seems to be a sense that they are creating barriers for innovation in education.  This argument is fraught with contradictions and for-profit motives, to be sure, but the role of accrediting bodies that are wedded to traditional non-profit educational institutions is not unworthy of review.

Over the past 20 years, regional accreditors have truly transformed from evaluation criteria based on things universities have (faculty, libraries, students, and buildings) to things universities do (retention, graduation, learning/degree outcomes, and graduation placements).  This transformation was, in part, provoked by the emergence of for-profit, online education and our need to grapple with how to evaluate learning in these differing environments.  We resisted, argued, and then re-imagined our responsibilities. We maintained our right to define the parameters of “quality” education, but we no longer argue that we can’t assess our efforts.

As we all became (relatively) comfortable with program assessment and the focus on outcomes, our accrediting bodies asked us to improve our approaches and make it a regular part of what we do.  In the process, we opened the door to developing quality online education because we articulated what our graduates should know.  Whatever the environment, similar degrees should have similar outcomes.  This is the best possible outcome of a robust peer review process. Relying on faculty and administrators from other universities to look at what we do and provide educated and responsible feedback works in this system.  We understand what we’re looking at because there is a lot of common ground. Let’s be honest, this change was hard.  We didn’t like doing it, but here we are.

Now we face something new and the peer review system is going to struggle to define its role again.  In recent years there have been closures of large for-profit and small non-profit educational institutions and, along with those closures have come questions about the oversight provided by accreditors. The withdrawal of accreditation is powerful. It will close an institution, so it is imperative that these bodies develop good ways of monitoring finances. As participants in peer review accreditation processes, we are going to have to figure out reasonable questions to ask that can strengthen evaluation of less traditional and traditional educational institutions alike.

During an accreditation visit, when a university or college is struggling financially, peers are asked to offer feedback. This can be problematic. Most of us from the non-profit world can read a budget and see shortfalls in funding, but we are less prepared to provide insight into how to recover from that shortfall.  Evaluating quality of education and the supporting infrastructures of faculty governance and transparency are things we are comfortable with.  Developing plans for capturing market shares and differentiation of our educational “products” does not come easily to us.

At the heart of this challenge is not that we don’t value or support innovation, something DeVos seems to think we are doing, but that we see innovation in terms of learning, not in terms of money.  We are not blind to changing work landscapes, we respond to those all the time, but we do so on the assumption that we are meeting a societal need, not a bottom line need.  Now we are faced with considering some of the questions that a market oriented evaluation might raise. We will argue and resist, but then we must figure it out for three very important reasons.

Reason 1: Identifying a problem (financial or otherwise) during peer review will not be helpful if we don’t offer some guidance about how to recover. Ours is a collaborative process where we learn from each other.  Ignoring the learning that needs to take place in the financial category makes peer evaluation a threat, not a helpful process.  We have to figure out how to handle this part as a true mentoring opportunity.

Reason 2: We need to continue to impact the definitions of quality and viability, just like we did in the early conversations about online degrees.  By being part of that conversation, we made sure that the measures for online learning were not narrowly evaluated on content delivery, but on learning experiences. We need to shape the questions surrounding financial viability the same way, so that we don’t end up with profit as a primary goal. We want reasonable comparisons to be made between for-profit and non-profit institutions, comparisons that keep students at the center of all we do.

Reason 3: Education is not about widgets.  Students are complex and require nuanced educational experiences that reflect understanding their unique backgrounds and needs.  And the focus of our degrees must anticipate not the job of the moment, but the long-term skills and habits of mind that our students will need as the landscape of work continuously changes. Our traditional, non-profit structures facilitate that nuanced, long-term thinking in ways that are not supported in organizations that produce quarterly reports. This is the thinking valued by regional accreditors associated with these types of educational organizations.

Higher education in the United States has long been built on peer review. It is our strength and it is what allows us to be innovative. One look at the inventions, discoveries, and even changing degree titles will tell the story of responsible, not reactive, innovation. This is supported by the integrity of our peer review processes and we need to hold onto them, because we know our context best.

Yet we are in for some hard work as we reshape the questions we are asking of each other.  Demographics have changed the context for non-profit and for-profit organizations alike.  Finances will have to be considered. But, the questions we ask must reflect our commitment to creating excellent learning environments for all. If they do, the value of our accrediting processes will remain strong.

 

Higher Education

New Beginnings

One of the best things about the way we’ve organized education is the distinct starts and stops that allow us to begin anew.  In the K-12 world, there is that excitement that focuses on those first days after summer.  Back packs are filled with pens, paper, and expectation.  In higher education, we do this at least twice a year, organizing around semesters, with new texts, challenges, and new chances to get things right.

As a student, I recall the many times I committed to being better at taking notes. Each new semester, I dreamed of perfect, efficient records of my classes.  I never succeeded. Entropy or confusion would set in and eventually the neat outlines became less orderly and more grasping for the point.  My notes were a record of the class of course, and it was more accurate, I think, than the dreamed for perfect outlines. It showed my struggles to understand, my doodles of disconnection, and an occasional “aha”! I had learned something and that was enough.

So here we are on the eve of 2019, and I am pondering the joy of some fresh blank pages.  What will they be filled with this time?

Cleaning

I know there will be some of the usual tasks.  As provost, I spend a good deal of time trying to make order out of processes so that faculty, staff, and students can easily understand how things work.  Each of the rules and guidelines by which we operate was created to support reasonable academic standards and paths to success (graduation, tenure, etc.).  Yet, when combined, that list of rules and policies is sometimes confusing and contradictory.  I try to see it as a whole and work to reduce confusion and contradiction.  This is the ongoing and usual project I set for myself.  My efforts generally start out nice and orderly, like my course outlines, and as they wind their way through various reconciliations, tend to become less so.  Still, the effort toward clarity seems worth it, so I persist in the task.

Growing

Then there are the opportunities for new initiatives.  As an academic leader I am bombarded with pitches for new technologies, data on student success initiatives, and demands for better outcomes.  I wade through these ideas and efforts, dismissing most as just too much clutter without enough benefit. But, there is room for improvement in any organization, so I am likely to find one or two ideas that could help WCSU.  These potential initiatives must be evaluated and pursued in ways that do not overwhelm everyone involved.

Improving

Finally, there are those areas in which I feel I need to improve.  I reflect on what I have and haven’t accomplished in the last year.  Did older initiatives pay off? Should I stop doing some of them? Should I change a strategy?  Have I gathered enough information, listened closely enough to my colleagues and students, to make my efforts productive?

This process of reflection an renewal feels right to me.  It gives me the opportunity to re-imagine my efforts and my role on a regular basis.  Like my life as as student, I know I’ll face entropy and confusion and some inertia as I dive into the next semester, but that is as it should be. It is the process of renewal and goal setting, part of the very DNA of higher education, that is so valuable.

So here’s to new notebooks, laptops, and ideas.  May all your resolutions be useful.

Happy New Year.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Inclusion

From Tolerance to Understanding

It’s Christmas Eve and all is quiet on the WCSU campus.  Grades have been entered for the fall semester, students and faculty have departed to celebrate and relax with family and friends. A few of us remain to address any last-minute questions, problems, or queries, but we will join our families later today.  Whatever we celebrate, we have reached an ending and a pause. It is a blessing to have our lives organized around these moments of closure.  It makes way for reflection and reinvention.

As I think about some of the themes emerging in this blog, I realize that I have been wrestling with education’s role in supporting a diverse society.  I am struggling to find ways to support the conversations that can help develop our understandings of diverse perspectives.  I am reaching for opportunities to build foundations that will support collaborative responses to the problems our graduates will face in the years to come.  At this intersection of religious and cultural holidays from all corners of the world, I am pausing to wonder, are we doing enough to foster dialogue about faith?

This is probably a surprising question coming from a person who was raised without religion and who champions the first amendment argument for government to just stay out of it.  Working at a public university, I am committed to secular education, leaving faith to the personal lives or all who work and study here.  That is a position I have always embraced.  But I think it is a position that may be leaving important gaps in a well-rounded education that prepares students for a diverse society.

When I was growing up, the language used to urge openness to different cultural, religious, and political values was “tolerance.”  In its moment, that word was progressive.  It was urging us not to dismiss the views of others, but to try to co-exist in peaceful ways. In the path from ethnocentricity to an understanding that not everyone sees or experiences the world in the same way, it was a good start.

But here we are in a post-911 world that has shaken our commitement to tolerance.  There is a pronounced fear of “others,” a fear that sometimes progresses to hatred and violence.  This fear and hostility is easily tapped into via the stereotypes in the mainstream media and the open bigotry that is so often promoted online. The tactics that have undermined tolerance are easily mapped to the strategies of persuasion described by the “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays, and even more hauntingly, the propaganda techniques outlined by Jacques Ellul. Our tolerance is no match for fear mongering.

So what does this reveal? Tolerance is not enough.  Tolerance allows us to stay in our separate corners without truly probing underlying beliefs.  We “accept” that others organize their cultures differently from us, but tolerance doesn’t urge us to develop an understanding of those differences. Indeed, it inadvertently gives us permission to disengage and adopt a live and let live attitude.  But disengagement leaves all kinds of room for us to slide back into hard categories of “other” that are the breeding ground for racism and intolerance.

At a secular public university, we might have a few conversations about history and cultural traditions, but we mostly avoid faith traditions.  There are comparative religion courses in our philosophy departments, but we don’t generally require students to take them.  We don’t want to be seen as promoting any particular religious view, so we avoid all of them.  Yet, so many of our cultural traditions and distinctions arise from our connections to religion.  The avoidance of the topic leaves a gaping hole in our narratives.

So, today I am reflecting on this gap in our expectations for public higher education.  At WCSU, our general education curriculum includes something we are calling “intercultural competency.” Courses that count for this competency are those that address learning a language other than English, history courses that do not focus on European and American histories, and a couple of applied courses in nursing and social work.  These are good options, but if we are to truly consider our graduates capable of seeing the world through multiple cultural lenses, I think we need to do more.  Instead of avoiding the religion question, perhaps we need to face it directly, and include it in the intercultural repertoire as a requirement.

Maybe it is at the secular university that we have the greatest opportunity to look directly at the different understandings of our purposes and obligations as human beings. Without the need to serve a particular religion, we might be well-equipped to truly compare and discuss the differences in the many faith traditions on our campuses. Perhaps we can start in the classroom and then move to the student organizations. Instead of separating into Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Atheist groups, we might create a place for real interfaith dialogue.

It’s complicated, to be sure, mostly because it is hard for any one person to represent the perspective of multiple faiths fairly.  But, I think we are failing our students by not engaging the conversation.  We have to go beyond simple symbols and festivals, and explore the deeply held convictions about what is true.  We need to deal with the complexity of our faith traditions.  Only then will we have the tools to develop understanding, instead of mere tolerance. Only then will we be preparing our graduates for the possibilities that a diverse society might bring.  And only then will we have any chance of preparing them to resist the appeals of the insensitive and often hateful stereotypes that keep us from seeing each other as connected human beings.

Peace to you all.

 

 

 

Evaluation, Higher Education, Inclusion

Unfair Measures

Last week I attended the joint meeting of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE).  At this gathering there are K-12 educators and higher education administrators, and most of our sessions were separate.  One that was not was a plenary session featuring Ta-Nehisi Coates.  In front of a standing room only crowd, he reflected on his life as a writer, the taking down of statues linked to our ugliest of histories, the complicity of the Ivy League universities in those ugly histories, and most of all, the unbearable inequities in access to education.

Much of the conversation focused on K-12, but we in higher education are not unfamiliar with the main points of his argument.  To sum up, it is unreasonable to measure a teacher’s or school district’s success by a simple test score, when many teachers are serving  as educators, social workers, therapists, and security officers.  Measuring the test scores in a district where the students are hungry, living in unsafe neighborhoods, and lacking in access to basic educational supports (books at home, paper at home, parents who are able to support homework), as if those scores can be in any way similar to the test scores in Greenwich, CT is beyond destructive.  The conditions created by this notion that tests are objective measures of anything almost inevitably lead to environments with high turnover, low morale, and predictable desperate measures.

In higher education, the parallel experience comes in the rankings of schools. Blunt measures of retention and graduation rates tell us very little, when not placed in the context of the students we serve.  Increasingly, universities like mine, serve students who have graduated from the most challenging K-12 districts.  Our students are doing their best to make the leap to higher education, without having had enough support in their prior education to develop some of the skills necessary for success in college.  They are also burdened with the need to work too many hours, are often food insecure, and on occasion, homeless.

At WCSU, we serve these students in the same classrooms as those who did have adequate preparation and support. This is our mission and we are committed to it.  But you can see where there may be challenges.  As we work to meet the needs of all of our students, adopting new pedagogies, developing robust support systems, and always searching for more funding for our neediest students, we are consistently aware that we are being judged by measurements that do not tell our story.  We strive for equity and equity doesn’t live on a four-year, primarily residential campus.  We should strive to do better, but our attention is squarely on the students in the room, not on those blunt measures. If we attended to those other measures too closely, we would have to change who we are designed to serve.

I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Coates for advice and he issued a very specific challenge.  He turned to the room full of educators and said we had to become active in advocating not just for education, but for the supporting systems whose absences are at the root of the social inequities we are then tasked with curing.  It was an aha moment for me.

Or  perhaps I should say,  it was a duh moment for me. Mr. Coates is so right.  Education has long been seen as this country’s equalizer.  It is meant to provide access to the social mobility at the heart of what we think being an American means. This is a heavy burden. It is no accident that we have had to continuously fight to make education a true equalizer, fighting to allow everyone to pursue it.  We have a horrible history of denying access, to be sure, but access has grown none-the-less.  We continue to segregate, by laws and by funds, the quality of education available to the many, and we battle to cure those inequities in fits and starts, but battle we do. Through it all, we continue to look to education as a cure for all society’s ills. It continues to be what Henry Perkinson called an “imperfect panacea.”

But here, in higher education, perhaps we do need to broaden our advocacy.  We need to change national formulas created by Title IV funding guidelines, to be sure, and fight for better measures of the diversity of colleges and universities, not just the elite schools. But what about the rest of it? We know that college would be better if students didn’t arrive under-prepared.  But the conditions in K-12 are not always conducive to that preparation. So, I’m starting my advocacy to-do list: 1. We need universal pre-K.  2. All schools should have free breakfast and lunch. 3. All education funding formulas need to be re-imagined to balance the inequities that arise from de facto segregation. 4. We need sane housing policies that undermine that segregation and put an end to homelessness.

This list is just a start, but taking these steps has the potential to change the higher education environment significantly. By addressing root causes of the uneven preparation of our students, we might be able to really focus on measures that reflect learning instead of just socio-economic contexts.  This would be real access to education, instead of the band-aid system we now have in place.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Inclusion

Diversity by the Numbers

C.J. Cregg changed my life.  For those of you who don’t know, Cregg (played by Allison Janney) was the press secretary on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant political drama that ran from 1999-2006.  I’ve always been a sucker for a good political drama, but the inclusion of a powerful woman, keeping up with and sometimes outwitting the men around her, was both inspirational and life affirming.  I finally had that fictional role model I never knew I missed.

And there it was.  I understood in an instant the importance of providing that affirmation of the value and strength of all groups in our media and in the education we provide. All of the arguments about literary canons, affirmative action, and political correctness disappeared.  In this one case the answer is clear:  We must deliberately review all that we offer to ensure that we are representing the cultures of all of our students and faculty in a truly life affirming way.  Unlike all other attempts to build an inclusive society, we can take immediate and decisive action to achieve this end.

Here is the path as I see it. In the last U.S. Census the following gender and racial/ethnic distributions were reported:

  • Women:  50.8 % of the US population
  • Black or African American: 13.4% of the US population
  • American Indian and Alaska Native: 1.3% of the US population
  • Asian: 5.8% of the US population
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander: 0.2% of the US population
  • Hispanic or Latino: 18.1% of the US population
  • Two or more races:  2.7% of the US population
  • White, not Hispanic or Latino: 60.7% of the US population

(https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/RHI525217)

Let’s just try to achieve these proportions in everything we do.

Start at the course level.  Can we achieve this proportion of voices in the readings we assign? Let’s examine the founders of our disciplines and then look a little further to see who else was there and try to include them.  In most great discoveries, there are other players, usual mentioned in footnotes, that represent a great diversity of contributors to the field.  Feature them. And let’s look at our other course materials (slides, videos, special guests, etc.) and deliberately revise them to reflect the proportions above.

Next,  we should meet with our colleagues and look at the design of our majors.  Are there gaps in the offerings that may have the cumulative effect of ignoring significant contributions to the discipline from the many cultures our country represents?  It isn’t just literature, folks. There are scientists in India, economists in China, philosophers in Brazil.  Let’s dig in and work together to fill that gap.

Look at the overall catalog of our offerings.  If we imagine our students specifically looking for courses that might celebrate their varied cultural histories, would they easily find them? If we know things are in the syllabi, but not in course titles and descriptions, then we should fix that. These options must be visible. If courses don’t exist at all, we must find ways to add them.

Now look at the guests invited to campus.  What does that tell us about who is celebrated?  If it isn’t balanced, we should be more intentional about it.  Perhaps we need a committee to review the schedule of performances, speakers, and events, to insure some balance. If we do, let’s make it so.

Finally, we must look at the images we chose  to represent our universities.  Do they reflect the proportions listed in the census?  If not, let’s fix it.

I am sure some of you are now thinking that I’ve reduced complex arguments about curriculum to a simplistic quota system.  You are correct, I have.  Here’s why. The people we habitually select in our curricula and events may be tremendously talented, but they are still reflections of social inequities and access to power.  We need a systematic plan to disrupt these habits.  Establishing new habits generally takes a deliberate set of steps that can be easily followed and measured.  This method provides those easily followed steps.

In every discipline there are the others who were in the labs, on the battlefields, creating art and music and theater, and negotiating peace treaties.  They were the “hidden figures,” eclipsed by our bias toward those in power.  These people are ready to be  layered into our habitual go-to examples.  Their routine inclusion will bring them to the forefront.  Regularly including the many contributors to our stories and discoveries will help us avoid the tokenism of the single example (generally perceived as an exception), in favor of the routine recognition of the greatness that lives in all groups.

This is not a small job, but is entirely achievable.  As I think  back to that moment when I met C.J. Cregg, I recall my excitement, and shockingly to me, the tears I shed as I felt a hole in my list of role models suddenly fill.  Hollywood has been moving  forward in its efforts toward inclusion (slowly, but surely),  but I fear education is not keeping up.  (Check out John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons for a particularly insightful example of why this matters.) We get bogged down in debates over how to be inclusive, and they are important debates.  But, some things are just obvious.  Examples exist, so let’s use them. We can help fill the gaps in the narratives that our students are experiencing.  They may not even know they are missing these examples, but I suspect their inclusion will be life-affirming to all of us.