Higher Education, Reflection

The Power of Collaboration

Universities and colleges are frequently (and accurately) accused of living in silos. From external accusations of ivory tower thinking to internal challenges to interdisciplinary or cross-divisional collaboration, we struggle to move ideas forward with any kind of unity of purpose. Even as we work together to agree on missions, visions, values, and strategic plans, the coordination of efforts can be elusive. There are good reasons for this: We are a culture of experts.

To start, every single faculty member is an expert in their discipline. Our doctoral degrees and their equivalents (MFAs, for example) are designed to build a depth of knowledge that no one without that advanced educational experience can possess. That depth of knowledge helps us see the world through our disciplinary lenses and forms the basis for how degrees are organized. At the same time, each of us engaged our discipline from the perspectives of our graduate institutions, and ultimately from the perspective we developed in our dissertations. These differences in perspectives can be wonderful, opening the door to research collaborations or exposing our students to deep debates in the field. They can also be the source of petty feuds.

We do honor some parallel experiences in professional fields because they are meaningful and often beneficial. We may recruit a successful artist, journalist, or nurse practitioner without a doctoral degree because we are committed to connecting what we teach to the world beyond the academy. Enriching our faculty in this way can lead to new approaches to teaching, new connections with the external community, and an increased sense of relevance in the material for our students. It can also be a source of disagreement about meaningful research or other university expectations that are largely defined by folks who have gone the academic rather than professional route to teaching. In other words, even within departments with shared expertise, there are real differences in ideas about what is important.

Universities are also made up of experts in student affairs. Leadership in these areas have advanced degrees from a variety of fields. Whether they focused on advising practices, socio-emotional development of students, approaches to academic support, or fostering student engagement, each one brings specialized knowledge and expertise to their areas. Just like faculty, student affairs personnel attend conferences to learn about emerging trends and interesting innovations. Their knowledge is an important part of student success at a university. Whether connecting students to the help they need at any point in their undergraduate or graduate experience, developing great activities and events to support a vibrate campus environment, or facilitating transitions into and out of the university, student affairs can be a wonderful partner to academic affairs. Or it could be left on its “side” of the university, without the opportunity to fully develop strategic priorities in partnership with academic affairs.

There are also professionals in admissions, registration, and financial aid. The specialized knowledge of this group is essential for the health of the university. They are charged with managing the intricacies of system, state, and federal regulations. They rely on input from academic and student affairs to maintain compliance with these regulations. They also identify local policy problems that trip up our students, keeping them from enrolling or graduating. This group has to keep a close eye on changes in academic programs in ways that faculty do not see. They are aware of internal logic problems (like inconsistent prerequisites) and external barriers to new programs like regulations about certificates vs. degrees. This group is incredibly important to the success of the university and can be a fount of information as we develop new programs, revise existing programs, or plan our student support strategies. Or they can be left out of the planning and asked to clean things up after the fact.

I could continue and remind everyone of the importance of the experts in facilities, information technology, human resources, and finance and administration, and so on. Every one of them matters in every decision we make. They need to be included in the development of strategic plans, to be sure, and they usually are. It is the coordination after the plan that is the rub.

The trouble with all the expertise is that it often keeps us from being good collaborators. To our credit, we are a culture with a penchant for individual initiative and problem solving. This inspires us to move forward on ideas that are immediately concerning or interesting, without looking at how it integrates with the whole. We tend to do our homework, planning from our specialized perspectives, which speaks well of our work-ethic. Unfortunately, it often leads to the duplication of efforts (at best) and undermining of efforts (at worst). It also tends to leave out important perspectives because, in our rush to solve a problem or move an interesting idea forward, we forget that our colleagues with complementary or just plain different expertise are there.

I love the diverse group of experts that shape universities. As provost, I am lucky to interact regularly with colleagues in every department and I learn from every single conversation. Over the years, I have tried to connect people across disciplines and divisions, with some successes. But it has not been enough. We are still operating in silos and they have outlived their usefulness.

There is plenty of evidence that supporting students requires collaboration across disciplines and divisions. From emergency funding to problematic course sequences to planning co-curricular activities, shared understandings, ideas, and interventions are the best way to create great educational experiences and improve outcomes. Sharing ideas and aligning strategies can help us avoid duplication of efforts and keep us from developing initiatives that end up cancelling each other out. It can also help us better understand how the ideas and expertise of our colleagues can inform and improve our own ideas and expertise. There is power in collaboration and coordination of efforts. It is time to re-imagine our processes so that the power of collaboration can be harnessed for a better future.

Community

Belonging

It is late August and we are all gearing up for another year. Students will join us on Friday, classes will start next Monday, and I am sure that faculty are putting finishing touches on their syllabi. It’s that exhilarating rush of new beginnings and the optimism that comes from the chance to start fresh every fall.

There has not been much downtime for us at WCSU this summer. We have been collaborating on projects that we hope will re-shape our future. I am grateful for all of the hard work that took place, and the ways in which it brought together members from all areas of the university to think things through together. What comes of all of that hard work will be discovered as we review that summer work, but it is that sense of community and belonging that I am thinking about today.

There is a lot of research coming out right now about how important it is for our students to feel a sense of belonging. It is directly related to retention, it is directly related to the success of our students of color, our first-generation students, and our students who sometimes struggle to find their fit. Spring 2022 saw reports from faculty and student affairs professionals all over the country about students feeling at sea, disengaged, and wobbly about being in college. It is showing up in classrooms, mental health offices, and retention rates.

In Reimagining the Student Experience, a recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are lots of good observations about steps we can take to help students see themselves as members of our community. Here’s a short list.

  1. Everyone needs a group of friends, but building these friendships is not easy for everyone. Commuter students don’t have activities created by our Residential Staff, working students don’t have time for many campus activities, and many students find initiating conversations challenging. The best place to overcome some of these barriers to friendships is to build social connections in classes. Most of us initiate connections between students with icebreakers and introductions. We need to do it throughout the semester in intentional ways.
  2. Help students create a buddy system so they have someone to contact about notes, etc., when they have to be absent. This is so obvious, but it is hard for some students to ask.
  3. Try to schedule some office hours adjacent to your teaching time. For many students (especially commuters) it is easiest to ask their questions right before or after class. Even with all of our remote access for advising, which is probably the best outcome of COVID-19, the immediate conversation is still incredibly valuable.
  4. Demonstrate interest in students’ lives outside of class by participating in or attending some of the events that they value. See their shows or games, go to their fundraisers or service events, participate in a co-curricular activity. Faculty and staff can’t do it all, they have lives too, but a little bit goes a very long way.

These are good ideas, ideas that I know many of us have been doing for years. I enjoy the low-tech, simplicity of it all. If this will help our students feel they belong, let’s do it.

As I write this, though, I am thinking more about the people here who have been working all summer. Faculty, staff, and administration are trying to understand the path to a stronger university, together. People we once knew via email are now people with whom we have had long and passionate conversations. Strategies for student success that have been supported in one area, are now known by people in other areas who are trying to do the same thing. People who were struggling alone to try to solve problems, now know that others are interested in those same goals. In other words, I think our summer work has created a better path to a sense of belonging for all of us.

In that report about Reimagining the Student Experience, Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues that “Students– and indeed, people generally– are motivated by the feeling of being part of a team tackling a shared problem.” It is that common effort that makes us feel connected and valued. Certainly, this offers insights on creating a more connected campus community and a more connected student body.

But in that same report, Flower Darby asks us to think not just about belonging, but about the value of the learning experience, something many students have been questioning. Darby says, “[T]hink about the value that students get from spending time with you, the instructor….The benefit of taking your class is taking it with you.” Wow! That’s a reframing that I needed to read. I’d like to take it beyond the classroom: What is the value that our campus community gets from spending time with you, our colleague… the benefit of interacting with you is you!

This is a provocative and exciting observation. Instead of focusing on seeing the best in others (an effort that shouldn’t be ignored of course), it asks us to think about how we bring a unique perspective and vision to our roles and responsibilities. This question encourages us to see our value and it might even help us narrow our focus and hone that thing we are really great at. I hope so. What I am certain of, though, is that the question gives me a new way to think about this year. It’s a fresh start once again.

Higher Education, Resilience

A United Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation, Quality

The Follow Through

Here is a question that I am frequently asked: Why would you want to be in administration? It started with my first truly administrative role, assistant dean, and it persists even now that I have served as provost for nearly six years. As a person whose career began as an adjunct faculty member, then tenure-track to tenured faculty line, it is not lost on me that there are losses when one leaves the classroom. That dreams that led me to higher education were built around love of my discipline and the desire to help students see its value. Teaching is hard work, often frustrating, often rewarding, but it carries with it a clarity of purpose–teach the students in front of you. Living that purpose is exhilarating.

So, why move to administration? Well, for me it was about an ever-widening circle of concerns about how students were experiencing their education. One of my earliest questions was about whether or not students were getting the most out of the totality of their degrees, instead of just focusing on the major. I worried about the connections students were not making between those required humanities or social sciences or science courses and their major. Once I opened that can of worms, my attention moved away from my discipline and toward education as a holistic. Thus, an administrator was born.

What does that holistic perspective mean now that I am a provost? It means I continuously examine data about who we serve, who is thriving, who is not, what students are learning, where our programs are strong and where they need support, what new ideas about teaching are emerging and how to engage faculty with those ideas, and of course, since WCSU is in New England, what to do about enrollment. There’s more. There are questions about equity for everyone (students, faculty, staff). There are questions about processes and organizational structures, and whether they are doing what we want them to do. There are questions about the balance of scholarship, teaching, service, for faculty and appropriate support for professional development for everyone. There is no shortage of things to think about when you are trying to imagine an effective and rewarding whole.

Unsurprisingly, I do a lot of reading about higher education developments and trends. Indeed, this Sunday, as I settled in to review the news and enjoy my morning coffee, I found my attention drawn to a publication from the Chronicle of Higher Education, called The Truth about Student Success. I know, why ruin a perfectly nice Sunday? But I am worried about outcomes and so I downloaded the document and read it through. When I was done, all I could think was, but we’ve done all that already!

Except we haven’t quite. Despite my best efforts to foster an environment where ideas are welcome, strategies for improvement are implemented, and then results are examined, I think I am falling short on the part where we learn from it all. It reminds me of my early days in administration when I realized that higher education is very good at starting (adding) things, but terrible at finishing (subtracting) things. Even worse, we are often missing the part where we examine results and act on them, you know, closing the loop.

Over the last twenty years, higher education as a whole has developed some reasonable habits around the use of assessment to improve curriculum. Everyone has learning outcomes now and assessment plans to trigger reviews of the results. Some plans are better than others, and some programs are more committed to the meaning of those outcomes than others, but overall, folks are trying to learn from their efforts at assessment. At WCSU, I can see the impact of this work on curriculum and to some degree on teaching strategies. This has room to grow, and the sharing of this information is spotty, but it is going on.

We are (I am) less successful at systematic use of the data about the rest of what we do. For example, has the implementation of Degree Works improved academic advising? Has asking about advising practices in annual reports resulted in any changes in strategies at the department level? Are the pre-major pathways (meta-majors) reducing the time to graduation and the accumulation of excess credits? When faculty have participated in teaching institutes, has it changed their teaching strategies? Has it improved outcomes? Has the transition to embedded remediation reduced the number of students stuck in foundational courses? When we see that some courses have very high withdrawal or failure rates, are we acting on that information? There is so much more, but this is the main idea.

As fast as I run, I can’t seem to stay on top of all of this. I have not even managed to implement a good data dashboard to try to keep people in the loop on these things. I hope to complete one this semester, but in the meantime, things are filtering through Deans to Department Chairs to Faculty (maybe), listed in my weekly announcements (sometimes), announced at our University Senate meetings (when time allows), and listed in annual reports (usually). I have to do better.

Without consistent examination of information by the whole community, all of those good things we are doing will just be in pockets (silos). Departments (academic and otherwise) will continue to try new things, but we’ll never see the full impact. We risk not learning from each other and duplicating efforts that would be better if coordinated across areas. We risk abandoning strategies too soon or simply forgetting they are underway. We risk under-investing in things that show signs of working. Most of all, we squander the value of a shared effort to be better, and that is a fundamental waste of talent and resources.

So, as I finished my coffee and that darned report on The Truth about Student Success, I realize that there is no more pressing initiative than establishing good processes for gathering, analyzing, and distributing the information we already have. There is nothing new to do but that. We’re doing all of the other things that everyone else is doing. If we get this part right, we might be able to re-double our efforts on things that are working and stop doing the things that are not. That’s the follow through, folks. We need to learn from what we do.

Examining our processes and making sure that a data dashboard gets done this semester is one more thing on my endless list of duties, of course, and I wonder how I’ll get it done. But I have to because there are no magic bullets to discover; there are only evaluations of what we have already done and plans for next steps. The data dashboard is on me, but I hope that the result is for everyone. I’m hoping with better follow through many more members of our community will work together to improve the whole of the university experience.

Hope, Uncertainty

Vaccinations or Interventions?

Today students at WCSU are moving into our residence halls. Like everyone else, we’ve worked hard to create a re-entry plan that offers as much protection from Covid-19 as we can manage. We are testing our mostly vaccinated students as they enter, trying to stop an outbreak before it happens. We are stressing the importance of masks whenever indoors on campus and we’ve made the N95 versions available. We have isolation plans for what we imagine is the inevitable arrival of Omicron, and we have made getting tested as easy as possible so that folks can be proactive. That’s really all there is to do. This is as safe as we can be, and we are ready to go.

The last two years have taught us that these measures are relatively effective, despite the moving targets surrounding this Covid-19. We have had low campus-level infection rates, with only one brief school-level shutdown (not university-wide), and the protections in the classrooms in particular seem to be doing what they need to do. Outside of class people may be willing to take more risks, but in the classroom we seem to be pulling together to protect each other. That has been a bright spot in this whole thing – that impulse to protect each other, at least in the classroom.

But off campus is a different story. We have definitely not been pulling together to protect each other. Instead some of us are focused on individual rights, some of us are lost in a lot of misinformation about the vaccinations, others are swearing by the science and claiming ignorance or malicious intent in those who have questions. And all of these positions are accompanied by scorn for those with whom we disagree. These attitudes have been exacerbated (created?) by politics, to be sure, but there is more to it than that, and with the emergence of Omicron, it is time to evaluate some of what that “more to it” might be. I think one of the biggest culprits in this mess of disagreement is the word “vaccine.”

Throughout my life the word vaccine has meant full protection from a disease. I am vaccinated against polio and the measles and tetanus. As a child I had the mumps and the chickenpox, so I’m safe from those as well. I have had no occurrences or recurrences of these diseases. I appear to be fully immune; my faith in this science is strong. Given this understanding of vaccinations and immunity, it is no wonder I was eager to get my vaccination for Covid-19. Honestly, the emergence of one so quickly appeared to be a miracle to me. I signed up for my first dose as soon as I was eligible. When summer came, I happily returned to restaurants and playing music with my friends. Then Delta hit and boosters were recommended. I got one. Now it’s Omicron and, well I’m seeing a pattern here. The vaccinations that I’m signing up for are not quite what I mean by vaccine.

It seems like the shots we are getting are more like our annual flu vaccines, which offer some measure of protection but not complete immunity. Flu vaccines definitely reduce the number of people who get sick each year, but some number always get sick anyway. These vaccines are always being reformulated as new variants emerge, and that reformulation might miss a variation. I have always known that these shots were helpful but not perfect. This was ok with me, as I lined up for a flu shot each year, but I’m guessing this is because I was young enough and healthy enough not to see any real threat from the flu. Covid-19 has been something different.

Obviously, I’m not discussing the science. I am sure that the doses I am getting for Covid-19 work sufficiently like vaccinations to warrant the same name, but the breakthroughs and the quick mutations are really not helping us all come together to protect each other. The state of affairs with Omicron appears to bolster the arguments of those who didn’t believe in these vaccinations in the first place. The changing understanding of how masks should work are adding fuel to that fire. I get it. I don’t get the politics at all, but I do understand why some people are not confident in these measures because the story appears to keep changing.

I think it is time to re-think that word vaccine. Given the lack of permanence in the protection, and the moving target of the mutations, perhaps we need a new word for these shots that conveys the difference between them and my polio vaccine. I like to think of mine as an intervention. It is clear that the multiple doses provide some protection from Covid-19 overall and severe illness in particular. This protection doesn’t make me fully immune, but it is very likely to keep me out of the hospital. I feel relatively safe because of it, so I’ve done my best to take care of me.

My decision to engage in this intervention, along with my decision to wear a mask, also reduces the likelihood that I will accidently get others sick. We shouldn’t lose sight of this part of the intervention; it is about others. I really don’t want to get others sick. I do not want to be responsible for someone else’s trip to the hospital. I do not want to put all of those folks working in restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and, yes, classrooms, at a higher risk of infection because of my behaviors. I also want to keep going out to play music with my friends. I want classes to be in person and to see my colleagues at work. I want a relatively normal world.

So, I am reimagining the steps we are taking on campus as interventions that make us safer, not as paths to immunity. I am taking part in these interventions on and off campus, even if the morning news continues to shake us all, because I am doing my very best to contribute to a relatively safe environment for all of us. I am trying to get my mind around the word endemic and the conditions that will signal that we are in that phase of this virus. I’m hoping the decisions we are making are getting us there. Most of all, I am hoping we can leave the scorn for each other aside and pull together to protect each other.