Accountability, Change, Higher Education

The Limits of Ad Hoc Committees

In 2012, when I first came to Western Connecticut State University, one of my new colleagues asked me if I was more of a spreadsheet person or an idea person. I happily responded, ideas, and then found my life fully immersed in spreadsheets. The truth is that I am both. I have ideas every single day, but I need to ground them in data, considering the context and cost of an initiative, and planning to measure the impact. As far as I can tell one cannot lead without having some ideas and then vetting them; it is the job.

As I reflect on the work we have done over the last ten years, I see that a lot of good has come out of the back and forth between data and ideas. Our revised general education curriculum seems to have had a positive impact on our graduation rates. I can’t measure causality on this one, but I think the implementation of the First Year Navigation course as part of the gen-ed, coupled with greater transparency in our requirements must be part of the reason why those numbers have improved. I can say for sure that after it was implemented the number of requests for last minute waivers or course substitutions because students had missed a hidden rule in the requirements decreased. There is still room for improvement, but I think the change has overall been a win for student success. This work was completed through the work of our Committee on General Education, working through governance and responding to input. Not everyone was happy, but decisions were made.

Driven by enrollment data and the not so great news about declining high school graduates in New England, I have worked with colleagues to support the development of new graduate degree programs. These programs have been much more informed by regional workforce needs (nursing, addiction counseling, education, healthcare leadership) than our older paths to curriculum development. Indeed, we have had to face facts about enrollment data in some of those older degree programs and we made the decision to close a few. Whether these new programs will be enough to fill the gaps in recruitment at the undergraduate level remains to be seen, but the signs are promising, and I am monitoring outcomes. The curricular changes followed our normal governance processes, with a little extra support in terms of projected demand for new programs and a commitment to looking at our own enrollment trends for faltering programs. Not everyone was happy, but decisions were made.

Close scrutiny of our retention rates has led to the development of our new peer mentor program. After years of asking ourselves who we were losing, and in some cases, just feeling overwhelmed by the many potential factors, a look at the patterns in our retention data gave us clear direction. As the chief evaluator of our outcomes data, I instigated this conversation. Starting first with a standing university committee, I thought the path would be relatively smooth. Unfortunately, it was not, and after being rejected at that level, I moved to an ad hoc committee. The good news is some talented faculty and staff worked together to move this one forward. That bad news is it took three years to implement. There was progress, and we are measuring outcomes, but I was unsuccessful in communicating the urgency of the situation. Still, decisions were made.

As a strong believer in shared governance, I do my very best to move initiatives forward through our normal university processes. At WCSU, we have very positive governance structures in place, structures that I am immensely proud of, because they recognize the collaboration that must take place between faculty, staff, students, and administration. Most of our committees have representation from all of those constituencies on them. This encourages free discussion and the engagement of ideas from all areas. Most of the time this works very well, if somewhat ploddingly. Nevertheless, there are moments when an idea does not really fit in our normal structures and I generally choose to ask for an ad hoc committee to be appointed (sometimes by me, sometimes through Senate leadership), to explore those ideas. Unfortunately, these committees do not seem to reach the point where decisions can be made.

Over the last few years, I have relied on ad hoc committees to try to help me sort through several initiatives or questions. Of those several, only one has managed to truly move an idea forward. It has been a lesson in leadership for me. To be clear, I have utterly failed to impress upon those involved, the importance of the initiatives for the university’s future. It is likely that I was less than clear in the goals as well. I take the blame for the lack of clarity, but I am perplexed as to what to do next.

It isn’t that I expected those committees to return reports that looked exactly like what I thought they would when we started the conversation. If that were the case, it would not be an ad hoc committee exploring a question, but an implementation team. The point of the committees was to look at the starting material/question and then consider a variety of ways to address those questions. In this spirit I met with each group to outline what I thought the pertinent questions about the topic were and then opened things up for the questions and ideas. In each case, the committees asked for clarifications, which I tried to provide, and then they went to work. I stepped back and let the group’s wisdom take hold.

Unfortunately, in nearly every case, people seemed to either be unable to resolve debates within the committee, or they veered off in an unanticipated direction that completely transformed the original charge. Oh well. People did their best. Obviously I was not clear enough. That’s life.

Except some of these committees were formed to address urgent questions, questions that could have an impact on enrollment, or on campus climate, or on the general direction of the university, as we adjust to enrollment challenges and recover from a pandemic. Oh well, just doesn’t cut it. I have failed to lead.

This puts me in a quandary. You see, I don’t just say I embrace shared governance, I mean it. I know the limits of my imagination and I value the dialogue that our processes support. But I have clearly reached the limits of ad hoc committees because they are not leading to action. We need to take action. It is urgent.

I need a new path. I have to figure out how to move urgent things forward, things that have the potential to transform or bolster our campus, so that we might thrive in the face of that demographic cliff we are all staring at. Not all of our next steps will fit neatly into our defined structures so I can’t just default to the usual paths. I still value the input of the many, in all that we do, but I am worried about pace and I am worried about distractions. Decisions have to be made. It is time to regroup.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

The Ecosystem of Higher Education

According to Brittanica.com, an ecosystem is “the complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their relationships in a particular unit of space.” This concept reminds us to look at how things interact with and influence each other rather than focusing on isolated instances of things. A convenient metaphor for interactions within commercial spaces, this term has been applied to contexts outside of the biological, things like healthcare, technology, housing, and so on. Today, I am thinking about higher education through the ecosystem lens.

Several years ago, I was at a legislative breakfast – a semi-annual ritual where our university hosts our local representatives to give them updates on all that is going on at WCSU. These are often pleasant affairs where we get to know each other and talk about our challenges, but also our strengths. At one such meeting, I was asked a pointed question out our university outcomes. The College Navigator tool had just become widely available, and so the focus on comparisons between schools and their retention and graduation rates had come into sharp focus. It was an interesting moment because it was clear that the tool itself did not yet give a context to those numbers, a context that should have demonstrated the differing expectations for those numbers depending on the type of school. I endeavored to explain.

While every college and university strives to support every student to degree completion, there are striking differences in types of campuses, programs, and student needs at each. All of those differences impact our outcomes. It is no surprise that elite campuses, who only admit the most prepared students, have very high retention and graduation rates. If they did not, it would be cause for concern. As admissions standards open to a more inclusive group of students, those numbers change. When you add things like the proportion of residential vs. commuter students, high need vs. middle income students, state appropriations sufficient to support reasonable student to advisor and student to faculty ratios, those numbers change again. Despite the goal of 100% degree completion all of these factors make a big difference in those outcomes.

Now, it is not the case that a campus has no agency. Prioritizing a focus on student success strategies can make a difference. Investing in opportunities for faculty to engage new research about teaching can make a difference. Focusing on fundraising to help support those tremendously important last dollar student grants – grants that can keep a student from stopping out for lack of a few hundred dollars – can make a difference. If a campus can manage to do all of these things, it will likely rise to the top of the list for student outcomes among its peer group (taking into account all of those other variables).

But on that day eight or nine years ago, I was actually discussing something more akin to that ecosystem idea. In Connecticut that ecosystem includes UCONN (the research university that many outside of CT think is a private university), the Connecticut State Universities (regional comprehensives – 2 large, 2 small), Community Colleges throughout the state, Charter Oak College (the public online college), and a significant number of private colleges and universities (Sacred Heart, Fairfield, University of Hartford, Quinnipiac, University of New Haven, Yale, Trinity, and there are more). I was arguing, at that time, that we had different jobs to do, different students to serve, and we needed to be understood from that perspective. Don’t evaluate colleges and universities on one data point, I said, you want us to be different so that all students in the state have options. You need to consider how we work together. That was then.

Now we are all staring at that long-warned demographic cliff, and in a state as small as Connecticut, our crowded ecosystem has reached a critical moment. With so many of us competing for the same students with similar programs and accreditations, we are out of balance, and something will have to give.

But wait there’s more. Although most of us offer some online programs, large online providers from out of state are here, and their impact is already being felt. We have also seen the growth in popularity of Coursera, Google, and Amazon education programs, giving strength to the argument that there are many ways to prepare graduates for the jobs available in the region. That crowded landscape, coupled with the not so quiet questions being asked about the value of our traditional models, is causing panic (and it should), but perhaps it might inspire invention and adaptation instead.

As I think about our overbuilt higher education ecosystem, not just in CT, but in all of the Northeast, the natural impulse is to think about campus differentiation. Should we try to apportion out who will offer what? That question has been asked for years and outside of a few specialties, it is largely impossible to achieve. Universities must have a broad range of programs that interact with each other to create a quality liberal arts degree. We might haggle over a few specific degrees, but overall, there really isn’t room for much differentiation. This is a path that will not yield much change.

But I am wondering if this is an opportunity to adapt to this crowded landscape in a different way. Instead of focusing on the programs we offer, maybe we can specialize in approaches to teaching and learning. I’m thinking about a much more defined campus experience, curricular and co-curricular that are organized around a consistent teaching and learning model. It might be thought through based on those conditions I described at the outset -the types of students we serve and the types of campuses we support. Focusing on teaching and learning, instead of programs might help us find our niches, without losing the breadth of subject matter that we so value. It might allow us to improve our outcomes and be more specific about the kinds of support our campuses need to achieve these ends. It might help us articulate our specific value within this crowded world of higher education.

Taking this approach might help us reposition our questions about how many programs we can support, to how we might build a true educational identity that draws in an appropriate audience of students who have an excellent chance of success. I don’t know if this strategy could work, but what I do know is that something is going to have to change. We are at a tipping point in this ecosystem, so I am thinking it through.

Engagement, Evaluation

Learning from Students

For the last ten years I have been a full-time administrator. In that time, I’ve focused on student learning outcomes and university effectiveness. I’ve obsessed over better pathways through WCSU, hoping to eliminate the unintentional barriers to graduation and policies that are too heavy handed, punishing all students for the poor behavior of the few. I regularly review all the data I can gather about who is succeeding and who is not, trying to address gaps and make things better. Some of those efforts have been effective, improving our overall outcomes; some do not seem to have made a difference. Nevertheless, I forge ahead in that continuous improvement cycle, because it is my job and because I care.

This semester, due to a series of events (read COVID), I am back in the classroom. Adding one course to my insane workload might seem crazy, but it turns out to be the very best part of my week. I am teaching Public Speaking (something I can manage to keep up with, since so much of the feedback is in the classroom), and truly enjoying the interactions with the students. They are as I remember, equal parts interested and ambivalent about their education. Some are always early to class, others often late. Everyone starts the morning looking at their phones. It is my job to get them to look up.

This is a very active class, with a lot of what I call “pop-ups” to help students fight the pervasive fear of public speaking. During most classes, everyone gets up in front of the class to tell us something. You can learn a lot about your students from popups. They reveal attitudes, interests, and experiences that help me see what they are experiencing in the class and in their lives. This is also a First-Year class focused on orientation to college, so a lot of the prepared speeches focus on things at the university. Last Friday the students presented their first informative speeches and I learned a lot about the student experience at WCSU.

Lesson 1: Our study spaces matter. It is not surprising that many students focused their informative speeches on physical spaces. It is a very open-ended assignment – tell us about something at WCSU- so several students identified locations to describe. Those who did emphasized those places where they can sit down and get some work done. I was happy to hear their tales of using our library, computer Labs, quiet lounges and not so quiet spaces to get through the day. Developing these kinds of spaces has been part of our campus master plan and the facilities team has done a great job of finding spaces in every building for students to land. Our library faculty and staff have completely reimagined the library as a campus hub, with academic supports (tutoring, research, writing center) and a bagel shop. This one assignment tells me that our efforts were worth it.

But it isn’t just that they described the spaces, they described their days. They told tales that were familiar to me because I was a commuter student many years ago. With classes spread out throughout the day, and the inefficiency of going home or traveling between our two campuses, our spaces are essential for managing gaps between classes. Having those spaces near help (library) and faculty (science building in particular) was seen as a big bonus. Having access to computers (all over campus) helps them do assignments that are a pain on their mobile devices (even laptops). And being able to find a quiet space to study or a more social space that might help them meet other students was revealed to be essential.

Lesson 2: Our students are interested in co-curricular activities as part of their undergraduate experience. As a majority commuter campus, we sometimes worry about the students who stop in for class and just go home. Yet, this was not what the students in my class focused on. There are athletes (commuter and residential) who described the demands of their practices and games and how they juggle those demands. As first year students, the athletes faced a big transition from high school sports and college. This transition was described as both intimidating and rewarding. Other students talked about being part of our arts programs and hoped to lure some other students to the performances. This group seemed to have a built-in buddy system with their ensembles, exhibitions, and performances. Both of these groups of students appear to be thriving already because they have well-defined communities at WCSU, filled with both curricular and co-curricular activity.

But our offerings are not suiting all of the students’ needs. For several, who are not in those well-defined cohorts, our clubs are falling short. Every campus likes to brag that students can start any club they’d like, and that is sort of true, but it is not something that a first-year student is inclined to do. Finding something of interest is important for these students so that they do connect with others and with the campus experience outside of the classroom. It was clear that our communication about this is falling short. I must admit I flinched as I heard tales of broken links, and missing details about who is involved or when a club might meet. In addition, the meeting times for these student-run organizations absolutely dissuade our commuter students from participation. They would have to return to campus after 8:00 pm, when they have already been to class, hung around between classes, and perhaps even gone to a part-time job. Even young people don’t really want to do that.

So, we have work to do here. One student suggested we survey students about their interests: I think we might need to do this every year. We also need to carve out some time slots during the day with no classes scheduled so that we can invite more to join in these activities. These are details about our campus that I suspected to be true but hearing it from the students directly, really brought it into focus. We need to help them participate if we want them to thrive.

Lesson 3: Given half a chance, the natural inclination of our students is to be supportive. This is particularly true in a class where everyone has to stand up in front of the room and deliver a speech. We all applaud, of course, that’s just good manners, but the supportiveness comes out in other ways. As we summarized the successes and areas for improvement after our first prepared speeches, students observed growth in their peers already. One noted that everyone’s voice was stronger and more controlled than the first pop-up, another observed that the topics were interesting, and the speakers were prepared. Suggestions for improvement focused on degrees, not absolutes–try to look around the room a bit more, make more eye contact, and try not to pace. These were offered as gentle encouragement. No one felt the need to be negative or harsh in those pointers.

This supportiveness is also expressed in their desire not to offend me as they apologize for lateness or absences or messing up a due date on an assignment. Surely they want my forgiveness (no points off), but I feel that there is also a desire not to appear rude or dismissive of the work we are doing together. In this FY class, I want to encourage that behavior; I want them to feel that I am supportive of them, too. I think carefully about my responses, hoping to support each student while encouraging improvement.

Most of what I have learned so far confirms the data that I regularly review, but teaching gives me a great opportunity to move away from my spreadsheets and see things first-hand again. Being in the classroom brings the trend lines to life and in some cases, makes clear some patterns that those lines don’t fully reveal. I am not sure I will be able to teach another course anytime soon, but I am grateful for this opportunity to learn from our students. The lessons they provide are powerful, indeed.

Higher Education, Thinking

Time and Space

There were a few flurries on my way to work this morning and with them came the inevitable barrage of email messages asking, “Are we closing?” Last year at this time, we did not honor the notion of a snow day because we were set up for flipping online at any moment. Everyone had equipment at home. Everyone had to be ready for all contingencies. Snow days were an old-fashioned notion that should no longer interfere with education. This year things are different. We’re back in the classroom and we want our snow days back!

Whew! As a New Englander, I am a big fan of the found moments that snow days can bring. Time to finish a project, uninterrupted. Time to shovel the snow, a task I still enjoy. Time to take a nap that I never expected to take. Except we had our first snow day on Friday, and none of this was true. That snow day was a meeting filled workday for me. Darn that Zoom/WebEx/TEAMS/GoogleMeets platform. Oh well, snow days were a nice idea.

Of course, when we all moved online in 2020, the idea that you couldn’t continue education from any location became suspect. We all stepped up the COVID-19 challenge and found a way to continue providing the best possible education in multiple, but mostly remote formats. We doubled-down on (constant) cyber-connectivity and forged a new educational path together. We adjusted to the realities of our crash courses in online instruction (and the skills we hadn’t fully mastered), the lack of sufficient coordination of online and on-ground experiences (which, made getting access to a quiet space on a computer when needed, a challenge of our students); and the experience of “zoom fatigue” that wore everyone out. We should be proud of our flexibility and responsiveness, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that even as we venture back into the classroom, our world has fundamentally changed.

It is time for us to recognize that our expectations about education and work have radically shifted and we now expect flexibility. This is why a faculty member who, prior to COVID-19, thought teaching online was totally inappropriate for their discipline, now writes at the first sign of snow – “Can I switch to online for the day?” This is why departments who have offered a few online classes for years, now don’t know how to choose who gets to teach online and who does not because now everyone wants a course or two online. They don’t understand why there might be limits to what we should offer. This why some students are irritated that they can’t get that one last course online so they can finish up, while they start a new job or relocate or otherwise juggle their education with something else. This is why people in higher education who do non-instructional work that can be just as effectively completed from home, do not understand why administration might say no to a fully remote schedule. And so on.

These shifting expectations have thrown a wrench into our typical planning processes. Sometimes our conversations get a bit heated because we are looking at each question or need from a single person’s perspective. Without fully defining the overall goals, opportunities, or problems we want to solve with flexible working and learning opportunities, decisions will appear capricious or stubborn. There is a lot to sort out here and I am really doing my best to envision the whole, even as the best paths are still eluding me. What is most important to recognize is that the questions we are asking reveal a fundamental shift in how we define higher education. That shift will have unintended consequences, so we’d better think things through. Here are a few linked thoughts that I’m wrestling with:

  1. What is the value of learning on campus? Is it essential or is it a nice to have? Does it need to happen daily, weekly, monthly? For whom is it essential? Why? If the answer is campus is less valuable than we once thought, then how many classrooms do we really need? If on-ground learning is less than essential to a good education, then do we lose the developmental part of higher education (helping teenagers become adults) that we have so heavily invested in in the United States?
  2. Is it possible to reimagine our working/learning flow in a way that makes it easy to transition between on-ground and online environments? Do we have the resources to ensure that all students and faculty have the proper equipment? Do we have the resources to make sure that all faculty understand the important differences between online instruction, remote instruction, and hybrid courses and how pivot between them? How do we make sure the transition doesn’t undermine students who really only do well in one of these modalities? How do we make sure that switching does not negatively impact other things like attendance at events or participation in co-curricular programs or signing up to live in the residence halls? Again, does being on campus matter?
  3. Is it important for faculty and staff to be on campus all the time? What are the things that make it important to be physically present? What messages are we sending if the dominant experience of our campuses is walking down hallways with closed doors/empty rooms? If we look for greater flexibility, how much office space do we need? Should we go with more shared offices and create alternating schedules? How many buildings do we need? Parking?

I know lots of folks have been thinking about this for a long time. Some have transitioned to mostly online universities, while others consider the classic campus experience to be the very definition of what a college education should be. Those of us at regional comprehensives have played with small pieces of these questions for years, but now it is time to fully think it through. It is complicated for us, because we serve such diverse learners looking for very different experiences. Whatever answer we end up with will involve a complicated matrix of variables. But we all got a big dose of “it could work differently” last year. Now that we’re back, we are wondering why it doesn’t.

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.