PODCAST: Discussion of the Land Grant Mission with written thoughts about how I am beginning to think that higher ed has lost its way (a work in progress).
RIn this short podcast I discuss the passion I had for the land grant mission, as well as singing about the bus tour we took with new faculty so they could become familiar with the State and where their students were coming from. I still have this passion of the transformational mission of public higher education that you will hear in this podcast and the goal of not only transforming students, but communities.
My thoughts have changed, though, as the clock struck midnight and I found myself no longer in a leadership role. Although I believe in the trasnformational mission with my whole heart, and I hear academic leaders parroting these words, their actions and pretense make me think that higher ed has lost its way. To be fair, the business models for public research institutions don't appear to be sustainable into the future. Maybe our institutions are metaphorical typewriter manufactures trying stay alive under attack by personal computers. Is that the endpoint?
Sometimes higher ed is its own worst enemy. It is a difficult environment for public institutions because they must respond to the needs and wants of a wide array of stakeholders- provosts and chancellors live tightly squeezed between a rock and a hard place- there are often no good decisions, The politics of higher education is insane (we act like this is new but it has been this way since the 60s) with harsh criticisms from external and internal constituents from both the right and the left. The energy and work involved in navigating the gauntlet of various constituents is exhausting, inevitably leading many leaders to cloister themselves in an echo chamber, forced to rely on obfuscation and hyperbole to manage internal and external constituents; and to often make decisions on what is best for their own survival in the job or their career trajectory, as opposed to what is best to meet the mission of the university beyond just securing the funds to survive.
More to come on this, but here are few things that bug me:
As for research, external grants bring in a lot of money that builds infrastructure, purchases equipment, pays for undergraduate research assistants, graduate students, postdocs and the research portion of faculty salaries, and it increases prestige and the ability of research institution to raise philanthropic funds. It also pays the salaries of a lot of people that alone drives strong economic benefits to college towns. But, universities sometimes talk about external research funding as if it can replace state funding or tuition- it can't. And, the more research grows, the higher the costs of operating a university. Some universities receive flexible revenue from commercializing technologies, but most university technology commercialization offices lose money. Research, scholarship and creative activities are powerful and positive societal forces. Sometimes those activities truly fuel innovation and have positive impacts on economic development. Many of those activities are not net-revenue generating, but the work can impact fields of study, expand understanding of the world, or cause reflection on what it means to be human and to live in a civil society. There is no question that research is a positive force, but is there a way to be honest about the costs that is sometimes shifted to student, and to be honest, without hyperbole, with our internal and external constituents?
And, perhaps, most importantly, there is a tradition of teaching founded in equality and not equity. Faculty have been taught through their entire careers, starting as undergraduates, to treat students equally. They are asked to have guidelines that specify clear and inflexible rules in syllabi. They do this because university culture has determined that approach is fair. This approach, of course, assumes, that students are equal at the beginning of class- equal in their preparation, their life circumstances, their mental health, and everything else. Students who do not feel equal, are often required to file for accommodations from disability offices to get some flexibility. With this minor adjustment, and assuming all students were equal at the beginning of the class, faculty go about the business of teaching, knowing that they will end up with a bell curve of grades, often with as much as half the class doing barely or less than satisfactory work. And, they assume that this proves their teaching is fair and their assessments are rigorous.
Equity n the classroom requires a different approach. First, one starts with the assumption that students do not come to the classroom under equal circumstances. Then there is engagement (and discovered that it is possible to engage in large class, if one puts in the effort to care) with each student in order to meet them "where they are" and give them support and flexibility they need, within the boundaries of the art of the possible. Faculty have the power to exercise empathy in our classrooms. Caring, support and flexibility are often reciprocated with engagement and interest in the material, at least from my experience. Not surprisingly, students engage and do better in a course if they think the professor cares. Also, good teachers should be able to help most, if not all, students to meet and exceed the learning objectives of a course and receive high grades. That can be done by creating a foundation in classrooms where each student is met where they are and provided, as best that is possible, what they need to reach their potential. In having equality as the foundation of a classroom, the reality students come to the classroom with anything but an equal set of preparation and personal circumstances is ignored. Perhaps, some day, universities will stop talking about equity, and actually implement it widely in classrooms.
The current business model, particularly for the large number of four year colleges and universities, though, is simply broken- one of the reasons it is broken is because the demography is such that we may not need all of the infrastructure (e.g., campuses) for higher education that we have. Maybe a small number of schools will (have) figured out how to create a massive, net revenue generating, online presence or public-private partnership, to offset growing costs of research, technology, people, and athletics (if not self-supported). Many institutions will focus on an expanded online presence with more completion options (e.g., badges, certificates, certifications in addition to degrees) and on retention of students. But, massive online presences can't be achieved by every school, and there is ultimately a limit of how much can be squeezed out of increased retention of students, especially in the more elite public research institutions that may have first year retention over 90%. At some point. increasing investments to squeeze the last bit out of student retention will have a negative ROI.
Business officers often believe that faculty are the source of resistance to change; that the problem with the budget model are unnecessary expenses in academic affairs or the need to build more and more costly amenities for students. A CFO I know would confront the challenges of the business model by: 1) Getting rid of all non-professional programs and abolish or shrink liberal arts, humanities and social science; 2) Increase faculty teaching loads and greatly reduce workloads associated with research and service; 3) Get rid of tenure and expand/reduce the faculty workforce in sync with expansions or declines in enrollment revenue; 4) Reduce spending on non-core activities in student affairs and athletics; and 5) Reduce the number of employees, particularly faculty to create a much small cost per credit hour. If one plays out this model in one's head, it seems this would be a kin to creating a "no-frills" airline. or, perhaps, a technology education oriented community college. That model would make sense if technology-oriented community colleges were the most financially stable of higher education institutions. But, overall, the business model for community colleges seems even more broken than for public research institutions
A challenge with the narrative that change is needed and needed now, is that universities waste a ton of resources, in sending campus employees into chaotic Brownian motion. The message for the need for everyone to be in nervous motion is that something must be done, anything, because doing something, rather than nothing, even poorly thought out tactics, is better than nothing, and will slow the march to the edge of the cliff and maybe turn around. Chaotic Brownian motion, however, rarely solves a problem and usually ends up costing money because of poor implementation of poorly thought-out strategies; costing time that might be better spent elsewhere; and reducing the morale of faculty and staff, which saps the positive energy needed to overcome a crisis. In such cases, doing something in a rash and poorly thought manner, may only speed up the coming of the cliff's edge.
For public research institutions, a major challenge is declining financial support from state government. As a former senior administrator, we believed a significant reason for the declining support was the inability to make a case for an institution's value to the State. For over 25 years, I've been involved with trying to tell the story better- the significant impact and return on investment that research institutions have on the economic well being of the State; the impact that graduates have through creating a talented and diverse workforce who become leaders, health care providers, educators, business owners, and public servants; the role of research institutions in attracting industry or creating new start-up companies; the improvements of the lives of people in communities across a state through outreach and engagement. These are all true-- but the arguments and the data have not won the day.
Is the reason the arguments have not one the day because of how they are presented? Personally, I think they aren't. A narrative has been evolving for a long time that higher education is: a left-wing oriented industry that is not providing effective education for many students; incapable of presenting clear and transparent data on what drives rising costs and how tuition and state dollars are spent; characterized by a sense of self-righteous entitlement; conducting research, scholarship and creative activities that nobody cares about except other academics; allowing tenured faculty to remain in well-paid jobs while they underperform; lacking any self-reflection; and led by snake-oil salesman that communicate to boards and funders with the hyperbole and superficial content of TV commercials. Like all narratives, there is some truth to this one, but for the most part it is wildly inaccurate.
It is really hard to turn around such a narrative (or any narratives). First, humans have evolved to quickly create narratives (stories) from their perceptions. Once those narratives are created, they are hard to change. It is simply far easier for the human mind to find data to support an already created narrative and to ignore data inconsistent with that narrative, than it is to create a new narrative based on new data. And, given the large array of constituents that universities are trying to support, leaders and faculty end up saying, publishing and/or doing things are consistent with some part of the narrative that strengthens the entire story. Second, public institutions in particular, are political entities. They were created by political action and win support through a political process. Political process and perspective are often not moved by data.
Is it possible to shape a revised or new narrative, at least without fundamentally changing the core mission of propelling students on to great lives; doing research and related activities that change fields and improve people's lives; and improve the well being of people and communities? I don't know. I've seen the narrative change in people who have the opportunity to engage deeply with institutions or their leaders over periods of several years. But, I don't think the narrative can change with universities simply being better at marketing. In the end, it is about building trust with all of the stakeholders. Hyperbole and unbridled enthusiasm is not the way to build trust. Authenticity and honesty go much further. It is always risky to be authentic and honest because that requires exposing weaknesses and bad decisions that provide data in support of the negative narrative. I don't know of any other way to build trust but I can't say I have seen that approach work in my time as a senior administrator, either. Your ideas are welcome.