Sunday, October 11, 2009

Is it possible to focus on learning as a president of a state university?

Sometimes it takes the convergence of two events to make the obvious, well, obvious. For me it was the publication of Wannabe U. an account of the effect of "the market" on administrators at an aspiring state university (U Conn, speculates Inside Higher Ed) overlapping with the inauguration of my friend Matt Holland as the new president of Utah Valley University.

Matt is my age (early 40s) and looked at one way, an unlikely president. Only two years ago he was named Associate Professor of Political Science at BYU. He has essentially no administrative experience. And he is an inspiring teacher, one of the few able to really make learning happen in BYU's largest classes (900 students at a time). He is from a prominent education family though, well connected in higher ed, state government, and the LDS Church, and a really fine guy.

He was hired at UVU largely because of his academic credentials. Given his lack of administrative background, and his solid academic bona fides, one might think that his inauguration would focus heavily on the learning goals of UVU. No such luck.

Instead, the charge from the Board of Regents, the talks by the Commissioner of Higher Ed (and Matt's own talk) were put almost entirely in administrator-speak. Build the brand, be efficient, raise funds, make students feel comfortable, strengthen the economic infrastructure, attend to the interests of local business, be relentlessly positive, pretend that it is possible to do everything, etc.

I'm an administrator and I heard a lot of my own rhetoric in the inaugural talks (especially that it is possible to do everything simultaneously). But at least at Westminster, a private school, the rhetoric of administrators and faculty share a focus on student learning. If we can't convince students that the education they get here is worth the cost, they won't come here. And if their learning isn't worth the cost, they will go someplace else, perhaps UVU.

UVU is a good school--the most innovative in Utah Valley, with great faculty, strong community connections, and satisfied students. And it is deeply committed to making higher education accessible to low-income, first generation, english-language learners and others who otherwise might not get a degree. But it seems that these students, more than any other group, deserve an intense focus on learning, from faculty, staff, administrators, regents, and the President. I hope Matt is able to do that. Given the remarks from his bosses, it will be an uphill climb.

1 comment:

Bryce said...

Really interesting observations Gary. For me, it raised the question of whether an institution's focus on increasing accessibility to higher ed. decreases its ability to focus on doing things that promote really good learning for students.

Often discussions about accessibility center on cost, and it seems that many institutions deal with that challenge by working to become "more efficient." Too often that means two things: (1) stripping away programs and resources that are not seen as "cost-effective" (frequently the most likely to lead to learning) and (2) by focusing so much on the business of higher ed that no time or attention can be spent on learning.

Can large state schools like UVU increase accessibility while also providing an education truly focused on learning?