Monday, December 26, 2011

The virtue of holding something back

American culture today (and throughout much of its history) has made a virtue of holding nothing back. Occasionally this is an act of democracy, for keeping secret what shouldn't be is a bad thing, and keeping power in the hands of a few rather than sharing it broadly is another.

But by holding nothing back, I am talking about a cultural tendency to extravaganza, extremism, and violence; to an economic tendency to spend as much as possible, to keep interest rates near zero, to seek growth for growth's sake; to a political tendency to let the winner take all, to propose grandiose responses, to police much of the world; to a personal tendency to want more, to work more, to imagine that doing more is the answer to any challenge.

When the economy is poor, or the future uncertain, this holding nothing back is tinged with desperation, as if throwing everything we have at it must certainly be the solution to the crisis before us.  It makes our culture mean; not solely in the sense of being unkind (though that is certainly the case when a person says whatever is on their mind about an opponent), but also in the sense of being sordid or crass.

For an illustration of what I mean, go see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Get there early to watch the previews. You will see trailers for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, John Carter, and Battleship, among others.  These are all essentially the same movie, with only variations in locale, accent, and the faces of the bad guys accounting for their different names.  In each, some big organization or network hatches an evil conspiracy to destroy the world.  The people you would expect to stop this sort of conspiracy are either involved or so incompetent that a small band of fighters are the only ones who can stop it.  Fortunately the fighters are strong, violent, smart, and possessed of massive destructive capacities (or able to steal them), and so in the end the good guys win by holding nothing back.  No act of violence, no trickery, no weapon is too much.  When, in Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson uses a howitzer to save Holmes' life by toppling a light tower which guards an arsenal built to plunge the world into total war, you know that you long ago escaped the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and landed right in America, 2011.

So, now, in praise of holding something back.  Whatever you think of Christianity today, the origin story, celebrated during the same season as the release of blockbuster action films, is all about holding something back.  God holds back, placing the hopes and fears of all the years, in an infant born in modest circumstances to modest people, in a backwater town in a backwater portion of the Roman empire.  The story of Jesus' life is similarly modest,  with his service and teachings being directed at the lowly, and with him regularly reticent when asked about his power and purpose.  It is telling that the temptations Jesus overcomes are of wanting it all--his immediate desired gratified, control of all earthly power and finally the power of God. He resists them by holding back what he already knows about himself--that he is god.

The story of Buddha is similarly modest.  He could not become enlightened as an extremist, be it one of wealth or one of asceticism. But his modesty and endurance ultimately led him to awaken, after which modesty remained the hallmark of his preaching and his community of followers. No great buildings for him, no self-aggrandizement (in fact, no self at all).  Distrust of dogma and solutions.  Just consistency, temperance, and the openness to learning that comes from humility.

We can learn from these stories that holding something back is at the basis of human obligation one to another.  To hold something back is to not say the thing that is true but hurtful, it is to ponder things in your heart, it is to have enough in reserve (be it  money, or time, or energy, or love) to be able to feed a person unexpectedly hungry, to welcome strangers, to adjust course in light of new insights, to give a bit more when it is needed, to take less than is offered, to demand less than you might wish, to learn rather than simply to know.

Holding something back, (call it what you will--modesty, temperance, prudence, humility, moderation) is a personal virtue.  It seems to be an imperative if someone wishes to live satisfied and get to know the transcendent better.  It is an educational virtue, for it puts learning not certainty at the heart of schooling.  And it is also a civic virtue, lying at the center of people's ability to govern themselves, to solve problems, to imagine a community built on something more than geography, wealth, and power, to trust others.

We could use more of holding back.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In memoriam: Vaclav Havel

For maybe an hour the big news Sunday was of the passing of the Czech playwright, dissident, and President Vaclav Havel.  Then Kim Jong Il died, and Havel's passing slipped out of the news and into the margins.

That is a shame, for Havel's life and work teach two important lessons that we will never get from the death of the North Korean dictator.

Havel was a humanist who retained his humanism as President. While it is increasingly rare for people with humanities backgrounds to ascend to political leadership (unless one retains a romantic view of the law as a humanistic discipline), it is almost unheard-of for them to keep the perspectives of the humanities while in office.  Consider, for example, Newt Gingrich, who though once a historian, eschews all of the tentativeness, contingency, and love for questions that makes history a discipline that matters for humanity.  In its place he inserts the vague, laudatory references to a few leaders of the past that suggest only that he has read more than we have, so we best shut up. Havel, though, never allowed his political power to eclipse his commitment to the humanities.  Perhaps this was because the humanities had cost him so much, getting him imprisoned and leading to scorn during Czechoslovakia's communist period.  Or perhaps it is because the humanities are so easy to come by in America today--mandated in schools and less challenging than science--that we have forgotten how valuable they are in leaders.

Havel was also a politician who remembered that there are things more important than politics.  In this, his background as a playwright and essayist served him well, and while the rigors of political leadership pressed him he continued to call for space and time in public life to assert the importance of non-political things.  In the US we rarely hear this sort of thing from anywhere in public life.  One is either encouraged to believe that politics are the most important thing out there, or that much of the rest of life is essentially political anyway, and distinguishable from electoral politics only in the way that power is allocated.  For Havel, though, and for   a few conservatives and people dedicated to the notion of a good life that extends beyond the political, human life and social relations are much bigger an more satisfying than politics.

We would be wise to recall this fact, and to demand it. When communism flourished people in the West could suggest that it was the only political system that threatened to consume all of public space. But in the aftermath of its fall, it is clear that organized politics, regardless of their ilk, look to seep into those parts of life that are best kept apart from politics--the home, the civic organization, the church, the book club, and the other third places that develop the perspective, patience, discipline, joy, and maturity to keep people free.

My favorite non-fiction works from Havel are Disturbing the Peace and Summer Meditations,  the latter written while he was President, but calling for citizens to recall the importance of morality and civility even in the face of political systems that threaten those virtues, either by destroying them or by claiming them as the realm of politics.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Can higher education be anti-poverty?

Among the disheartening bits of news yesterday was this: that according to the Census Bureau, half of the population of the US is poor or low-income. While there is debate over the definition and meaning of the statistics, they are simply the latest to indicate that income disparity and poverty in the US are high and rising.

One wonders what colleges and universities can do.  On the one hand a college education still, on average, is worth a significant amount of money through the life of the graduate. Unemployment is lower among those with degrees than among those without. Many community colleges are deeply committed to job training. And college access as a pathway to economic opportunity is a major issue in higher education.

But job training and access are not the same things as working against poverty.  And understanding and reducing poverty are rarely found among college's desired learning outcomes in the way that critical thinking, leadership, sustainability, civic engagement, or understanding diversity are.

Given the ways that colleges and universities work, there do seem to be some clear first steps to mounting an educational attack on poverty.  Place the reduction of poverty on the list of a college's goals.  Study poverty  and work as part of the curriculum, both in majors and in general education.  Focus on the application of learning in the workplace. Ensure that entrepreneurship programs are open to students in all disciplines.  Guard against the assumption that poverty is solely economic or that wealth is the alternative to poverty.  Establish a poverty center that looks and acts like diversity and civic engagement centers.  Establish micro-lending programs to aid students.  Track poverty as part of alumni surveys.  Establish pay scales that narrow the gap between the best-paid and the least-paid employees of the institution. Link poverty reduction to the campus' mission.  And keep the issue at the center of the publications, speeches, web content, and reputation of the institution.

Can small colleges support a small future?

Bill McKibben is among the many people arguing that a decentralized, localist future is our best bet for economic well-being, environmental sustainability, and democracy. Mark Mitchell's summary of McKibben's most recent essay on the topic highlights a couple of interesting trends--a small increase in the number of farms (almost entirely led by an increase in small farms), for example--that suggest that a decentralist future may be in the offing.  There are plenty of other economic trends pointing in the same direction.  Small-scale production is easier and more common than in the past, locavore restaurants are spreading, entrepreneurship is spreading, charter schools allow a more localist K-12 education, and with the failure of national government on many fronts, state and local politics is more significant now than before.

Taken together these trends (or hints--who knows if they will be trends) suggest a move towards the small-scale in a number of sectors.  It is ironic then, that while much of the culture and economy is opening to the small and local, higher education is moving in the opposite direction.  Small private colleges and universities are struggling to stay alive.  Many of them are pursuing a national strategy to do so, recruiting students from all over the US (and the world) and mimic-ing the curriculum, offerings, practices, faculty roles, and aspirations of large universities and prestigious private schools with national reputations. The particular is out in higher education; the global is in. Put simply, while much of the economy is organizing around small and local enterprises, small, local colleges and universities are trying to get bigger and more national.

The reasons why are clear.  Many small colleges are in small, rural locations, where there simply aren't enough potential students to fill the classrooms.  Many sectors of the curriculum favor the general, abstract, and cosmopolitan over the particular, local, and concrete.  And the PhD programs that train faculty are overwhelmingly in large universities with national/global reputations and orientations. It may be the case, then, that a localist, decentralized future will lack a higher education component to support it.

There are a couple of hopeful signs.  Municipalities in Arizona have started funding new colleges in the face of declining state support. These city-sponsored schools, unlike existing big city systems like CUNY, are committed to meeting the needs of the municipality.  Localism is spreading on the internet, often impelled by professors (like those writing for Front Porch Republic and Anamnesis). And academic attention to the meaning of place continues apace.

Right now global studies programs are emerging on campuses all over the US, and study abroad programs are increasingly popular. If small colleges and universities are interested in remaining relevant in a localist future, one would hope that they would pair programs in particularism with those on globalism, that study at home would be as important as study abroad, and that their leadership, faculty, and commitments are as strongly to the well-being of the communities they call home as they are to the broader world.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The future(s) of religious higher education

I have an ongoing interest in the intersection between religion and higher education for many reasons that readers of this blog might have noted--I'm religious myself (or perhaps religiously confused might be more accurate), I'm convinced that some spiritual practices have great potential for secular higher education, and I'm beginning to suspect that faith-based institutions do a much better job on institutional vision and the development of students than their secular counterparts do.

To these reasons let me add one more:  that current and historic practices in the creation of churches might provide some insights into ways to respond to challenges facing higher education.

Carol Howard Merritt's post "Ten Church Models for a New Generation" neatly summarizes emerging practices among people wanting Christian churches to flourish.  There are five themes that run through them.

  • First, the church, like higher education, has moved away from the needs of its congregants, either by succumbing to the temptations of largeness and prominence or by remaining complacent while the world changes around it.  
  • Second, that successful innovations are coming in small settings, where the trappings of religion--big buildings, formal worship services--are less important than building a sense of common purpose among those who are participating.  
  • Third, that these new forms of congregations have, in many instances, developed new funding models as well, where the congregation is funded by proceeds from a coffee shop, say, or where the pastor is an entrepreneur.
  • Fourth, these newly successful congregations emerge from the efforts of a few people who plant a new congregation and nurture it while it grows into something sustainable.
  • Fifth, while in some new versions technology plays a central role, in most technology is secondary to the broader mission of the organization.
In this list one can see suggestions for institutions of higher education.  Particularly intriguing to me is the possibility of college-planting, where institutions of higher education select a couple of people to open what is essentially a store-front version of the home institution, dedicated to the particular needs of the people  who live nearby.  In a higher education landscape where even small colleges have hundreds of students, and where campuses are nearly always set off from their surroundings, store-front schools would be a place both to reach new participants, to innovate in education, and to build the sorts of relationships between learners and teachers that result in powerful learning.

Given that the trends that Merritt summarizes are emerging from the church, it may be that church-affiliated institutions are the first to move in the direction of small, emergent colleges.  But no school should overlook the potential of emergent churches to suggest ways to reach new communities of learners, explore new models of revenue, and reinvigorate the human relationships (and the understanding of those relationships) that were once at the core of what it meant to be an educated person.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Where enrollment management and the curriculum meet

Three quick stories about the interaction of curriculum and enrollment decisions.

Story 1
At each Board of Trustees meeting the chair of the faculty gets to make a report.  At the last Board meeting our chair, the chemist Paul Hooker, noted that it seems like his classes have become bi-modal, with a group of students performing better than ever, and another group less well-prepared to succeed in Chemistry than he has seen in his career. As a result he and his colleagues are spending more time working with struggling students and are starting to think about revising course content to better serve the entire class. Though Paul wouldn't have known it until we spoke after the meeting, his observation matches changes in our freshman class.  Years ago its academic profile was shaped like a bell curve, with the majority of students being solid but unspectacular.  Now, our class follows almost a perfect quintile shape, with about 20% of the freshmen falling into each of five categories of academic preparation.  No bell curve, but a much broader distribution of academic preparation.

Story 2
Four years ago Westminster started an innovative project-based degree completion program in business.  In it, students who have an associate's degree and at least 6 years of work experience can enroll in a program that convenes groups of students for short residencies a couple of times a semester.  The rest of the work the groups complete on-line, with faculty acting as coaches to the teams. The program is rigorous, aimed at people who want to be executives. The original research suggested that there were thousands of people who met the associate's degree and work experience requirements.  Since the program began, though, we have always struggled to fill it, because people with at least 6 years of work are generally not in a position to go back to school, while people who are completing associate's degrees generally don't have the required work experience.  Those who do have the combination of interest, education, and experience, take much longer to enroll than a regular student because their lives are so much more complicated.

Story 3
Our Liberal Education (LE) program looks like it will undergo revision at some time in the next couple of years.  Our current program has two distinctive requirements--the completion of a speech class and a diversity requirement--that aren't often met in associate's degree programs at community colleges.  For that reason, students transferring to the college rarely come in having completed the LE, and our ability to offer a 2+2 program is greatly diminished.  The discussions to date about revisions of the LE, though, have focused on surveying the faculty about their views of LE.

None of the stories above is an example of a disaster.  In each instance we have, or will, find a way to work through the difficulties born of a system (which is common throughout higher education) where enrollment management and the curriculum rarely meet. But it is worth thinking about why that is the case.

Decisions about the curriculum work their way through faculty committees under the aegis of the Provost.  Decisions about admissions and financial aid emerge from those organizations. Those decisions are shared at the President's cabinet, and through the regular conversations between faculty and admissions staff. It is not the case that the two sides of the institution never interact.  It is true that they mostly interact in the aftermath of decisions.

There are a couple of results of this lack of connection.  The first is that there are often inadvertent but not unpredictable results of decisions.  In the first instance above, the growth in the number of very strong students is driven by an increasing prominence, and more recently enrollment, in our honors programs, which for revenue purposes is matched by an increase in students with weaker academic credentials but a greater ability to pay.

The second result is to reinforce the divide between enrollment and academics.  In each instance above, since key decisions were taken by one side only, it is simple to believe that that side holds the responsibility for the outcome.  And where responsibility isn't shared, it is more difficult to share work.

This is a problem without a solution.  In most institutions, the work of the academic side and the work of the enrollment side are far enough apart, and effective enough when operating separately, that there isn't a lot of reason to change.  But we could make a small move in the direction of better communication if there was an enrollment manager, the Director of Admissions, let's say, who was an ex oficio member of the curriculum committee or the faculty senate.  And similarly it would go a long way if a faculty member served a year-long fellowship in admissions and financial aid--sitting in on discussions about recruitment and contributing to decisions about scholarships.  That small bit of shared work could go a long way towards making decisions where the results are not just predictable but predicted, and where the problems that do result get worked on jointly, not attributed to one side or the other.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Can you innovate and focus at the same time?

You can't bump into an education sage or a political pundit without hearing that the United States needs to be more innovative.  Steve Jobs was hailed as a heroic innovator at his death, Arne Duncan is calling for innovation in fixing college costs, Colorado's Governor John Hickenlooper has created an innovation initiative, and President Obama has argued that America must innovate its way out of our economic doldrums.

Institutions of higher education are particularly susceptible to the innovation argument, because they are under fire for being irrelevant, because they are the major location for research in the American economy, and because they have an overwhelming desire to distinguish themselves from each other.  But there are at least four major concerns with pushing innovation as a major value in education.
  1. Confusion--though colleges and universities talk about innovation--renewing an older thing to make it better and more meaningful--they often are hoping for invention--the creation of something almost entirely new.  The conflation of innovation and invention means that small innovations often lack the appeal and funding they would need to get established, while big sparkly new things get the go-ahead on the basis of their inventiveness.
  2. Integration--as my colleague Ian Symmonds has pointed out, without integration, innovations will lose their luster, remain isolated,and eventually wither rather than change the institution.  But unless institutions are purposeful about integration, it doesn't happen. 
  3. Leadership--Often innovation is associated with a leader (think Steve Jobs again) rather than an institution or a set of processes.  But as with other large institutions, higher education leaders come and go.  If innovations are tied to them, or sparked largely in their offices, the spirit of innovation may leave with them, or take on their own idiosyncrasies.
  4. Focus--At the same time that schools are being called on to innovate, quieter voices are calling on them to focus.  There is logic in this call, since without focus, many schools on limited budgets will fail to allocate resources wisely or pursue risky new activities to their detriment.  And in a crowded market, institutions that lack focus will get lost. Unfortunately, higher ed loves the lack of focus (we even have a name for it--the university).  But as Jim Collins argues in How the Mighty Fall, lack of focus is one of the major sins that lead healthy organizations to collapse.
Can organizations innovate and focus at the same time?  Of course they can, but to do so, they have to have a particular sort of innovation discipline.  The sources of innovation--those institutions, ideas, passions, practices that the institution will apply to a new context--have to be focused as well.

Here is what I mean.  Innovation is essentially taking something old and reworking it to be something new.  If an institution goes to the same few sources as birthplaces of its innovations, it can count on the innovations having at least some focus at the end.  So if a religious university wants to innovate it should comb the memories, writings, speeches, and histories of its religious tradition, looking for some idea that is analogous to the current situation.  If a teaching college wants to innovate and focus it needs to go back to the same well again and again--the same philosophers of education, say, or the same peer institutions, or the same sort of pedagogy.

Here Apple and Steve Jobs are instructive.  They have few products, all with the same look, feel, and appeal.  They have been innovative to be sure, but their focus is even more impressive.  Few colleges and universities have that same sort of limited product line and common design.  Instead they work incessantly on creating a brand--a logo, a color scheme, a tagline--to somehow make it seem like their sprawling programs and new initiatives feel like they come from the same place.  Most brands cannot live up to that task.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In memoriam: Dorothy Day

The Catholic social activist Dorothy Day died 31 years ago today. We usually don't celebrate the 31st anniversary of anything, but there are at least four good reasons to pay attention to her legacy today.
  1. For the impact she had during her life, Day is one of the least-remembered social activists of the 20th century, even among civic engagement professionals, and this in spite of her impact as an organizer and as a thinker.
  2. Her approach to civic engagement--which blended deep religiosity, a passion for community, clear-eyed views of human nature and the complexity of solving social problems, and skepticism of the power of government--is a good match for American culture today, where mistrust of government is rampant.
  3. Her response to poverty, racism, and inequity--the creation of houses of hospitality and the Catholic Worker movement--would be important examples to both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement if they wanted to turn their frustration into a positive program.
  4. Her political philosophy rooted in Catholic social teachings of distributism, subsidiarity, and solidarity should inspire thinkers and activists interested in local solutions to economic, community, and family challenges.
The best entree to her life and work is her autobiography The Long Loneliness  and Robert Coles' biography Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion.   A bit of my own thinking about how her legacy could influence contemporary city planning is here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Can private student loans lead to learning?

I've written here, here, here, here, and here about opportunities for social entrepreneurs to support student learning and make a profit on education. By noting these opportunities I don't mean to suggest that only the market can improve higher education.  But there are ways for creative folks to improve learning and make a living at it; opportunities that are currently being missed.

Here is another--loan money to students to pay for education.  Of course I know that this is an old idea, and  I of course understand that the federal government does most student loan lending, having taken over control of the industry only a few years ago.

Student borrowing is currently at the leading edge of the critique of higher education, with story after story of students borrowing huge sums of money and either not graduating, or graduating and being unable to repay their loans.  These stories share two characteristics--students who borrow at high rates, and who make bad educational decisions.

And the stories are right: student loans are expensive--the going rate being 6.8%, and the rate for PLUS loans and other private loans often being higher.  You can borrow money much less expensively for many things--a house and a car, for example.  And savers park money in accounts--be they savings accounts, money markets, treasuries, or other bonds--that pay a much lower interest rate, simply because they want secure returns in an uncertain market.

So here is the market opportunity: establish an organization, modeled on micro-lenders like the Grameen Bank, that loans money to students, advises them on how to succeed in school, and teaches them how to succeed in managing their money.  (The LDS Church does this on a small scale in the developing world through its Perpetual Education Fund.)

There is plenty of space between the rates that savers get on their savings, and the rate that the government charges on loans, to set a loan rate that is both more affordable and profitable.  And there is plenty of space in the market to attach training to these lower-cost loans, so that borrowers successfully move to graduation and support each other in pursuing employment, repaying loans, etc.  This is, after all, the micro-lending model: groups of borrowers support each other, and in so doing also improve loan repayment.

Who will be the first to enter?  Credit unions could, since they maintain close relationships with local communities, many of which are also home to community colleges.  Crowdsourced loan and donation organizations like that raise money for social enterprises could move into this space.  And microlenders have the experience and models in place to move quickly as well.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Inside leader/outside leader

The search consultant leading the hunt for Westminster's next President was on campus today.  In the meeting with him that I attended, he asked a standard question; "Does the college need an inside president or an outside president?"

I know of no other organizational type where the inside/outside dichotomy exists.  It has some value in higher education, I suppose, if only to indicate where a leader (it needn't be a President--the question was common during the recent Gore School of Business Dean search as well) will schedule his or her time.  And it can elicit a view of a candidate's sense of priorities among problems: a self-described "outside leader" thinks a campus needs more fundraising or prestige lifting; an inside leader thinks the curriculum needs work or peace needs to be won between the faculty and the administration.

But the inside/outside way of thinking hides a major truth--that the leader is one person, and as one person, the leader's approach to the outside and the inside will bear each other's hallmarks.  A President  comfortable with hierarchies will pursue the wealthy and powerful off-campus and communicate mostly with the  Cabinet on-campus. A relationship-builder will win donations with a handshake and a dinner while seeking face-to-face solutions to campus challenges. An indispensable leader will want to touch nearly everything regardless of where it takes place.  A collaborator wants more committees on-campus and more advisory boards off-campus.

The problem here, then, is ultimately that the inside/outside dichotomy hides from campus the sort of person taking on the leadership role.  If the campus is seeking an outside leader, or if the candidate says "I lead inside" the conversation stops exactly where it should start.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Can learning outcomes be Good?

Having learning outcomes is better than not having them, and if they are measurable and agreed upon, a set of learning outcomes significantly improves a student's learning.  By this I mean simply that a course or a curriculum designed to help students towards certain ends--the ability to think critically, or communicate well--is better than one that aims simply for an increase in knowledge, or understanding of content.

But I sometimes hear the value of learning outcomes put more starkly--that they make it possible to create an education that focuses on what a student can do, not what a student knows.  Here I have two concerns.  The first is obvious.  Education is about both what a student knows and what a student can do.  Learning is not content-neutral; communicating well in one discipline does not mean that a person can communicate well in all disciplines, in the same way that being smart about philosophy does not guarantee that you are also smart about biology. This objection is largely, I think, about the rhetoric of the learning outcomes movement, not about its actual approach to education.

My second concern is this: that learning outcomes may make an education more practical, more demonstrable, and better.  But they may not make it Good. Education, at least in its traditional sense, is not only about what a student knows, or does.  It is ultimately about what a student becomes.  And if a school is interested in its students becoming something--engaged citizens, moral human beings, disciples of a god, whatever--then learning outcomes aren't enough.  The school needs a mission, and a culture, that talk about the ultimate value of education, about what is Good, not simply what is good.

In the absence of that, learning outcomes become techniques or skills.  They are useful things to be sure.  But highly skilled people without a sense of what is Good have done a lot of damage in this world.  And college campuses, for all their rhetoric about making a better world, developing leadership, and transforming learning, are no better than the communities that surround them.  In some ways, they are worse.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Great speeches: The generosity of Terry Tempest Williams

I've heard four great speeches in the past two weeks--three of them at the  Federation of State Humanities Council conference that concluded this evening. The speech and its classroom cognate the lecture, have settled into a period of disrepute, and rightly so.  Speeches are often given without regard to the audience, and without concern for the learning of the people present.  At many events they are simply an opportunity for someone who is rightly famous for something else to remind us why they are not famous for speaking. (Think, for example, of every awards ceremony you have ever seen on television.)

But done well, a speech is powerful.  More than many "active learning" pedagogies, speeches have the power to convey an emotion that advances an argument.  The activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams does this better than most, using generosity to buttress her view that the only viable future is one based on empathy between humans, other species, and the planet.

Generosity shaped her Federation speech in three ways.  First, while her speech included portions of stories she has told many times before, it was clearly assembled during the first day of the conference, and reflected the discussions, concerns, and hopes of the conference.  This meant the speech was ragged, but it also demonstrated Williams' humility and concern for the well-being of the event and its attendees.  Second, she made sure to acknowledge and thank more than a dozen members of the conference audience with whom she had spoken briefly.  The thanks did not come at the beginning, as they do in the ritualized awards ceremony  speech.  Instead they were sprinkled throughout the speech, and used as supporting evidence for her thesis that active citizens can influence the direction of society for good.  Third, she gave a gift to each member of the audience--a lily bulb to symbolize that love for living things could return humans to right relationships with nature and each other.

I've met Williams several times (she is a Utahn).  Generosity is essential to her nature.  And so the gestures in her speech, which might seem disingenuous coming from other speakers, are natural coming from her.

Generosity is particularly powerful against the dogmatic friends and foes of environmentalism.  It reminds supporters that dogmatic positions are inhumane because they lack generosity.  And it demonstrates to dogmatic opponents that environmentalists can love people as much as they love the land. In both of these acts Williams' generosity makes deeper engagement possible. Put another way, small acts make a passive genre--the speech--into a spur to activity and learning.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Should affordability efforts pay attention to individuals?

Many of the efforts to improve college affordability focus on systems and institutions--on ways to reduce tuition, or increase aid, or speed time to graduation, for example.  While these paths to lowering cost have different aims and results, they share an assumption--that  the effort to increase affordability should ignore individual cases in favor of making decisions based on demographics (family income, for example, or first-generation status, or enrollees) or market forces.

At this point in the year, though, many enrollment offices are making decisions about affordability based on individual cases.  In the past two weeks alone, three students have come to our financial aid office to ask for individualized attention--additional scholarships for an international student whose family now faces severe financial difficulty, more work-study money for a student whose income has dropped this year, an exemption to policy on scholarship award timing for a student-athlete trying to graduate early.

These cases have left me wondering about how to think about cases in the context of affordability.  Cases matter for morality, because the cases represent real people with specific needs, opportunities, and talents.  Should they matter for policy though?  And if so, how?  I'm not sure I know, but I am confident that policies and rules that do not attend to individual cases fail both in reaching their ends, and in respecting the liberty and skills of the people they are meant to serve.

So, should individual cases matter in efforts to reduce the cost of higher education?  If so, how and when?  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Can civic engagement build community?

For years my goal as an educator has been to help students become civically engaged.  It is easy to measure that engagement. If people do something--serve, run for office, protest, vote, start a non-profit, sit on a board, write to the editor, blog, tweet--to help the civic realm, then they are civically engaged.  And that civic engagement would ultimately build community.

In thinking like this, I was not alone.  The bible of the civic engagement movement--Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community--is built around the notion that a decline in civic behaviors leads to a decline in public life.  And the principal product (at least in higher education) of this view--the civic engagement center--measures its success by the number of volunteers, hours donated,  and service learning classes.  The goal of these sorts of organizations, then, is to get programs set up that lead students, citizens, and neighbors to do civic acts, and by so doing them, build community.

I have felt uncomfortable about this assumption--that doing is the goal of civic engagement--for a while.  And my discomfort has grown in the past month as I have had the opportunity to keynote two conferences about civic engagement.  In each conference--the annual Utah Chapter of the American Planning Association meeting, and the Utah State Board of Education's Social Studies and Civic Education in Utah's Schools event--I ended up arguing that the important thing is not doing (though doing is essential) but developing what William James called "the civic temper." It is the civic temper that leads to community.

The phrase comes from James' essay The Moral Equivalent of War in which he argues that a civilized society needs to eschew war but create something like military service to develop in its citizens "toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible...strenuous honor and disinterestedness;" the hallmarks of the civic temper.

According to Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, James was inspired by the way that citizens of San Francisco responded to the earthquake and fire of 1906.  Without being governed, driven, or told what to do, they began to feed each other, care for the sick, and build a community from the rubble of the city.  Their actions, inspired by a sense of empathy, love, and sacrifice, were thwarted by the army and the city government, which moved in and destroyed their efforts in favor of a centralized response to disaster.

That story requires us to ask whether centralized, planned programs can create civic temper, or whether they are more likely to create compliance. (This concern is echoed in Barry Schwartz' Practical Wisdom which argues that rules and incentives--the main tools in the quiver of planned programs--limit the wisdom of people who are driven by them.)

Two of the leading activists and thinkers of the 20th century--Jane Addams and Dorothy Day--suggested that the goal of civic efforts should be to develop civic tempers, not build programs designed to get people to behave civically.  Addams' Hull House and Day's Catholic Worker movement were both built around hospitality, communal work, and the development of deep connections between people who have deeply different backgrounds but profoundly similar needs.

Out of the stories of Addams and Day, a set of priorities emerge, which I suspect lead to the creation of a civic temper, and thus to community.  They are:

  • reliance on the moral will of people, not on rules and incentives
  • aspiring to lead lives of common responsibility and mutual trust, not lives based around doing certain tasks ("service" for example)
  • the development of formal organizations, not permanent organizations
  • a focus on replicable outcomes, not scalable inputs.  In other words, there are many local ways to get to the goal of community. 
  • Prefer the concrete over the abstract, and the story over "data"
  • And, finally, seek for love (or what Addams called "ardor"), over anger
All of these virtues do two things--they help people avoid becoming settled in a program or a rigid approach to public life.  And all of them contribute to a sense of community among human beings. Let me close by saying a final word about love.  In their day-to-day lives people speak about love all the time--of place, of people, of jobs, of a higher power.  It is, in key ways, essential for community.

None of this is to say that doing is useless.  But doing is most effective when it both aims towards and comes from the civic temper.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can differential pricing help reduce the cost of higher education?

From time to time colleges and universities play with a form of differential tuition pricing publicly.  Some schools  charge more for credits above a certain number to encourage students to graduate rather than hanging on and taking more and more classes.  Others charge higher tuition for certain majors--business being the most common.  And many, including Westminster, charge different rates for different graduate programs based on the willingness and ability to pay of students interested in those programs.  (So, for example, students in the MBA pay a higher tuition rate than those in the Masters of Teaching program.)

Colleges also employ differential pricing in quieter ways--providing different amounts of scholarships and institutional aid to students in order to shape the class and meet revenue targets.  And, by raising tuition each year while holding scholarship amounts steady, many schools run a differential pricing model that assumes that the longer a student is enrolled, the more that student is willing to pay to go to school.

That may be the case, but poor retention rates after the first year, and long times to graduation suggest that this model of differential pricing hurts many students.  And because schools rely on it in order to meet revenue goals (that is, their budgets are built around the assumption that the gap between tuition and aid will increase as students move through the institution, thus increasing revenue), it is a significant impediment to reducing the cost of higher education.

So what if instead of raising tuition for students each year of their enrolled period, tuition declined as a student moved through the institution?  The first year would be the most costly, but each year thereafter, tuition would decline by, say, 5% for students in that cohort.  As a result, seniors would be paying 15% less for tuition than they did as freshmen.

There are several potential benefits to this model.

  • First, it allows individual institutions to reduce costs to students in a way that is predictable and fair. 
  • Second, it rewards students for staying in school, and encourages experimentation in learning throughout the curriculum, rather than supporting the sort of curricular narrowing that usually takes place. 
  • Third, it supports retention through the entire four-year experiment,thus providing stronger revenue.
  • Fourth, it aligns revenue with expenses.  (Here I am assuming that the freshman year, with its focus on advising, counseling, mentoring, learning communities, retention, the co-curriculum, etc. costs the student more per credit hour than do upper division years.  I expect this is the case in all disciplines except the sciences where the costs of labs increases through a student's experiences.) 
  • Fifth, it calls new students and their families to really engage in the first year, with the understanding that success in the first year will make the later years less expensive.
  • Sixth, it changes the onus of timely graduation from the student (who often has to fight through the system to complete in four years), to the institution, who will now have an incentive to ensure that curricula make it possible for students to have significant learning while moving speedily to graduation.
  • Seventh, done right, it can help colleges simultaneously earn enough revenue and reduce the costs to students of attending college.

The myth of the indispensable leader

There are two competing myths about leadership, both visible in the tributes to Steve Jobs on his passing.  The first is that true leaders are people who follow their dreams; whose vision for the organization comes from deep inside them.  The second is that leaders and the organizations they lead should be come synonymous, so that for the span of the leaders' tenure, you can't think of the organization without thinking about the leader.   Together these two myths create the story of the indispensable leader, the one without whom the organization could not flourish.

This model of leadership is embraced in higher ed as strongly as it is in the corporate world.    Read any presidential search document and you will see a call for a leader of vision who can shape the institution.  And talk to any president and you will she that her/his life has been entirely subsumed into the organization, so that, as Westminster's retiring president Michael Bassis said about himself in is retirement announcement, "I have no friends, no hobbies, no life outside of the college."

There is much to object to in this model of leadership.  I will quickly note only two of the biggest objections.

The first is that the indispensable leader model is one that makes building a community of leaders, or of creating a culture of democratic leadership almost impossible.  Leadership networks, like those driving social change in the Middle East and on Wall St. are impossible in organizations that uphold the myth of the indispensable leader.  Without a network, transitions are very difficult, and response to external change can only happen meaningfully through a change in leadership.

The second is that by abandoning his/her individuality, the indispensable leader often gives up the things that are most important to human flourishing--family, friends, service, community, politics, a broad view of the world, connections outside of the organization, love, curiosity, humility, etc. etc.  This sort of bargain--one's humanity for one's job--is unethical and inhumane.  (I know that many people who aren't leaders have to make this same bargain with their jobs.  It is worse for them.)  And it is also bad for our civic life, because it narrows the view, the experience, and the humanity of people whose roles push them into the public eye.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Who moves first on cost, access, and quality in higher education?

It is widely agreed that in coming years higher education needs to reduce costs, increase access, and improve the quality of learning. Setting aside the enormous matter of how to do all of these things, I am wondering today who will move ahead on them.

In a few instances, individual institutions have taken steps on one of the pieces of the cost/access/quality knot.  MIT and Yale have made course content freely available online, though doing so has not increased access to MIT and Yale degrees or reduced the cost to degree seekers.  A few schools have, in the past decade, frozen or cut tuition, but often for a single year, and to no spillover effect on other campuses.  (The recent Seton Hall decision to cut tuition for top scholars seems to be little more than a naked play for a handful of better students, thus continuing the American tradition of making education affordable to those who can best afford it.)

Even if an institution was to successfully move on all three pieces of the problem, it isn't clear that its success would extend broadly enough to actually make a difference for more than its own students.  So where are the networks of schools who could make headway on the problem?

First, a word about where they aren't.  I don't imagine state systems successfully cutting costs to students while simultaneously increasing access and improving learning.  State systems face more and more budget cuts, making tuition increases, not cuts, the rule of the day.  And even if they were to get up steam on cost cuts, state systems are too diverse to move together.  It is hard to imagine how, for example, how Snow College and the University of Utah could make common cause on this matter. Nor is it likely that the big higher education associations are going to lead.  Their memberships are too large and their purposes too much to defend the status quo to really shake things up.

Who can move first then?  My money is on regional or affinity networks of colleges and universities, and the organizations that support them.  Ambitious leaders of accrediting agencies can make headway on the quality of learning, since they are obliged to certify it.  Associations like the Appalachian College Association are in a position to unite regional political and educational leaders around the dual challenges of cost and access.  And collections of like-minded schools like the New American Colleges and Universities (since they are dispersed across the US and rarely compete directly for students), ought to pioneer and test new approaches to cost, quality, and access.

If I'm right, then the emergence of effective smaller organizations of colleges and universities will be a sign that American higher education is getting its bearings, and is capable of responding to the big issues before it.  Keep your eyes open.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The sad future of the Provo Tabernacle

On December 18, 2010, the Provo Tabernacle, a historic meetinghouse in the heart of Provo, UT, burned to the ground.  Yesterday, the LDS Church announced that it would rebuild the tabernacle as a temple. The response to the announcement was effusive--with civic leaders and church members thrilled that the building would be restored.

Let me dissent.  It is a good thing that the building will be rebuilt; it is a bad thing that it will be rebuilt as a temple.  The tabernacle was a public building of sorts--owned by the LDS church but open to the community for concerts, meetings, and the occasional funeral of a big-name local.  The temple is a private building, open only to certain members of the LDS Church.  So while the city will have a sparkling new "historic" building that attracts Mormons downtown to shop, sightsee, and visit; the city has lost a public place--a venue where people could gather to sing, and play music, and talk.

Once, 20 years or so ago, St. Francis of Assisi parish in Provo had a series of structural problems with its building that made it impossible for the parish to hold Christmas services there.  The parish moved those services to the Provo Tabernacle, and so on Christmas eve thousands of Catholics and well-wishers celebrated mass in a Mormon building.  That will never happen again.

The tabernacle wasn't a perfect community center.  Its capacity was a bit large for most local arts groups, and the acoustics were sketchy, and it didn't have much in the way of green rooms for performers to warm up in.  Now it won't be a community center at all, though.  That is our loss.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Enrollment management, cost, and quality--the questions

For a brief time the national conversation on higher education was attentive to the relationship between cost and quality, with open learning advocates and technology fans predicting a future where education might be both more affordable and better.

More recently, though, the two matters--cost and quality--have become separated.  The smaller stream, focused on quality, has been concerned with findings like those in Academically Adrift which point to the lack of learning taking place in higher ed.  The broader stream has focused on the cost of higher education, especially in relation to an economic decline which puts into question the dollar value of a college degree.

There has been little attention to enrollment management in the discussions.  This is a shame, since regardless of the direction of the stream, enrollment managers are the ones most likely to have a sense of what preoccupies prospective students and the most likely to have to explain new approaches to education to those students.

So here are several questions about the relationship between cost, quality, and enrollment management, all of which I've been wondering about over my past couple of months in enrollment management::

  1. What is the current relationship between cost and quality at your institution?  What should it be? On most campuses discussions about cost take place in budget meetings while discussions about quality reside in faculty meetings, so the two rarely meet.  When they do, enrollment managers often are not at the table.  For this reason campuses are not always clear about where they stand on this issue, and unclear about which direction to move.  That direction needs to be set both by practical considerations (the "is" question) but also by strategic ones that can only be uncovered by asking the "should" question.
  2. Who does attend your institution?  Who should attend? Most campus stakeholders have some idea about who should attend their institution, and those views have a great deal to do with where the stakeholder stands on the cost and quality issues.  But those views are rarely informed by an understanding of who does attend the institution and why.  Often, enrollment managers are the ones with the information that makes a conversation about the demographics of the student body possible.
  3. What does your school mean by quality? What role do students play in that definition? One of the reasons that the conversation about cost has outpaced the conversation about quality is because the meaning of quality is so unsure, especially at institutions where inputs--the wealth and academic performance of entering students, the wealth and prestige of the institution--are not the key measures of quality.  Here, enrollment managers seem to be behind the game, largely using input measures as the key indicators of quality. But if quality is about student growth, or about learning outcomes, then an input approach to the entering class gets in the way of advancing an institution's work on lowering cost while improving quality.
  4. Does your school have a coherent philosophy regarding merit- and need-based aid? Over time more and more institutional funds have gone into merit-based aid (academic scholarships) and less into need-based aid. If this shift aligns with an institution's strategy about cost and quality, then it makes sense.  But if not (which I expect is the case on many campuses) then not only does enrollment management fail to support the institution's direction, but it cuts against it.  If, for example, your school is more costly than its peers, and your students are struggling to afford it, and campus stakeholders believe the institution should be accessible to a diverse student body, then a merit-focus cuts against strategy and culture.
  5. Does your school have a defensible balance between standard aid practices and special sources of aid?  Most schools have published aid grids--if you have XX ACT score and X.XX GPA you get a scholarship of $XXXXX.  But they also award aid to students for other things--athletics, science achievement, coming from abroad, etc.  Many of these special sources of aid advance strategic initiatives, others support new programs, or meet the interests of donors, or seek to open new student markets.  It would be naive to think these special sources should go away.  So the question is whether the number, size, and frequency of these special sources of aid undermines the main financial aid strategy.
  6. Does enrollment management have a meaningful place in the campus strategic plan? Many strategic plans include enrollment management in an operational role--the plan says to do things X, Y, and Z, and enrollment management will get us enough students to provide revenue to do them. But especially if an institution is serious about making headway on cost and quality, enrollment management has to be an active part of the plan--not just meeting enrollment goals but providing insights into who is likely to attend, why they attend, and who the plan is most likely to serve well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Institutions with vision

Over the past couple of months I've written several times about problems with the vision of  American higher education.  Here I noted that strategic planning seems to drive institutions to look more like each other rather than helping them distinguish themselves, here that the thirst for prestige gets in the way of a serious focus on learning, here that too often campuses try to differentiate themselves on superficial grounds, and here that colleges and universities are not well-situated to respond to the big challenges facing the world today.

On this last point I should note the growing number of colleges that have realigned themselves to respond to climate change and the challenges of sustainability.  The College of the Atlantic has been hard at this work for quite a while, as have, in less visible ways, schools like Sterling College, Unity College, and Northland College. All of these schools are doing great work.  All of them are also quite small, but all of them have a powerful vision that helps shape the curriculum, learning, and environment of the schools.

I am deeply interested in the resurgence of religious mission in higher education (see, for example, Naomi Riley's God on the Quad, George Marsden's The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship , and Budde and Wright's Conflicting Allegiances) and with it the possibility that colleges and universities will return to serious education about the big issues in human existence.  If this effort interests you, take a look at the vision statement for Houston Baptist University.  HBU right now is a small but serious college about the size of Westminster.  But in their vision statement they aim for nothing less that creating a world-class protestant university, one where all the efforts of the institution serve bigger ends--helping students lead meaningful lives, merging the best of secular and religious learning, and setting the example for other religious universities to follow.

Think what you will about HBU, or about their mission.  But the ambition of the school, not for prestige for its own sake but to remake American higher education and American culture, is a big thing.  Something all schools should think about as they seek to create authentic visions that stretch them beyond prestige, financial sustainability, and the latest trends in higher education.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Who is most cost sensitive?

It would be simple to assume that in this period of rising college costs and economic difficulty, the most cost-sensitive students would come from the lowest-income families.  But a large portion of those families have been priced out of the market for quite some time, and those that haven't and are strong students continue to have access to strong scholarship and aid packages.  (I am not suggesting that lack of access is a good or overlook-able matter--just that the situation is not tremendously different now than they were five years ago for those families.)

So if  faculty and administrators at private colleges are looking for a group that is a bellwether of cost-sensitivity, I would recommend not low-income families but a different group--families we call "no-need merit." Prospective students who fall into this category earn some sort of academic scholarship, but because of their family income, they receive no other aid--not Pell Grants, work-study, or institutional grants.

These families are particularly cost-sensitive for two reasons.  First, without any additional aid they face the prospect of paying ten to twenty thousand dollars a year for college.  Second, no-need merit families are more likely to have a college-going culture, so if the cost at a private college seems too high, they are likely to choose a lower-cost public alternative.  Watching the performance of no-need merit prospects, then, is a key way to see the impact of college cost on the size and composition of the entering class.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hospitality is the thing that we've lost

Events like September 11th are almost impossible to write well about.  So today will be a day of failed blog posts, where writers struggle to say something meaningful knowing all along that  nothing can really be said.  It is a day for silence and contemplation.  More 4'33" than Beethoven's 9th.

Let me just observe, then, that the thing we have lost in the aftermath of 9/11--the thing we miss the most--is hospitality.  You see its absence in airports, where goodbyes now have to be said and welcomes made far away from the point of departure.  You see its absence in the stiffening of rules and regulations, in the limiting of options, in the officious way we relate in public capacities.  It is there in the decline of our public life, our inability to negotiate or be with people who differ from us.  It is in our schools, where the notion of home room is antiquated and the most important thing are outcomes.  It is in the stiffening of religious belief.  It is in the closure of parks, the need to eke every bit of capacity out of tax dollars, and time, and investments.  It is in the privatization not just of public services, but of the suffering resulting from unemployment, and loss, and fear.

So ten years on from 9/11, and in the ongoing fallout from the economic collapse, and in a nation where public life has become a zero-sum game, the thing I'll seek is a renewal of hospitality--sharing food, leaving the door open, welcoming people in, and remembering to accept those gifts from others.  I'll go to festivals, and parties, and host some myself.  I'll look for fear, my own and others', and see if there is a way to replace it with welcome, and comfort, and perhaps something that looks a little like love.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Washington Monthly College Guide Gets it Wrong, a Little, Twice

The best back-to-school college guide and rankings, hands-down, are at the Washington Monthly.  The rankings actually measure important things--like graduates' contribution to society--rather than wealth, prestige, and the test scores of incoming students.  And the accompanying articles are both well-informed and well-written.  (For example, this month's "The end of college admissions as we know it" should make anyone who cares about college access hopeful, even while it makes traditional admissions shops shiver...)

This month's college, guide, though, includes two articles that deserve a response.  The first, "Administrators ate my tuition" makes the argument that the on-going rise in college costs is due to bloat in the ranks of administrators, and that a solution to the problem might be, as the article's byline puts it, "Want to get college costs in line? Start by cutting the overgrown management ranks."  Three points in response:

  • The growth in the ranks of administrators is due to changes in faculty roles, driven by faculty and by external stakeholders.  Faculty don't take on the day-to-day work of managing colleges and universities as much now as they used to because faculty have pushed, successfully over time, to teach and research more, and to do less administrative work.  At the same time, external bodies, including the federal government, have heightened requests for data and compliance to such an extent that without a cadre of researchers, report-writers, etc. colleges would be unable to respond to those demands.
  • All administrators are not managers.  The author, Benjamin Ginsberg, seems to believe that there is little difference between an Associate Dean and an Associate Director of Student Life.  He is wrong.  At Westminster, over the past 5 years the number of full-time faculty has grown more than the number of new administrators.  And among the new administrators, only a couple actually spend their time managing.  Most spend their time programming--running environmental initiatives, leading trips to the mountains, helping students face psychological difficulties, ensuring that international students get their visas, etc.  The need for these tasks, at least at Westminster, comes from faculty, parents, and students requesting these services. And these tasks all lead to learning, something Ginsberg fails to acknowledge. At an institution like ours that has to compete to stay alive, if our key stakeholders request something, we are happy to oblige.
  • If a college wants to change its faculty/administrator ratio, the first step is not to cut administrators.  It is to focus its mission.  Until a school does that, it will be impossible to carry out the work that faculty, students, parents, and regulators have demanded.  The solution, then, is to figure out how not to be all things to all people.
The second, "The College for-profits should fear" is a positive article about Western Governors University.  I like WGU.  Its focus on student outcomes, and its innovative division of the work of learning among faculty and mentors (more administrators!) both saves money and can lead to better learning.  And it has blazed a trail into online learning that others ought to pay attention to.

But WGU shares two things with for-profits that don't get enough attention.  First, though tuition is low, the cost-per-credential (that is, the amount of tuition paid per degree granted) is very high. According to a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, it is around $80,000.  The article attributes it to a "statistical anomaly" but it also suggests that WGU serves many students well, but not many of them earn degrees.  This point alone is not damning--after all, the students who enroll in WGU are like the students who enroll in most-on-line programs.  They work long hours, are trying to switch jobs, and often take time off from school to solve family problems, change jobs, move, or manage life.  One of WGU's strengths, in fact, is that its students can do that.  But if an institution's goal is to get students a degree and on to life, then WGU has a ways to go.

Second, WGU, like its for-profit counterparts, has recently become a marketing juggernaut. All along I-15, the main north-south freeway in Utah, there are WGU billboards with photos of powerful Utah business and civic leaders--Harris Simmons, Board Chair of Zion's Bank, Mike Leavitt, former Utah Governor--touting WGU.  The Washington Monthly article suggests that WGU is unlike for-profits in that it doesn't spend as much of its resources on marketing as does, say, the University of Phoenix.  It appears that might be changing.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pop-up colleges

For at least the past seven years, retailers and restaurants have been attracted to the pop-up store model. Pop-up, or flash shops allow shop owners to try out new merchandise, new locations, or new designs.  And since they are cheap to create and temporary by nature, they allow for experimentation in a way that a traditional store would not.

In the meantime, most colleges and universities continue to offer academic programs in much the same way they have in the past.  This is not, by definition, a bad thing.  But the difficulty of radically overhauling an academic program, getting rid of one that no longer has a market, or starting a new one in rapid response to student demand puts colleges and universities consistently behind demand for new programs.  In the past this misalignment was not tremendously damaging for higher education because there were no external competitors.  But with the availability of free instruction and cutting-edge content on the internet, colleges and universities face the prospect of losing out on the intellectual leadership in new fields.

So why not create a pop-up college--a school composed of teams of faculty who create new academic programs, recruit students, run two or three cohorts through the program with the plan to close it down after, say, five cohorts, and then take a year off to develop a new program and another to recruit new cohorts into it.

The financial model would require that the school save enough money over the life of a cohort to survive two years without income from the particular faculty team.  The academic model would require faculty to be generalists and learning facilitators, not primarily disciplinary specialists.  The programs would have to be deliverable in generic spaces, not spaces that require a particular design. Accreditation would be tough. But the downsides from these criteria would be offset by the possibility for innovation, deep learning, and meaningful collaboration among faculty.

I am not suggesting that all (or even many) colleges and universities ought to pursue pop-up education.  But I  expect that faculty who get it right could create a new school that delivered high quality learning at reasonable cost and innovated in design, delivery, and administration of the school.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reflections as America's dullest higher education blog reaches 5000 page views

Learning at Westminster has reached a milestone of sorts--5000 page views.  Of course for the big league blogs 5000 page views come before breakfast.  For me it has taken since July 2009.

This is no surprise--I've mostly used this blog as a place to reflect on trends in education, make connections between my work and the non-education stuff I'm reading, and try to figure out what my future (and the future of higher education) looks like.  Over two years I've posted nearly 200 mini-essays, and written over 100,000 words.  Here is what I have learned:

1. Learning is in danger. Most of the major forces shaping higher education--technology, the cost debate, questions about access, funding danger, and the political climate--are focused on delivering information more efficiently, more effectively, or in a more relevant way.  And the force that has the closest link to learning--assessment--is in danger of becoming so rigidly focused on measuring a pre-determined set of outcomes that it overlooks both the importance of growth and the possibility that important things will happen to learners that cannot be predicted.

Fortunately, while learning seems to be slipping out of education, there are more and more ways to learn outside of school.  Blogs, mash-ups, the growth in social networks, the re-emergence of home-based manufacturing, the ease with which you can record your own music are all things that support learning and do it in a much more open, student-directed, verifiable way than what happens in schools.  What is happening in religion may be what is happening in schooling as well.  More and more people are spiritual seekers, fewer are going to church, so churches are in decline.  More and more people are learners; is the future of schools like the recent past of churches?

2. Schooling needs a metaphor that works.  A great deal of talk about education is built around explicit or implicit metaphors--schools are like newspapers, or factories, or businesses or price bubbles.  I'm not sure that any of them fit.  But without a way of thinking of ourselves that inspires some confidence and gives some direction, schools will be swallowed by their metaphors.

3. There is lots of room for innovation.  Technology isn't the savior, but it does make it possible to start or re-shape schools so that they focus on what the school does best.  I expect that the next major trend in higher education and high schools will be specialized schools where students complete general education online and the classroom focused learning is all about the school's specialty--the humanities or music or entrepreneurship or whatever.  Schools like that can be cheap, fast, and excellent.  And they can be started by subject-matter experts.  I'm not necessarily sanguine about this future, since I care deeply about the civic role of schools and about general education.  But I would love to start a school focused on innovation and creativity (which I think are two of the four  key civic virtues, along with contemplation and humility)

4. The barriers to entry for higher education are falling.  There are really only two that matter any more--the certification of learning (that is, proving that the learning that takes place in some new schooling venture is real), and the matter of accreditation.  These barriers are two aspects of the same characteristic of higher education--social prestige.  That is, the diploma and accreditation bear weight because they have social standing.  It is assumed that a diploma from the University of (insert your preferred state or private institution here) is better than a diploma from Bob's Start-Up University; and that regional accreditation guarantees that fact.  I am not suggesting that that is not the case.  I am saying, though, that if I were a registrar or an accreditor I would be pushing for my peers to do more to show evidence that those things are true, because I predict that the social status on which diplomas and accreditation rest will crumble in the coming years.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What makes us think that education can solve global problems?

On his blog, Ian Symmonds muses about how higher education is responding to global problems. The list of issues, drawn from Jean Francois Rischard's book High Noon is heartbreaking and incomplete. The assumption behind Ian's question--that colleges and universities ought to prepare students to fix the problems of the world--is both commonplace and reasonable.  And almost no one argues that education ought not take on these problems.

But what makes us think that they can be tackled by colleges and universities?  In asking this I do not mean to suggest that higher education is ineffectual.  I am simply wondering two things: Are colleges and universities the sort of organizations that solve problems?; and Can these problems be solved?  I think the answer to both these questions is no.

Here is what I mean; colleges and universities excel at helping students resolve certain sorts of problems--narrow problems in disciplines, problems that respond to experimentation, and personal problems.  None of the problems listed in Symmonds post are these types of problems.  Instead they are all wide-spread, multi-causal problems without simple solutions.

This is not to say that colleges and universities ought to do nothing.  Instead, they ought to focus on three things: (1) helping students to resolve their own problems, (2) framing the problem so that it can be worked on in smaller, more local pieces; and (3) trying out local solutions to certain components of the problem at hand.

So, for example, it is unlikely that colleges and universities will solve poverty.  It is too widespread, too intransigent, and too complex to "solve."  But colleges and universities can help resolve poverty in their own neighborhoods.  And they can help their students avoid poverty.

To do these things, though, higher education will have to be more focused and less given to grandiose rhetoric.  While we may live in a global village (or some other version of the "flat earth" world) but our ability to influence society is decidedly narrow.  There is nothing wrong with this fact, as long as we acknowledge it.  Unfortunately, few colleges and fewer universities do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who needs to be oriented?

This week all four of my children start at new schools.  One begins junior high, another high school.  One is a freshman in college, and the other a new transfer student.

Of those four, only the freshman in college has an extensive orientation--four days of small group meetings, info sessions, activities, meals, friend building, instruction in rules, assessments, meals, and a convocation with speeches and a gantlet of faculty in academic robes.  Parents are part of two days of these events, where they are wined, dined, and oriented themselves to how to be the parent of a freshman.

On the other hand, the transfer student gets half a day, the junior high schooler gets one day where her grade is the only one in the school, and the high schooler gets a two hour assembly punctuated by pizza.

Why is this?  Is there some reason to believe that the transition to college is a more significant step than the rest?  Is there something about being 18 that needs more transitional guidance than being 20 or 15 or 13?

As a dad, knowing my own kids, their needs, concerns, strengths, and fears, and as an administrator, knowing the goals of orientation, I would certainly assign orientation differently, and according to the actual kids, not their generic transition from one stage to another in life.  I think my high schooler needs a slower, longer transition.  The transfer student could use a period of guided reflection on how to move ahead at a new, different college.  The freshman told me herself that the longer the orientation the more anxious she feels, so I would skip her orientation until after a week of classes.  And my youngest, most gregarious daughter would get a couple of parent-teacher conferences one-on-one before launching into her new social life.

Asked more simply I wonder this: if we oriented students according to themselves, not to their grade or school, how would orientation be different?  Would it be more effective?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Compromise and reconciliation, democracy and civic engagement

Whatever you may think about the debt ceiling compromise or the debate leading up to it (and I know most people dislike them), they are less important for the quality of our civic life than what comes next.

This fact seems to have been lost on commentators, who continue to debate the wisdom of the compromise, or the economic impact of the Standard and Poors credit rating downgrade, or what it means for the United States' place in the world.  But for our civic life, what we would hope to see after compromise is some sort of reconciliation.  In fact, in both religion and civic theory, it is the reconciliation--the ability to recognize changes in oneself, and to work more effectively with others in the future, that is the real benefit of compromise.

Consider this teaching from the Christian tradition:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
   23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
   25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.

Or consider the work of truth and reconciliation commissions the world over who have helped countries emerge from periods of tyranny into something like democracy. (For an old but still moving work on these commissions read Lawrence Wechsler's A Miracle, A Universe.)

In both instances the injunction to reconcile is the basis for future relationships.  That is, civic life cannot function with citizens who are unable to talk to each other, or who are trying to overlook (ignore) real gaps between them.  And both instances demand that some individuals not just agree to the compromise, but reconcile with their enemies.

Now consider the way we talk about compromise in America.  It is widely acknowledged that compromise is essential for democracy.  It is also assumed that compromise means that both parties fail to get what they want from the agreement.  This is usually true in terms of policy.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans got what they wanted in the debt ceiling negotiations.

Our discussions of compromise, though, entirely overlook the need for reconciliation.  In fact, all of the sides in the debt ceiling compromise told their constituents that the compromise was a short-term solution and that they would still work to reach their big goals.  Or, in other words, compromise was but a short detour from winning their long-term battle.

If you know history you know that this view--compromise now until you can win enough public support to avoid compromise--has a long tradition in American politics.  And traditionally it has led to some horrible compromises.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act, for example, which gave birth to a mini-civil war prior to the real one.

Our civic life needs two things if it is to avoid the sort of poisonous, ineffective compromises that litter our history: First, a civic movement that is committed to reconciliation in public life, that pushes for relationships and repentance before and after compromise.  (Imagine, for example, a law that requires party leaders to meet with a mediator (or play golf together) after every law that passes with a party-line vote.)  Second, leaders who are publicly committed to reconciliation as a goal of their public service. It is here that the irony lies.  With so many legislators who are publicly Christian, why are so few of them publicly committed to Christian behavior?