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.