Saturday, March 31, 2012

Should a college presidency be a 24/7 job?

Westminster just completed a search, and hired Dr. Brian Levin-Stankevich as its 17th president.  The four finalists varied widely in their backgrounds, their passions, and their visions for the college.  But they shared one thing--they all said or intimated that being a college president is a “24/7” job.

Now if 24/7 job is simply shorthand for saying “being a college president takes a lot of time and I understand that” then there is no need to wonder about it.  But my sense from this search, and from discussions with other presidents and academic leaders, is that the statement means something more.  It means that the president has almost no life outside of the life of the college--that he or she is essentially owned by the school.

The ownership of the President (and other academic leaders) by the institution may not be a bad thing.  But it should at least cause the school to ask some questions about its leadership style and assumptions about the role of the college in society.  Here are a few key ones:

  • Have the assumptions and structures of leadership kept up with the literature on leadership?  The 24/7 leader grows out of two widely held but dubious models of leadership.  The first, dating from the early 1900s, suggests that the corporation should provide all shape to the lives of its employees--housing, food, work, recreation, etc.  The second, dating from the 1980s, assumes that the CEO has to be the face of the corporation, and lead through charisma.  Both models have been challenged outside of academe, but remain within.
  • Does the President have a clearly defined role? Show up at any late-night or weekend event on campus and you will find not one but several leaders--the President, the Provost, the VP for Advancement, the Dean of Students--plus assorted faculty and staff.  If they are there because they are interested, wonderful.  If they are there out of obligation, then one must ask why?  What is it about the presence of many leaders that makes an event more successful?  Or is their presence evidence that leaders haven’t determined what their strengths, responsibilities, and roles are? Must the President attend nearly every event on campus?
  • Is the President’s calendar planned or reactive? I know from experience that an open week on Monday morning gets filled past capacity by Tuesday lunch.  While it is true that stuff happens that must be responded to, it is also true that the President, more than most other people on campus, has limited control over her/his calendar. And much of the time on that calendar is filled with “dignitary work”--shaking hands, greeting visitors, meeting with donors, attending lunches and dinners.  Again, this is essential work, but much of it could be done by others, with greater long-term payoff for the college and for other leaders, whose experience grows and whose own special skills come into play.
  • Is the campus too busy?  Westminster, like many colleges and universities, offers several events, lectures, plays, and sporting events each night.  In addition to those things, the leadership has other events to participate in that aren’t open to the campus.  But these events, like formal academic programs, need a mission and purpose check.  Are the events we host matched with the institution’s mission?  And if so, do they advance that mission?  Busyness often masks uncertainty about the mission and appeal of an institution.  If you aren’t sure where you stand in the market, or what your students need and desire, then you try to have a bit of everything for everyone.
  • How serious is your campus about reflection and renewal? We know from the literature on learning and on contemplation that growth and well-being emerge from regular acts of contemplation, reflection, and renewal.  If the president is owned by the institution, and moments of reflection and renewal are haphazard (15 minutes here and there, a last-minute weekend escape) then it is evidence that the campus is not as serious about reflection and renewal as it ought to be.  (Please note that I do not consider planning and other sorts of “retreats” to be reflective or renewing.  They are business, and serve more to summarize work that is already going on and spur more work than they are to provide a space for reflection.Once upon a time most presidents (and other senior leaders) taught a class on campus--today most don’t.  But preparing to teach is education’s native contemplative practice. If it is absent, then it may be that contemplation is gone as well.
  • Is the college the most important thing in the world? The answer has to be no. No job ought to be more important than family, than citizenship, than god, than happiness. So if a job, even one as important and useful as college president, owns a person, then it is a sign that the job needs to be rethought, if only to bring it into alignment with what humans know about the relative importance of things.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Campuses and congregations; friendship and learning

Given the implications of his findings, you might think that the student engagement world would have given Robert Putnam's recent work on friendship and religious congregations some attention.   In it, Putman and his co-author Chaeyoon Lim find that the more friends an active member of a religious congregation has in the congregation, the happier that person is.  Neither the number of non-church friends a religious person has, nor that person's religiosity have the same effect on the person's sense of well-being.  For this reason Putnam's advice to religious leaders is to pay more attention to church suppers than to the sermons offered before those suppers.

Putnam and Lim do not offer a hypothesis for why church friendships are "super-charged friendships" for actively religious people.  But it would be simple to theorize two explanations: friendships cement one's feeling that one's chosen religious setting is the right one' and friendship reinforces the teaching in all major religions that  loving relationships between humans exemplify the loving relationship between humans and their gods.  These theories also explain why friendships and religious practice have much less influence on well-being for people who are only moderately religious.

I read about Putnam's study the same day I got a series of texts from one of my daughters saying how lonely she is at college.  For her, the absence of meaningful friendships exacerbates the uncertainty she feels about her majors, the goals of her education, or the course of her future life.  When you are uncertain about the path ahead and feel like you have few friends, loneliness is an impediment to learning.

Colleges and universities talk frequently about the interaction between people in different roles, but we pay almost no attention to the connections between friendship and learning.  We tout, for example, small class sizes, the student/faculty ratio, research assistantships, group work, learning communities, as if interaction leads to learning and well-being.  But interaction and friendship are not the same thing.  Interactions are exchanges in one form or another--faculty member X shares information with student Y, who uses it in her research.  But friendships are characterized not by interactions but by a certain sort of emotional connection--common interests, empathy, patience, humility, unguardedness, forgiveness.

We know relatively little about how those emotional connections relate to learning and well-being.  But Putnam's study suggests that we ought to care.  For there are meaningful relationships between being in the "right" place, friendship, and well-being.  For educators who are concerned about retention, student engagement, learning, the discovery of vocation, and the creation of meaning in the lives of students, the question of how to identify, foster, and prolong friendships ought to be an important question indeed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why colleges should track credits to graduation, not time to graduation

Let me make four obvious statements:
  1. Improving graduation rates is essential for colleges, for society, and for individual students;
  2. The current measures--particularly time-to-graduation and 4-year graduation rates--describe things that are, to some significant extent, out of the hands of colleges;
  3. Because they are out of the hands of colleges, campus efforts to improve graduation rates get mired in debates about measurement, or frustration at the futility of trying to change something over which we have little control;
  4. Such a sense of futility impedes our ability to improve.
So in lieu of time-to-graduation, or 4-year graduation rates, let me propose that colleges measure their effectiveness through credits-to-graduation.  There are a couple of obvious benefits to this measure:
  • All schools mandate a minimum number of credit hours to graduation
  • Credit hours to graduation describes something over which campuses have significant control
  • The measure is comparable across campuses (at least when expressed as a proportion, i.e that students at college Y require 1XX% of their minimum credit hour requirement in order to graduate.)
  • The credit hour measure ties directly to the cost for students, since they pay by the credit hour, not by the year.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Getting college rankings right

This recent Inside Higher Ed essay, like many before it, calls for colleges and universities to reject US News and World Report (USNWR) college rankings. What it does not acknowledge is that the presence of these rankings, and their disappearance, serve the same three types of institutions: highly prestigious institutions who look great in the rankings, state research I institutions who are the schools of choice because of their prominence, size, athletics, and alumni bases, and open access institutions whose students select them without regard for rankings.

The rest of us don't have the luxury of abandoning the rankings because they allow us to communicate things about our campuses which are otherwise hidden to prospective students and their families.  So while some schools can ignore or cater to rankings as it pleases them, we need to figure out how to get college rankings right.

Three suggestions on moving beyond quixotic campaigns against USNWR:

  1. Provide the data that parents want in a clear, comparable fashion.  When I talk to parents at recruiting events they always ask about these things: retention rates, graduation rates, the percentage of students who go on to graduate school, the medical school acceptance rate, and the average student loan debt upon graduation.  These points of data should be at the fingertips of all admissions staffers at every institution, and the organizations that oversee higher education accountability should make them easily accessible on key websites.
  2. Be transparent with the important data that colleges usually hide.  Schools create and consume huge amounts of assessment data which is standardized across campuses but rarely shared publicly.  College presidents should have the courage to post their NSSE results, their CLA results, and their accreditation self-studies on their websites.  And NSSE, CLA, and the regional accreditors need to find better ways of using the data the request and gather to encourage campuses to publicly show evidence of improvement over time. (I've made this point before at greater length here).
  3. Focus on outcomes. While USNWR rankings are regularly criticized for being input focused, and some of the other major rankings--Princeton Review, for example--are criticized for ranking students on things that hardly matter for learning, there are rankings that pay attention to the outcomes of college educations.  The best in my view are the rankings in the Washington Monthly annual college guide.  There the inputs drop away and what is left is evidence of a school's ability to increase the likelihood of graduation, and its influence on the public minded-ness of its graduates.  If I were a college president, I would want the institution I served to do everything it could to climb in those rankings, because they represent the sorts of things that students, parents, and civil society ought to care about in higher education.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Community-organizing as a conservative act

This BBC article tells the story of one community organizer working to re-establish healthy communities in the UK. The key commitment of her work--not to do something for members of the community that they can do for themselves--comes straight from Saul Alinsky, the radical bugaboo of the GOP primary season.  (FWIW, two great books on Alinsky-style community organizing: Upon this Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, and Dry Bones Rattling, both of which are essential reading for understanding how communities can rebuild their institutions and themselves.)

The irony, of course, is that in the UK this community organizing effort is sponsored by the Conservative government, as part of its Big Society effort--a movement to create civic infrastructure to do work that the state cannot, will not, or should not do.

American Conservatives have forgotten that community restoration is a key conservative activity, one that preserves traditions of liberty and self-help while knitting individuals together into  fellow-citizens.  Now it may be the case that the Big Society already exists in the US, so Conservatives can go ahead and dismantle the state without worry for the well-being of communities and the preservation of tradition.  But I doubt it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The right questions about cutting tuition

Mount Holyoke announced recently that it would not raise tuition for the 2012-2013 academic year. The announcement drew the typical coverage--some meandering thoughts about college cost and boilerplate assurances from the institution itself that it is dedicated to responding to rising college costs and making its brand of education accessible to a broader public.

That is all well and good, but if we are going to take the cost of college seriously, then the institutions who freeze or cut tuition and the people who write about them need to get much more serious about explaining the contexts and purposes of their decisions (as do the people who raise tuition, but that is for another post).

At the very least, any reporter covering the announcement of a tuition freeze or cut should ask the following:

  • Is the reduction in tuition costs accompanied by reductions in institutional aid?
  • Is it accompanied by changes in enrollment goals, or put another way, are you making up the difference by enrolling more students?
  • How do you expect the reduction of tuition to effect the school's revenue in the coming year?
  • Are you reducing expenditures in the coming year?  If so, which ones?  What are you doing with faculty and staff salaries?
  • Do you really believe that a reduction in tuition makes your school accessible to students who would not otherwise be able to afford it?  What evidence do you have?
  • What steps are you taking to ensure that the quality of the education you provide improves?
  • Why cut tuition instead of doing other things to reduce costs to students--i.e. speeding up time to graduation, reducing room and board costs, enrolling more transfer students from community colleges, increasing funding for students to work on campus?
Absent answers to these questions, I can't help but think that a tuition freeze or cut is more about publicity than improving access, reducing cost, and ensuring an excellent education to all students.