More Than a Few Tough Things (3)

In my second post in this series I took on my colleague Steve Pearlstein‘s argument that “universities” should engage in less research, more teaching. In this final post in the series, I want to take up his argument about general education.

Cheaper, better general education. The reform of general education is something I’ve had a lot to say about in this blog over the years, for example: 20062008; and 2008; and again in 2008; and 2010, just to highlight a few of my more agitated posts. So, I agree with Pearlstein that it’s time to take an axe to general education requirements at many universities (not all, just many, and especially mine). But where I have a problem with his argument is when he says the following:

“A university concerned about cost and quality would restructure general education around a limited number of courses designed specifically for that purpose — classes that tackle big, interesting questions from a variety of disciplines. Harvard, with its Humanities 10 seminars, and the University of Maryland, with its I-Series, have recently taken steps in that direction. But this approach will achieve significant savings only if the courses are designed to use new technology that allows large numbers of students to take them at the same time.”

This statement betrays a belief in the efficacy of teaching complex knowledge to large numbers of students at the same time and in the value of efficiency through technology. For a century now, ever since what was once known as the “Harvard system” (large lecture/small recitation) began to invade college campuses, university general education curricula have been built on the delivery of content to masses of lower level undergraduate students (in the classic Course X 101 lecture hall). The application of technology to this delivery system is just a different way to do the same thing — sever the connection between teacher and learner.

A teacher on a screen or as the hidden hand behind an algorithm is no more connected to a learner than is the “sage on the stage” in a lecture hall seating 100, 500, or 800. And I challenge you to find a study run by a cognitive scientist (as opposed to an educational or disciplinary researcher) that demonstrates that the learning outcomes from such disconnected learning exceed those one obtains in a smaller classroom where real connections between teacher and learner are the norm and collaborative learning is the standard. Such studies may exist. And if they do, I’d love to read them.

The real problem is one that Pearlstein doesn’t acknowledge, namely that in today’s challenging fiscal environment in public higher education, fraught with legislative disinvestment, spiraling discount rates, and other financial pressures he doesn’t acknowledge (especially growing amounts of deferred maintenance) general education is all about the money. At today’s enrollment driven public college or university, what really matters is butts in seats. If you can’t filled the seats, there is no money. That’s true at the department level, but also at the institutional level.

In fact, Pearlstein’s suggestion is in line with the tried and true approach to this budget model, namely, let’s find a way to let “large numbers of students to take [their general education courses] at the same time.”

Why? Because if we don’t, our budget model will break. Plain and simple.

Thus, I’m not impressed by Pearlstein’s notion of creating something new and cost efficient that would be somehow different. I don’t want cost efficient general education. I want quality general education where students actually learn a subject — something quite different from “great talks by one or more professors and outside experts [combined] with video clips, animation, quizzes, games and interactive exercises — then supplementing that online material with weekly in-person sessions for discussions, problem solving or other forms of “active learning.”

Who, by the way will hold those “in-person” sessions if 800 students are taking the class? And more to the point, who will staff the ““labs” open day and night that use tutors and interactive software to provide individualized instruction in math and writing until the desired competency is achieved.”

Oh, wait. He must mean graduate students…

And so we are back to the economics of the thing. You can’t have “in-person sessions” for large numbers of students and late night labs for large numbers of students unless you are paying graduate students near-starvation wages. It just doesn’t work. Sorry.

A better solution is to rethink the very notion of how we deliver general education altogether.  As  Matt Reed wrote in his response to Pearlstein’s argument in Inside Higher Ed:

Cheaper, better general education? We have an entire sector for that, too. Research universities are called “research universities” for a reason. If you want a place that values teaching, community colleges are everywhere. For that matter, so are the former teachers’ colleges that form the backbone of most four-year public systems. If you don’t like the economics of the research university sector — and there are good reasons not to — you have alternatives.

The Ernst & Young study of Australian higher education speaks to this exact issue and I have to say, I’m sympathetic to their argument that we need to rethink public higher education as  a sector, not just university by university (our default).

What would that look like in Virginia where I work?

We have two large well-endowed and well-funded flagship universities: the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. We should just admit that those two universities are, and will continue to be the big kids on the block, offering a broad range of graduate programs and research across their campuses. The other three doctoral universities in our “system” (Virginia isn’t really a system like Wisconsin or Indiana or Texas) should become, in the words of the E&Y report, “niche dominators.”

George Mason, where I work, might dominate the niche(s) most closely connected to Washington, D.C. — policy, security, human rights, etc. Virginia Commonwealth University already dominates the niches of health care and the arts. Old Dominion University might end up dominating niches related to defense (given the Norfolk naval station close by), maritime and/or ecological research, or whatever makes sense for them. To get to these dominating positions in our niches, the three institutions in this sector would then also engage in cost shifting by radically downsizing, or yes, eliminating, their investment in graduate programs in any discipline outside their niches, and pour that money into undergraduate education.

And were I the king of Virginia, I would also shift a significant amount of the resources currently devoted to undergraduate general education — especially every penny spent on a course seating more than 100 students — to the community college system. As Matt Reed points out, community colleges, by and large, do an excellent job in those first two years of the college curriculum — so why not throw bad money after good and give it to them?

Don’t believe me when I say they do a good job? A student who enrolls at George Mason University after completing an AA degree from a community college is more likely to graduate from our university than one who enrolls with us as a freshman. So, who’s doing a better job when it comes to general education?

Of course, everything I’ve written in this series flies in the face of both generally accepted practice in American higher education, and our common desire to be more like University X or Y who I likely see as being more of a “real university” than the one where I work.

I guess it’s probably a good thing I won’t ever be king of Virginia.

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More Than a Few Tough Things (2)

In my previous post in this series, a response to a column my colleague Steve Pearlstein wrote in the Washington Post over the weekend, I discussed some difficult choices that public universities will need to make in the future as enrollments change, legislative investment declines, and options for students proliferate. And just to be clear, I’m very specifically talking about public colleges and universities, not other higher ed institutions, while Pearlstein generalizes across the higher education spectrum.

Less research, more teaching: It’s simply not the case, as Pearlstein erroneously claims, that the vast majority of work published in the humanities and social sciences is not cited by other scholars and so has no value. As Yoni Applebaum pointed out yesterday, Pearlstein  is guilty of citing bad data when he repeats this claim. We don’t accept such carelessness from our students, so we shouldn’t accept it from our professors.

But, being wrong about one thing doesn’t make him wrong about everything.

I happen to think he is correct when argues that we should, “offer comparable pay and status to professors who spend most of their time teaching, reserving reduced teaching loads for professors whose research continues to have significance and impact.”

One of the questions the Ernst & Young report on Australian higher education asks is: “Can your institution maintain a strong competitive position across a range of disciplines?” [19] I would say that the answer is “no” for the vast majority of public colleges and universities in the U.S. There just isn’t enough money to go around in public higher education, and, really, how many doctoral programs in X, or MA programs in Y, or BA programs in Z, does a state higher education sector need?

But we all seem to want to offer everything to our students, leading to a lack of differentiation. The result is market confusion and, as the Bain report on U.S. higher education points out, “Who will pay $40,000 per year to go to a school that is completely undistinguished [from similar schools]?”

What’s the solution? First, as I argued in my previous post, we need to eliminate some programs, and downsize others. In addition to the examples I offered earlier (including my own department, which I argue should be downsized over time), I would offer up the examples of Geology and Philosophy. According the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, in the 2013-14 academic year, the top 10 public colleges and universities in the state awarded 108 bachelors degrees in Philosophy and 126 in Geology. Students graduated with Philosophy degrees from seven different schools, and those receiving Geology degrees graduated from five.

It seems (to me any way), quite reasonable to ask why in a state system, if only slightly more than 100 students per year are receiving degrees in a given discipline, it is necessary to staff up sufficiently (and allocate the physical space) to offer those degrees at five or seven different institutions? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to consolidate those degree programs and offer them at only three or perhaps four institutions? Courses in Geology and Philosophy could (and should) still be offered anywhere in the system as part of a general education curriculum, but given the general lack of differentiation from one university to another, it seems to make sense to focus our resources a bit so we can build stronger programs at fewer institutions.

In such a scenario we would then have to say to students who wanted a degree in Geology or Philosophy: “Here are your three choices in Virginia.” Would that be so wrong?

The Bain report calls this “differentiation” and the Ernst & Young report calls it becoming “niche dominators,” but the result is the same. Students who want a degree in a less popular discipline would have fewer choices, but those choices would be stronger, more diverse, and have more resources.

The second part of the answer, as Pearlstein correctly argues, is that we need a clear path to professional success–pay and status–for excellent teachers who are not productive researchers at our public colleges and universities. This is already the case at the majority of public institutions, but with each passing year, colleges and universities chase elusive rankings that revolve around research productivity by emphasizing research over teaching. Larry Cuban explained how this happened in history departments in a book published way back in 1999, and the story he told then just continues to repeat itself in a variety of disciplines across the country.

If the pathway to success at our top ranked public colleges and universities had two lanes — the research lane and the teaching lane — that led to the same salary, benefits, and other rewards, it’s quite easy to imagine that some significant number of our colleagues would opt for the teaching lane, even if it meant teaching more classes and more students. But the reward and status structure would need to be the same, or almost no one would make this choice when they could have more reward and status in the research lane.

If, however, we got the incentives right, and reduced, eliminated, or consolidated academic programs across state systems, cost structures at our public colleges and universities would look a heck of a lot better than they do today.

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More Than a Few Tough Things

My colleague Steve Pearlstein’s weekend column in the Washington Post has generated more than its fair share of attention and, well, backlash. Perhaps the two most cogent negative responses I’ve seen were from Dan Drezner (Pearlstein’s WaPo colleague) and Matt Reed at Inside Higher Ed. Both take Pearlstein to task in some pretty tough, and I have to say, deserving, language, pointing out numerous serious flaws and/or oversimplifications in his analysis.

I want to stipulate at the beginning of this post that I know Steve, I like him, have been a fan of his writing for years (which is not to say I always agree with him), and I know him to be a thoughtful teacher, devoted to getting it right in the classroom, because I have sat in on his classes and had long discussions with him about teaching and learning. In several conversations over the past few years I have enjoyed his fresh perspective on an institution where I have worked for 15 years now and on an industry that I have worked in for 32.

That said, like his critics, I found a lot to disagree with in his essay, especially when you drill down to the specifics. Like any good polemic, though, this column made me think, in particular about the future of the university as we know it. I’ve had a lot to say about that in this space over the years and so I’m indebted to both Pearlstein and his critics for prodding me to think anew about issues that have troubled me for quite a while.

My own perspective on the issues he raises (about cost structures, efficiencies, etc.) comes from a decade as an administrative management consultant in higher ed before I joined the faculty ranks, and more recently in various roles as an associate dean, the director of our largest interdisciplinary program, and as a fellow in both the provost’s and president’s offices over the past couple of years. In these various capacities I’ve had the opportunity to see how academic administration works at more than 80 institutions at a more surface level (as a consultant) and at a much deeper level here at George Mason.

In preparation for this series of posts, I actually read the Bain report Pearlstein cites in his essay, and I would strongly suggest that anyone involved in higher education should read it, as well as “The University of the Future,” a report by Ernst & Young for the Australian Ministry of Education. Sure, sure, these reports are written by “outsiders” and “accountants” and so are easily dismissed by those who want to have a knee jerk response to any assessment of what we do that is written by those who stand outside our industry. But the authors of these reports have done their homework and have some very useful (positive and negative) critiques of the business model of the modern university — and it’s worth noting that they are focused on universities, not community colleges or small liberal arts colleges.

With those reports, and my own experiences as background, I am writing a series of posts (because there is just too much to say in one post) in response to what Pearlstein wrote:

Cost savings. Pearlstein’s solution to cost control is to “cap administrative costs.” If only life were so simple. He is correct that administrators spend way too much time meeting with one another — I know from personal experience what a “meeting culture” we have in academic administration. And he is correct that we spend too much money on administration and can find efficiencies. But it is also the case, that a lot of the proliferation of administration in universities is driven by external mandates–from legislatures, the national government, and the welter of accrediting bodies that run us through the wringer every few years (or every year). Were I king of the world, I’d eliminate every single external accrediting body, wipe the slate clean, and then start over with a system that makes sense. The one we have right now makes anything but sense.

More useful than Pearlstein’s analysis is the one you can find in the Bain report he cites: “As colleges and universities look to areas where they can make cuts and achieve efficiencies, they should start farthest from the core of teaching and research. Cut from the outside in, and build from the inside out.” [p. 5-6] The Ernst & Young report similarly argues for a rebalancing of administrative expenditure away from peripheral activities and back to the core (teaching and research) that produce revenue. [17]

At the same time, public universities, like mine, should stop already with the amenities arms race. No more new fancy residence halls, no more lux dining or fitness facilities. Students who select a university for its amenities (and I suspect there are actually few such students) should just go somewhere else (and somewhere likely pricier). Public universities have a teaching, research, and economic development mission and amenities advance none of those three goals.

Just as important, however, we need to recognize that academic programs come and go — that their popularity and/or utility in the world we live in is greater or lesser with the passage of time. And this means we have to delete or curtail programs that once were more popular or more useful. Let’s face it, universities almost never do this. As the Bain report puts it: “As new programs are added, old programs often are not curtailed or closed down.” [6]

As a case in point, I offer two examples (from many possible dozens) from my own university. If you are an undergraduate student at George Mason, you can declare a minor in Urban and Suburban Studies. Declaring such a minor would be a mistake, because you will have to un-declare it at some point in order to graduate. Why? We don’t offer the three required courses in the minor, have not, to my knowledge, offered those required courses since at least 2009, and there is no prospect that we will offer them anytime soon.

When I was an associate dean, I tried to have that minor (and about a dozen others) deleted from the catalog. Ultimately, I was successful in having one — the minor in New Europe — deleted. How did I pull off that great administrative success? I had myself made director of the minor and then, as the director, applied to have it deleted. Not even my evidence that we have never graduated a student with a minor in Urban and Suburban Studies, nor had we offered the required courses for years, swayed the various powers that be to delete the minor.

Ah, but Mills, minors cost us nothing, the argument went. They are made up of existing courses (in most cases) and so just funnel a few extra students into those classes. If only this were a good answer. First, it ignores the fact that everything has costs associated with it, and that when aggregated, those costs add up. In the case of Urban and Suburban Studies, every time we update the catalog someone has to check the copy for that minor. And every time we update the website, someone has to update that page. These are tiny costs, to be sure, but when spread across the more than 50 minors we offer in my college alone, they add up, both as real costs and as opportunity costs.

Lest you think I’m picking on just one minor here, our associate provost for graduate education could give you a list of all the graduate degree or certificate programs at my institution that have never graduated a student, and of the (far too) many graduate courses spread across the university that have never been offered.

And, lest you think I’m picking on others instead of my own department, I would argue that my department (History and Art History) is one of those that ought to contract. Like many (most?) history departments around the country, we are in the midst of a long slow slide in majors, but even as we do slip down this slope, we have no intention of giving up faculty slots and will fight to hold on to what we have had in the past on the premise that getting smaller is bad.

We are very resistant to changes in our departmental size for a whole variety of reasons, some good, some bad. Pearlstein claims caustically and not entirely incorrectly, that getting smaller might mean an increase in our teaching loads and thus, take time away from our research activities. The main way we have managed to reduce teaching loads is on the backs of faculty who are not eligible for tenure — adjuncts and those on annual term contracts that include some benefits. In my department, for instance, over the three previous academic years, 64% of all undergraduate students taking a history course in the fall semesters were taught by faculty who are not eligible for tenure, and who are also paid much, much less.

Given our decline in majors, what really should be happening in my department (and in any other department facing a similar decline in student interest) is that we should constrict the number of upper level courses we offer and, over time, get smaller as retirements and departures happen. In essence, we need to rebalancethe size of our faculty with our enrollment of BA, MA, and PhD students, something we are very reluctant to even consider.

But consider it we must. And not just at George Mason. Back in June, Rebecca Spang, a historian at Indiana University and member of the university’s Faculty Council, said that some departments within the college “may have gotten bigger than they need to be,” and could get smaller. Spang pointed the finger at her own department as one that probably could contract.

Of late, Bryan Alexander has been calling attention to what he calls “Queen Sacrifice” at colleges and universities across the country. These sacrifices are happening and will continue to happen unless we take seriously the notion that as new programs are added, old ones need to close or be curtailed.

And, as the Bain report points out, on the administrative side of the house it is not at the top level or the front line service positions that need to be cut, it’s at the level of middle management [6-7]. The Bain authors are not wrong when they point out that while we can’t easily cut the number of people providing security, mental health counseling, basic tech support, and other similar front line service positions. But we can substantially reduce the layers between those front line service providers and the upper levels of our administrations.

If that means we have fewer or shorter meetings, I’m okay with that.

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Back to the Future

It’s all but impossible for me to believe it, but 10 years ago this week I wrote my first post in this blog. And, oddly enough, this post is #500. If I were a numerologist I’m sure I could make something of that symmetry.

Way back in 2005, that first post was about my attempts to teach students to be more critical consumers of historical content they found online–and in 2015, I’m still at it. While I’ve tried many different approaches to teaching this skill and habit of mind to my students (some controversial, some not), the biggest change between 2005 and 2015 is that in 2005 I asked them to review historical websites using a rubric of my own devising, in 2015 I ask them to build websites using a rubric of their own devising.

Between then and now, I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a history teacher is that students learn best by doing digital history rather than by learning about digital history. I should have known this, of course, because my first true digital history courses were “doing” courses — the first was a seminar at Grinnell College in which my students built a database of historical sources and the second, at Texas Tech, was a seminar in which my students took one of my colleagues online (creating his website for him). And along the way, I’ve taught lots of other digital history courses that involve really doing digital history.

What’s different now–really since 2007–is that I’ve found ways to combine the creation of digital history (which involves a lot of teaching of technical skills) with careful consideration of the underlying principles of digital information and the underlying principles of historical thinking. Once I found that sweet spot, my students’ results improved substantially.

The tools available to do this work are so much more accessible and user friendly than they were in 2005, and I suspect that by 2025 they will be even more conducive to the kinds of deeper learning about the past that I’m after.

When I started writing this blog, Google and YouTube were still very new, and Twitter, data phones, and 3D printing didn’t exist, at least in the commercial space. No one, or almost no one, was talking about “big data” or data visualizations in the humanities. Zotero and Omeka, which I use all the time in my teaching, weren’t available, and the big thing everyone seemed to want to talk about was how to use Facebook to teach about the past (not so much a topic these days).

I’ll also be very interested to see what new challenges the tech innovators of the world can throw at us. No matter what they throw, however, I strongly suspect that in 2025 we’ll still be talking about how to teach students to be critical consumers of online historical content.

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