Tag Archives: higher education

It’s Not All About Me

“Our students come first.”

That’s what it says on page five of George Mason University’s Strategic Plan. As one of the authors of that document back in 2014, I’m always happy when this simple sentence is deployed to explain a new policy or rule. And I’m equally unhappy when we, too often in my view, make rules and policies that are grounded in the revenue needs of our various academic units rather than what’s good for our students.

Because the internal contest for revenue that drives so much of our decision making makes me crazy, it’s useful to be reminded, by students, that they come first. They are under such pressure and face so many problems–excessive debt, an unpredictable job market, political disunity at home, a looming climate disaster everywhere. We owe them more than just an excellent course. What we do as educators transcends the syllabus.

And it’s good to be reminded, by students, that it’s not all about me.

Those who know me know that I’m a person of very strong political opinions and that I’m very passionate, and sometimes even a little intolerant (if I’m honest), on certain issues relating to individual rights, climate change, and the twinned issues of equity in access, not just in higher education, but in our society generally.

My students will tell you, I hope, that I also keep all of those opinions to myself in the classroom. This is an issue with lots of strong feelings on both sides — professors shouldn’t be afraid to express their political and social views in class/professors should keep those views to themselves. I get why some of my colleagues bring their views into the classroom and I don’t condemn them for that. I just don’t teach that way. That’s just me.

But I still have those strong opinions and the events of the past 12 months have just made me even more committed to what I believe.

When one of my former students came to see me back in late November to ask for letters of recommendation for graduate school, I asked the obvious question: “What have you been doing since you graduated two years ago?” As it turns out, he had been very engaged in the recent election, working for a congressional candidate who I had really, really hoped would lose (she didn’t). A part of me wanted to scream, “How could you possibly work for someone like her?”

Fortunately, I remembered, it’s not all about me.

So, I wrote him glowing letters — he was, after all, an excellent student and a nice person — and I’m happy to say he was admitted to several excellent graduate programs.

Just today I received a phone call from the executive director of a local NGO seeking a reference on a former student — one of my favorite students of the past several years. She began the call by explaining the mission of her organization and it was clear immediately that their goals and beliefs are antithetical to mine. Really antithetical. A part of me wanted to call my student right away and scream, “How could you possibly work for such an organization?”

Fortunately, I remembered, it’s not all about me.

So, I gave her the excellent recommendation she deserved — she is, after all, a wonderful person and was one of the best students I’ve taught in the past several years. I suspect, given the tenor of the call, that she’s their first choice and I hope she gets the job.

These two students have done exactly what we hope our students will do. Get a good education, and then apply what they’ve learned to launch themselves onto career paths that they’ve chosen for themselves. In short, the system worked. I’m proud of them both, even if I might wish they had political or social views aligned with mine.

As we head into tomorrow’s change of presidential administrations, I’m going to try hard to remember the lessons I’ve learned from these students, namely, that just because I disagree with your position on issues I care passionately about, the odds are really good that you are a fine person, doing the right thing according to your own lights. We just don’t agree.

If we can all remember that it’s about all of us, then maybe, just maybe, it won’t be quite as I fear it will be. And so, on his last day in office, I’ll let President Obama have the last word:

“Sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everybody else does, but at my core, I think we’re going to be OK.”

The Reality of College Admissions

Tomorrow is April 1.

How fitting that newspapers across the United States will run stories about Melissa, or Johnny, or Tong, or Razan, getting into some ultra-selective college or other. We’ll hear all about how the “America’s Top Colleges” just keep getting more selective as application numbers soar higher and higher and admit rates fall farther and farther. Relief will be palpable in the homes where a child got that coveted email saying “You’re in!”, and sadness will permeate the homes where all the emails from America’s “best colleges” say something like, “I’m sorry to inform you…”

And these stories will have about as much relevance to college admissions in America as a story about Warren Buffett’s tax bill has to me.

Here’s a fact for you. In 2015 “America’s Top Colleges,” as defined by the top 10 schools in the US News and World Report rankings of universities and of liberals arts colleges, enrolled exactly 0.8% of all undergraduate students in America.

That’s less than 1%. As in such a small number as to have no meaning.

The reality of college admissions in America is that (according to the U.S. Department of Education) there are around 20,000,000  students enrolled attending some college or other and the vast, vast majority of them attend non-selective or barely selective institutions.

Most work more than 20 hours per week to help pay those tuition bills. A substantial fraction have no time for partying on Thursday (or Friday or Saturday) nights, because they have to get home to feed the kids or help them with their homework. An embarrassingly large number skip meals because they have to save money for tuition or are homeless. Far too many take six, seven, or even ten years to graduate because they can only take one or two classes at a time. Many bear the scars of military service in Afghanistan or Iraq. And their average age is well over 22.

That’s the reality of college admissions. Not Johnny getting into Williams. Or Melissa getting into Princeton. Or Razan getting into Stanford. Or Tong getting into Grinnell.

So, newspaper editors of America, how about this year we give stories about who did or did not get into “America’s Top Colleges” a pass. Instead, write us a story about how Johnny is living at home so he can work and go to community college part time? Or about Melissa trying to figure out how she is going to get to her classes on time after work? Or about Razan being trying to decide whether to take 12 credits or 15, when 15 would mean skipping lunch the entire semester? Or about Tong heading off to his local state university after finishing his AA degree when he finishes his AA degree this summer?

Those stories would be anything but an April Fool’s joke.

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.

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.