The governance crisis at the University of Virginia is over and the results are surprisingly positive. A strong president remains in place and a great university remains on track. I even applaud Governor McDonnell’s decision to reappoint the Board of Visitors chair, Helen Dragas. She said she had made a mistake and had learned from it. He accepted the apology, noted she was a good and highly capable person, and said let’s move on. The legislature agreed and re-elected her. This is the kind of class we need more of in national politics.
So what about the “But...” above? Well, the concern is rooted in our society’s tendency to overdraw lessons from events that get a lot of media attention. In this case, many people are likely to say that the message from Charlottesville is that trustees should leave the administration alone and let them manage the university and shape its future.
If trustees react in this way, it will be a disaster for American higher education.
What we should learn from Charlottesville is about how trustees challenge administrators and faculty — not whether they should.
The distinction is critical because, in today’s kinetic higher education environment, the role of trustees in both operational oversight and in setting mission is far more important than ever.
I agree that trustees should be extremely wary of involvement in the academic core — the key areas of curriculum, instruction, research agenda, and promotion and tenure.
These are certainly sensitive issues. But they shouldn’t be entirely off-limits, not least because they can’t be extricated from the question of mission, which is always squarely in the trustees’ province.
Before we get to the tough academic parts, though, here are some thoughts about the relatively more straightforward operations side.
Colleges and universities over all have higher debt ratios than in the past. There are mostly good reasons for that, but more debt should mean more vigilance. Trustees, typically drawn from business, have generally been good at financial oversight. So there’s reason for confidence. But for heaven’s sake don’t let up.
One area where trustees haven’t done such an effective job is insisting on more outsourcing and, where possible, more collaborations with other institutions. That’s a problem because colleges and universities too often suffer from the Not Invented Here syndrome and tend to show pride in the range of services and programs they offer and the number of people they employ.
To illustrate where this mentality leads, consider an example from business. Before IBM’s near-collapse into bankruptcy in 1990, its executives were ranked and compensated in large part on the number of employees in the divisions they managed. When the architecture of computing changed and the competitive heat quickly turned up to a boil, the personnel bloat nearly killed a great company. Today, companies comfortably outsource even core activities. Netflix, which absolutely depends on high-performance networking and storage, relies on Amazon for these services.
To get a synoptic view of operations issues, trustees should read Bain & Company’s study of UC-Berkeley. Critics of American higher education have tried to use this important and well-done report as part of an effort to suggest that our colleges and universities are highly inefficient. But Bain’s work doesn’t say that at all: in situations where they recommend improvement, the consultants consistently cite not cases from business but exemplary practices at other universities. The conclusion isn’t that there’s rampant inefficiency in American higher education; it’s that some universities are doing well in some areas but all aren’t optimal in everything all the time.
Not always being optimally efficient is nothing to be ashamed about — businesses aren’t either. It’s why they hire consultants at a much higher rate than universities. Of course, don’t forget to keep an open mind when you get difficult recommendations: IBM’s leaders had plenty of spot-on outside analysis well before things nosedived for them in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the complacent management and board weren’t willing to listen.
As critical as it is for trustees to be assertive in operations, it’s now far more important for them to be visible on the super sensitive question of institutional mission and everything that flows from that.
The comments that follow speak in part to trustees at institutions that lack a clear mission. My view is this is a fairly small group. However, in today’s contentious times, it is also important for all trustees to be sure that their college or university’s mission, and the planning that supports it, is clearly articulated in a way that the public — including legislators and donors — can easily understand. Open discussion and debate is the best way to do this.
In the case of mission, the guidelines for public trustees are quite different from those for their independent peers. Trustees of the former have as their first responsibility not the institution on whose board they serve, but instead the public’s interest in higher education. Unlike private university boards, which may choose to invest in duplicative capabilities because they judge that the market requires it, public trustees must be extremely careful to avoid unnecessary duplication. Unfortunately, the kind of argument too often advanced by administrators, “What’s good for Normal State U is good for the state,” isn’t necessarily true. When trustees hear this kind of rhetoric, they should be prepared to challenge.
I can’t provide much detail in this short essay, but here are some brief suggestions of where to look for academic models of effective mission focus.
Number one on my list for university trustees is to visit just about any two-year college. For several decades now the business world has revered the concept of “lean manufacturing.” The two-year colleges know all about it. They’ve been doing “lean education” for almost that long. To illustrate from the perspective of academic programs, if there isn’t a strong market for it, two-year colleges don’t do it. And, in most cases, when they can productively cooperate with another institution in either operations or academics, they will.
University trustees will say that community colleges are different, and they’ll be right. But that doesn’t mean a visit wouldn’t be valuable — you can learn a lot just from the two-year leaders’ pragmatic attitudes and energetic approach to planning.
But studying a university or two will be necessary, so here are some models to consider.
Start with Clemson. Simply put, this university has the best approach to planning of any public institution I’ve seen. And planning hasn’t been an abstraction in Death Valley. Instead the university has used well-thought-out processes to make some very tough choices, primarily at the graduate level. Led by an extraordinary president and provost, Clemson’s faculty took a good chunk of time about a decade and a half ago to work through the options and make choices about where — which disciplinary areas and at which levels — they could compete and where they couldn’t. As a result, some programs grew with additional investment and some didn’t.
Did it work? I think it’s been a huge success in every respect. Despite very low state support, Clemson today is highly competitive. Talk to them. Visit if you can -- it’s a much nicer place than the name “Death Valley” would suggest.
My understanding of Clemson is that its rather radical strategy didn’t come from the board, but was strongly supported by it. But don’t assume a board can’t play a leading role. On to Cleveland.
Case Western Reserve University emerged from a merger in 1967 with some very good programs, some weak ones, and a less-than-stellar resource base. After over a decade of financial struggles the Board of Trustees decided that the status quo wasn’t financially viable over the long term. They decided on changes and not minor ones. Whole colleges were dropped (for example Library Science in 1986), a great many doctoral programs were effectively suspended, and investment was refocused into just a few key areas. The outcome? CWRU is very strong across the spectrum at the undergraduate level (like Clemson), and is highly focused in doctoral and professional education. The advanced programs that remain consistently compete very well with the best of their peers. CWRU had leadership problems for a while, and that slowed progress, but their strong focus kept them moving and allowed Cleveland’s University Circle to attract a president-provost team on the level of Clemson’s. They’re on the move. Go visit.
In evaluating existing programs at research universities, remember that the issue isn’t just to limit the number of disciplines that offer doctorates. The specific programs have to be focused as well. There are just a handful of places that can, for example, attempt comprehensive research and education in areas like Chemistry or Engineering. Stanford and MIT, yes. Normal State, no.
In considering program focus, one model to look at is Wright State University, which has an excellent Ph.D. in engineering that is linked to programs at Ohio State, Cincinnati, and the University of Dayton. This tightly focused program is loved by employers -- a bedrock criterion for quality that trustees should never forget.
There are doubtless other good examples of successful focus I don’t know about. But the point here is that trustees have a responsibility to be informed and then to discuss these models in public. For institutions with advanced programs, I believe commitment to this kind of analysis is a core trustee responsibility.
If you’re at a university that doesn’t have a lot of doctoral and professional programs to worry about, consider the largely untapped potential of academic collaboration. I don’t mean just a casual link here and there, but rather interdependent degree programs. “Interdependent” means that you rely on someone else to provide a field that’s critical but one where you can’t reasonably achieve high quality on your own.
To illustrate, say you have good faculty depth and quality in some traditional aspect of science but can’t compete for leading-edge people in the increasingly essential computational and molecular imaging areas.
What to do? Well, the usual option chosen by universities is to give their students a watered-down version taught by whoever they can hire.
That’s small thinking.
Why not instead partner with a research university to prepare your students at the state of the art? If Normal State contracts with Advanced State for four courses or so a year, the latter can hire another faculty member. That will make both programs stronger. This kind of arrangement wouldn’t have been reasonable 30 years ago, but today’s technology makes all kinds of sharing feasible.
Technology brings us to the question of the massive open online course (MOOC). Trustee advocacy for the MOOC is reported to have been a major cause of the Virginia board’s brief sojourn in the wilderness.
Was the trustees’ infatuation with the MOOC worth it? To answer, let’s start by asking whether this approach is a new idea or just an old one done better. My own view is it’s the latter; we’ve had media-enriched broadcast learning for a long time. Then the next question: Is instruction in a MOOC done so much better in consequence of today’s technology that it crosses a threshold to critical mass? Meaning that it justifies pervasive use? Looked at it from the perspective of students in general, I think the answer here is “no.”
Research and experience show that highly motivated and mature individuals can succeed at complicated tasks on their own. This means the stand-alone MOOC will surely benefit many focused and career-oriented adults, and by itself is a good reason for these courses to exist. Super-talented undergraduates will do well too, but don’t expect many to choose online over Stanford or MIT. They are smart, after all.
But what about those adults who are motivated but who are rusty in math and writing and generally lack confidence? These folks are unlikely to do well with pure online programs, no matter how good the materials are. For them, and for mainstream undergraduates, the best approach might be to mix some of the high-quality stuff from a MOOC into a local course. Make a MOOCshake? Sure.
How about considering some really radical ideas for our advanced technology? For example, why not use computer-based programming to reshape the curriculum so that students get modular coursework that is thoughtfully distributed across the years? Right now, we present dry general education content like science for nonmajors in a “fire and forget” first year course. We fire a stream of facts, they forget in a few weeks.
Instead, why don’t we offer strategically distributed course modules that deliver science knowledge in context — for example, connect ecological principles to a major, like business?
Again, my suggestions here aren’t for trustees to advocate some specific approach for the faculty to consider. Instead, board members should support the administration and faculty in disdaining superficial thinking in order to reflect deeply on how technology could improve the education of their own students.
In closing, some core suggestions for the busy trustee-administrator-faculty troika.
On the operations side, do outsource where you can. The principles employed by modern business really apply in this area and there’s always something important to learn from others.
If you have expensive graduate and professional programs, do ask hard questions about their relevance and don’t be swayed by departmental claims about a halo effect on institutional prestige. The reality is that weak programs don’t help anyone. And they can cause a lot of collateral damage.
Do look carefully at the opportunity to share academic programming in an innovative way. The focus here should be on benefits to students, not trying to get a virtual photo-op by riding shotgun on the latest fad.
Do not worry about the datarati and their “you didn’t do it if you didn’t measure it” mentality. Sometimes that’s right, but not always and especially not on the academic side. One little appreciated fact about standardized assessment is that getting the same measure over time necessarily ossifies the curriculum. In an era of breathtakingly rapid knowledge growth, do we want the content of our courses to be fixed in place, like an insect in ancient amber?
Do get all flinty-eyed when you discuss the debt service numbers with the president and vice president for finance. Discussions on this issue should rank comparatively low on the collegiality meter.
America’s colleges and universities are our most powerful asset in a rapidly changing economy, and the trustee system is a key part of their historical success. However, as more and more ill-informed critics suggest that U.S. higher education must be somehow “transformed,” trustees will need to be both more knowledgeable and more visible in order to effectively defend what works in the academy.
Finally, one of the most successful presidents I’ve worked with, Brother Ray Fitz of the University of Dayton, said that his goal was to be “bold but not obnoxious.” The crisis at Virginia notwithstanding, I think this is an excellent motto for trustees.
Garrison Walters, a former higher education bureaucrat, is author of the recent Total F*ing Magic: A Non-Technical Introduction to Computers and Networking.
It began with a vivid dream, in which REM sleep metamorphoses into the awakened conscience, providing a vision of what will or ought to be. In reality, I had a class to teach in five hours. However, at 4 a.m., the hallucinatory dream-realm seemed more real to me than irrational: Benjamin Franklin had visited me with a message for a student in media ethics.
Any teacher, let alone administrator, who would publicize such a visitation, is due for sabbatical or retirement. I get that. But this was an extraordinary time for me. A colleague had passed away suddenly, and I had volunteered to take her class. As a journalism director, I had no classroom responsibilities. The last time I taught media ethics was spring 2003 in my last quarter at Ohio University, where I worked before taking the Iowa State University position.
This is an account of what began as a dream and ended as an affirmation about the importance of higher education.
In the asynchronous landscape of the conscience, I did not meet the historic Ben Franklin with ponytail and coonskin cap. History is insignificant in the absence of time. Reputation is not.
Imagine learning without warning that a powerful or an influential person — Angela Merkel, say, or Nelson Mandela — was en route to your home. What would be the first thing on your mind?
I had to clean the house. Hence began the whirr of imagery dusting, washing dishes, vacuuming, as the doorbell rang like a school bell, or liberty bell maybe, now that I think of it.
In a blink, the house was clean and Franklin across from me. "I have an important message for one of your students. She is going to change the country."
"Mr. Franklin," I said — yes, I called him that — "I am grateful for your visit."
"You have nothing to do with it. I’m here because of a student. I have three words for her."
He shared them, and I awoke bedazzled and apprehensive.
I entered Room 169 in Hamilton Hall. The class was still grieving the loss of one of Iowa State’s most iconic professors, Barbara Mack, who died on Aug. 23 after teaching the first two sessions of media ethics. (See “24 Hours” about the shock of her passing.)
Not only was I replacing a beloved professor, in the eyes of my students I was the quintessential administrator with no classroom experience and with antiquated lectures of the pre-digital age. Worse, I had substituted the existing syllabus of Professor Mack with one of my own, containing more philosophy than newsroom practice. (I would adjust for that by requiring the class to do an online media portfolio with personal ethics statement.)
Instinctively I knew I had to gain students’ trust, and that’s when I decided to share with them my Franklin dream.
I still recall the puzzled looks of 65 students. I pressed on, sharing common knowledge about Franklin as journalist and highlighting his contribution to virtue ethics.
When he was 20, about the age of my students, he devised an ethical plan to shape his life, espousing the virtues of "resolution" (promise keeping), "tranquility" (serenity during incivility), "frugality," "industry," "sincerity," "justice," "moderation" and, above all, "humility."
All of those virtues are practiced still in Iowa, known for its work ethic.
I told them my dream and those three important words: "Read, read, read."
After lecture, I returned to my office and read several e-mails from women who felt that Franklin was speaking directly to them. They knew they were going to make a difference, and this was some sort of affirmation from the beyond.
That was the first inkling that times had changed. I thought students would be more skeptical.
Here is one such e-mail: "I meant to come in to talk to you today, and actually bumped into you in the Daily newsroom, but you seemed to be all over the place doing business, so I decided to e-mail you instead.… I would like to give you some background on your Benjamin Franklin dream in saying he was probably speaking about me!"
About a dozen students in media ethics also worked for our independent newspaper, the Daily. Barbara Mack was on the publication board. I was going to forward those e-mails to her when I remembered she was no longer with us. Or maybe like Franklin, she was, in spirit.
Instead, I shared the e-mails with our office manager, Kathy Box. She said something that rang true about our role as teachers. "We should approach every class believing there are students who will change the world for the better."
Over the course of the semester, those students changed me. Keep in mind it had been a decade since I had taught this class. There were no smartphones then. A small percentage of the typical campus had wireless in 2003. Now technology has exploded with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype and omnipresent media and blogs that are part of the modern classroom and our lives.
During the first few weeks, some students were wary about my teaching methods emphasizing reading. Whereas Barbara Mack, a lawyer (and you need to be if you dare do this) confiscated smartphones if students used them during lecture, I paid them no heed whatsoever. "Text away," I said, asking students to sit in rows nearest the exit if they wanted to network socially. These were "liberty seats," allowing students to come and go as they pleased. "It’s your tuition dollar."
At first, a dozen or so students embraced that policy, believing it was lenient, until the midterm. At Iowa State, professors must report to the registrar all those students earning a C- or lower. Out of the 65, I reported a third of the class — a fair distribution of grades, I thought. To students, this was alarming. Many needed media ethics for graduation. They couldn’t just drop the class without setting themselves back careerwise and financially.
Ah, the beauty of extra credit! I had forgotten about that, too, in addition to grade inflation. Students could earn points reading, writing and attending guest lectures, presentations and forums. Moreover, I told them, they could earn more credit if their online portfolios wowed me. This was an opportunity for seniors to work for themselves and create a project that would help them secure a job upon graduation.
To be honest, though, some stereotypes about today’s digital natives were true, initially at least. For instance, I posted all of my lectures, journal exercises, recordings, videos and presentations on "myethicsclass.com" — interesting, isn’t it, that I could buy that domain? I also posted reviews for exams whose answers were available 24/7 via Internet. (After the abysmal midterm exam, students realized the importance of “read, read, read.”)
While students consumed technology, many in the class did not know basic HTML or CSS. I had to create a slideshow tutorial to help them with final projects. I also scheduled one-on-one advising sessions to fix glitches in their online portfolios, using the computer as an excuse to interact with and get to know students interpersonally.
They did have trouble thinking critically. I had not fully anticipated how much this skill had been undermined by technology, which tends to provide answers rather than processes. I went as far as giving "critical thinking" prizes every time a student correctly applied an ethics tenet. Throughout the semester, I gave only four such prizes — a personalized pad and pen.
Students made up for lack of critical thinking with a keen visual sense and entrepreneurial talent, as evidenced in their ethics portfolios.
What surprised me in my substitute semester was how efficient teaching had become because of technology, if one knows how to use it for educational purposes.
In a few weeks I managed an entire course revision, updating lectures and using search engines, online libraries and databanks to find everything that I needed at a mere click of a button — something my students had mastered but occasionally misused, not being able to tell critically the veracity or authenticity of a site.
Better still, I didn’t have to pay travel expenses for experts to speak to my classes, affirming my lectures and lessons. I could Skype them in to do just that. For instance I called on Jeffrey Howe, a former media ethics student at Ohio and now an assistant professor at Northeastern University, to critique students’ online ethics portfolio. (Howe also writes for Wired and is creator of the concept of "crowdsourcing," also discussed in my class.)
I could provide links to news shows and historic moments and then show them in class. Discussing the power of the conscience, we viewed a journalism video on YouTube about "Tank Man," who stopped a line of tanks during the 1989 student uprising at Tiananmen Square.
A Chinese student in ethics class had never seen the Tank Man video before. “This is why I came to study in America,” she said.
Later in the semester I showed a powerful CNN video about the Kent State uprising. Several of my American students had never heard about this before, especially as told through the eyes of the student journalists who covered the fatal shootings in 1970.
Another of my Chinese students remarked about the similarities between Tiananmen and Kent State uprisings. (She got a critical thinking pad and pen, by the way.)
I could check stats on the class blog to see how many students were reading posts. I could communicate with them throughout the week, using social networks and Blackboard, commenting on current affairs and sending links to augment times in class when questions arose or tangents were taken.
Case in point: We were studying the concept of "freedom of conscience" when I mentioned the bravery of 22-year-old Sophie Scholl, part of a journalism resistance group, "The White Rose," that harangued Nazis in World War II with philosophy-based newsletters about social justice.
I provided links to her life and then purchased from Amazon several copies of the DVD, "Sophie Scholl — The Final Days." Several students checked out the video and others found it on Netflix.
A transfer student who watched clips from the movie confessed that Scholl made her feel insignificant because she wanted to be as brave as her and make a contribution to society, although she doubted she would ever do so.
"Remember the Franklin dream," I told her. "He could have been speaking about you."
She smiled in recognition.
That gave me an idea. In time for the next class I acquired a 1787 coin that Franklin purportedly designed, the "Fugio" cent, and passed it around the class. “You are holding history,” I said. Then we explicated mottos on the coin whose obverse inscription, “Fugio,” is Latin for "I flee," referring to the blink of linear time. The obverse has another motto — “Mind your business” — which symbolizes “industry” and also bespeaks the entrepreneurial genius of today’s students. The reverse has 13 interlocking links, representing the original colonies, with the inscription, “We are one.” This affirms unity.
At that moment, teacher and students were one, thanks again to Benjamin Franklin.
When the term ended, many students met their grading goals by attending extra-credit events. Fewer than 10 students earned C- to F, a typical distribution.
I will keep teaching media ethics. My substitute semester helped me understand the challenges and needs of faculty. I will do all I can to provide resources.
As for dreams, my Franklin visitation probably says more about me than about teaching. However, his message about reading is as essential as ever if we are to help students realize their own dreams and contribute more to society.
In my substitute semester I learned there is still no substitute for that.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms, both published by Oxford University Press and winners of the Clifford G. Christians Awards for Research in Media Ethics.
An in-depth study of black students in Los Angeles schools projects that, if current trends continue, only 1 in 20 African-American kindergartners will go on to graduate from high school and complete a degree at a four-year California university. The study was conducted by the Education Trust-West. Among its findings:
1 in 5 African-American middle school and high school students are proficient in Algebra I.
63 percent of black students graduate from high school in four years.
20 percent of black ninth-graders graduate in four years, having completed the courses required for admission to one of the state's public universities.
Senate Republicans are raising new questions about payments Jack Lew, President Obama's nominee to become treasury secretary, received upon leaving a top position at New York University, The New York Times reported. Lew left the position of executive vice president in 2006 to take a post at Citigroup. On Monday it was revealed that Lew -- who was earning in excess of $700,000 a year since starting at NYU in 2001 -- received an exit payment of $625,000. While deferred compensation and bonuses are common for long-time leaders or presidents of colleges and universities, Lew's tenure at NYU was not exceptionally long. NYU officials said that the payment reflected his successful work at the university.
One of the Republicans reviewing Lew's nomination is Charles Grassley of Iowa, who regularly raises questions about salaries and benefits provided by nonprofit organizations. "Mr. Lew’s track record of getting well paid by taxpayer-supported institutions raises questions about his regard for who pays the bills,” Grassley said. “The problem of colleges that always seem to find money for the executive suite even as they raise tuition is not unique to New York University. However, New York University is among the most expensive, has a well-funded endowment, and has high student debt loads. It should explain how its generous treatment of Mr. Lew and other executives is necessary to its educational mission."
Arkansas legislators gave final approval Monday to a bill, expected to be signed into law by the governor, that gives public colleges and universities the option of allowing faculty and staff members to carry concealed weapons on campus, the Associated Press reported. The boards of colleges that don't give their employees that option would be required to reconsider the policy every year. Arkansas higher education leaders opposed an earlier version of the legislation, which would not have allowed colleges to opt out of concealed carry for campus employees. But the opposition was dropped after the bill was amended to make this an option, not a requirement, for colleges.
Wayne Watson was hired as president of Chicago State University in 2009 over strong objections of faculty members, who noted that he had clashed with professors while leading the City Colleges of Chicago. Board members, however, said that he would improve enrollment figures and repair ties with the faculty. On Monday, the university announced Watson was leaving. Enrollment has dropped and the faculty voted no confidence in him last year, The Chicago Tribune reported. Board members said that they felt the university needed new leadership. Watson did not comment. He was midway through the fourth year of a five-year contract, and will now receive a one-year sabbatical at his $250,000 salary.
Despite headlines about the rising price of a college degree, fewer families are saving money for college and fewer have a plan to pay than in the past, according to a survey released today by Sallie Mae. The annual survey about families' saving habits found that only 50 percent of families with children younger than 18 were saving for college, a drop of 10 percentage points from 2010. On top of that, 16 percent of respondents said they were saving less than the previous year, citing unexpected expenses, higher cost of living, and lower income. When asked to describe their feelings about saving for college, parents were more likely to say that they felt overwhelmed, annoyed, frustrated, or that they don't like thinking about it than they were to say they were confident.