administrators

A tongue-in-cheek look at institutions' efforts to differentiate themselves (essay)

To: The Provost, Old Oak College

Re: Current Status of the Committee to Make Us Special

First, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to chair this ad hoc committee. While I’m fairly certain my appointment was the result of my admittedly vociferous criticisms of just about every suggestion Old Oak’s senior administrators have made to improve our recruitment and retention of students, that doesn’t mean I didn’t take up the charge with the enthusiasm that such an opportunity truly deserves. The course release and travel stipend helped, too.

I’m sorry to say, though, that after nine months of weekly meetings and a great deal of research, the Committee to Make Us Special has come up mostly dry. This is not to say there were not ideas. In fact, at last count there were over 2,300 ideas shared by faculty, students, staff, alumni and anyone else who could find their way to our webpage.

We created four categories into which we sorted these ideas:

  1. We Like This but Could Never Afford It.
  2. We Like This, but It’s Been Done, Which Sort of Defeats the Purpose of Making Us Special.
  3. This Will Likely Undermine All That Our Founders Imagined for Us.
  4. Nice Idea but It Will Not Bring Us a Single Student.

Some ideas were category crossovers. For example, the lazy river in the shape of our initials was both a category 1 and category 2. It was also its own category: Ideas That Cannot Actually Be Implemented. We realized our particular moniker’s initials would create a very lazy river, one without the necessary water outflow. On the upside, it might have looked intriguing in a satellite photo -- something, perhaps, as Professor Whelan from the religion department pointed out, similar to a concrete crop circle, or, as Professor Martin from biology pointed out, a wastewater treatment plant (definitely not special).

One suggested category, Ideas Richard Russo Would Likely Satirize, ended up being too large a single category and so we deconstructed it into the above four (a process we acknowledge would undoubtedly be something Russo Would Likely Satirize -- one of our many meta moments).

We considered 22 possible new majors. We began with some of what we’ve come to realize are the usual suspects in such an undertaking. Nursing. Physical therapy. International business. Social justice. Video game design. Recognizing that we are behind the curve on them (a number of our peers and aspirants have already announced these particular programs), we began to think more creatively, combining the best features of some into interdisciplinary majors. Thus, global physical therapy, taught mostly online and focusing on injuries commonly sustained by those on mission trips to developing nations, was popular with the committee.

We did review a number of suggestions for new athletic programs that we might want to add -- water polo, fencing, water fencing (that’s still an emerging sport), trapeze. I must say I was astonished to discover how rapidly the circus arts in general are growing, and the irony of adding those to our campus was not, I assure you, lost on anyone. Twelve different sports with the terms “extreme” or “ninja” in the name were quickly set aside. In the end, the cost of facilities and equipment and the very hefty increase to our liability insurance premium made almost all of them unlikely. I say “almost all” because I’m happy to inform you that our bocce club will become a varsity sport next year. Professor Rubino and the rest of the Italian studies department are thrilled, as you might imagine. This idea may, however, belong in category 4.

Our Subcommittee on Enrollment Strategies (we thought about calling it “Extreme Enrollment Strategies,” but again, set that aside) examined some possibilities as well. One that you had suggested, bringing in our largest first-year class ever, was carefully vetted by our Sub-Subcommittee on Making at Least the Incoming Class Feel Special. Their determination was that this was a shortsighted approach. Our discount and acceptance rates would skyrocket, thus lowering our ranking in U.S. News & World Report, which would, in turn, make future recruitment efforts more difficult. Also, our housing staff would resign en masse. (I realize you think they’re all easily replaceable with cheaper, younger new professionals, but we saw what happened the last time we tried such a thing, and I don’t think the students without housing assignments for three weeks who lived in [yes -- admittedly very nice] tents will ever truly trust their alma mater again. Experience is worth something, is it not?)

In addition, four of our peer institutions announced last year the arrival of their largest first-year classes ever, and apparently at least three will do so again this year. Our demographics consultant made it clear this is not a bottomless well we’re peering down, so to speak. Although we could double our enrollment by attracting and admitting students who cannot pay anything, will need remedial assistance in every subject and don’t actually want to come to Old Oak, it seems this might not solve our long-term need for steady enrollment and revenue growth. In fact, after much number crunching, we believe it would ultimately sink us permanently. I realize that limiting enrollment growth will be a source of great disappointment to our president, who we know loves to announce such things at board meetings, but perhaps you could remind him that his retirement is within sight and his deferred compensation is within reach. That often seems to calm him.

Of course, I recall that one of your charges to our committee was to “investigate the role of the liberal arts for the future of Old Oak, indeed, for all of higher education.” Tall order, that. We did, however, do our best, creating yet another group: the Subcommittee to Read Everything That’s Been Written About the Liberal Arts in the Past Three Years.

Contrary to what you might have heard, those committee members did still find time to teach their classes and tend to their administrative duties, though not particularly well. Their work resulted in a book-length report (yes, they acknowledge the irony of adding to the pile of reports, books, films and tweets on this topic), which then led us to put the issue to a vote of the full committee. The results are instructive:

  • Votes in favor of recommitting to the liberal arts nature of Old Oak: 12
  • Votes in favor of abandoning the liberal arts completely: 12

Honestly, I have not witnessed such a deeply felt deadlock since the great hyena vs. dingo mascot controversy of ’97. As you know, the scars from that battle remain. Literally, in some unfortunate cases.

The alumni office representatives on our committee did take seriously your suggestion that we engage our alums in this process. We learned the following about our alums:

  • They would be willing to help us recruit, if they were not feeling so overwhelmed by their monthly loan payments.
  • They would be willing to provide internship sites for current students, if they were not feeling so overwhelmed by their monthly loan payments.
  • They would be willing to come to campus for career-related events, if they were not feeling so overwhelmed by their monthly loan payments.

It’s worth noting that the one alumni-generated idea the committee felt was worth moving forward for review was the suggestion that we devote a portion of our endowment to alumni debt relief. That would indeed Make Us Special. It would also, our budget director determined, Make Us Broke.

As we conclude the work of our committee, recognizing that we have not succeeded at our appointed task, we feel a deep sense of melancholy, which I suspect you share. I’ve looked for harbingers of better times ahead, but as I suspect many of my counterparts on other campuses are also realizing, there are few. They are there, though, if one squints a bit and ignores demographics, economics and Malcolm Gladwell.

Perhaps you’ve seen the recent excellent movie The Martian? An astronaut named Watney is on a Mars mission, gets injured in a storm, is presumed dead and is left behind by his crew mates. Of course, he’s not dead. (That version of the movie would probably not have gotten green-lighted, although given our cultural fascination with zombies, who really knows?) Watney, fortunately, is a botanist, and so manages to stay alive for months, eating potatoes that he has miraculously grown in Mars soil fertilized by the human waste left behind by the crew. He is also good with a wrench and duct tape. Upon learning that Watney is alive, his crew mates ignore orders from NASA and turn around to get him. (Trust me -- this is all explained in appropriate scientific detail in the movie.) They are successful, bringing Watney back to Earth, where he fulfills his lifelong dream of becoming a professor (a plot twist less believable than the rescue, if you ask me).

I share this brief synopsis in order to end this memo on as positive a note as I can muster (and since there are 47 separate supporting documents attached, I don’t want to take up more of your time). As I ponder the work of our diligent committee, I can’t help but think of Watney, alone and frightened, yet determined to survive against ridiculous odds. What kept him alive till he was rescued was a clear-eyed view of just how dire his circumstances truly were, an ingenious use of shit and, ultimately, the hope of rescue by an intrepid band of space-traveling crew mates. If there is such a band out there, perhaps they will come our way. We are running low on potatoes.

Lee Burdette Williams is a writer and educator living in Burlington, Vt.

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Bob Jones U to Become Nonprofit Again

Bob Jones University lost its nonprofit tax exemption after the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in 1976 found that the conservative religious college was practicing racial discrimination with its ban on interracial dating. That decision sparked a long court battle, which ended when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 upheld the IRS's decision.

The university in 2000 dropped its dating ban and later apologized for practicing racial discrimination.

Now Bob Jones is set to become a nonprofit institution once again, the Greenville News reported. The complex financial reorganization includes the for-profit merging with the operation of a nonprofit elementary school that shares roots with the university.

The transition is scheduled to be completed by next month. Bob Jones is also seeking regional accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

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Colleges announce commencement speakers

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  • Bucknell University: Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and author of In Defense of a Liberal Education.
  • Elizabethtown College: Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Oregon Promise Influencing Students' Decisions

Oregon's free community college scholarship, which began last year, is encouraging more students to consider going to college and to feel more confident about being able to afford it, according the results of a survey conducted by Education Northwest, a nonprofit research group.

The group surveyed 1,442 young Oregon high school graduates last summer and fall. A majority of respondents who were familiar with the new scholarship program, which is called Oregon Promise, said it helped them see that college could be affordable and that hearing about the program made them think more about going to college.

In addition, nearly a third of respondents who are first-generation college students and Promise recipients said they would not have gone to college without the scholarship.

“Survey responses and stories shared from students demonstrate that individuals feel Oregon Promise has made an impact on their lives by reducing the financial burden of college and making college a possibility,” Michelle Hodara, the study’s lead researcher, said in a written statement. “While this is a first look at how students and educators perceive the program, future research can help identify the broader impact of Oregon Promise on program recipients’ college completion rates and labor market outcomes.”

The scholarship program has been threatened by criticism from leaders of Oregon's public four-year institutions, who said they would prefer more targeted use of state grant aid. Their arguments have been bolstered by a recent report, which found that students from higher-income backgrounds are disproportionately benefiting from the scholarship. Oregon Promise also has money challenges, as its annual cost is expected to more than double from an initial $10 million allocation.

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Lawyer for Florida State Is Arrested and Resigns

Dayton Cramer (right), deputy general counsel at Florida State University, was arrested Tuesday and charged with soliciting a minor for sex, The Tallahassee Democrat reported. A Florida State spokesman said Cramer then resigned just before he would have been fired. Cramer's lawyer said he denies the allegations against him. Authorities said Cramer responded to a Craigslist ad that was part of a sting and he was arrested after showing up to meet someone he believed would be a 13-year-old girl.

John Thrasher, president of Florida State, released a statement saying that "these allegations against our former deputy general counsel are shocking and appalling …. The university immediately placed him on administrative leave. Later in the day, when we received the criminal complaint, we initiated steps toward terminating his employment. However, he resigned before being terminated. We are cooperating fully with law enforcement."

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U of Hawaii Suspends Search for Manoa Chancellor

University of Hawaii President David Lassner announced Wednesday that he plans to suspend the search for a chancellor of the Manoa campus, The Honolulu Star Advertiser reported. The search was down to three finalists. Lassner said he reached out to one of the finalists (whom he did not name) to discuss the job and that person withdrew, and he decided not to proceed. Lassner will serve as interim chancellor while continuing as system president.

The finalists were: Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture; Lauren Robel, executive vice president and provost at Indiana University at Bloomington; and John Valery White, acting chancellor for the Nevada System of Higher Education.

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Carroll U Presidential Pick Withdraws From Job

Sara Ray Stoelinga (right), who was named in November to be the next president of Carroll University, in Wisconsin, announced Wednesday that she had changed her mind and would not take the job, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The university is now restarting the search, months before its current president is due to retire. Stoelinga is director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. In a letter to the university's board, she apologized for "any disruption that my decision may cause." She said her decision "in no way reflects negatively" on Carroll and came after "deep reflection and deliberation."

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Feds Urge Renewal for Controversial Accreditor

The U.S. Department of Education has recommended a renewal of recognition for the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, a controversial regional accreditor of two-year colleges in California and other Western states. The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, a federal panel, is slated to review ACCJC's recognition and scope at a meeting next week.

The department had given the accreditor a year to fix several problems, including concerns about the consistency of its decision making, acceptance of its policies by academics and others, and its adherence to due process in the accreditation process. During its last review of the agency, the department also denied ACCJC's request to expand its scope to overseeing new four-year degree programs at California community colleges.

Much of the criticism around ACCJC had stemmed from the agency's longstanding feud over sanctions it imposed on City College of San Francisco. But last month the accreditor renewed City College's accreditation for seven years.

California's two-year college system has been working on a recommendation made by a state task force last year to either replace the accreditor or restructure it. And in a move some insiders see as evidence that the accreditor will be changed rather than replaced, Barbara Beno, ACCJC's controversial president, in December was placed on leave prior to her scheduled retirement.

The newly released department report, which NACIQI is to consider in making its call next week, said ACCJC largely had fixed the identified problems. It recommended extending the accreditor's recognition by 18 months and lifting the limitation on its ability to oversee four-year degree programs. For example, on due process, the report said the accreditor had "revised its commission action letters to reflect a clear delineation between areas of noncompliance and areas for improvement."

The department said it received more than 120 written comments on ACCJC's review. The majority of commenters are "associated with or in support of City College of San Francisco, such as students, faculty, San Franciscans and politicians," the department said. However, many of those comments were unrelated to ACCJC's current review or were redundant, according to the department.

(Note: This article has been changed from a previous version to clarify the relationship between the department and NACIQI.)

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Presidential Home for Sale, Olive Jar Included

The University of Akron is seeking legislative approval to sell its presidential home -- the same home that the former president spent $1 million renovating, Cleveland.com reported. Spending on the home -- while many university departments were facing budget cuts -- contributed to the unpopularity of Scott Scarborough, who resigned last year and moved out. The new president, Matthew Wilson, has opted to live in his own home.

While presidential home renovations are sometimes controversial, the Akron home's expenses drew widespread ridicule. They included $1,742 for a headboard, $2,693 for two night tables and $1,844 for a mirror. But attracting the most attention was $556.40 for a decorative olive jar (without olives). Olives became a theme of campus protests, such as a faux food bank to collect olives for the president. An Akron spokesman told Cleveland.com that he expected the home's contents, including the olive jar, would be sold as part of any process that receives legislative approval.

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Institutional action makes a difference on community college transfer (essay)

Millions of community college students started the new school year with big plans: study for a couple of years before transferring and earning a bachelor’s degree. Meet with students on any comprehensive community college campus and you can hear the determination in their voices as they talk about their focus on getting to graduation so they can make a good life after college.

The odds are against them.

As many as 80 percent of entering community college students aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree. But research by our colleagues Davis Jenkins and John Fink of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College tells us that only 14 percent do so within six years of entering community college. What can be done to close the gap between community college student aspirations and the reality of their incredibly low transfer and bachelor’s attainment rates?

When answering this question, many tend to look for state policy solutions. State efforts to strengthen transfer outcomes by, for example, creating articulation agreements, establishing common course numbering and guaranteeing community college students’ admissions to a state university may be promising. But there is evidence that those policies alone are not capable of helping significantly more students attain a bachelor's degree. In other words, state policy matters, but something else is needed.

In the end, institutional action can and does make a big difference regardless of the policy context. And the approach of individual institutions to helping students is also much more important than the student characteristics, like socioeconomic status, that so often are assumed to drive completion rates.

CCRC’s January 2016 report published with the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that variations in transfer outcomes among two- and four-year institutions cannot be explained by institutional characteristics such as location in a city, suburb or rural area and the relative wealth of the student population. Similar groups of students at similar community colleges have very different transfer rates and levels of bachelor’s attainment. Transfer outcomes vary by state, but within states outcomes among institutions vary enormously. We cannot pin transfer outcomes to the category of institution, the type of students they serve or the state in which they are located.

This strongly suggests that what individual two- and four-year colleges and universities do matters a lot to student outcomes. It was with this research in mind that the Aspen Institute and CCRC published a Transfer Playbook, which summarizes research into the practices of highly effective two- and four-year transfer partnerships. What the research behind the playbook tells us is that achieving better transfer outcomes requires action at multiple levels both within institutions and among partners.

Within institutions, achieving exceptional outcomes necessitates action at three different levels.

  • Institutional leaders at all levels, but starting with the president, must make clear within the institution that transfer student success is a priority, reflected in guiding strategic documents, oral communications, data summaries, the college website and budgets.
  • Faculty and department heads need the tools and time to work alongside their two-year and four-year counterparts to develop clear bachelor’s degree program maps and to establish communications channels to allow consistent updates and additions to those maps as disciplines and workplaces change.
  • Student advisers, both academic and others, must have the ability to access, translate and use data on student success, knowledge of transfer pathways and requirements, and training on how to accelerate student decisions on major and four-year destination (and why that matters so much).

Success for all students who aspire to transfer requires deep change not just within institutions but in the ways institutions partner across sectors. A host of disincentives, real and perceived, impede those partnerships. And yet, the best transfer outcomes nationally are often the result of community college and four-year partners that have overcome these barriers and set common goals, established common measures of success, examined student outcome data together and crafted joint solutions to challenges their students experience while transitioning between them in ways that facilitate -- rather than impede --bachelor’s degree attainment. Ultimately, these partners understand their interdependence in accomplishing bachelor’s degree attainment goals for students who begin in community colleges.

Improving transfer outcomes can and should be a central goal of state policy. But doing so will also require engaging college professionals in changing the day-to-day practices of their colleges and universities to ensure that they prioritize transfer students’ success as a key to fulfillment of their institutions’ missions. Doing that will in turn require a redefinition of student success. Just as many higher education institutions have come to understand that access without completion is inadequate, so too must they now come to accept that -- for many students -- completion that stops short of a bachelor’s degree may fail to deliver what they came to college to achieve.

Josh Wyner is founder and executive director of the college excellence program at the Aspen Institute. Alison Kadlec is senior vice president and director of higher education and work force programs at Public Agenda.

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