Build Back a Better University

Focus on the students—their opinions, their needs and their academic and extracurricular experience.

February 18, 2022

Not a day goes by that I don’t receive a message explaining how my institution might become more successful. Some of the advice is a bit sleazy and morally questionable—how to game the college rankings. How to use strategic enrollment management to target recruitment and enhance revenue.

Some of this advice is simply informative: explaining, for example, why diversity initiatives frequently fail, how best to tackle institutional histories of racial bias or how to engage effectively with student activists.

Some of the advice is strategic: how to lower college costs, how to rapidly increase late-stage admissions and how to identify and implement academic programs with high employment demand and low competition from other colleges and universities.

Campus leaders certainly need pragmatic practical advice. Should a campus invest in new programs in esports or cannabis studies or cybersecurity, health information technology, quantum computing, renewable energy, robotics, or sustainability? How can an institution provide mental health services most cost-effectively?

But a truly successful college or university isn’t simply a matter of popularity, reputation or finances. It’s also about the quality of the undergraduate education and experience the campus offers.

In a forthcoming book, Building Great Universities, Richard J. Light, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning at Harvard, and Allison Jegla, a higher education strategist, identify innovations that campuses can implement at little or no cost that will help institutions enroll students from a wider variety of backgrounds, improve the quality of teaching, strengthen student learning, help unevenly prepared students succeed academically and enhance student life.

The key is to build a campus culture of innovation and experimentation, empower individual faculty members and involve students in these initiatives.

The book is organized around a series of campus challenges:

  • How can a college or university attract students who aren’t currently considering that institution?
  • How can campus leadership encourage faculty to constantly experiment to improve their teaching effectiveness and their students’ learning?
  • How can a university help first-generation students navigate the “hidden curriculum”?
  • How can your campus determine how much students are learning?
  • What steps can the institution take to help undergraduates think globally?
  • How can the campus promote lifelong engagement with its graduates?

A key to effective innovation, in the authors’ view, is to treat the challenges your campus faces as matters of policy. Perhaps the most important steps that campus leadership can take is to be utterly transparent about the problems the campus is confronting, then build a coalition of the willing that is interested in addressing these difficulties and empower individual faculty members to innovate and experiment.

Here are just a few of their suggestions:

  • Encourage nontraditional students to apply to your institution with precollege summer programs and partnering with high schools and community colleges.
  • Level the academic playing field by integrating study skills, exam-taking skills, study groups and supplemental instruction across the curriculum.
  • Encourage students to get out of their comfort zone by incentivizing them to take part in extracurricular activities and encouraging them to build a diversified portfolio of accomplishments.
  • Take steps to reduce anonymity in large classes.
  • Encourage faculty to integrate pre- and posttests, assignments, activities, and surveys into their courses to assess student learning.
  • Survey students on a wide range of campus issues using random sampling.
  • Create extracurricular opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds to interact and pursue shared interests.
  • Connect alumni with current undergraduates.
  • Encourage foreign language study.
  • Incentivize faculty to incorporate cross-national and cross-cultural comparisons into their classes.
  • Supplement existing study abroad opportunities with alternatives, which might include short-term research trips, participation in international conferences or internships with international organizations or companies.
  • Expand opportunities for campus conversations about international issues.

The target audience for this book consists of the moderately and modestly selective four-year residential institutions that need to adapt to a rapidly shifting demographic and economic environment. Although the book’s title speaks about building great universities, the authors say virtually nothing about research, development or legislative issues or town-gown relations.

That’s because the authors measure success not by rankings or completion rates or postgraduation success, but by the quality of the campus’s academic and nonacademic experiences.

I consider their suggestions for improvement well taken. But I’d personally prefer to go a step further and ask how we can provide a higher education that is truly developmental and transformative. To do this will require faculty to rethink their own role.

That won’t be easy at a moment when many faculty members feel disaffected and disconnected from their institutions. But it’s essential.

I fear that the current discourse surrounding higher education too often embraces a rather impoverished understanding of college’s purpose.

If a college education is to offer something more than a credential or job preparation or a four-, five- or six-year holiday from adulthood, perhaps it’s time to engage with some older ideas: what Aristotle called eudaimonia—flourishing—and the Japanese call Ikigai, finding your sense of purpose or raison d’être by discovering your passion, calling, vocation and mission in life.

Offering that kind of education will require individual faculty members to radically reimagine their role as teachers. Let me suggest four ways that you and I might do that:

1. Embrace your inner sage.

In recent years, specialists in teaching and learning have been rather dismissive of the notion of the college professor as sage. I totally disagree. A sage is not only someone who has attained wisdom and judgment through experience and reflection, but whose role and responsibility is to inspire, provoke, stimulate and impart larger truths and insights.

Sure, you should be your classes’ chief learning officer, instructional designer, course architect and facilitator of active learning. But shouldn’t an instructor at the college level be something more?

You need to explain what you expect students to get out of your class. You need to help your students build not just discipline-specific skills and knowledge, but self-awareness.

A sage isn’t simply an instructor of a rather narrow body of content, but someone whose job it is to help your students explore big questions. Ask yourself: What drives you to study this subject?

2. Be the mentor you wish you had.

Much as the word “sage” has acquired negative connotations, so too has the word “mentor,” which now carries sinister overtones of grooming or indoctrinating or exploiting. But nowhere is the concept of mentorship more relevant than when college-aged students enter college. These students have been delivered to the campus’s care.

You’ll recall that the very term “mentor” comes from The Odyssey. When he departs for the Trojan War, Odysseus entrusts his son, Telemachus, to the care of Mentor, who is to serve as a substitute parent and father figure.

Others may believe that a professor’s responsibilities end at the classroom door, but I disagree. I believe that faculty members have an obligation to mentor their students: to give help, advice, guidance and support, and they should get to know individual students and the challenges they are facing.

3. Make sure your classes go far beyond the narrowly technical.

We should, of course, offer courses that maximize learning by engaging, motivating and challenging students. We should have clear learning objectives and activities and assessments aligned with those goals. But we should do something more: we should design educational experiences that hold out the possibility of helping our students mature and truly transforming their thinking.

Truly transformative teaching requires something more than a well-organized class and a well-designed and well-delivered classroom experience. You and your students should tackle big questions, moral dilemmas and wicked challenges. You should emphasize inclusivity, foster reflection and transform your classroom into a community of inquiry and a community of care.

To take one example: I find the recent attacks on critical race theory at the college level a bit odd. Whether or not you find CRT perceptive or reductionistic, CRT raises pressing questions about the nature of inequality that deserve debate and discussion. After all, isn’t the point of a college education to question received wisdom and rethink previously undisputed assumptions?

4. Demonstrate caring.

That faculty are increasingly disengaged from their institutions is a trend I can vouch for firsthand. I am struck by the number of colleagues who never go to their offices, chat in the hallway or meet in person with students. I don’t doubt for a second their commitment to their teaching, but they are behaving like “freeway flyers,” who lack the time to make their department a genuine community of scholars and a truly welcoming space for students.

Recently, “flexibility” has increasingly become a synonym for “caring.” But our students, more than ever, need something more than flexibility with deadlines or assessments. For all our well-placed fears for their health and our own, we still need to interact outside the narrowly academic context. We need to talk to them about their goals, anxieties and interests and offer our support and guidance.

However predictable given pandemic realities, faculty disengagement must be called out for what it is: a betrayal of our professional responsibilities.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Share Article


Back to Top