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Thoughts About the Dept. of Ed Symposium
October 2, 2012 - 9:00pm

This past Monday I attended the Innovation to Drive Productivity in Postsecondary Education meeting sponsored by the The Department of Education that Paul Fain describes in his 10/2 IHE article.

I'm writing this post in an effort to respond to some of the comments to Fain's article.    

In reading the comments I can't help but to be a little bit saddened, a bit worn down, by what part of our IHE community (the people who chose to comment so far) seems to think.  

My goal, however, is not to dismiss or argue with your concerns about the symposium (voiced or not), but to give you my perspective as a participant. (And I participated wearing my institutional, not my IHE, hat).

I hope to open up a constructive dialogue, and perhaps inform the discussion with my first hand-impressions.

The concerns from the folks who commented seem to cluster within two dimensions: the issue of faculty participation, and the request by the organizers that the presenters, panelists and participants (besides Secretary Duncan) not be directly quoted in social media or the press.  

I'll try to address both of these concerns:

Faculty Participation:

While it is accurate that the symposium was not designed for faculty participants, it would be a mistake to conclude that faculty concerns were not represented. Beyond the fact that many of the participants in the meeting came initially from a faculty background, my sense is that the invitation list was drawn from people who are trying to work strategically at a system level. In other words, the focus of the symposium was not on innovation within a particular school or a specific type of postsecondary institution, but on change efforts across the U.S. higher ed sector. Further, the Department of Education people freely admitted that the list of people invited was woefully incomplete, and only due to a lack of space at the venue, the logistics of meeting hosting to insure a productive and focused conversation, and available funds from the supporting foundations (which helped offset but did not cover attendee costs) could more people be included.

The role that the Department of Education played at this symposium was that of convener and that of listener. Perhaps to a fault, the facilitators from the department shied away from pushing any specific proposals, methods or practices. Rather, they continually challenged the group to think about new models of higher education. Models that may have the potential to bring to scale heretofore limited and localized initiatives around increasing quality, lowering costs, and improving access.  Time and again, the importance of faculty expertise and faculty preferences (as well as student preferences and needs) were stressed by the facilitators.   

Quoting Presenters, Panelists, and Participants:

The Department of Education has no grand postsecondary agenda that I could detect, beyond its stated higher ed completion agenda (in which they got some pushback for the group), and of increasing access, improving quality, and reducing costs.  So why ask that participants refrain from directly quoting the speakers and panelists?   The reason is that for the participants to be brutally honest we needed to feel that our questions, admissions, and concerns would not show up as quotes in press articles, tweets, or blog posts.  One of the goals of the symposium was to create a "safe place" where attendees can talk openly about challenges and frustrations within their institutions and companies.  The Department of Education also wanted the participants to be brutally honest about where they felt that government (at any level) is a hinderance to innovation.    

Do you think that the Department of Education has role to play as a convener for these types of discussions?

Do you have thoughts about how any organization putting together a meeting can balance the (perhaps competing) goals of open and frank exchange of views with those of transparency and inclusiveness?


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