Ethics education is vital today as students grapple with life-and-death decisions (opinion)

College and university ethics education has long been a form of character affirmation and civic advancement. Students learn to question ethical foundations acquired from their family and personal experiences to form a coherent philosophy of life that will guide their responses to dilemmas they will face in the future. To test this, discussion questions become versions of “Who gets voted off the island?” or “What happens when you face a no-win set of choices?”

The discussions are sometimes interesting and often purely academic in nature. Students don’t usually have to make these decisions, so they are free to argue broadly as a form of mental gymnastics. That is, until recently.

In educational institutions today, real life-and-death decisions are at hand. “If I contract COVID, do I quarantine myself on campus, where I am isolated and alone, or go home to be with my parents and risk infecting them?” “If I go to class, am I putting others in harm’s way?” “What consequences will I face if I choose to play or not play my sport?” “If a family member contracts the disease, will I ever get to see them again?” “What happens when friends contract COVID?” Life is now filled with risk and long-term consequences.

Higher education institutions have opened recently not only because of financial pressures, but also because they historically provide an optimal environment for students to live and learn. In a recent Axios survey, two-thirds of college students said they wanted to return to campus. Social isolation and loneliness are crucial issues for student-aged populations. A pre-pandemic survey that the American College Health Association conducted in 2017 found more than half of students “felt things were hopeless” over the last 12 months. During that same time frame, 86 percent “felt overwhelmed by the things you have to do” and 63 percent “felt very lonely.”

Emerging data confirm that the current conditions have exacerbated these problems. As educators reimagining education, it’s vital that we recognize these issues. In fact, we have. Student services have made radical changes to orientation, student expectations and even values statements, while professors are upping their teaching skills to accommodate new learning styles.

Still, even students who are seemingly well adjusted now find themselves in need of coping skills without the confidential resources universities often provide. Privacy is increasingly becoming a casualty of contact tracing. People and institutions who typically provide stability, such as advisers and student clubs, are now insecure themselves. Both students and parents find themselves succumbing to the pressures of the pandemic, particularly those who are front-line workers in the medical fields or working students who are losing their jobs, have their homes at risk or perceive an eviction looming. Stress relievers such as churches, mass sporting events and social gatherings are unavailable, uncertain or risky.

Adding to the complexity, between the election noise and social media fearmongering, people are making risky choices about how to respond to political uncertainty. Among those is the choice to purchase guns. In March, the second-busiest month for gun sales in history, people added more than three million guns to their personal arsenals. Forgotten is the fact that when “there’s a gun in the house, the chance of death by suicide more than triples.” Even without the suicide data, a lawyer comes with every bullet fired, which only compounds the stress. Additionally, uncertainty about the future, our jobs and our families continues to create anxiety. More children are now living with parents after college, and people are getting married older and having children later. Our society is changing.

“The Young Are at the Gates,” a phrase taken from a poem by Lavinia Dock during the women’s suffrage movement over 100 years ago, is apt today. Despite the challenging circumstances, young people remain fearless, hopeful and ready to embrace change. Today, their ethical foundations are tested or reinforced. They are learning important moral lessons: “take care of your neighbor” is one of them.

What impact might that have on our collective futures? Is the era of me thinking passing into one of us thinking? Our hope is that students are learning that personal choices and habits impact others. They are acquiring new communication patterns. At colleges and universities, they are learning to embrace people who are different from themselves, seeing them as wonders, not threats. Students are learning to embrace social media as a means of deep social connection rather than as a vehicle for popularity. They are banding together in support of widespread social justice reform.

Even during this time of immense stress and fear, student leaders are helping classmates to shut off negativity in favor of uplifting and mindful habits that will sustain them through this crisis and those in the future. For example, Armstrong Commons at my institution, Southern Methodist University, sponsors Serotonin Sundays, where students are encouraged to take care of themselves through a variety of activities, including taking a walk or playing an outside game. Other groups are working to make sure fellow students realize that there is joy in the new normal. They can still have food events that foster community, but the food is individually wrapped and served.

Our ethical standards are developed, not mandated. These are habits of mind and habits of heart. Whether through first-year orientation sessions, religious services, courses and lectures in theological or philosophical ethics, or student-to-student interactions, colleges and universities must engage in meaningful reflection and action.

For example, the Maguire Ethics Center at SMU just announced its first ethics contest with substantial prize money to encourage personal deliberation. Hampered by social distancing, religious groups are hosting outside worship, while social groups are conducting public service opportunities such as food drives and gathering supplies for homeless shelters.

Never has the role of student life offices on campus been so robust or so important. Rather than looking inward, they must produce models for students to encourage them look outward toward the things that will make life better. The discussion of principled responses to what’s happening in the world creates a situational awareness that will be a crucial foundation for the remainder of their lives. After all, our ethics will be displayed in the split-second decisions that we make in the uncertainty of the moment.

It’s time for us to recognize that the pandemic has forced choices on us. The way we treat and educate this generation must be a national priority. Educational institutions do not need a federal mandate do the right thing; they just need to focus on the people they serve, and beyond keeping students safe, they must gird them with a joy for living and steel to face the difficulties. No doubt, our lives have changed, our structures have changed and our priorities have changed. Yet our values can be our guiding force and we can emerge into a world we helped create that is better than the one behind us.

Yes, the young are at the gates.

Rita Kirk is an author and editor of the book Ethics at the Heart of Higher Education, William F. May Endowed Director of Southern Methodist University’s Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, and distinguished professor in communications.

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Colleges must revive general education (opinion)

American higher education has a long history of turning crisis into opportunity. Now is the moment to do so again. The disruptions of the pandemic for colleges and students will be felt for a long time to come. But another educational crisis was already underway before the virus struck, and it, too, requires an urgent response.

Too many students leave college with a blinkered view of the world -- trained in this or that specialty but unprepared to reflect on the meaning and purpose of their own lives, and to participate in an informed and deliberative way in the collective life of our nation and the world.

A key reason is the decline of general education -- the prescribed portion of a student’s work that falls outside their chosen major. With increased enrollment in technical fields such as business, engineering and computer science, general education represents the best and last chance for students to discuss and debate broad human problems with their peers. Far too few institutions are giving them this precious opportunity.

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Some Common Understanding

The concept of general education first arose at elite institutions roughly a century ago. After World War I left millions of people dead in a ruined Europe, Columbia University established a compulsory course for incoming students called Introduction to Contemporary Civilization. The hope was that by contending with searching works of literature, history and philosophy, students would leave college better prepared to meet their responsibilities in a fragile democracy.

After the cataclysm of World War II, Harvard University issued a report entitled “General Education in a Free Society.” In a “centrifugal culture in extreme need of unifying forces,” the authors aimed to give students “some common and binding understanding of the society which they will possess.” Courses on world religions, transformative ideas in politics and science, and drama from ancient Greek playwrights to the modern theater became part of the college experience not just at Harvard but also around the nation.

During the tumultuous Vietnam years, most institutions dismantled their general education curricula, and the new norm became “distribution requirements,” whereby students picked a few courses more or less at random outside their majors from an ever-proliferating list. The eminent sociologist Daniel Bell called the distribution model “an admission of intellectual defeat” -- by which he meant that faculty had given up trying to agree on what students should learn beyond preparation for a chosen career. By the mid-1970s, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching described general education as a “disaster area,” and so it has largely remained ever since.

Multiple forces drove those developments. Many faculty members, increasingly rewarded for their research productivity, came to regard teaching introductory classes as distracting or demeaning. Students and faculty justifiably challenged traditions and hierarchies by which women, minorities and non-Western voices had long been degraded or excluded. In such a charged context, achieving consensus about what a common intellectual experience for students should be became almost impossible. The idea of college as a shared enterprise for preparing young people for democratic citizenship all but collapsed.

These trends continued unabated and are now accelerating with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis. As the price of college rises, debt burdens grow and the job market contracts, students are understandably wary of anything that might deflect or delay their pursuit of a marketable degree. “Hard” subjects with employment prospects such as the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are thriving, while “soft” subjects, primarily the humanities, are widely regarded as luxuries affordable only to the affluent.

The Purdue Experiment

When David A. Reingold, a sociologist trained at the University of Chicago, arrived in 2015 as the new dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University, he encountered the problem firsthand. Fewer than 10 percent of recent Purdue graduates had taken a single course in literature, and only 7 percent had taken a course in American history.

Reingold convened a faculty task force, and, under the leadership of Melinda Zook, a distinguished scholar of women’s history, Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts was launched. The program began with a two-semester course sequence for first-year students organized around “transformative texts” -- those that have changed the world and still have the power to transform individual lives.

Readings range from Thucydides, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Mary Shelley and Abraham Lincoln to Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Chinua Achebe, Simone de Beauvoir, Eudora Welty and Eileen Chang, as well as essential religious texts including the Bible, Quran and Bhagavad Gita. In classes capped at 30 students, faculty members select half the texts from a collaboratively developed list of about 200 works that give students a shared vocabulary for thinking and talking with their peers about perennial problems -- the joys and risks of freedom, the distinction between love and desire, the inevitability of loss and mourning -- that feel fiercely present in their own lives. The other half may be works of each professor’s own choosing and of comparable power, including by living writers on urgent issues of our time.

Cornerstone is not compulsory but one of several options at Purdue for meeting existing general education requirements. Its significant innovation is to take existing requirements in writing and public speaking -- almost universal in higher education today -- and allow students to fulfill them by writing and speaking about challenging books and ideas.

Beyond the Transformative Texts course, students wishing to earn a Cornerstone certificate along with their bachelor’s degree may pursue upper-level courses grouped under such topics as Technology and Society, Environment and Sustainability or Management and Organization. These courses connect humanistic questions to majors in business or STEM. Cornerstone began with a small-scale pilot in the fall of 2017. Three years later, it enrolls over 2,000 students each semester, of whom more than 80 percent are intending to major in STEM fields.

The Cornerstone Classroom

The Cornerstone classroom is a rehearsal space for democracy. By entering the world of transformative texts, students find that the boundaries of race, gender and cultural difference can be crossed by exercising the sympathetic imagination. They discover, in the words of Herman Melville, that “genius all over the world stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round,” and that the circle includes writers of all cultures and perspectives on the human and natural world.

Students who read Plato on philosopher kings and Confucius on sage rulers will be struck by how much the two writers had in common even though they came from worlds apart. Students who encounter Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” that human beings be treated as ends rather than as means will discover that Kant’s idea finds searing expression in novels about the Black American experience by Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. Students who encounter W. E. B. Du Bois’s prophecy that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line” will experience their own shock of recognition at its tragic persistence in our own century.

At a moment when anxiety among college students is rising and time for reflection is scarce, Cornerstone gives students a chance to explore together -- in the words of Zook -- enduring questions about “life and love and suffering and justice” with the help of compelling works about the human condition.

Learning for Living

Encouraged by the Purdue experiment, the Teagle Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, in consultation with an advisory council of distinguished and diverse teacher-scholars, are launching Cornerstone: Learning for Living, a joint initiative to revive general education. We will commit at least $7 million over the next five years to this effort.

Recognizing that every institution has its own structures and traditions, we do not expect to see the Cornerstone idea replicated in every detail on every campus. But we do believe that a coherent general education program committed to diversity in readings and faculty should play a vital role for students at every type of college, including four-year institutions focused on business and STEM as well as two-year community colleges with an emphasis on career training.

General education reform not only makes intellectual and psychological sense for students; it also makes financial sense for institutions. At many colleges, curricula have become too expensive because they have become too expansive. In the long run, colleges cannot support large cohorts of full-time faculty who teach exclusively in departments where enrollments are sparse. Humanities faculty are already an endangered species. If they do not commit to teaching students outside their own disciplines through general education, they risk becoming extinct.

The time for reimagining general education is now. The pandemic and the resurgent movement for racial justice raise many deep questions about the power of words and symbols for good or ill, the burden of our history for people of color, the responsibility of individuals for the welfare of others and the problem of ambiguity in the realm of science -- to name just a few issues.

We need college students to bring both knowledge and empathy to these problems. We need college graduates who speak with civility, listen with respect and know the difference between assertion and argument -- and we need them now. Cornerstone: Learning for Living is a start.

Andrew Delbanco is president of the Teagle Foundation and Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University. Jon Parrish Peede is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Encouraging a sense of belonging among underrepresented students is key to their success in STEM fields (opinion)

The seismic events of recent months -- both the pandemic and national protests in response to police shootings of Black Americans -- have given faculty members an unprecedented view into our students’ lives. We have seen into family dining rooms and private bedrooms through our Zoom screens and supported students who have difficulty connecting to classes at all. We have listened to our students speak out passionately against anti-Black violence and systemic racial bias on our campuses. Both crises have highlighted how our students’ complex identities are not abandoned at our classroom doors, but directly influence their academic development.

This shift in viewpoint has been especially stark among science faculty. In department meetings and across social media, we are discussing how to engage with our students by acknowledging the distinct backdrops of their lives. We are beginning to overcome the idea that the nature of science -- with its golden talismans, objectivity and independence -- means that our students’ identities are irrelevant, and that our overwhelmingly white, male classrooms encourage all students equally.

It is urgent that we not forget the empathy of this moment. A rich body of research highlights how fostering a sense of belonging is key to allowing a diverse undergraduate population of STEM majors to flourish. As we modify our classes to accommodate our altered fall semester plans, we should use this opportunity to make belonging a vital component of course design.

In my own field of physics, just 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the United States were awarded to women in 2017. Just 3 percent were awarded to Black students of any gender. Only 2.6 percent were awarded to Black, Hispanic or Indigenous American women. Throughout my own time as a physics student, I was frequently the only underrepresented racial or ethnic minority student, sometimes the only woman, and almost always the only Hispanic woman.

In the physics department at my university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has 79 active faculty members, I am one of roughly four professors who identify as underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities, and one of only 13 women. At award luncheons, I am constantly aware when the only other brown faces in the room are the catering staff. I reflexively scan every conference hall to count the visible women.

“Belonging” gives name to the growing tightness between my shoulders as I approach campus each day, arranging my mental armor to defend my own sense of worth. Belonging recognizes how many of us readjust our clothes and our speech to negotiate the unspoken norms of our profession, where brash confidence is confused for competence and where humility, uncertainty and collective questioning are seen as failings. It recognizes what Mia Ong calls “the challenges of conducting oneself so as to be considered thoroughly ordinary.”

The American Institute of Physics TEAM-UP report, which examines the root causes of the appalling underrepresentation of African American undergraduates in physics and astronomy, defines belonging as the feeling of being “a welcome and contributing member” of a community. Belonging is not merely an abstract concept, but is tied to how resources such as study groups, dialogue with instructors and scholarly reputation are allocated.

Research has shown that this feeling of cultural dissonance, not a lack of ability or interest, is what prompts students to leave undergraduate programs in STEM. In their seminal study of undergraduate science students across seven American higher education institutions, Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt note that students’ decisions to leave the sciences were dominated by “criticisms of the practices and attitudes which define and sustain the structure and culture of STEM majors.” Specifically, students who leave fault STEM faculty teaching, advising and mentoring practices, and reject STEM faculty and graduate students as role models.

The persistent myth that underrepresented students leave science because they cannot keep up with rigorous standards reflects an unwillingness to grapple with the truth that it is we, the instructors, who must change. And once we are ready to change, we must recognize that we have tremendous power to reset the cultural norms within our classrooms and labs.

Such a change requires us to engage with experts in pedagogy, educational research and social psychology who can advise us on implementing evidence-based methods to foster belonging in classrooms. Most of us in STEM receive little to no formal guidance in teaching -- as reflected in student attrition and the 96 percent of students who leave a STEM major citing poor teaching as a motivating factor. Expert coaching can prevent us from thoughtlessly replicating the same course structures and teaching styles that pervaded our own educations but failed to produce a diverse community of scientists.

We should revise elements of our courses that reinforce the competitive, individualistic culture that is particularly harmful for students from underrepresented groups. That includes eliminating the common practice of grading on a curve, which encourages students to judge themselves based on comparison with their peers rather than objective measures of mastery. We should implement flexible assessment options that demonstrate and build mutual trust with our students. And we should provide opportunities for revision that recognize the ultimate depth of understanding, not the speed with which a skill is acquired.

Crucially, institutions must reform hiring and promotions procedures that disincentivize time spent teaching and mentoring. Fostering belonging requires focused attention to building relationships with our students, particularly in online teaching environments. Nontenured scientists cannot make the time for this work if we know that our future job security relies on research productivity above all else.

Of course, reforming undergraduate STEM classroom cultures is not sufficient to correct long-standing inequities. Higher education institutions bear a responsibility to improve recruitment of underrepresented scholars at all stages of academe -- including graduate students, researchers and instructors -- and to provide the financial and social support that allows them to thrive. In particular, institutions should recognize that the cost of creating a welcoming environment frequently falls unevenly on scholars from minoritized groups. They should compensate the faculty members engaged in this work with research resources and relief from other service duties.

This moment, although difficult, presents an opportunity to correct the long-standing practices that have excluded students from our classrooms. I have been heartened to see my own department at MIT begin tackling many of these necessary reforms.

As we enter an unprecedented academic year, each individual instructor has the power, and responsibility, to ensure belonging is a critical component of course design and pedagogy. To do otherwise not only impedes scientific progress, by excluding the talent of the majority of humanity, but also is an injustice to students who enter our classrooms trusting in the promise of education.

Kerstin M. Perez is an assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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An overfocus on teaching technical skills in college may widen equity gaps (opinion)

On the surface, the White House’s recent executive order to prioritize skills over degrees in federal hiring would seem a victory to anyone worried about educational equity. A college degree often feels out of reach to students from poorer families and underrepresented minority populations. Systemic barriers to success mean students of color who do enroll in college are much less likely to graduate than nonminority students. Recent Black college graduates also suffer much higher unemployment and underemployment rates than their white colleagues. Let’s start by acknowledging that the traditional higher education system is failing our most vulnerable populations.

Enter technical skills. Community colleges, university continuing education units, coding boot camps and other alternative providers have long offered “just enough” and “just in time” programs to meet workforce shortages and expand educational access in their regions. These programs play a vital role, especially in a recession. We must take care, however, to understand where technical skills are and aren’t the solution. An overfocus on skills may solve short-term problems but widen longer-term equity gaps.

The goal of college has long been to prepare students for a lifelong career -- or more likely, multiple careers -- rather than one single job. College students gain the “learning to learn” disciplines and the networks needed not only for their first job but also their fifth one. Creative problem solving, leadership of self and others, teamwork, verbal communication, and adaptability are all critical skills they will need to be professionally successful. Surveys of CEOs frequently note that those and other so-called soft skills or essential skills are what determine whether someone advances up the corporate or organizational ladder.

Many of our nation’s higher education institutions face increasing pressure to expand technical and specialized programs. Finances may dictate this shift, as will pressure from government leaders on both sides of the aisle, a growing need for private sector funding and an education consumer increasingly concerned with immediate return on investment.

Yet the fear among college and university leaders is that if education skews more toward the technical rather than essential skills, we risk building an increasingly bifurcated society with a much thinner slice of the population properly equipped to drive the bigger changes our society needs.

Imagine a not-too-distant future where only a small number of elite higher education institutions -- say, the top 100 -- are able to focus on the liberal arts and sciences. Students at such institutions learn to learn and gain the essential skills needed to advance across their careers. They are almost certain to come from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, and a disproportionate number will be white.

Meanwhile, the rest of our nation’s thousands of colleges and universities end up focusing almost exclusively on job training. They meet immediate needs, but their graduates continually risk displacement as labor markets change. These students -- disproportionately low-income and from historically underrepresented populations -- need frequent retooling and ultimately hit career ceilings compared to their counterparts from elite institutions.

In this dystopia, the focus on skills expands access and opportunity in the short term while creating a two-tiered society that reinforces equity gaps with a vengeance. And, in fact, we already appear to be headed in that direction.

When thinking about how to fund and partner with higher education, employers and governments need to realize it doesn’t have to be an either-or, technical versus liberal arts, proposition. Both are especially relevant in a time of dramatic change. Technical, specialized skills can help a restaurant figure out how to offer contact tracing and implement different point-of-sale mechanisms. Essential skills are needed to reimagine wholly new business models the restaurant industry might need to adopt over the long term.

To be sure, much of the blame lies with colleges and universities. Higher education needs to do more to ensure that the liberal arts provide meaningful career opportunities for all students, not just those from elite institutions or who have powerful connections. The study of Shakespeare or Toni Morrison can help a literature student learn to analyze and synthesize trends, develop creative arguments backed by solid evidence, and navigate ambiguity. Interdisciplinary, team-based learning can teach students to solve problems in groups and think in systems.

But all too often it isn’t clear to students or employers how a liberal arts education translates into these crucial competencies for advancing through any profession. And too many professors still prioritize “sage on the stage” teaching models to the exclusion of “guide on the side” approaches that often do more to help students build practical skills.

Higher education in the United States has long been an envy of the world for its ability to drive innovation, creative thinking and leadership. We have aspired to create an educational ecosystem that also acts as a societal leveler -- evident in our many strong public university systems. We are now at a crossroads moment, however, where these ambitions are under threat. We need to keep the liberal arts front and center, work harder to provide equal access to all students who want to pursue that path, and make the changes necessary to strengthen the value and relevance of that education.

Melanie Ho is an education entrepreneur and a consultant with EAB.

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Major curricular reform in community colleges requires a new paradigm (opinion)

This decade has been one of the most reform-rich periods in the history of higher education, especially in the community college sector. With major funding from foundations and substantive research from centers and institutes, a national consensus has emerged about the importance and urgency of reform. Dozens of state and national initiatives have been launched to study and recommend changes in policies, programs, practices and personnel.

The community college has been at the center of these reform efforts clustered around what has become the overarching mission of the contemporary community college endorsed by former president Obama, a number of leading foundations, national organizations such as the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees, and hundreds of community colleges. That overarching mission purports to double the number of students who by 2020 earn one-year certificates or associate degrees or who transfer to a university.

Unfortunately, the deadline is upon us, and there is no possible way that particular goal can be met. Reformers were aware of that failure before the current pandemic hit, and now the reactions of colleges to the pandemic in terms of many closed classrooms and increased online education further complicate and serve as barriers to reaching the goal.

Reformers Ignored the Curriculum

Even before the pandemic, the primary reason we will not meet that goal is that reformers failed to include major curriculum reform as a priority. We’ve seen some dabbling in curricular reform: new pathways in math and accelerated courses in developmental education have proven somewhat effective. Contextual education illustrated by the I-BEST program in Washington State is expensive but has had some success, and guided pathways urge an examination of the curriculum to ensure students are taking the right courses to completion. But there has not been in this explosion of reform efforts any major and substantive national initiatives to reform the curriculum.

And there are reasons why this is so. First, curriculum reform is one of the most difficult tasks in all of higher education. “It is easier to move a cemetery than to change a curriculum,” President Woodrow Wilson is believed to have said. To which someone added, “In either case, there is no help from the residents.”

Second, faculty members are generally not motivated to change the curriculum. They have vested interests because they added all these courses to reflect their own personal ideas they wanted to teach. Thus, it is by and large the faculty who have created the “cafeteria curriculum.”

Third, in bureaucracies it is often easier to add than to delete. To delete a course is to offend some faculty members and even pave the way to delete a faculty member. Retribution can become the game.

Fourth, most faculty members have no formal training in creating and revising the curriculum. Very few educators have any understanding of the history of general education and how it has become a hodgepodge of courses cluttering up the catalog and confusing students and their advisers.

And finally, today’s general education curriculum is caught between those who advocate for more liberal education and those who advocate for more career and technical education. This split has been the norm for hundreds of years, more embedded in the education culture today because of the strong advocacy of the Association of American Colleges and Universities for liberal education and the Association of Career and Technical Education for workforce education.

The division between liberal and workforce education is quite visible in the structures and policies of community colleges, where they are split into separate divisions with separate faculty groups, separate facilities, separate degrees, separate curricula and separate funding. The community college has embedded this historical divide into its structures and policies, further making it difficult to reform this complex issue.

The Cafeteria Curriculum

Thomas R. Bailey and his colleagues at the Community College Research Center in their seminal work, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, identified the “cafeteria curriculum” as a major barrier to student success, noting that “The general studies curriculum is perhaps the most confusing and complex program for students to navigate.” Almost every community college in the nation lists a general education or core curriculum in the catalog following this statement: “The Core Curriculum is a set of courses that provides the knowledge, skills and educational experiences needed to succeed in higher education.” Here are several examples of core curricula:

  • In a California community college, the catalog includes four different sets of requirements for general education degrees -- already confusing for students. In the college’s general education requirements of six courses, students must choose from among 217 different courses (one course from 46 in natural sciences; one from 47 in social and behavioral sciences; one from 79 in art, humanities and culture; and so on).
  • In an Ohio community college, students must choose from 46 different courses in the arts and humanities to meet a three-course general education requirement, from 36 courses in the social sciences and from 48 in math and science.
  • In a Texas community college, students are required to select five courses from among 78 courses in three different categories to meet general education requirements.

The curriculum is supposed to be the collective wisdom and expertise of the faculty about what is important for students to learn. And if these examples of a core curriculum are repeated in other community colleges (and they are), faculty members and academic administrators like vice presidents of instruction, deans and department chairs should be ashamed of the monster they have created. Students cannot navigate through these jungles, and advisers cannot possibly guide students through these pathways of fractured, incoherent programs that lack integrity.

An Essential Education

For those college leaders considering curricular revision or reform, I’ve described in detail a new curricular paradigm in a monograph, Bread and Roses: Helping Students Make a Good Living and Live a Good Life, published by the League for Innovation. The new paradigm is an attempt to create a framework for an integrated curriculum while helping to resolve the historical divide between liberal education and workforce education. In it, I define an essential education as an integrated core of learning that includes and connects the key components from liberal education and workforce education to ensure that a student is equipped to earn a good living and live a good life. It is a quality education essential to all students. An essential education is what some advocates have identified as a liberal career education or a practical liberal education.

And there are plenty of clues to the nature of that curriculum. Advocates of liberal education and of workforce education have been moving closer and closer to a curriculum that unifies their key missions. Most advocates from both sides will agree that all students need skills and knowledge in problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, and communication -- cross-cutting skills necessary for students who want to succeed in higher education and in life. They are the soft skills that should become the hard core of a new essential education. When the Association of American Colleges and Universities surveys business executives about the curriculum they deem necessary for the 21st century, these four basic skills, necessary for all educated persons, always top the list.

The next step is a brave leap to creating a core curriculum that includes these four key skills. Four three-credit courses as stand-alone courses or combined in a 12-credit learning community is one model of an integrated curriculum. Some colleges will add core courses in diversity and equity, global awareness, and information technology. While no community college has embraced this particular model to date, there is growing recognition that the current programs of general education are woefully inadequate for today’s student and for today’s society. In Bread and Roses, I have outlined seven different approaches colleges could use to create an essential education for all students. The designation of “essential education” also avoids the pejorative aspects long associated with “general education” and “workforce education.”

Core courses are more manageable for everyone (faculty, advisers and students), and they are easier to explain to students. If faculty from liberal education and from workforce education can agree on the common elements of core courses and construct content and teaching strategies that apply to the courses, we stand a good chance of creating an integrated curriculum that will help our students make a good living and live a good life. If we fail to create this kind of essential education, the community college we know today may cease to exist, and the community college we dream of for the future may never come to be.

Terry U. O’Banion is president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College and senior professor of practice at Kansas State University.

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What if there were no academic departments? (opinion)

If you stay in the trench, you can’t see what’s in front of you, let alone what’s on the horizon. Reflecting upon years of discussion about American higher education, we’ve noticed that the very structures and principles that have made our model great are potentially holding us back. It’s time to ask ourselves: Are those principles and structures ones that we would design were we to start from scratch?

Specifically, does our current system of organizing our institutions as academic schools, colleges and departments still make sense? Have our organizational structures evolved as we have added -- but rarely subtracted -- new departments, programs and centers? Is a proliferation of departments good for students, faculty members, employers or the university?

In the midst of the tremendous uncertainty we are experiencing with COVID-19, and the numerous changes forced upon our most basic activities, administrative restructuring may not be a high priority for many people in academe. But faculty have demonstrated tremendous creativity in responding to the pandemic, and our hope is that this might inspire greater openness and curiosity, as well as a sense of agency regarding embracing what would be a very constructive change.

If recent developments are any indication, at most universities, we start with a collection of disparate scholars and fields, impose a departmental structure and then go to great lengths to create centers and institutes and cross-cutting programs that work around that department structure. But can universities function with so many different subcultures? Are we broadening opportunities for students or confusing them? Are we creating too many choices? Are we inviting too many surfaces for tension between academic units, faculty or disciplines? Are departments organized to engage in meaningful discussions around interdisciplinary education and scholarship? How about for faculty hiring or decisions about promotion and tenure?

Universities typically revere traditions, both their own and those of higher education generally. Traditions create identity. At the same time, we promote our mission, which also shapes our identities, individually and collectively. For many of us, our organizational structure is the product of tradition rather than mission, of what has been instead of what ought to be. If our mission is to put student learning at the center of all we do and be a force for the public good, does our current organization support those goals?

The Best Building Block?

As we consider redesigning the university to better fulfill our missions, we should start with the most fundamental unit: the academic department. Is the department still the best building block for organizing our work? Or do we inhibit our institutions by our tendency to conflate three central organizational models for our work: the department, the discipline and the program? While those three can be identical, confusion emerges when that identity is presumed without question. We must remember that departments serve as administrative structures. Disciplines represent coherent areas of research and scholarship. Programs reflect how disciplines (or combinations of disciplines) form curriculum to teach their disciplines or combinations/intersections of disciplines.

For example, while a philosophy department is composed of faculty members who research philosophical questions and offer students classes that form the major program in philosophy, such a one-to-one correspondence is not always the case. Many faculty members presume that this alignment is the only way to organize regardless of whether the context -- driven by student needs or institutional type -- suggests another reality. Even a department with disciplinary and programmatic homogeneity may have more than one curricular program. For example, in a philosophy department, we might see a specialized pre-law track that lends itself to applied outcomes and moves toward connections with other disciplines.

The opportunities for intentional combinations of disciplines into administrative units has tended to occur in particular fields. For instance, departments of sociology or anthropology may be small and perhaps lacking visibility to potential students. They might join to form a larger department offering two distinct degree programs. Likewise, engineering departments often house multiple degree programs. Many civil engineering departments, for example, offer accredited degrees in both civil engineering and environmental engineering. MANE, a large department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, offers individually accredited degrees in mechanical, aeronautical and nuclear engineering.

Collaborative combinations can bolster disciplines experiencing enrollment declines, such as foreign languages. Combining single stand-alone language departments can create greater intellectual breadth and energy as well and a greater sense of community, which is important to attracting students. While one could argue that merging Spanish, French and Italian signifies a disrespect for the distinct cultures and traditions that those languages represent, faculty members who work together to support each other in their programs and scholarship may have greater success in convincing students of the inherent value of becoming bilingual.

Additionally, despite faculty members’ resistance to combining departments, it is increasingly difficult to claim disciplinary “purity” in teaching and research. English and literary research and pedagogy rely frequently on philosophical or historical approaches. Theology draws from techniques in literary analysis. Would greater opportunities for students and faculty members occur more organically if related fields were brought together administratively? How often are we recruiting faculty members with multiple scholarly interests seeking interactions across multiple departments? Do departmental cultures welcome and support such interactions? What opportunities are we missing in our research (discipline) and teaching (programs) by clinging to administrative structures (departments)? Instead of justifying why not to rethink our administrative structure, we might start by imagining the possibilities for faculty scholarship and for student learning.

Examining Inherited Structures

Faculty members should self-organize and then be supported and provided with resources to be successful. Moreover, they should participate in shaping the university’s priorities, while recognizing that the board and president have authority and ultimate responsibility for decisions beyond those delegated to the faculty through shared governance or other articulated agreements. Our focus here is not on the financial and institutional support for faculty, but on highlighting opportunities for self-organizing, creating appropriate and enabling structures that provide the greatest flexibility and the fewest barriers to faculty and student success. Just as we teach our students to interrogate received paradigms, faculty should examine inherited administrative structures that may no longer support their success or the success of students.

Typically, through board-authorized shared governance, faculty members are responsible for academic matters like curriculum and policies, as well as departmental structure, including faculty hiring, status and leadership. As such, the tendency for faculty to assume the alignment of department to discipline to program is understandable, particularly around the determination of curriculum or faculty status. Expertise in a discipline is certainly essential to offering rigorous programs to students and ensuring the quality of faculty.

Even so, why do faculty often resist creating new scholarly pathways and partnerships, enticing students to explore ideas from multiple perspectives, and creating distinction for themselves and their university? The answers are complex. Maintaining disciplinary standards is often cited, particularly in pre-professional fields where external accrediting bodies can drive decisions about internal curricular or personnel decisions. But the fact is that disciplinary boundaries are more fluid than is commonly appreciated. In our experience, the root may be fear: fear of change, fear of loss of relevance, fear of a loss of student interest and a loss of resources.

Faculty (and we consider ourselves faculty first and foremost) are formed by their graduate training. That formation -- a remembrance of what was -- shapes expectations of what should be. The significant shifts in higher education seem only to be accelerating. But the status quo, or the nostalgic ideal of it, is a known. During times of instability, there is comfort in clinging to the known.

How might we proceed differently? Some universities have experimented with organizing faculty around themes -- whether groupings of scholarly disciplines (e.g., health sciences and humanities) or the so-called grand challenges (e.g., environment and ecology, sustainable development). Some have done this while maintaining traditional academic departments, while others have moved more aggressively to substitute new theme-based organization of faculty and scholarship. Institutions like Arizona State University are hailed positively, but recent efforts at the University of Tulsa have been met with strong opposition. While it may be too early to assess the effectiveness of those efforts, such institutions are in a minority of those that have endeavored to change and can offer a road map to other colleges considering such conversations.

At the University of Vermont, we launched the university’s first pan-university institute, the Gund Institute for Environment, to increase interactions among a large number of individuals and programs across campus. The university had environmental expertise in nearly every college and school. While it prided itself on its environmental scholarship and outreach activities, it lacked a coherent strategy, resulting in far less impact for scholars and programs. The Gund Institute was established as a vehicle for transdisciplinary research, policy work and outreach. Faculty members are invited into the institute but retain their academic (tenure) home. The institute supports scholarship but does not offer degree programs. While it is only two years old, early indicators are positive. We’ve seen increases in the number of faculty collaborations across colleges, transdisciplinary research activity, extramural support, graduate enrollment and postdoctoral engagement, as well as in the number of scholarly visitors, research productivity (output), philanthropic support and external visibility through national media coverage.

Whether the Gund Institute eventually offers programs, maintains its own faculty or expands its current scope of environmental focus areas remains to be seen. Under the institute’s governance plan, this effort will be faculty-driven. And whether the Gund Institute remains the institution’s only pan-university institute also remains to be seen. Its success in engaging faculty members, creating new opportunities and creating measurable impact suggests that, properly envisioned and implemented, it can be a powerful model.

Similarly, at Creighton, we recently inaugurated the Kingfisher Institute for Liberal Arts and the Professions. It aims to eliminate barriers between liberal arts pedagogy and research and the pedagogy and research practiced at Creighton’s professional schools. An incubator for new curriculum and research for faculty across Creighton’s nine schools and colleges, the institute is currently contributing to an innovative curriculum in the School of Medicine. Faculty from English, history and fine arts teach in the medical school, and the experience is inspiring them to create a new health humanities minor for undergraduates, as well as to collaborate with colleagues in medicine to study how the humanities and arts impact the education of new doctors. The institute’s future projects will be faculty-driven, encouraging collaboration beyond the boundaries of a single department or college.

Such innovations depend upon faculty commitment to the institutional mission, and we recognize that not all faculty explicitly align their research and teaching with their university’s mission. That said, regardless of institutional types, university missions always point to a greater good, whether it be civic good or personal transformation, and should not be inherently objectionable. Missions transcend disciplines, departments, colleges/schools and faculty backgrounds and can be an ecumenical rallying call that brings faculty together around transcendent themes and goals. Speaking personally, each of us have felt pride and a strong calling to our respective institution types. Both land-grant and Jesuit missions are compelling, uplifting and purposeful, inspiring us to ask how our structures can and should enact those respective missions.

Mission as the Touchstone

While support for mission may be difficult to argue against, altering traditional academic structures is likely to generate opposition. Mission must be the touchstone for any consideration of change. Many voices may express concern over any plan that outright eliminates departments or replaces the current departmental structure, even if a case can be strongly made. Some people may express concern, others may fear ulterior motives, while still others may dig in and resist altogether. Clear and regular communication coupled with authentic engagement of constituents can minimize both concerns and resistance.

If we rethink our current departmental structures, we could start with a blank canvas no longer constrained by inherited organizational units or confined by campus locations (floors, wings or buildings). We could consider student flow and faculty access, including how best to co-locate academic opportunities and student services -- such as academic advising, tutoring and career counseling -- positioning staff resources to support the largest number of students and faculty.

No longer would we be constrained by expectations that every department have identical administrative support. Requests for resources would be made based on mission and strategic need, not historic practice, with decisions guided by opportunities rather than entitlements. Faculty hiring could be strategic and collaborative.

Shared vision, shared resources, shared support and shared expectations for promotion and tenure would also create new ways to recruit and retain exceptional faculty. Our experience has been that many of our best faculty candidates have research interests crossing disciplinary domains, responding to changes in extramural funding paradigms, new research questions and student and employer interests. Disciplines have expanded, combined, subdivided and given rise to entirely new disciplines. Our work and how we engage with students have changed. Why do we maintain the same system of academic departments we had more than a century ago?

To be clear, we are not advocating for the elimination of academic departments. Rather, by questioning why we do things the same way and why we resist structural change in the academy, we can all assess for ourselves -- within our own campus communities and cultures -- what makes the most sense for our institution, our students, our mission and our future.

David V. Rosowsky (@DavidRosowsky) is professor of engineering at the University of Vermont and served for six years as provost and senior vice president. Bridget M. Keegan (@CCAS_Dean) is dean of arts and sciences and professor of English at Creighton University. Further thoughts on responses to concerns by faculty, students, employers and alumni/donors may be found here.

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More colleges should be teaching human rights courses today (opinion)

Our society is under simultaneous assaults on political, cultural, economic and social norms. Many people, especially those in different generations, are polarized as we confront an accelerated pace of change against institutionalized racism, bigotry and a systemically flawed criminal justice system that for too long has targeted the marginalized because of their skin color, ethnicity, country of origin or (lower) economic standing.

I am 70 years old, and I am energized and excited to witness and support a younger generation demanding its turn at changing this country into what it can and must become in order to move forward.

I came of age during a similar era of historic and tumultuous times. I lived through the violence and internal combustion in America known as the 1960s, when the country was daily tearing itself apart with no end in sight. Snipings, bombings, assassinations and riots were tragic and common occurrences, not aberrations. From the violence inflicted either by or in the name of the government, we remember the civil rights struggles, especially in the Deep South, and the incessant racialized killings of those who followed Martin Luther King Jr. and his moral crusade to pressure leaders to make good on the promise of human dignity for all.

The war in Vietnam played out nightly on our television screens and then on our college campuses and in the streets of America. There were simultaneous calls for human dignity for the LGBTQ community emanating from the Stonewall Inn riots in New York and gender equality with the onset of the women’s movement, as well as a recognition of the poverty, marginalization and seeming invisibility in their own country of Native Americans and of the rights of elderly Americans who needed and demanded governmental action to assist their own struggle for dignity.

The government’s response was a generic crackdown in the name of “law and order” against these oppressed groups long denied access to political power and human dignity. The flag, nationalism, patriotism and “for love of country” was brought out, and those who sought change were told that when it came to this country, they could either “love it or leave it.”

One of the traditional institutions in this country heard the cries and demands of its younger generations, namely, higher education. Many colleges and universities changed their curriculum and made it more reflective of the issues that were playing out in the country in the 1960s and early 1970s. Institutions created and offered both programs and degrees in specific areas of African American studies, ethnic studies, women's and gender studies, Native American studies, and genocide and Holocaust studies.

Graduating students who became the new generational leaders had opportunities both in and out of the classroom to expand their knowledge of this country. They were able specifically to look at American and world history through the eyes of the oppressed instead of through the eyes and actions of the oppressors.

A parallel opportunity is again at hand for the education system and our civic leaders in this country -- and indeed, the world.

All that we are witnessing unfold before us comprise issues central to human rights. The most fundamental human rights issue anyone has is the right to a life with dignity and rights. Yet in this country, halfway through 2020, we have virtually no culture of human rights. Usually if human rights is mentioned, it is embedded in a political statement about a problem facing another country elsewhere in this world. America continues to avoid putting itself under the microscope of self-reflection in the current struggles of Black Lives Matter.

Tearing down racist monuments and eliminating racist images is a start to redress the historic wrongs. But much more fundamental and structural change is necessary.

What is missing in America today is mandatory human rights education starting in kindergarten and continuing through the college experience. Educational institutions should offer a human rights curriculum alongside chemistry, engineering, history, business and the arts. Every generation will eventually get a turn at running our cities, our states and this nation. This one will be ill equipped without access to the study of human rights. Students who reach a college classroom should never say that they have never heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of Sentiments, the My Lai massacre, the Santos Rodriguez killing, the tragedy at Jackson State College, the Stonewall riots or Emmett Till or Breonna Taylor.

There are almost 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, yet only seven offer an undergraduate degree in human rights. I am honored to be associated with the human rights program at Southern Methodist University. Our graduates are currently working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, serving as capital defense attorneys and advocates for the poor, homeless and other marginalized groups in Dallas and around the nation. Many are preparing for careers as human rights journalists or in government and will eventually bring a much-needed and different approach to understanding society’s problems.

But much more needs to be done, and quickly. The window of opportunity is now, and we should not waste it. I urge college presidents and faculty members to respond to the demands of a younger generation rightfully pushing this society to fulfill its obligations to all of its peoples. Colleges should seek funding from their community partners to provide human rights scholarships for students of need. They should incorporate human rights education into undergraduate curriculum and offer graduate programs, as well. How is it possible that in 2020, I don't know of a single Ph.D. program in human rights in the U.S.A.?

Human rights education is not the solution to every societal ill, but it is the foundation for identifying the source of problems and paths to solve them. This is not rocket science. Either we truly believe that all people, everywhere, are entitled to a life with inherent fundamental rights regardless of their race, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, gender and the like, or we make excuses why certain groups of people, communities and countries can be ignored, bullied, abused, detained, disappeared, tortured or killed in the name of laws that see them as less than human.

Now is the time. Enough is enough. Demand dignity. Mandate human rights education for our students. There is no such thing as a lesser person.

Rick Halperin is the director of the human rights program at Southern Methodist University.

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College leaders should consider some outside-the-box ideas for fall 2020 (opinion)

Any way you slice it, this fall is going to be hard on everyone. Higher education institutions are desperate for some tuition revenue, but we all know we are not offering the usual college experience. So far, most of us are planning some combination of:

  • Fewer students on campus. Some institutions (like the University of Texas) are simply offering the option of taking remote classes only (but with no reduced tuition), while others (like Bowdoin College) are only letting first-year students come to campus along with a few senior honors thesis students and those who have home situations that make online learning nearly impossible. Stanford University plans to rotate students with half on the campus for one quarter and then another half the next.
  • Fewer students in class. Many campuses have made all large classes online only and are reducing the capacity of rooms. Students spaced six feet apart and wearing masks has led to its own set of concerns about pedagogy: what kind of active learning will work, for example. But recent analysis suggests that colleges are massively overestimating how many students they can safely have in spaces. A Cornell study found that colleges should be planning for only 13 to 24 percent of capacity. A California Institute of Technology study assumed eight feet of distance, since longer proximity demands more distance and airflow is uncertain. The researchers concluded that 11 percent was the maximum safe capacity, which allows for only 16 students in a 149-seat, 2,000 square-foot classroom.
  • Social isolation outside class. Students can expect singles, bathroom assignments, boxed meals and severe restrictions that they won’t like. But in the words of the most recent academic mathematical models: “It is extremely important that students refrain from all contact outside of academic and residential settings.”

What that means for students is less incentive to come, and if they do come (and pay with no refund option), the prospect of isolation and quarantine on top of a compromised education. For faculty members, that means some combination of virtual and face-to-face teaching (i.e., more work) and preparation even in small classes for some students in quarantine and online for some of the semester.

Part of the problem is that we always want to replicate rather than innovate. Forget about the past. This disruption is real and massive. It is time for campus leaders to look at some wilder ideas -- even some beyond the 15 scenarios Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney have proposed -- although a few of my suggestions are updates of those. Before you say no, consider the following:

  • What you are currently considering is already a lot of extra work, is motivated by a potential budgetary collapse, is unappealing to almost everyone, could fail terribly and will increase inequity.
  • Really big ideas are iterative. None of these are fully baked, and all will need adaptation to your campus and students. Many could be combined, and maybe only a piece of something will work for you.
  • Yes, these ideas might fail, but everything we are trying comes with risk. Which is most likely to prepare your institution for success this fall and in a few years? Try first asking, “How might we make this work?” and generate a few more detailed alternatives for your campus. Then decide which two or three to pursue in greater detail.
  • Yes, time is short, but the situation is also changing quickly: What will you do if your state demands a two-week quarantine for students coming from California, Arizona, Texas or Florida? Is your campus already reporting COVID cases in staff and students? Now is the time to start generating more options, like the following:

No. 1: Quarantined residential learning communities. Groups of families are deciding they can cooperate and quarantine together: after two weeks of individual quarantine, they remove the social barriers between their households and act like one extended family. Similarly, small groups of faculty, staff and students could live together in isolated clusters for a few weeks or an entire semester without social distancing after testing or a short quarantine. Think of this like one of the 38 Oxford colleges: an isolated social and educational unit as part of a larger university. Students might need to isolate in dorm units, but faculty could quarantine at home.

This unit would have no need for low density. Students could eat, sleep, party and have sex together. Some older dorms have their own dining halls, but a housing unit could also eat in its own group shift in the main dining hall without restrictions. Even double rooms, with some reserved singles for quarantine, perhaps, might be fine. Faculty who were willing and able to live in the dorm might teach a double load for a semester (or perhaps a shorter block within the semester of four or eight weeks) and then be off the next block. (They would have to pledge to self-isolate when away from the campus to be most safe.) As is the case at Oxford and Cambridge, individual colleges would offer limited subjects, but students could take virtual courses from any other part of the university. But this way, they would at least get some of the other social benefits of college and some great face-to-face classes.

The advantages would include almost full capacity and full revenue. People would have to social distance when they leave their dorms but would get to socialize within their cohort. If the entire campus is isolated in this way, then after two weeks, larger groups could be allowed to mix -- depending on the risk your institution wants to take.

This model would also work for graduate students in the same program. The incoming cohort of physics or history Ph.D.s will take some group of courses together anyway. Building a cohort might even increase retention and a sense of community.

No. 2: Big-problem interdisciplinary seminars. Offering a couple of larger interdisciplinary courses would create engagement, relevance and focus; allow for small group projects and experiences; and build community through shared experiences for students. It would allow for high-quality, asynchronous video content combined with synchronous small group, high-touch faculty and student interactions.

This is work that can be divided and shared. Not everyone has to design and teach every part of the course. If individual faculty are recording only a few lecture videos a semester, they can be really good, and not everyone would have to or would want to do what is a highly specialized skill.

Imagine every student on campus taking one of three or four big ideas courses (or even just one big course on the pandemic). Individual faculty could still supervise small groups doing individual projects. The planning could also be done virtually in large interdisciplinary committees. Many of us have now attended a virtual conference, and students routinely use social media and other virtual tools to think about how to solve large social problems.

Such an interdisciplinary seminar could focus on racial equity. Plenty of naysayers might say that chemistry or engineering is immune from such issues, but what would happen if you really looked at the potential for how everyone feels in these classes? Why are certain diseases and projects funded? Who benefits? How might science be done more equitably?

Again, not everyone has to design an entire semester of material, but could you change your campus culture and curriculum going forward if the science faculty focused on two weeks of content but spent the rest of the semester involved in this collaborative exploration? I challenge you to think of a more important or transformative project for your institution.

You could go even further and create a single campus seminar or focus virtually all the fall curriculum on race and equity. You would probably still want to offer a few other required courses for majors, but you could design a large course for everyone that tackles a problem that virtually everyone thinks matters right now. Groups of biology or history majors could work on their own projects, but the institution would make a bold commitment to something that is engaging and important. What about how to do campus policing and public safety more equitably? Such topics could also be the focus of a new gap year program, as I describe next.

No. 3: Structured gap years. Gap years (and structured group internships) have been growing in popularity and often result in students who return to campus with more focus and maturity. They were fourth in the Inside Higher Ed survey of what appealed to students for this fall and should get more attention.

Gap years struggle at the concept level, because we think of them as lots of disparate individual events without a revenue stream. But if colleges designed them, both problems could be eliminated. Could you charge students a small amount and then hire them out to do work for someone else? Yes, if you really provide value and structure. And if you priced it right, federal aid might cover it. Could you combine some existing data analytics, leadership, sociology or public policy course with a problem that your community might be facing and let students work on it for a year? There are countless new local COVID-19 problems to add to all of the existing ones.

You might also be able to house students while they do such work. That wouldn’t solve the density problem, but for many campuses, underenrollment this fall may, in fact, be the problem. If keeping students away but engaged is the goal, then a gap year should be virtual.

Champlain College is charging about a third of its $21,000 tuition for a six-credit Virtual Gap Program described as “a semester-long, inspiring journey into academic college life, holistic well-being, and finding meaning through virtual internship and service experiences.” The Global Citizen Academy offers leadership training and usually a global fellowship, but this year it will be virtual.

No. 4: Virtual and global partnerships. Thanks to the internet, forming a global network and having conversations with people on the ground in different countries is certainly much easier than visiting those countries these days. Faculty already have connections around the world; perhaps those connections could be used to create some student projects with a partner university, organization or even corporation somewhere far away. For example, many English-speaking students attend Indian universities, and India also has a growing number of new liberal arts universities and a shortage of faculty.

This could be a simple virtual exchange program, with professors swapping teaching assignments in another country. More complicated but better would be to use this opportunity to create much more diverse classrooms. Most campuses suffer from some problematic homogeneity in classroom discussions -- students are from similar places, backgrounds or academic orientations.

Normally, we think of local when we look for partnerships or consortium, and there is a benefit in sharing services, academic support or course design with another institution. But with more classes going virtual, you could pick a partner institution or two that has a complementary mission but is across the state, country or planet. If your student population is too homogeneous, find an institution that has different students. Partner with a historically Black college or university, a Hispanic-serving institution or an institution that serves a different region, age or demographic. That will indeed create new problems, but it might also increase learning.

The Stevens Initiative of the Aspen Institute has resources (and even grants) to help you get started. It might just be a single project, like the COVID-19 Virtual Global Design Challenge that the Johns Hopkins University Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design created this spring (with over 200 teams) or IREX’s Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, which uses a project-based learning model. You could look to share a course and create more diverse discussion groups or find a partner institution that already uses your learning management system -- although with Zoom as a common format for so many classes, this approach is much easier lift than you might imagine.

No. 5: Relationship-first hybrids. One common model for hybrid distance graduate programs is to start by bringing people together first; these are sometimes called low-residency programs. The key is that they usually start with a people living together for perhaps a week or two, so they can get to know each other. As has been noted about this spring: relationships already formed in person are easier to continue online. Low-residency programs were designed to allow an international group to meet with each other, become friends and then leave but still learn together while dispersed all over the world. During a time of travel restrictions, that won’t work, but the idea might be adapted to our need to limit physical interactions, even if we live near each other.

In this model, you could meet your students where they are -- literally. You already know where your students live -- in which cities, if you are a national institution, or which neighborhoods, if you are a local one. You might simply create neighborhood or local “cohorts” of students who could get together physically to create some relational bonds. Let students know who is already around them at your institution.

To create true relationship-first hybrid courses (probably mostly for regional institutions, but think also about your feeder schools), students would get together initially in groups physically with the professor. That would require social distancing, but being together physically, even for just a day, can create a sense of connection. You could use your largest spaces and rotate who comes when.

For the first day of class (and perhaps once every two weeks or once a month after that), groups would meet in person and then spend the rest of the time online. Online groups can create a similar sense of community, but for those of us who teach mostly face-to-face, this might be a safe and easy way to simulate the positive feelings of community that we took into our online transition this past spring. For commuter campuses or community colleges, for example, this could significantly improve student engagement.

From Tactical to Strategic

A crisis always shifts short-term attention to the tactical -- or “business continuity,” or how we keep doing what we were doing. But strategy is about what will improve our odds to thrive into the future.

Now is an important time to ask strategic questions like: Which of our courses and degree programs can really only be taught residentially, and which might now be moved -- and even improved -- online? That does not mean the end of residential education; the value of community has only been affirmed by the pandemic. But we have also learned that working from home can sometimes be more productive than in person and that well-designed online learning can be effective. You have new data, market conditions, assumptions and behaviors to consider.

Your planning time for fall is short, but at least some portion of your time and some collective group on your campus needs to be thinking wildly outside the box right now. You need options. You also need to be thinking about the bigger what-if scenarios and the “how might we” questions. Try a pilot program of something -- anything -- new this fall, just in case your attempts to recreate fall 2019 fail. Strategy is the art of sacrifice. What do you need to be considering now that can also improve your odds for success years into the future?

José Antonio Bowen is former president of Goucher College, the author of Teaching Naked and a senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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Ethnic studies courses at colleges and universities are more vital today than ever (opinion)

Over the past several months, there have been numerous discussions surrounding the issue of race in America and COVID-19. Both topics have been at the forefront of public discourse. Notably, despite all the attention given to online teaching, potential teaching loads, budget restrictions, free speech and the issue of race itself as it relates to higher education, not as much discussion has been devoted to the impact of ethnic studies within the current academic environment.

Ethnic studies courses have often been at the fringes of academe. Indeed, some colleges and universities teach precious few, if any, courses covering African American studies, Latino/a American studies, Asian studies, women's and gender studies, LGBTQ studies, and similar disciplines. Since the late 1960s, when San Francisco State University established the first ethnic studies department after months of student protests, the past half century has witnessed the ebb and flow of such departments and programs, largely depending on the contemporary political, social and cultural climate dominating society.

The perennial issues that routinely plague such units, such as reluctant institutional commitment, chronic lack of funding, resistant and apprehensive students, and perceptions of unhinged radicalism among the faculty and students involved in the discipline, are undeniable. As a professor who teaches ethnic studies with a focus on African American studies, I am aware of the routine criticisms associated with the field. They tend to be as follows.

The discipline lacks sufficient academic rigor. This inaccurate message has been put forth, either subtly or in no uncertain terms, by right-wing cultural critics -- and a few left-of-center faux liberal ones -- and even by some critics in academe. As any sensible person knows, such a belief is nonsensical, misguided, unfounded and wrong. Indeed, ethnic studies has been, and still is, the epitome of interdisciplinary studies and scholarship, long before the term “interdisciplinary” became a buzzword in higher education.

Scholars who teach ethnic studies are radical and angry, and they harbor an antiwhite agenda. While such charges could apply to a few professors, the vast majority of ethnic studies scholars do have not such a mind-set. In fact, many of them are very inclusive in the materials and assignments they employ in their courses and scholarship -- much more, in fact, than most other disciplines. Moreover, in all academic fields, from the humanities to the hard sciences, some faculty members pursue a personal agenda.

What can you do with a degree in ethnic studies? Many of us who are scholars in the field have heard someone (frequently another person of color but often a white person, too) question the practicality of earning a degree in ethnic studies. I even heard this argument from some of my relatives when I was an undergraduate student. Guess what? A number of years later, they can see the results. I, indeed, have a successful career with such a degree. Many other people have done well, too. Elementary and secondary education, urban planning, diversity training, consulting, politics, higher education, journalism, public relations, health care, and government work are a few of the employment possibilities available to students who major in the discipline.

I am a person of color or a member of an indigenous group and don’t need to either take courses or major in ethnic studies. Many students of color assume that because they are members of a minority population, they needn’t “waste their time” in taking such courses or majoring in a field that they believe they are an expert in. They are wrong on a multitude of levels. Being Black, a woman, gay, or nonwhite Hispanic, Native American, etc., does not make one an expert in Black, women’s, LGBTQ, Latino/a or Indigenous scholarship. This is akin to someone stating that they are an expert in agrarian economics or agriculture because they grew up in a rural area or on a farm. Not at all.

I’ve also found that faculty of color can be unwitting enablers and critics of ethnic studies. More than a decade ago, I attended an academic conference in a Midwestern city. I took part in a conversation with several other 30ish and early-40ish Black academics about our respective institutions, families, scholarship, career goals and so forth. The conversation eventually moved on to ethnic studies. Two of the academics attempted to make the same antiquated argument that the discipline was, in essence, subpar.

This set off a spirited, yet civil, debate among most of us in attendance. The vast majority were proponents of ethnic studies for practical, logical, defensible and obvious reasons. However, some of my fellow colleagues were dismissive or, at the very least, ambivalent about the discipline. While I am well aware that no group of people united by race, ethnicity or religion is monolithic, I did assume that well-educated people who, no doubt, had experienced some degree of racial or gender adversity in their lives would be more proactive and progressive in their thinking. In fact, anyone who lived in the United States of America before the mid- to late 1980s would have been exposed to some level of racial animosity on some level. The fact that these were educated academics of color made this experience even more disheartening, although not despairing or dehumanizing.

The undisputed fact is that -- despite the reduced budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, supposedly, a declining student population -- students of color are projected to become the majority in many higher education institutions within the next decade or sooner. The current political, social and cultural climate calls for -- in fact, demands -- the inclusion of ethnic studies programs across disciplines and departments throughout higher education. Fierce resistance from right-wing politicians, state legislatures and a few other conservative segments of society notwithstanding, such programs and departments are, without question, more important now than ever.

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African American studies and gender studies​ at East Tennessee State University and author of Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press).

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020
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Colleges should redesign course schedules to focus more on student success (opinion)

COVID-19 has caused mass disruptions to higher education. The abrupt move to online this semester, the competing demands of a health and economic crisis, and an uncertain fall all threaten current students’ progress.

With incoming students, it’s unclear whether the crisis will scare them off or if enrollment will grow in the fall, as it typically does during a recession when millions of jobless Americans suddenly find themselves searching for new skills. And if new and returning students do show up in large numbers, there are pressing questions about whether they will be drawn to a different mix of programs than just a few months ago.

Taken together, all this creates a raft of challenges for institutional planners. Chief among them is how to ensure students are able to get the courses they need to continue to move toward graduation and ultimately employment. The processes that control course access -- schedule building and registration -- must be rethought in this environment.

Most institutions copy schedules from the previous year to minimize disruption. But that won’t work for two reasons. First, our research has shown that, even under the best circumstances, those schedules are not typically aligned to students’ needs. And second, such schedules are rarely efficient for institutions. The financial fallout of COVID-19 will force many colleges and universities to create leaner schedules with fewer course options, especially for requirements in low-enrollment majors.

Given that reality, institutions will need to rethink the dominant model for determining access to courses. The status quo -- giving scheduling priority based on credits, or senior standing -- won’t cut it in this environment.

That approach leaves students who have earned fewer credits but may have more constrained schedules with fewer options. It may also prevent them from accessing overenrolled, or bottlenecked, courses that they need to continue to stay on their degree pathway. Imagine, for example, a single mother who is 12 credits into a degree program and has suddenly found herself homeschooling her children, or a stocker at a local store who has had his hours cut and needs to move more quickly through his degree program and into a new job.

Instead of the usual approach, institutions should focus on providing access to courses based on need, not credits. A targeted preregistration period is a particularly promising approach and works by offering students with the greatest need the opportunity to register first -- guaranteeing they have access to essential courses at times that fit their schedules.

This can help reduce the impact of bottleneck courses -- those for which student demand outpaces available seats -- which can be a massive barrier to degree completion. Our research shows that nearly a quarter of all courses are overloaded, signaling they may be bottlenecked. And those percentages may grow as COVID-19’s disruption pushes students toward certain courses at the same time that budget cuts force colleges to cut sections.

Before COVID-19, a number of institutions were already leveraging student-friendly schedules and preregistration to reduce the negative impact of bottlenecks, particularly for the large numbers of working students, parents and those only able to attend part-time.

Take the case of Sacramento State, which is aggressively working to improve course capacity as part of California State University’s Graduation Initiative 2025. This past fall, the College of Arts and Letters piloted a new program to pre-enroll 325 incoming freshmen in block schedules based on a survey about their interests, learning styles and availability. The results were astounding: only 5 percent of students opted out of their predetermined schedule, and only 20 percent of students changed the time for a course -- meaning more students were starting on a clear path to graduation.

This strategy ensures that more students are taking the courses they need to satisfy requirements and graduate in four years. It also allows students to know exactly when their courses will be and design their work schedule well in advance, or have their work schedule inform their pre-enrollment schedule. Most important, it ensures that students get seats in common bottleneck courses in their first year, mitigating cascading delays in those courses -- delays that could expand with students likely to repeat courses this coming year.

Sacramento State’s pilot program was so successful that a variation of it will be used for the entire first-year class of 4,300 students in the 2020-21 academic year. But this kind of scheduling remains far from reality for most institutions.

A core challenge in moving to such solutions is that institutions simply don’t have enough information about students to know what courses they need and when they need them. As students register for courses, there is also no gatekeeper that can help identify whether a student must take that specific course to move forward or whether it is one of many options for that student to graduate. Instead, institutions should be gathering and using data to create more student-friendly schedules.

The process must be precise, specific and informed by student pathways. For example, a course that is necessary for some students but simply of interest to others should be offered during the preregistration period only to students who need it. Other interested students can then register for any remaining seats during the regular registration period.

With better data, institutions could redesign their operations to focus more on helping students whose lives have been disrupted or were already complicated prior to this crisis. They can do so, in part, by ensuring that early access to classes is given to students based on need, not arbitrary credit or year thresholds. The problem is, we must be willing to ask and to dig into the data.

For students who work or are raising children or otherwise have complex lives, being shut out of a required course can mean an additional semester or year in college. It can mean more debt. It can mean they never graduate.

Being able to schedule courses at certain times is far from a luxury for these students; it’s a necessity -- and now more than ever.

Tom Shaver is founder and CEO of Ad Astra, a company using data mining technology to help colleges and universities improve student access and lower costs.

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