Not in My Classroom

Advice from consultant, including that to limit courses with high failure rates, is unwelcome to Illinois State professors. But the university and the consultant say their focus is student success, not student smooth sailing.

October 19, 2016
Illinois State University

Most professors would probably agree that their institutions must balance their budgets. Those charged with doing the balancing often seek help from consulting groups, which counsel administrations on streamlining or otherwise optimizing operations. But to most professors, education should remain the domain of faculty members.

So instructional aspects of Illinois State University’s work with the Education Advisory Board, a major higher education best practices and research firm, have faculty members up in arms. In a recent op-ed in Vidette Online, the student newspaper, more than 30 professors accused Illinois State and EAB of telling them to limit course offerings with high failure or withdrawal rates and to make their courses more utilitarian.

To the professors, those tips -- contained in PowerPoint presentations they say were either presented or inspired by EAB -- are code for dumbing down course content and abandoning the liberal arts.

Yet EAB and the university say the advice was taken out of context and was not meant to discourage academic rigor or quality. Rather, they say, high-failure-rate courses should be redesigned with an eye on student success -- not ease.

“The implicit message of those PowerPoint presentations should give pause and elicit opposition from administrators, faculty and students alike, for it risks undermining our core values and mission,” reads the faculty op-ed. “One essentially advises faculty to teach and grade in ways to please our students and so keep them enrolled (and paying!). According to the EAB’s ‘Road Map for Realizing Academic Ambitions,’ institutions must ‘limit high-DFW [D/fail/withdrawal] courses.’”

The faculty members say that means they’d all have to give students C’s or better, in an effort to encourage retention.

But changing students’ grades to keep them happy represents a slippery slope, they say.

“If, for example, students do not like to read, should faculty dispense with having them read?” the op-ed reads. “We may attract students’ attention with fun and games, but we will never secure their education (or respect) by replacing robust pedagogy with worthless proxies.”

Faculty members also say that another PowerPoint presentation from the provost’s office, inspired by an EAB template, recommends that Illinois State courses and programs be utilitarian and lead to a job.

“The PowerPoint from the provost’s office suggests that we ‘prioritize electives by focusing on student needs,’” their letter says. “Such a guiding principle essentially declares that the humanities particularly and liberal arts more generally have little or no support and role to play at our university, since the humanities are typically considered impractical and of scant utility, in other words, not what students need.”

J. M. van der Laan, a professor of languages, literature and culture at Illinois State who signed the op-ed, said he didn’t feel explicit pressure to change his own courses. But implicit pressure exists for all faculty members, due to the university’s emphasis on retention, he said.

“What is at stake is the general change in direction at our university (which truth be told has been underway for some time now) to employ a strictly business model for higher education,” he added via email.

David Attis, the managing director of strategic research at EAB, who presented at Illinois State earlier this year, didn’t deny that he advised professors to limit high-failure courses. But he said the comment was part of a larger conversation about rethinking courses with relatively rates of failure, withdrawal and students earning D grades so that more undergraduates finish them and earn credit to advance toward their degrees (many high-fail courses are gateway classes to certain majors).

That doesn’t mean handing out A’s, B’s and C’s, Attis said. Instead, universities are encouraged to run controlled experiments in which a pilot course redesign runs in tandem with a longer-running version of the course. Students in both sections are given the same final assessment, and their grades are compared. If students in the new course do better those in the old one, he said, it’s clear rigor wasn’t sacrificed -- instruction was simply improved. Some community colleges have employed variations of this with some success, by focusing on changing courses with the most failures. EAB published a blog post late Tuesday with its perspective on the debate.

Attis acknowledged that some professors bristle at the notion of catering their courses to students, rather than students adjusting to meet their teaching styles. But more underprepared students are now attending college as result of access efforts, and universities both want and need to help them succeed.

“I think is a misinterpretation of a few bullet points,” Attis said of faculty concerns. “In reality we agree with faculty goals and the need for rigorous academic standards and the liberal arts.”

Faculty members in their op-ed also disagree with an EAB slide recommending a paradigm shift from “every discipline deserves equal investment” to “investing equally in all disciplines will lead to mediocrity.”

“The university must invest in a broad range of disciplines in order to prepare the next generation with the kinds of creative and dynamic thinking required to devise solutions for the economic, political, environmental and social crises of our times,” they say.

Attis said EAB fully believes in the liberal arts, but that “one critical point is that universities have to find ways to invest in student success, even where funding is being cut.”

That’s particularly true in Illinois, which hasn’t had a full operating budget in over a year. Public institutions have felt the squeeze.

Yet Janet Krejci, provost at Illinois State, said the university has been able to maintain its standing as a liberal arts-focused institution with select graduate programs. And the university’s commitment to the liberal arts -- or academic rigor -- isn’t going away, she said.

“We feel very strongly about this,” she said. “We’ve told external stakeholders that even if a student learns some kind of skill or competency, that’s not what they’re going to be doing for their entire life. They need to learn to make good judgments and need critical thinking and the ability to communicate. This is what an education is all about.”

Illinois State began working with EAB on enrollment issues before it joined the academic affairs programs. A university spokesperson said, “No final decisions on classes or academic programs have been made based on that input,” and Illinois State is working with EAB “because it wants to be proactive in its planning and because it values gathering professional expertise to help inform its decision making.”

The faculty letter also questions the cost of that relationship, which the university valued at about $75,000 for two years for both academic and enrollment advising.

Jennifer Howell, an associate professor of language, literature and cultures who signed the letter, said professors are “not attempting to demonize administrators, but we are trying to highlight a flaw in corporate models of higher education.” She recalled, for example, a 2013 experience in which a syllabus for an honors course was at first rejected because it was deemed too difficult. After significant cuts to content, she said, it was approved. 

Illinois State’s enrollment was 20,502 in 2012. It dipped below 20,000 in 2013 but climbed to 21,039 this fall.


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