‘Realizing the Distinctive University’

Author discusses new book about the importance of vision and values in higher education.

March 21, 2017

Inside Higher Ed is full of articles on colleges and universities debating budget cuts and financial questions, issues that dominate the lives of many administrators. But what about vision?

Mark William Roche is trying to make vision and values more central in discussions about the future of higher education, nationally and at individual colleges. Roche is a professor of German language and literature at the University of Notre Dame and also served for 11 years as dean of the College of Arts and Letters there, so he has firsthand experience on the administrative side. His ideas about higher education are the basis of his new book, Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture (University of Notre Dame Press).

Q: Your book makes clear that you never gave up your faculty identity, even during more than a decade serving as dean. These days there are many administrators who have risen through the ranks outside the faculty. How important is it for the values your book promotes to have administrators who have spent real time on the faculty and who identify with that role?

A: Remaining active as a scholar ensured that I would always be viewed as a faculty administrator. After settling into the role, I taught a course every year. Teaching gave me a common topic with faculty members and a window onto our current students. It was also good for my soul. No less important, remaining active as a faculty member gave me the freedom to make difficult decisions based on what I thought was right. I did not need to worry about keeping my job, since I would have always been happy to return to the faculty.

I couldn’t possibly have done my work as dean without deep experience as a faculty member. Administrators constantly make decisions that presuppose intimate knowledge of academic matters. A nonfaculty administrator is likely to struggle articulating a nuanced academic vision and making layered assessments of academic quality. Moving away from faculty governance is also not the best way to foster a shared sense of community. An institution that elevates nonfaculty members for leadership positions presumably sees advantages in such appointments, but the institution’s values would certainly be affected. My book implicitly makes the case that universities do not need to shift to corporate governance models or nonfaculty leaders in order to ensure ambitious and effective administration and that indeed such moves can easily be counterproductive. Nonfaculty support persons, however, are indispensable.

Q: Your book stresses the role of vision. Obviously American higher education includes different kinds of institutions with different visions -- what kind of vision should cross sectors and missions? What do you mean by vision?

A: The diversity of American higher education is one of its greatest strengths. This diversity is linked with the sense of competition that has helped ensure the vibrancy of American higher education. Because institutional identities differ and research aspirations vary across institutions, the one aspect of vision that remains common for all of higher education involves quality of student learning, an area in which institutions can learn from one another irrespective of mission.

By vision I mean an ambitious but realistic ideal that determines priorities and motivates a community. Notre Dame’s distinctive vision emerged from what I called our triadic identity: a residential liberal arts college with a traditional emphasis on student learning; an increasingly dynamic and ambitious research university; and a Catholic institution of international standing. Our vision involved enhancing and synergistically interweaving all three aspects of our identity so as to make us distinctive in the twofold sense of excellent and different. Of course beyond the overarching vision, one needs to sort out priorities, set goals, assess progress and address obstacles, but the idea is always to be animated by the vision. A compelling vision attracts students and faculty; forms the community of current faculty, staff and students; and inspires graduates, donors and other supporters.

Identifying a vision has an obvious normative moment. What has such intrinsic value or value for society that we should make it our primary obligation? A vision should stretch an institution, but the vision should also be tempered by realism. A vision that does not tap into existing strengths or is not backed with requisite resources breeds cynicism.

Q: Your career has been at an institution with more resources than is the case at most institutions. How much more difficult is it to promote vision when administrators may be consumed by budget shortfalls?

A: Because a vision must be to some extent doable, vision and resources need to be linked. I once participated in a curriculum review at Ohio State University that was animated by a profound vision of what a liberally educated person in the 21st century should know and be able to do and what courses would lead to that outcome. I expended political capital getting my colleagues on board, and then after we had devoted countless hours to developing the new curriculum, the university decided for lack of budgetary resources to abandon extensive parts of the already approved reform, including the language and culture component on which we had been working. The lesson I took from this travesty was clear: vision and budget must always work in tandem. Although some reforms can be accomplished without any adjustments in resources, budget is one of the best ways to advance a vision. With severe budget shortfalls, administrators have to scale back or recast their vision.

Q: Your roots are in the liberal arts, and a previous book was about the liberal arts. Do you think your book is applicable to professionally oriented institutions?

A: Yes. While much of the book is about vision, and in particular a vision shaped by the value of the liberal arts, it is no less about generic strategies that can help any institution realize its vision. Every vision must be linked to its embodiment in rhetoric, support structures and community. Every vision encounters obstacles. No vision succeeds without an administrator thinking through how to make appropriate use of incentives, flexibility, accountability and other such categories. Most of the topics I explore apply not only across the higher education landscape; they are relevant up and down the academic ladder. The kinds of puzzles faced by chairpersons, deans, provosts and presidents have remarkable similarities, and while their specific content will differ, the formal tools for solving them are for the most part analogous. The best practices I introduce along with the personal missteps I discuss can be a source of learning for all kinds of administrators.

Q: Are there institutions today (aside from Notre Dame) where you are impressed with the vision from the top?

A: One of the presuppositions of the book is that all institutions are at some level distinctive, though along a spectrum, with some more interchangeable and others more distinct. To give a few examples across types of institutions, I have been impressed by former Vassar President Catharine Hill, who moved dramatically and successfully to enroll a relatively high percentage of students from lower-income families. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has introduced support structures, including extra advising and mentoring, that have helped ensure student success across disciplines and also raised student ambitions. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, stands out for her advancement of the Penn Compact, which, by way of three core ideas, has transformed many aspects of the university. But one could name visionary leaders at many colleges and universities, and not only at the level of president.

Q: You note the increasing reliance of many colleges on non-tenure-track professors. How damaging is the reliance on a nonpermanent faculty, without job security, to the goals you outline?

A: For many reasons full-time faculty are best suited to advance vision. If a university has many nonpermanent or part-time faculty members, the best ways to get them on board would seem to be, first, to develop a vision with such intrinsic appeal that they want to contribute and, second, to offer support structures and a welcoming intellectual environment such that they are more likely to identify with the community.

Unfortunately, the reliance on temporary faculty has much to do with the elevation of business principles at the expense of academic vision. It is surely more efficient to have part-time teachers, just as it is more efficient to order fewer books for the library, assign faculty heavier teaching loads, expand class sizes and refrain from teaching subjects with smaller enrollments, such as advanced seminars in foreign language departments. But such efficiencies come at the cost of higher values, and so are incompatible with an intelligent accountability. Accountability always presupposes assessing action in accordance with an ideal. Pure efficiency can violate all kinds of ideals, which is why business practices in a university setting, as important as they are, are always subordinate to academic vision.


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