Several weeks ago, I completed five bracing years in Washington, D.C., as president of the Association of American Universities. What have I learned about research universities and their place in American life? Three things stand out: undergraduate education, crucial to liberal democracy, is showing signs of getting better; federal regulation of universities, an issue to which I had previously paid little attention, is stifling and out of date; and big-time intercollegiate athletics, incredibly popular, are also incredibly perilous for universities, as their moral and physical hazards multiply rapidly.
If anything exhibits the essentiality of education to the maintenance of democracy, it is the current presidential campaign. Some candidates have succeeded with appeals to fear and base instincts, with misleading claims based on passion instead of evidence, with repudiation of reason and rationality, and with autocratic overtones. America needs citizens educated to think critically and independently, and trained to weigh arguments about complex subjects like energy and climate and tax policy against one another with some degree of sophistication.
What prepares citizens to carry out these essential tasks? A liberal education -- that is, in its original meaning, an education suited to produce free people. That is a far more important outcome for our country than the (very large) difference in career earnings between those who earn a college degree and those who don’t, the figure generally cited as the primary benefit offered by a degree.
It is encouraging, after years of neglect, to see many of our nation’s leading research universities giving high priority once more to the quality of education they offer to undergraduate students. Motivated partly by faculty ingenuity and concern, partly by parents’ complaints about shortcomings in their children’s education, public and private universities are spending a great deal of time, effort and money on freshman seminars; undergraduate research programs; curricular enhancement, including smart use of online materials; and learning analytics designed to produce more individualized teaching methods.
At AAU, for example, our five-year-old undergraduate STEM education initiative has built considerable momentum, thanks to the active participation of dozens of member universities. The project aims to improve the teaching of gateway courses in science and math -- precisely the freshman and sophomore classes that have traditionally turned off many would-be science majors before they really get started. Professors use evidence-based methods of teaching, such as group learning, problem solving, clickers, online tools and other means of increasing student engagement in the classroom. Good courses in chemistry, physics, math, computer science and the life sciences are crucial for students who will confront tough policy choices as adults in numerous domains calling for scientific literacy.
Science is just one part of a strong liberal education. Humanities and social sciences are also vital to enabling students to develop critical thinking, the ability to speak and write effectively, and the kind of collaborative skills needed in the workplace and in the public sector. Employers increasingly cite these skills as essential to their hiring needs, and life studies clearly reveal their contribution to personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Much more needs to be done to promote courses in the humanities, in particular, because the current zeitgeist heavily favors careerism: students are flocking to business and other practical majors in an effort to appeal to the job market. A longer view demonstrates the value of a broad education, as many studies have noted.
A Burdensome Regulatory Regime
Universities continue to put a premium on research, which has made American institutions the best in the world. But lagging federal investment over the past decade has threatened our pre-eminent position, as has a regulatory regime plagued by overlapping, duplicative, burdensome requirements that stifle faculty members and cost universities millions of dollars in unproductive legal and audit fees. The past five years have been remarkably frustrating for those of us trying to cut through this thicket: after taking initial steps to reduce and harmonize regulations early in its tenure, the Obama administration has made no further progress.
Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) have developed legislation to address these issues. And the administration continues to discuss the possibility of further actions by the end of the year. We hope for progress, if not by January 2017 then in the next administration and Congress.
Another key regulatory domain for universities is accreditation, which not only is outmoded but threatens to taint our entire enterprise. Accreditation, which is intended to ensure the credibility of colleges and universities, fails to provide accountability for institutions that abuse students and government funds. Moreover, it subjects institutions to the same unproductive requirements whether they have superb or mediocre track records.
The process of accreditation rarely results in serious action of any kind. Recent cases of shockingly ineffective schools (mostly proprietary institutions) gaining reaccreditation in spite of glaring, even fraudulent practices, have drawn negative attention to our entire sector. They have fed the public perception that universities in general are unregulated, when in fact we are among the most regulated industries in America.
What can be done? At the least, the regional accrediting agencies need to institute differential accreditation based on past performance. They should not treat the Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame the same way they treat institutions that leave most of their students with exceedingly high debt and no degree. And accreditors need to set a few indicators -- like graduation rates, student debt and default rates -- such that institutions falling below certain thresholds will be subject to greater scrutiny. If those institutions are found to be failing the interests of students and abusing taxpayer support, they should be put out of business.
An Out-of-Control Model
Finally, intercollegiate athletics. I played four years of college baseball and basketball (at the Division III level), and I am a fervent fan of college sports and the cohesiveness and community they engender among students, alumni, faculties and administrations. For excitement and aesthetic pleasure, they are unparalleled in American life. The public therefore wants more and more of them.
But big-time college sports are now out of institutional control, whether of the universities themselves or of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Recent scandals and court decisions make it clear that the model we know so well is cracking, probably irreparably.
What have university leaders done about this? Overwhelmed by the demands of millions of alumni and other fans, very little. Instead, they watch as “student-athletes” strike and appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, former players sue, wealthy lawyers go to court to argue that the NCAA violates antitrust laws, and judges are left to determine the future of intercollegiate athletics.
Looming over these legal exposures is the sheer scale of the money implicated in the enterprise. Some universities’ athletic programs bring in so much revenue they don’t know how to spend it. Recent competition for building the largest scoreboard at football stadiums is almost -- almost -- humorous in its lunacy. Other institutions can’t balance their athletic budgets in spite of tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Coaches’ salaries are an embarrassment: in most of the 50 states a university basketball or football coach is the most highly paid public employee -- by a wide margin. The vast amounts of money pouring into the National Basketball Association and National Football League can be condoned because they are professional businesses. But the hoards of cash falling into the laps of universities for completely nonacademic purposes compromise the extraordinary work they do in carrying out their academic missions.
What can be done about the tremendous vulnerabilities inherent in intercollegiate athletics? It is late in the day, perhaps too late, to stave off such developments as paying players or drastic solutions imposed by the courts. Only very serious internal reforms might save the enterprise. Universities need to consider downsizing across the board: the length of the season, coaches’ pay, skyboxes and scoreboards, athletic dorms, and the other monstrosities of the enterprise that now tarnishes campuses otherwise devoted to learning.
Will universities get off the tiger’s back on their own? I am not optimistic.
Hunter R. Rawlings III served as president of the Association of American Universities, an association of leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada, from 2011 until April 25 of this year, when he became interim president of Cornell University. He is a former president of Cornell and of the University of Iowa.
In its infancy, online learning was viewed as a more accessible alternative for students unable to commit to the traditional higher education path. But in recent years online education has been gaining more acceptance. The most recent U.S. Department of Education data from fall 2014 indicate that 5.8 million students took at least one online course, with 2.85 million of them studying exclusively online. After thousands of online launches and millions of students, it is important to assess the advancement made in online learning as we look to further enhance online learning for future students.
Thirty years ago, we committed ourselves to a long-term program of research into higher education and how to improve it. Together, we have conducted several studies on student learning at colleges and universities.
Several factors emerged as determinants of students’ academic performance and related outcomes, such as retention, graduation, satisfaction and commitment toward their college or university. The four major predictors of student learning outcomes were:
student engagement and involvement in a variety of activities aimed at different cognitive domains of learning;
student-faculty contact, including faculty members’ helpfulness and accessibility -- as manifested through the immediacy of feedback and a concern for students and their problems;
factors related to degree programs, including the integration and relevance of the various required and elective courses, as well as the quality of teaching focused on student learning and of academic advising; and
learning opportunities beyond traditional courses, including opportunities to engage in self-directed learning and address critical issues in the course.
In addition to our interest in advancing policy-based knowledge in higher education, we have held leadership positions at several colleges and universities and have been involved in pioneering distance and online learning programs. In 1996, we developed a vision for a new online university in which all functions (academic, support, services and administrative) were directly linked to the development of a comprehensive online learning environment. We named it the Robust Learning Model, and all components of the model were designed to:
enable systematic applications to all degree programs;
be relevant for many groups of learners -- including adult and mobile learners;
have a mechanism for accountability, transparency and quality assurance;
use resources efficiently aimed at affordable tuition;
develop a budget and resource-allocation plan based on projected enrollment growth and predefined quality improvements; and
demonstrate a verifiable attainment of learning outcomes for students for each degree program.
The pedagogy included a completely interactive threaded discussion that allowed students to interact and engage with faculty members as well as each other. For each course, we introduced problem-based learning through case studies and project-based learning through a signature assignment. Self-reflection was included as part of the course as well as through a required essay at the end of the course. And when it came to assessment, the RLM was, to our knowledge, the first attempt to align institutional learning outcomes, program learning outcomes and course learning outcomes.
In 1998, we founded Touro University International, an independent branch campus of Touro College New York, using the RLM approach to online learning. It became a separately accredited institution and an academic and financial success. (Sold in 2007, it was later renamed Trident University International.)
Then, in 2012, we rejoined Touro in a new role of turnaround management for a division that it opened in 2008 named Touro University Worldwide. In the past four years, we have implemented a more advanced version of the RLM, based on our past experience with it and cloud and mobile technology, as well as on new developments in our conceptual map for an online university.
Throughout our two decades of experience, we have continued to improve the comprehensive learner-focused model using continuous assessment, experimentation and tests of new ideas and innovations. What have we learned about the factors in the online learning environment that directly or indirectly affect students’ learning performance?
The major factor that consistently predicts successful performance outcomes is the student’s skill at learning to learn. By this we mean the student’s ability to persist in learning through an awareness of his or her learning needs, to effectively search for information and raise questions, to manage time to focus on learning, and to acquire or use support mechanisms to overcome challenges. Students with a high learning-to-learn ability will successfully prepare in advance how to progress and benefit from their learning experiences as well as persevere in finding the path to learning, despite adverse circumstances. We have continuously improved the learning model and the online learning environment by focusing pedagogy, faculty-student interactions, student-to-student interactions, self-reflection and the variety of learning strategies and activities to support students in their improvement of this ability.
Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments -- problem identification, problem solving, analytical tools, projects, reflective inquiry, discussions, critical thinking -- enhances learning outcomes when a component of self-assessment is added to each of those activities.
Engagement in a variety of learning activities and assignments improves learning outcomes when the feedback received from the professor and/or other learners is immediate (less than 24 hours), constructive, substantial and (in case of professor feedback) guides students in how to strengthen their learning efficacy.
The professor’s direct involvement in all facets of course development and management -- including design, instruction, meaningful and frequent interactions with the learners and assessment -- enhances student learning outcomes across all degree levels and programs. When the learning experience is divided (unbundled) among several segments, student learning outcomes are considerably lower. We have tried unbundling the learning process and have experimented with course developers and designers, teaching assistants, mentors, success coaches and a learning team, and we have always received inferior results compared to when a faculty member is fully involved in all facets of the course.
Periodic course assessment and improvement based on self-reflection and peers’ and previous students’ comments can boost student learning outcomes. The key is to explicitly examine, for all courses across the institution, what worked well and what did not work previously for the same course.
An eight-week session maximizes learning outcomes for adult learners (24 or older), compared to a four- or 12-week session. A 12-week session maximized learning outcomes for traditionally college-age students (23 or younger), compared to a four- or eight-week session.
With all other learning activities and assignments remaining the same, courses without a problem-based learning component have resulted in lower learning outcomes compared with courses that include it.
Similarly, courses without a project-based component, a threaded discussion or a self-reflective component result in lower learning outcomes compared with courses that include them.
Students who receive either professors’ or peers’ constructive feedback at least twice a week substantially outperform those who do not.
Students who perform mid-session self-assessment with the professor’s constructive feedback on that self-assessment outperform students who do not.
Students who submit their learning assignment ahead of the deadline outperform students who wait until the last minute.
Students who participate in precourse learning orientation activities (related to time planning, learning tips and a variety of supporting techniques) outperform students who do not.
Students with high levels of student-faculty or student-to-student interactions in threaded discussions outperform students with lower levels of interactive learning.
Students who received weekly tips directly from their professors encouraging them to take control of their learning activities outperform students who do not receive such tips. This finding led us to implement this practice as part of the threaded discussion.
Students who can relate the signature assignment as well as the capstone to their work environment outperform students who cannot.
Adding academic quality assurance -- staffed by an experienced senior faculty member who works collaboratively with all professors to study the lessons learned and implement the derived improvements into the online learning environment -- enhances student learning outcomes.
When comparing online students using our model with students taking the same course with the same professor under the traditional classroom model, online students outperform their face-to-face counterparts.
All the aforementioned factors that enhance learning outcomes also increase student retention rates as well as graduation rates, while reducing the time to degree across all degree levels and degree programs.
Of the various lessons that we have discussed in this piece, some are related to policy issues currently on the agenda of higher education and its future directions, such as MOOCs, competency-based education, the unbundling of the learning process and the like. Our lessons are based on the distinct learning model and web-based learning environment that we envisioned, developed and implemented -- and are important additions to the public discourse. That said, they are not intended to be the ultimate conclusion applied to all online learning environments, nor are they intended to end discussion of these important issues. As educators, it is our responsibility to continue to examine and improve how our students learn through online education.
Yoram Neumann is chief executive officer and university professor of business administration at Touro University Worldwide. Edith Neumann is provost and university professor of health sciences at Touro University Worldwide.
David Horowitz's campaign -- posters with names of students and professors backing Israel boycott -- condemned as intimidation and leads to students blocking car carrying president of San Diego State U.
Students and gay rights groups object to University of Utah plans to award an honorary degree to philanthropist with ties to anti-LGBT organizations. And university didn't win over critics by scrubbing her bio.
Governing boards are dynamic groups of individuals where, sometimes, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. Presidents want and need their boards to be active, productive and engaged assets for the college, university or state system that they govern. Yet too many boards underperform. We argue that it is not what boards do (or don’t do) but how they do their work that really matters.
Consider these examples of poor board behavior:
The perennially underengaged board asks few questions of the administration and fewer of themselves;
The overly powerful executive committee controls 85 percent of the agenda and excludes other trustees; and,
The impulsive board quickly moves to decisions without divergent or devil’s advocate thinking.
We think that educating boards on what they should do -- their roles and responsibilities -- while important, is insufficient. In actuality, underperforming boards may know their roles but have cultures that limit their effectiveness. Board culture, those patterns of behavior and ways of understanding that are deeply ingrained, reinforced and taught to new trustees, is what demands attention.
Rather than tinker with board structure, such as the size of the board (the large boards wishing they were smaller and the small boards thinking they should be larger), or the number and size of committees, board leaders and presidents should work to ensure a healthy board culture. It has been said that culture eats structure and strategy for lunch, and we agree. But culture is much more elusive and difficult to explain succinctly, making it challenging to expose and act upon.
We have been working with several boards to describe, measure and analyze their cultures and then ask if that culture fits the institution’s environment, current context and the work facing the board. Boards are complex social systems they have norms, expectations and preferred ways of working. Some of the norms are explicit (attendance), and others are implicit (comportment). Such normative elements are the building blocks of board culture. A proverbial fish in water syndrome, culture is difficult to see objectively for those immersed in it. By making the normative behaviors and interaction explicit, we can make culture actionable and create a road map for aligning culture with needs.
In our research, we’ve identified several important dimensions of board culture, such as the extent to which:
influence is consolidated in the hands of a few trustees or widely dispersed across the board,
the board sees itself more as a cheerleader or critic,
the board has an academic mind-set versus a corporate one, and,
the board seeks diverging and diverse views rather than preferring to move quickly to consensus.
These cultural dimensions are continuums with a matched partner at the other end.
Cultural factors such as these and others in our framework have both positive and negative aspects. Think about the classic Myers-Briggs introvert-extrovert scale as a parallel. Being introverted or extroverted, on its face, is neither good nor bad; rather, it depends on the context and the ways in which the strengths and blind spots play themselves out for an individual. Still, it is helpful for individuals to understand their natural tendencies and preferences. We believe that the same is true for boards as they rate themselves on dimensions of culture.
For example, think about a large board, in a highly dynamic situation, where it needs to make decisions quickly. This board, and its president, may be well served by a board culture that has consolidated influence. A few highly respected and good board leaders are able to respond quickly.
But on the flip side, a board that has consolidated influence and needs widespread input to understand novel and complex situations confronting the institution may exclude key members who have much to add. If a small group of trustees dominates all board work, takes up the most airtime during board meetings, shapes all agendas and even talks over other trustees, why would others participate? Consolidated influence may drive trustee disengagement for some boards.
At the same time, however, boards with distributed influence may micromanage. A larger board with a lot of trustees may not have enough substance in their board work, so hungry people are looking for more engagement and can easily cross the murky line into operations.
The one exception we are exploring to the notion of cultural continuums (again, think Myers-Briggs) relates to how board members treat each other, or what we call comportment. For instance, having more trust among board members is better than less, having more respect for one another and one another’s contributions is healthier than animosity, and being more openly deliberative in meetings is more desirable than having off-line conversations or “parking lot meetings” (that occur after the board meeting as trustees head to their cars).
Understanding the cultural explanations of common board problems can be helpful for board leaders and presidents. Some of those problems include:
overly inclusive processes in which boards cannot make decisions (death by discussion). For example, we know of a board that could not move on approval of the tuition increase recommended by the administration because they continued to debate the issue at a series of meeting, putting the tuition-dependent institution at a disadvantage when the freshman recruitment cycle began.
a board that is overly clubby and deferential to the president (the in-the-pocket board).One board found itself in difficulty when the president didn’t share all of the institution’s financial situation; instead some trustees eventually found out about it from faculty with whom they sang in the church choir.
a board that jumps to decisions too quickly (the knee-jerk board) One board found itself with a parcel of real estate in another state that became burdensome because it quickly accepted a gift from a longtime supporter even though there was neither a plan nor purpose for it.
In these cases, knowing better the roles and responsibilities of good governance might not have thwarted the problems. Instead, the culture of the board contributed, allowing these issues to snowball.
Here are some key questions that start to capture board culture:
To what extent does the board have a corporate mind-set or an academic one? Is it mission or market driven?
Is influence consolidated or distributed?
What is the level of trust within the board and between the administration and the board?
Does the board have a disposition toward efficiency or deliberation?
A cultural lens to the work of boards can explain many things. But the real benefit is having the language to make elements of culture visible and thus actionable. Once boards have the means to understand their own culture, the subsequent work should focus on the extent to which the board’s culture is aligned with the demands of the environment in which the institution and the board has to work and the nature of the challenges it faces. The cultural profiles of boards suggest that they may be well suited for some work and some situations but ill prepared for other situations. Knowing these can be extremely important to ensure ongoing board effectiveness. Too many boards get caught by the blind spots and shortcomings of their cultures.
Helping the board and the president understand the board’s strengths and potential vulnerabilities is essential to making culture actionable. They can then have meaningful conversations about the board culture they have and whether or not it is working well in the current (and future) context, think about what changes to culture might be helpful, and develop strategies to act on them. Changing the culture of a board may not be as problematic as changing the culture of an institution. The relatively small size of the board, the ability of the board chair to set new expectations and norms, and the infrequency with which boards meet mean that with attention and intention they can adopt new cultural norms and expectations. In addition, board turnover can be used to advantage, because institutions can cultivate and orient trustees who fit the desired culture.
A board culture profile provides a road map to align board dynamics with the work the board needs to accomplish, the president’s leadership style and the institution’s context. One sample profile from our pilot effort includes the following dimensions along the five continuums. The board:
Has distributed influence across the members of the board;
Seeks to maximize efficiency in how it conducts its work;
Has divergent thinking, prizing multiple perspectives and critical thinking;
Has an academic mind-set in that it understands the academy; and,
Views its role as partnering with the administration.
One potential vulnerability of this board is that for the sake of efficiency, time is not well organized to ensure both sufficient involvement and a breadth of issues. The concern may not be one of time management, but the way in which time is allocated to issues. Does the board address sufficient substance? Could it be covering more issues if it altered its culture and meeting structure? These questions seem to be on the minds of board and administrative leaders at this university as they seek to add substantive discussions to board meetings.
Board culture has been called “the invisible director” for the influence it creates, both positive and negative. The real goal of understanding board culture and its influence on how boards work can put governance on the pathway toward increased effectiveness. It is making sure that invisible director is moving the board in the right and positive direction.
Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass.