America and much of the world have been transfixed by recent events in Baltimore. What’s most important, however, comes after the cameras leave.
More than 50 years ago, Americans also were riveted as dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on the marching children of Birmingham, Ala. Participating in that march was the most terrifying experience of my life. Even so, it was not the hardest.
The toughest experiences came in the next 50 years, working to change the educational and socioeconomic systems that still exclude far too many Americans from real opportunity. At my university, students and staff work every day with hundreds of inner-city teenagers who are first-time offenders, providing them with guidance around the clock. These children and so many more need our support now more than ever.
As one of my students said to me recently, the Baltimore story -- which is the American story -- should remind us that issues related to poverty and inequality, crime and opportunity are not about “those people.” They are about us -- all of us.
How we react to events like those in Baltimore speaks volumes about our values. We know we must do much better, especially for people who have not had a chance to thrive in our society. Americans -- not just in Baltimore but across the country -- have an opportunity now to ask difficult questions and take long-term action.
Universities have an especially critical role to play as community anchors, educators and researchers. A quote from a 1923 edition of The Daily Princetonian sums up our responsibility as aptly today as it did the day it was penned: "We are almost the only section of the population which has the leisure and opportunity to study the controversial questions of the day without bias, and to act accordingly. The power of today is in our hands.”
The future will depend heavily on universities -- not only the policies we shape but the leaders we produce. Historically, one of America’s greatest strengths has been our ability to look squarely at our problems and to make hard changes. To do so often requires struggle, and we have a responsibility to embrace that struggle. To do so is a fundamental part of the learning and growing process -- and it is fundamental to changing issues of systemic injustice and inequality that are neither new nor isolated.
We have made tremendous progress since the 1960s; the fact that I can write this as the African-American president of a predominantly white university is testament to that. But recent events have reminded us just how uneven opportunity, power and justice in this country remain.
At a recent campus forum, one professor contrasted the quick disaster of a riot to the slow disaster of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood -- a site impacted by failed public and private policies since the 1930s. That slow, devastating deterioration, combined with the heightened effects of discrimination during the War on Drugs, boiled over into the West Baltimore riots on April 25.
Our responsibility as educators is to help our students -- young citizens and voters, future leaders and parents -- understand the context of recent events. The liberal arts, especially the humanities and social sciences, are powerful tools for shedding light on the challenges we face in this country. Universities must serve as models -- and actual spaces -- for talking about sticky issues of race, inequality, authority and fairness. How do we eliminate inequity if we don’t even know how to talk about it?
We recently started a program on campus to coach first-year students in intercultural communication. While the INTERACT program is completely voluntary, it reaches students who would not naturally gravitate toward such programming, often because they grew up in communities dominated by a single race or class and are uncomfortable interacting with peers different from themselves. Upperclassmen serve as peer recruiters and promote the program on their residence hall floors and in casual encounters, rather than just at multicultural events or among groups focused on diversity.
Many of my students first confront issues of race or class when they work at one of our partner schools in Baltimore. Whatever their race or background, our students often see themselves in their younger counterparts, but they also recognize that they have advantages these children have never had. Too few Americans understand what children in such circumstances experience long before they reach their teenage years.
Universities need to create more opportunities for students to connect with people in circumstances vastly different from their own and to relate what they’re learning in classes about justice, politics, economics and history to real work in the community. Our BreakingGround initiative, which works closely with the national American Democracy Project, does just that. Through the initiative, engineering students have built models of water infrastructure for the city of Baltimore, English students have performed research and service to advance childhood literacy, and American studies students have documented the proud history and decline of the industrial neighborhood of Sparrows Point.
Other students, recent alums and staff members work with hundreds of first-time offenders through our Choice program, a community-based initiative that supports and empowers youth through a host of services. Recently the program has been bringing together youths and police officers for structured conversations and the joint creation of a tile mosaic for a public space. Such initiatives build trust between communities and police and can, ultimately, save lives.
But even with abundant opportunities for engagement, students often have to be pushed to get beyond their comfort zones. Even at UMBC, where students from all walks of life and more than 100 countries study alongside one another, we have to work to get people to talk openly about race and socioeconomic differences. I often wonder if universities are doing enough. We are having renewed conversations on our campus about how we can deepen our ties to the community and keep issues of inequality and inequity at the forefront of our teaching and service.
I know we must remain vigilant. The limelight will predictably fade, but the challenges will not. The power of today is in our hands.
Trey Berry, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Arkansas University, has been promoted to president there.
Bruce E. Bursten, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has been selected as provost at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
A new book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Harvard University Press) is an important step forward for community colleges. The work bridges the all-too-familiar divide between research and practice, outlining actionable, transformative recommendations to improve student attainment that have emerged out of the extensive portfolio of research conducted over the past 20 years by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University. And while many aspects of the book deserve discussion, how change can be effectively instigated at community colleges is a pivotal issue on which any reform efforts will hinge.
Obviously, the call for organizational and structural change is nothing new. Early on the book notes that “recent reforms did not question the fundamental design of community college programs and services.” Redesigning America's Community Colleges boldly asserts that “to improve their outcomes on a substantial scale in an environment very different than the past, colleges must undertake a more fundamental rethinking of their organization and culture.”
The book’s authors, Thomas R. Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins, argue that necessary institutional change will result from conscious redesign of many community college processes along the lines of behavioral economic principles. This implicitly challenges conventional wisdom that attributes successful change to college leadership -- typically the president. For years, community colleges have been bombarded with the belief that getting the right person into the presidency is the critical factor governing institutional success. Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry of community college leadership programs, consulting firms and organizations that promote the grooming and selection process of the community college president.
Redesigning takes on the “great leader” theory of change by providing specific and clear suggestions about how college intake processes, curriculum plans and organizational framework can be altered to directly impact student success. Of course, the authors recognize the importance of presidential leadership and commitment to the process, but they bet the farm on fundamental organizational change versus intervention by great men and women.
The authors present a useful strategic framework built upon CCRC’s research. But accompanying this wisdom is a significant challenge. Even if presidential leadership is decisive, how is the design and implementation of these changes driven throughout the institution? The closest the book comes to addressing this issue is noting the necessity of faculty involvement, overlooking the imperative to focus on administrative managers, who are in charge of the organizational structures that Redesigning targets for change.
Any leader of a large community college knows that their middle-level management is critical to institutional change. These are the directors of key units, the associate deans who work directly with the faculty, and the business, information technology, financial aid and student services staff. Many of these individuals are tethered to their colleges, infrequently interacting with other institutions, and have significantly longer tenure than most presidents and senior leadership. In most cases, they are the staff members who possess institutional memory and critical operational knowledge. They maintain most of the day-to-day contact and communications with faculty, students and community.
Winning their commitment to change is crucial to redesign efforts, because it is their jobs and their processes that will be the most challenged. Therefore, an important step to driving the organizational reforms proposed by the book will need to be supported by efforts focused on developing midlevel managers in community colleges. Too many currently available programs concentrate solely on senior talent management.
Paradoxically, a renewed emphasis on middle-level management could also help the oft-cited dilemma of the lack of a sufficient pool of those qualified and interested becoming community college presidents. It has almost become a ritual among the leadership programs to decry the lack of interest by high-level administrators willing to step up into presidential roles.
Who wants to work 12-hour days, attend frequent political events -- often involving early morning and evening commitments -- and chase after alternative funding sources, all the while serving as the pivotal internal change agent? A more empowered and determined staff could make the job of community college president more focused and manageable, while integrally contributing to change designed to drive higher levels of student success.
James Jacobs is president of Macomb Community College.
The fate of the middle class in the United States is a topic frequently discussed by our political leaders, including President Obama. Given the growing wealth inequality, there is good reason for this emphasis. However, this should not distract us from also paying attention to the fate of people who are living in extreme poverty. Most of these individuals live in far-off countries. Others are our fellow citizens.
A number of corporate leaders, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have highlighted this global phenomenon of dire poverty and its deleterious effects. They have urged their colleagues to join them in giving generously to help relieve it. Although few college and university presidents can give on the scale of corporate magnates, we can do our part. An organization called The Presidents' Pledge Against Global Poverty works to bring us together to accomplish this goal.
The Presidents' Pledge was launched in 2011, and now has more than 30 members from colleges and universities around the country. Both active and emeriti leaders are part of this initiative. Ann Svennungsen, former president of Texas Lutheran University and now bishop of the Lutheran St. Paul Area Synod in Minnesota, was the founder of the organization. Her colleague in this initiative was Peter Singer, professor of ethics at Princeton University. Through his lectures, courses and books, Singer has inspired many people to give more generously to relieve global poverty.
Our motivation for joining the pledge is to do our part to help relieve a grievous situation. More than 1.2 billion people are living under the World Bank global poverty line of $1.25 a day. These individuals are likely to be hungry for at least part of each year and even if they have food, they will probably be malnourished. They must scrape together some kind of shelter and have little or no money left to send their children to school, find transportation to jobs or access even minimal health services.
Pondering the lives of these individuals and families moves many of us to want to help. However, a number of diverting thoughts often intervene. Sometimes we just want to close our eyes and forget such misery, concentrating on the ups and downs of the lives we and those around us live. We may think that the problem is so huge that it must be insoluble, and in any case, my own small gift won’t make a dent in it. Or we believe that any money we may give will be wasted because of corrupt government intermediaries or the difficulty of reaching those who are truly in need.
One of the goals of the Presidents' Pledge is to provide informed responses to each of these concerns, so that more of us follow our initial instinct of compassion. We hope to make relieving global poverty a moral priority for each of us, regardless of what else we may do with our money and what other philanthropic causes we may support.
For those who believe the problem is intractable, we point to the data reported succinctly by The Life You Can Save, an organization with a name taken from one of Peter Singer’s best-known books. If you look on the website of this organization, you will learn that the percentage of people around the world living under $1.25 a day fell by half between 1990 and 2010. Seven hundred million fewer people lived in extreme poverty at the end of these two decades, and the number of deaths of children under 5 years of age fell from 12.6 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012.
These gains depended in part on gifts from people like us, gifts that strengthen relief organizations and supplement the aid provided by governments. For those who believe that it is impossible to channel aid where it is most needed, this same website lists organizations with a well-documented record of improving the lives of the poorest people around the world. Participants in the Presidents' Pledge would add other names to this list, which would include Oxfam and Partners in Health, among many others. The argument that giving will not make a difference simply cannot stand up to the evidence.
The mission of the Presidents' Pledge Against Global Poverty is “to make the greatest possible impact toward ending global poverty through the public leadership and financial commitment of university and college presidents.” We are convinced that our personal commitment will make a difference, along with the research, teaching and service provided by faculty, staff members and students on our campuses.
Many of us feel a special sense of obligation to the areas closest to our campuses -- whether Durham, East Palo Alto, West Philadelphia, Hartford, Buffalo or other neighborhoods. For this reason, we decided that up to half of the gift each of us makes can be designated for causes in the U.S.; the other half is to be contributed to international projects. Each donor can choose the causes he or she regards as most worthy of support, and the specific dollar amount of our giving remains private.
We had originally emphasized the importance of the public impact of our leadership, the example that joining the pledge would provide for our colleagues, both on and off campus. We still believe that this impact can be significant. However, to accommodate those who prefer not to be publicly identified, commitment to the pledge can be anonymous if a donor wishes.
Our initial goal was to ask each member to pledge 5 percent or more of their personal income for gifts to organizations of their choice that address global poverty. This is still our ideal, but we also welcome those who do not feel comfortable making this percentage pledge. We ask those who join us to commit to making the relief of global poverty a priority in their own portfolio of charitable giving.
College and university presidents should, we are convinced, be in the forefront of those who are tackling this crucial problem.
Nannerl O. Keohane is Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. She previously served as president of Wellesley College and Duke University.
Hundreds of years ago, college leaders were faculty members who regularly taught undergraduates alongside their administrative duties. Even a century ago, someone might go from full-time professor to president, with teaching experience fresh in mind, and then return to the faculty.
Today, college presidents’ time is easily consumed by a wide range of responsibilities: fund-raising; media, community and government relations; routine and crisis communication in a world of social media and a constant news cycle; cheerleading for the institution to a diverse constituent base; showing up at countless campus events; managing budgets; improving morale and reputation; providing strategic leadership and vision; and more.
Because the work of presidents has grown exponentially, taken on relentless speed and become increasingly distant from the classroom, many believe that presidents no longer have any place as professors. Although I had been an award-winning, tenured full professor for many years, and more recently as a dean and provost guided doctoral research and taught a graduate seminar, I had to persuade my faculty union to approve me to teach at my current university. And, once approved, even though my only experience teaching freshmen was well before our current class of students was born, I was limited to a 100-level freshman class (designed to teach critical thinking, analysis and effective communication). No problem -- I wanted to teach a first-year seminar because I suspected I would learn a great deal from doing it, and I did.
Freshmen feel vulnerable. I developed a new course with attention and care, and took it through the steps of the curriculum review process, but walking into a classroom with 17- and 18-year-olds, I felt like they did. I was nervous and uncertain of my ability to succeed even though I interact regularly with freshmen in formal and informal settings outside the classroom and even became a student and took a bagpipe class with undergraduates last spring. What if I couldn’t create with them the safe but challenging learning community I envisioned? What if no one participated willingly in discussions after I made them move the rows of desks into a circle and posed well-designed, thought-provoking questions? Or if they hated the book I selected? What if their entire experience of school had programmed the freshmen not to think for themselves, not to look at their own experiences objectively and not to consider others’ views? At some point in the semester, each of these what ifs and many other unanticipated challenges occurred, forcing honest reflection and ongoing revision of plans.
Lesson learned: As presidents protected by layers of institutional bureaucracy, we forget how vulnerable our students feel and how much their uncertainty displaces engagement with learning. Standing in front of a class strips away the layers of protection and develops empathy that is important when we are confronted in the president’s office by students in crisis and frustrated families.
Freshmen need hope of success. Characterizations of traditional-aged freshmen can be disheartening -- they are always plugged into devices, have limited face-to-face social skills, are overprotected by hovering parents and care only about their future earnings. Indeed, these characterizations were true of some of my students some of the time. More importantly, as I was trying to guide them into the lofty ideals of liberal education that underpin the first-year seminar, they were still developing cognitively and emotionally. This often masquerades as a lack of commitment -- at times they misjudged, couldn’t anticipate consequences, didn’t perceive others’ perspectives and seemed incapable of self-regulation.
Although there were many moments when I questioned it, they taught me that freshmen do, in fact, care deeply about college. They care because college costs a lot, even at a public university, because they understand the role of higher education in preparing them for better professional and personal lives, and largely because they are trying to convince themselves that they can succeed socially and academically in college and in life. This was not easy for my students (half of them first generation and from low-income families), who have seen too many counterexamples of college graduates working low-wage “high school jobs” and teenage single-parent dropouts.
Lesson learned: Presidents worried about retention should not overlook the importance to freshmen of simply nurturing the tenuous hope that they can succeed in college.
Many freshmen aren’t prepared for college. The first-year seminar is intended to guide students into understanding college expectations, thinking critically and analytically, problem solving, communicating effectively, and handling difficult and challenging material. At Edinboro University, like many other colleges, these outcomes are approached through various topics that engage freshmen because they are “relatable,” as my students were so fond of saying. My seminar topic was College: What, Why and How, and we read pseudonymous anthropologist Rebekah Nathan’s book, My Freshman Year, as our core text alongside higher education and popular news and social media. These texts launched honest conversations about the purpose and culture of college and about national issues in higher education, and students enjoyed reading and talking about topics so close to their daily lives. But they also got bogged down in more difficult sections of the book.
They found the related research, statistics and other contextual information to be “boring” and “useless,” missing the way in which this information illuminated and provided insight and texture for their lived experiences. In high school, many had learned to “just skip the hard parts” and one admitted he had never read a book before, relying on plot summaries instead. Later in the semester they laughed when I said that I expected “a short essay answer, not just two or three paragraphs” on the final exam. In high school, they explained, three paragraphs constituted a full essay. By “essay” I was suggesting the deliberate construction of a coherent, well-reasoned argument, and they saw it as a demand to pen three paragraphs.
Lesson learned: Faculty concern about current freshman students’ poor preparation is not just nostalgic grumbling; these concerns are valid and presidents need to understand how intensely challenging and time-consuming it is to work with students who may be capable but whose high school preparation is sorely lacking.
Freshmen learn a great deal outside the classroom. We read about how the students Nathan studied balanced academic and social activities, and we talked about achieving the balance. When I asked my freshmen to go around the circle and state the percentage of time they spent on classes, homework, projects, studying and the like, the overwhelming majority stated that they spent only about 25 percent of their waking hours on anything academic (some even less), and this was probably inflated given that the question was asked in a classroom setting.
They dedicated their time primarily to social and occasional extracurricular activities and relaxing with Netflix. “Hanging out with friends most of the time” was justified as allowing them to “network for future jobs.” I cringed at these revelations, which too often were reflected in the quality of some students’ weekly writing assignments. But I also noted that even though they said they had come to college primarily to pursue a major that would prepare them for a good job, most also observed that they learned more outside of the classroom than in it. And, of course, that’s an important benefit of face-to-face residential college education. Learning to get along with strange roommates from unfamiliar places, to be a member of a much more diverse community than they were comfortable with and especially learning to manage their time wisely were all significant and necessary tasks for the freshmen.
Lesson learned: As an academic I had always assumed that what happened in the college classroom was primary. Presidents need to be reminded that what students learn in college is much broader than their classroom performance.
Freshmen change and grow dramatically. Managing their time in the context of extensive freedom and responsibility (they had, for the first time, to do their own laundry or control spending on entertainment) was a major stumbling block for my freshmen. And then there were new friends -- for many the first peers they had ever met who, unlike high school classmates, were “geeks” or “artists” or “different” like them and understood and accepted them for who they were. Even though the freshmen knew they should set aside time to study, many didn’t have the motivation and self-regulation skills to manage the pull of the social and were always behind on schoolwork. More than once I received a weeks-late assignment from a student with the message, “I know this is too late to count but I wanted to do it anyway.”
At the beginning of every class I had students do a brief informal written assignment related to the reading for the day, because I knew they needed a lot of practice with writing and because it signaled for them that they had to do the reading assignments and show up on time. And it gave everyone a chance at success -- if you were in class and had done the reading, you could do this assignment and do it well. Informal writing also allowed them to see that they could think and respond critically and thoughtfully to the reading and that they had something to say, so it laid the groundwork for overcoming an aptly misnamed “hate dread” of speaking in class. For nearly all, in their writing and in class discussions, opinion was conflated with fact and critical analysis of ideas and acceptance of complexity were new. Still, throughout the semester many openly, sometimes with shame, recognized and tried to shed their own stereotypical and ungrounded notions and develop academic habits of mind and inclusive attitudes.
Lesson learned: As presidents we talk a lot about the transformational impact of an education at our universities. Teaching freshmen lent credibility to what I say. They do grow and change significantly over even one semester -- we are, in fact, changing lives.
Freshmen do some of their best work for peer audiences. I worried that my freshmen’s long-term project presentations might be a disaster, because as hard as I tried to structure their presentations by requiring them to meet with me to discuss topics, submit information resources and determine a mode of presentation well ahead, multiple students’ project topics changed a day or two before they were signed up to present. Yet over the course of four full class sessions, they surprised me with very creative and interesting presentations that were courageous, honest and powerful, on topics that were very close to their hearts and minds, including suicide, sexual health in college, being LGBTQ on campus and being physically disabled as a college student. I was surprised to discover that presentation to an audience of peers is a powerful motivator that resulted in some students doing their best work of the semester.
Lesson learned: It is easy for presidents to question the motives of professors who devote significant amounts of class time to group work and presentation by students rather than “actually teaching,” but for many students the goal of presenting effectively to peers drives engagement and success. Further, they have surprisingly high standards when evaluating peer presentations.
Teaching a first-year seminar was an enormous amount of work on top of my “day job,” but I relished it. As a university president, I miss the challenges and rewards of teaching. Many of my freshmen regularly came to class 20 minutes early just to talk. They worried if I wasn’t there early myself and once sent a student looking for me five minutes before class started. They asked if I’d teach another course for them next year or continue the class into the spring -- flattering, but I worried maybe I wasn’t challenging them enough. They even reflected with empathy on what they read in the assigned text about professors planning extensively and then feeling like failures when students don’t participate in class. Still, I experienced a recurring feeling throughout the semester that I was working a lot harder than my freshmen.
In some ways I was, because I insisted on providing specific written feedback on all of their weekly assignments and because I wrestled constantly with what to do about cell phones in class, how to engage the perpetually disengaged, and similar challenges. It was difficult to give a poor grade to students I liked and cared about even when that grade was indisputably earned. And when I faced an instance of plagiarism, I felt like my trust was violated to its very core. I worked hard because I cared deeply, but my students worked hard, too, and I saw it demonstrated in so many ways throughout the semester. That made the planning, responding to writing, emotional and academic support, and personal investment not only worthwhile but also essential.
Essential to remembering why we choose to work with college students to begin with, essential to respecting the depth and intensity of faculty work when you haven’t done it in a while, essential to appreciating the striving and the dreams of even our most aloof undergraduates, and essential to recognizing how important it is to have professors who simply but genuinely care about their students. “Going off that,” as my freshmen often said, I’m now a better professor and a better president because of lessons I learned from the undergraduate classroom.
Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.