In the last half century, collegiality and shared governance have eroded, leaving a mess in their wake. Faculty members ruled the roost in the early 20th century, as they owned the curriculum and colleges operated essentially as a club for the well-heeled and highly educated. Committees of learned, similarly bred individuals developed general-education plans and rules for tenure and promotion and, in keeping with the clubbiness of such institutions, chose one of their own to ascend temporarily to leadership. It was not uncommon to find a president who had spent their entire career in one place. The pace was slow and the scale often small.
Today, many faculty members crave that mystical past. That day has passed. Colleges and universities are no longer small, insular and cloistered institutions. They are complex, multifaceted, quick-moving institutions that are immersed in the world’s social urgencies. While the environment in which we operate increases in complexity, it calls for a renewed collaboration to meet the challenges.
Unfortunately, however, the gulf between leaders and faculty has grown significantly. In the long march to becoming modern institutions, college presidents have become distinct from the faculty. Yes, most hold tenured professorships in departments. But many haven’t taught in years, simply because they don’t have time. They need to stay on top of myriad financial matters, handle enrollment worries, constantly fund-raise, manage scores of daily crises that erupt at odd moments, respond to student and parent concerns, maneuver amid internal as well as local and national politics, and keep up with the ever-present issue of accreditation and compliance with myriad state and national regulations -- all the while keeping an eye on educating the students. It’s exhausting. And earning a Ph.D. in a traditional discipline isn’t adequate training for the position. Presidents learn on the job, as they march from being chairs, deans, vice presidents for academic affairs and provosts -- or they have leadership experience in related areas and slide into higher education.
Moreover, presidents aren't given long contracts (just three years, typically) and have huge expectations placed on their shoulders. Many boards discount homegrown talent and hire externally, which adds the burden of learning a new culture and set of traditions on top of the mounting expectations. In short, presidents face a ticking clock, and the pressure mounts with each passing day. In many ways, it’s unfair. What presidents seem to need is less pressure and more time and space to gain perspective about the challenges and opportunities facing their campuses.
Such demanding circumstances and unreasonable expectations aren’t confined to the president’s office. Faculty members are also reeling from the shifting tides and are equally pressured. To be fair, faculty members at times can be insulated and cloistered, only knowing their own institution. They can miss the tip of the iceberg in the water admiring the view from the deck, unaware of the danger below the surface or just round the bend. Some don’t understand the need to change, and many don’t want to. For some, the case for change hasn’t been adequately addressed. They blame the administration for unnecessary corporatization. And, to be honest, sometimes they are right. But often, what is happening is time bumping up against another looming crisis.
But thankfully, many faculty members do see the issues clearly. They are smart, educated people who study complex issues. What they might not understand is the rush that academic leaders feel to produce results or the fear that comes with ultimate responsibility and stewardship. The realities of a quickly changing world, fiscal challenges, changing demographics, new technologies and hypercompetitive markets create a tension between, on the one hand, innovation and swiftness and, on the other, the slow-paced, reasoned and handcrafted nature of quality teaching. In response, faculty members shut down, resorting to a defensive stance and a historical glance. And in such an environment, each side can talk past the other.
Let’s be clear: it’s the circumstances that mostly put administrators and faculty members on a collision course -- circumstances beyond the control of either side. And under the pressure of a just-in-time, adaptive system of education that states and boards want and need, how can it be otherwise?
This paradigm is most apparent in those institutions most vulnerable to disruption: thinly resourced, tuition-driven private colleges and universities. Large research institutions, the Ivies, institutes of technology and elite liberal arts colleges aren’t immune but have more time to respond.
We can see this collision most clearly at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. A history of faculty strikes and a tense and combative relationship between the faculty and administration dates back decades. By acting as adversaries rather than partners in a shared mission, the institution pushed the “us vs. them” scenario to a needlessly illogical extreme when the administration locked out their faculty members.
I profess no intimate knowledge of that institution, yet it is clear that the collision course I outline above has been plotted for many years now -- not only at LIU but also at other institutions across the nation. Too many institutions are locked in adversarial stances. We must remember that these aren't ends, but rather practices without end. They are paths walked each and every day, with each and every phrase uttered, and as such they can be changed before they become the default environment in which we educate our students.
Thankfully, most institutions aren’t on the ledge. There is time to avoid the collision.
Returning the focus to our students seems a logical first step. Students always suffer when administrators and faculty clash. That clash sucks the air out of the room, stops innovation and forces faculty members to tactically retreat rather than advance. It also makes administrators defensive, risk averse, narrows their perspective and vision, and leads to seeing the institution through institutional eyes. The tension is simply exhausting. An institution in perpetual tension has difficulty serving students effectively.
Higher education needs to find a middle ground to grapple with these issues, a space within the tension. Listening more and talking less seems a crucial step to opening up such a space. Such active listening requires discipline and empathy, a slowing down of the clock. It allows for understanding the issues from as many sides as possible.
Developing a meaningful strategic plan that pulls from the bottom up, that is tied to measurable results like assessment plans and budget processes, is also key. Last, we need to ensure the re-establishment of a culture of trust, transparency and respect; honesty and blunt truths are important.
Also, as much as we might not like to admit it, higher education shares many things with business. My old provost always said, “No margin, no mission,” and she was right. We can’t spend in the manner we want or have been used to. We need to better steward all our resources and be willing and able to justify the need to spend them. That said, we must also remember that to say our institutions are businesses, and to only apply the analytical tools of business, is shortsighted and can undermine the core value of what we do. Since when was the goal of education to produce the largest quantity at the lowest cost?
Colleges are schools, and schools are human institutions. Students aren’t products or units of production. We can’t lose sight of them in all our twisting and turning. Changing an institutional culture takes time and requires visionary leadership -- from the top and the bottom -- and a spirit of collaboration and teamwork between faculty, staff and administrators.
Recent events have made one thing abundantly clear: the heart of higher education lies in the spirit of inquiry, creating an inclusive dialogue that draws in knowledge of all forms and forges it into wisdom, burning away the impurities of ignorance and exclusivity. We in senior administration must not lose sight of this, for we are educators first and foremost. Our peers who seek to lock out voices of dissent undermine decades of precedent, ensure constant conflict and do a great disservice to both our callings and our students. And faculty members need to enter into full and active partnership as we steer through what are, and will remain, rough waters.
Richard A. Greenwald is professor of history and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. His most recent book was Labor Rising: The Past and Future of American Workers (New Press, 2012). These views are his own.
Boards and presidents expect a lot from governance, and many know that they are underperforming and could and should do more. As we’ve written in the past, boards need a certain positive restlessness that keeps them striving to do better. Asking thoughtful, informed questions is important to that continued improvement.
In fact, this past year, we fielded many calls from presidents and board leaders in America and abroad seeking to improve governance. Those calls typically included a set of questions about which institutional leaders seek answers. While we applaud the interest and the endeavor, many of the most commonly asked questions seem to be the wrong ones. Here are a few:
How large should the board be? This question often comes up early in the conversations, particularly from presidents or board leaders at independent institutions with large boards. Our answer: “Just big enough.” That response channels a faculty member in our doctoral program, who, when asked how long papers should be, said, “Just long enough” (much to the frustration of the students in our class).
A board should be large enough to address the work the institution faces, but not so large that governance becomes unwieldy. Ideally, the board is of a size that ensures a variety of perspectives on an increasingly large number of complex topics, stimulates a positive culture and camaraderie among board members, and allows the board to work effectively and efficiently. Size is less relevant to effectiveness than other factors, which we will describe below.
How often should boards meet? The answer to this well-intentioned but not really useful question parallels the one above: just often enough to get the needed work done. Rather than fixate on a set number, boards should consider the work they need to accomplish over the next 12 to 18 months and then determine the best way to structure board engagement to ensure it can address both planned issues and those yet to emerge.
We recognize that board and committee meetings require staff time, the focused attention of busy leaders and the time commitment of trustees. But too many meetings result in make-work or a lot of long, detailed (and sometimes boring) presentations by senior staff or show-and-tell sessions involving students and faculty members. Overly frequent meetings may also open the door for micromanaging, as the board members may be looking for work and take their focus beyond governance into management or operations.
Too few meetings also create challenges: board agendas become overly full, and board members have little time to discuss complex issues and are too distanced from the institution and the factors that should shape those discussions. Further, the foundation of trustee collaboration and trust may need to be re-established if the time between meetings is too long. Too few meetings is often a recipe for disengagement.
Finally, where is it written that boards must meet in person to engage in governance -- except in some by-laws that might need revisiting? Some governance work must be conducted face-to-face in committee or full board meetings, but certainly not all. Votes on more routine matters can take place via virtual meeting technology (think almost virtual consent agendas), as can less scheduled but needed interactions among board members.
Do we have the right committees and the right number of committees? Many presidents and board leaders worry about their committee structure, and they often ask these questions in comparison to other boards. Some presidents wonder if they have too many committees. The largest we’d heard of was 18 committees on a board of 30 or so trustees. Each trustee on that board was expected to serve on at least three, if not four, committees. Trustees went to a lot of meetings, and sometimes committees had only one or two trustees present given the demands on trustee time.
Other presidents and board members wonder if they need more committees: Do we need a technology committee? A risk committee? An enrollment committee? What about civic engagement? Should academic affairs and student affairs be combined or remain separate?
Our answer: committees matter only in light of the work you are doing. What are the strategic and fiduciary issues the board needs to address? Where will those issues be given attention? How can you ensure key issues do not fall through the gaps between committees or that multiple committees aren’t discussing the same issues, creating redundancy?
In addition, comparing boards is difficult, as many factors shape boards and board committees. Some boards at similar institutions look very different in their size and committee structures. Conversely, some very different institutions have similar boards. A complex university with a larger board may function at a higher level than a similarly complex university with a smaller board. Given all of the factors that shape board effectiveness, the committee structure might actually contribute little.
Should faculty or students serve on the board? It’s important to ensure that many perspectives are voiced in the boardroom. Boards make better decisions with more complete information, and sometimes students and faculty members can best provide that information directly.
However, voice should not equate with vote. Current employees of the institution as well as enrolled students (or even parents of students) can too easily adopt a stakeholder mind-set rather than a fiduciary one. We are reminded of a quotation attributed to Harvard sociologist David Riesman: “The role of the board is to protect the future from the demands of the present.” Stakeholders are often mostly concerned with the present.
You can ensure a larger number of voices, rather than allocate what might be a single board seat to a representative of one group or another, by having faculty leaders serve on select board committees. You can also organize open forums with faculty members or create ad hoc task forces that include key campus individuals.
These questions, although somewhat off target, are well intended. What we think these questions are really asking are the following, which are important:
How can boards develop robust formats to accomplish all of their work?
Through what approaches can boards ensure that time is well spent on meaningful issues that demand attention, even when the amount of meeting time is limited?
How can boards guarantee the right voices, perspectives and expertise exist on the board and are heard in the boardroom?
How should the board organize itself to accomplish meaningful governance?
At their heart, these questions are concerned with key elements of governance: Who governs, what are they governing and how should governance be conducted? How one frames the questions is essential to finding good answers. As iconic designer at General Motors, Charles Kettering, once said, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”
While boards should ask many questions about governance, they should prioritize four.
How well is the board performing? Great boards have the capacity to look in the collective mirror, understand with intentionality how well they are working and think critically about the value their efforts are bringing to the college, university or state system. Boards should put in place robust assessment processes, collect data about themselves as a group and about individual board member performance, and use the findings to continuously improve. That should be the responsibility of the governance or trusteeship committee, or it can be done through the executive committee. A small group of trustees must take ownership of board performance, make it regular board work, ensure that the board receives feedback, and develop strategies to act upon that feedback.
To whom is the board accountable, and how can it demonstrate its accountability? A criticism of too many boards is that they lack accountability. The board has the ultimate legal and fiduciary responsibility for the institution it holds in the public’s trust. Being transparent in its deliberations, using data well, engaging stakeholders and having high ethical standards are important to that greater sense of board accountability. Once a board loses trust with key stakeholders, it is difficult and time-consuming to recapture.
Bottom line: Accountability is ultimately a legal threshold, but boards are responsible for ensuring that the views of stakeholders are heard and considered, and that the board and administration act in the best interests of the institution.
To what extent is the board spending its time on the right issues? Given the numerous and complex issues facing higher education today, boards must understand and focus their work on the strategic priorities of their institutions and the fiduciary responsibilities of governance. Since those priorities, as well as the external environment, will change, what is important next year may be less important five years from now. Boards with the ability to adapt, respond and pivot will outperform those mired in nostalgic conversations about yesterday’s topics.
Relevant boards will need the structures and capacities to allow for flexibility and adaptation. That may mean fewer standing committees and more ad hoc task forces or a committee structure that can flex to align with the changing priorities of the institution or system. For example, a board might align its work around key issues such as financial sustainability; compliance, risk and accountability; the student experience; academic excellence; economic impact and relevance; and other issues specific to the university, such as academic health centers or mission. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how the board is organized or who sits on it if the board doesn’t know what it should be doing or where its primary focus should be.
To what extent does the board have the right culture? Too often boards that seek improvement focus on changing structures -- either the organizational structure or the meeting structure. However, what might be more meaningful to alter, and surely more challenging, is the culture of the board. Culture is that often invisible set of behaviors and beliefs that shapes board dynamics such as who speaks, about what issues, with what effect. It is taught to new generations of trustees, sometimes intentionally, but other times not.
A positive culture that promotes inclusivity of people and ideas, reflection and discussion, constructive disagreement and a strong sense of purpose can help boards leap ahead. At the same time, a dysfunctional culture of backroom decision making, poor engagement, fervent convictions and personal agendas, and incivility between board members or between the board and the administration can set governance back light-years. Poor culture is poor culture, and it prevents effective governance, period.
One of the essential traits of highly successful boards is that they learn how to ask meaningful and focused questions, a skill that can be difficult to master. But it is those boards and presidents who stop asking questions that worry us most. Boards can and should develop the capacity to ask good questions and to recognize when those questions add value rather than move the board in an unconstructive direction. Indeed, trustees should practice the art of asking questions rather than simply asserting opinions. Great questions lead to meaningful conversations, which in turn result in better governance.
Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy 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 in Massachusetts.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinions,” the sociologist and politico Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “but not to his own facts.” He may have been improving upon a similar if less trenchant remark (“ …but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts”) attributed to the financier Bernard Baruch.
Until sitting down to write this I did not know about Baruch’s version. A certainty that my eagle-eyed editor would inquire about the source obliged me to vet the attribution to Moynihan; she requires more than my vague recollection of having read it somewhere. In checking my facts, she bolsters my conscience, enforcing Moynihan’s (and Baruch’s) point about accountability.
Lucas Graves, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, uses the expression “internal fact-checking” to describe this kind of preventative, behind-the-scenes work. It tries “to eliminate untruth, not call attention to it” by catching and correcting mistakes in an article before it goes to press. In Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism (Columbia University Press), Graves traces how internal fact-checking morphed into something almost antithetical: the very public evaluation of factual assertions made by politicians and other figures in the news.
News organizations such as PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker -- to name only the most nationally prominent -- intervene so frequently in American public discourse now that it seems counterintuitive to think they’ve only recently become a force in the world. Until the last two or three presidential election cycles, scrutiny of a candidate’s claims tended to be episodic and ad hoc -- and often enough conducted by the opposing campaign, bringing its own biases to the process. To the ethos of newspaper editors and reporters circa 1950, the idea of confirming or debunking a public figure’s statements of fact seemed perilously close to an expression of opinion, to be avoided at the risk of compromising one’s reputation for objectivity. Reporting that a fact was in dispute might be acceptable in some cases, but making a judgment call on it was best left to the pundits and thumb suckers.
The title Deciding What’s True is clearly an homage to Deciding What’s News by Herbert J. Gans, a classic study of newsroom culture, and Graves followed in his predecessor’s participant-observer footsteps by working for two major fact-checking organizations between 2010 and 2012. The book thus benefits from having two vantage points: the historical and sociological perspective available from media-studies scholarship, plus close ethnographic observation of how major fact-checking stories are discovered, investigated, debated in-house before being sent out to make their mark on the world.
His most striking insight, it seems to me, is how specific, self-defined and virtually self-contained the world of professionalized fact-checking tends to be. The naïve observer might think of fact-checking organizations as being akin to media watchdog groups such as the Media Research Center on the right and Media Matters for America to the left, with PolitiFact falling somewhere in between. But in reality the fact-checking milieu sees itself as unrelated to the partisan watchdog groups: it doesn’t work with or quote them, and Graves recounts one fact-checker as saying he almost decided to kill an investigation when he saw that Media Matters was already interested in it. Likewise, fact-checking journalists see a bright line between their work and blogging.
This is not just a matter of professional amour propre. The major fact-checking organizations have ties to established media institutions, including journalism schools, and retain a belief (which watchdogs and bloggers alike tend to reject) in old newsroom ideals of objectivity, impartiality and conscientious reporting.
The ’00s put confidence in those ideals under enormous strain from a number of catastrophically bad judgment calls (reporting war propaganda and Wall Street shilling without due diligence) as well as cases of plagiarism or outright fabrication in major news publications. Compounding those problems, even inducing some of them, was the growing array of new media competing for public attention while also driving up the pace of the news cycle.
In an email exchange with Graves, I indicated that PolitiFact, Fact Checker and so on seemed like a response, in part, to the 24-hour news cycle that emerged around the time of the first Gulf War and intensified still more once the internet started to permeate everyday life. Rumors, misinformation and bogus statistics could spread faster, and farther, than ever before.
Graves agreed, but added, “Another way to think about that is that the traditional model of objectivity, for all of its flaws, made some sense in a world where professional journalists acted as gatekeepers and could effectively police the borders of political discourse. Then wild rumors about the president’s birthplace didn’t have to be debunked because they could be denied coverage altogether. But the opening up of political discourse after the 1960s and the fragmentation of the media beginning in the 1990s -- both healthy developments in many ways, and both with echoes in the 19th century -- also effectively spelled the end of the journalist as gatekeeper. And especially with the rise of the internet, that fragmentation calls for a more critical style of political reporting that’s willing to directly challenge false claims.”
In principle, at least, systematic and high-quality fact-checking ought to make politicians and other public figures more careful about the claims they make while giving the public a running lesson in critical thought at the same time. At times, Deciding What’s True seems to encourage that hope. But I’ve been reading the book between rounds of binge-watching campaign coverage, and it is not an experience to recommend. The idea that fact-checking can impose some kind of restraint on a candidate, or influence public response, seems utterly negated by the candidacy of Donald Trump. His well-documented but unrelenting dishonesty -- his talent for lying without restraint or regard for evidence, outright and brazenly, even after the facts have been shown repeatedly -- never wavers yet makes no dent in his level of support. This seems really strange.
“This a large and complicated question,” Graves responded, “and people who study journalism and political communication are trying to approach it in many different ways. But one answer is that there have always been fairly wide slices of the American electorate that are deeply suspicious of establishment discourse, sometimes with good reason. If you listen to Trump supporters in interviews, they seem to accept that he doesn’t have the grasp of policy that other politicians do, and they don’t necessarily believe everything he says or subscribe to all of his views. He seems to say whatever he thinks and embrace a common-sense approach that many people find appealing. Beyond that, none of us makes political calculations in the detached, rational way that political theorists sometimes imagine.
“And at the same time, fact-checking has made a difference,” Graves continued. “It arguably has helped to solidify the ceiling over Trump’s support, giving ammunition to both voters and politicians who say they’ll never back him. And it has had a tremendous influence on coverage of his campaign, with front-page articles on Trump’s extraordinary disregard for the facts and constant references to his falsehoods even in straight news reports. We have nothing to compare this race to, and it’s impossible to say where this thing would be if more journalists had stuck to the traditional ‘he said, she said’ formula.”
Even the most well-intentioned colleges and universities have a hard time figuring out where to start on the path to improving student success and completion. Financial incentives that keep students on track toward graduation have, in many cases, proven effective, but they often don’t scale in an era of tight budgets. Emerging technologies promise transformation, but they can fall short in a world where financial or organizational challenges tend to stymie implementation.
As it turns out, the road to innovation is lined with real-world hurdles. Initiative fatigue abounds. And all too often, fiscal and organizational barriers can win the day when colleges and universities consider doing something new.
But what if colleges and universities flipped that model on its head? What if the most successful initiatives started with doing less, not more? Can colleges and universities drive outsize gains without spending any money or imposing new responsibilities on faculty and staff members?
Savvy colleges and universities are doing just that, by embracing basic engineering strategies like design thinking or process mapping. Process mapping, as the name suggests, entails mapping out an institutional process from start to finish. The goal is to understand processes from the perspective of the person encountering a product or service -- in the case of higher education, students. It requires institutional leaders to ask, “How does a student engage with our college or university when trying to do X?”
The exercise is inherently empathetic -- it demands that administrators and faculty members put themselves in students’ shoes. And it guarantees, at the very least, greater self-awareness and knowledge of pain points and hurdles that students experience and that need to be removed.
Underlying this approach is a somewhat controversial premise: colleges and universities were not, historically, designed around the needs of students. Like those in charge of many organizations that evolve to meet new demands, well-meaning administrators and faculty members have put processes into place with an imperfect understanding of the user experience. Most campuses have unintentionally put the onus on the students to navigate the complexity of a college campus. When you start looking at problems from that perspective, design flaws leap out.
As consumers, we expect that retailers or service providers have designed the experience around the customer. We become frustrated when things are counterintuitive, bureaucratic, slow, difficult or painful. So why should we tolerate flawed processes that frustrate our students? If colleges and universities really want students to complete their degrees, why is it up to students to let the university know when they are ready to graduate? And why should the students then have to apply to graduate -- and often pay a fee?
Process mapping allows the university to identify and confront the roadblocks for students and then work to remove them, yet it also reveals where faculty members, advisers and administrators are encountering inefficiencies and unnecessary work.
In fact, some of my favorite examples of campus transformation began with process mapping.
Georgia State University has used process mapping to better understand how the university communicates with students, mapping out every email, letter and call that students receives from dozens of offices across campus from the time that students first apply through the end of their first semester. The results of the exercise -- showing an overwhelming stream of often repetitive, conflicting and uncoordinated messages -- inspired the university to better organize how it orients news students and how it explains the choices that they face.
Those insights, in turn, led to more substantive changes -- changes that helped them transform the institution into a national model for student success, eliminating race and income as a predictor of academic outcomes. For instance, university administrators saw how freshmen immediately upon enrolling were expected to make a choice between dozens and dozens of majors, an overwhelming and stressful experience with students too often feeling pressure to make ill-informed decisions. Instead, they paired down the initial choice into seven “metamajors,” or broader-themed categories of study, to give students an opportunity to explore and discover during their first year of college. That small shift has led to a decline of more than 30 percent in the number of changes in major among students at Georgia State -- saving students both time and money in earning their degrees.
Georgia State’s success inspired Michigan State University to bring together representatives from across the campus to map all the ways the university interacted with students from the time they were admitted to the end of the first semester. They discovered that each new student was being barraged with about 400 emails from admissions, financial aid, the registrar’s office, student life, housing and residence life, academic advisers, the student accounts office, academic colleges, and more. The process mapping team found messages that were redundant, that could have been delivered in a different format or that could have been delayed so that other, more critical communications would get noticed.
The campus was overwhelming new students with noise during the time when they really needed clear and thoughtful guidance. That was especially problematic for first-generation and low-income students, who often lack external support in navigating university processes.
The team at Michigan State immediately started work on identifying ways to streamline, prioritize and redesign their interaction with students to be particularly sensitive to the needs of low-income and first-generation students. Financial aid communications now take priority for new students, while notices about extracurricular activities like intramural sports or clubs can wait until students arrive on the campus.
In the past, students who ended up on academic probation at the end of their first semester would receive four different emails from four different people. Now, Michigan State sends one email with clear information about how the student should seek academic advising help and get financial aid questions answered. Viewing the institution through the eyes of the students has allowed Michigan State to find new ways to help students who are at risk of going off track just out of the gates.
Most higher education institutions can benefit from a similar exercise. I have never found a campus that is too self-aware of how they impact their students, faculty members and administrators. Process mapping takes very little time and no additional financial outlay. The team at Michigan State, for example, was able to convene over the course of a day to map out the various communications students were receiving and, in the following weeks, agree upon which messages would be prioritized in the admissions-to-enrollment process.
Process mapping isn’t limited to enrollment and admissions. Colleges and universities can also use process mapping to examine a wide variety of operational challenges, such as course scheduling bottlenecks, barriers to graduation or the delivery of nonacademic student support services. Process mapping can also help the university ensure that students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and supported on the campus.
Change doesn’t have to be complicated. The harder we make it to change, the less likely it is to happen. If you are asking yourself where to start working to improve student success, a simple exercise like process mapping is the right answer.
Bridget Burns is the executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, a national consortium of large public research universities collaborating to improve outcomes for students across the socioeconomic spectrum through innovation, scale and diffusion of best practices.
For years, our prevailing view of student retention has been shaped by theories that view student retention through the lens of institutional action and ask what institutions can do to retain their students. Students, however, do not seek to be retained. They seek to persist. The two perspectives, although necessarily related, are not the same. Their interests are different.
While the institution’s interest is to increase the proportion of their students who graduate from the institution, the student’s interest is to complete a degree often without regard to the college or university in which it is earned. When viewed from the students’ perspective, persistence is but one form of motivation. Students have to be persistent in their pursuit of their degrees and be willing to expend the effort to do so even when faced with challenges they sometimes encounter. Without motivation and the effort it engenders, persistence is unlikely -- institutional action aside.
To promote greater degree completion, institutions have to adopt the student perspective and ask not only how they should act to retain their students but also how they should act so that more of their students want to persist to completion. The two questions, while necessarily linked, do not lead to the same sort of conversations about institutional action. The latter, rarely asked, requires institutions to understand how student experiences shape their motivation to persist and, in turn, what they can do to enhance that motivation.
The answer to that question is far from simple. Many experiences shape student motivation to persist, not all of which are within the capacity of institutions to easily influence (e.g., events beyond the campus that pull students away from persistence). But of those that are, three stand out as being central to student motivation: students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging and perceived value of the curriculum.
Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at a particular task or in a specific situation. It is one manifestation of how past experiences shape how individuals come to perceive themselves and their capacity to have some degree of control over their environment. Self-efficacy is learned, not inherited. It is malleable, not fixed. It is not generalizable in that it applies to all tasks and situations but can vary depending on the particular task or situation at hand. A person may feel capable of succeeding at one task but not another.
When it comes to students’ belief in their ability to succeed in college, a strong sense of self-efficacy promotes goal attainment, while a weak sense undermines it. Whereas people with high self-efficacy will engage more readily in a task, expend more effort on it and persist longer in its completion even when they encounter difficulties, persons with low self-efficacy will tend to become discouraged and withdraw when encountering difficulties. Although many students begin college confident in their ability to succeed, more than a few do not, in particular those whose past experiences lead them to question their ability to succeed in college as well as those who experience stereotype threats that label them as less likely to succeed.
But even those who enter college confident in their ability to succeed can encounter challenges that serve to weaken their sense of self-efficacy. That is particularly true during the crucial first year as students seek to adjust to the heightened demands of college. What matters for success in that year, however, is not so much that students enter college believing in their capacity to succeed, as it is that they come to believe they can as the result their early experiences.
Therefore while it is important that institutions challenge existing labels as marking some students as less likely to succeed than others, it is equally important that students are able to obtain the timely support they need to succeed when they encounter early difficulties in meeting the academic, and sometimes social, demands of college. To be effective, such support must occur before student struggles undermine their motivation to persist -- thus the need for institutions to employ early-warning systems that, when properly implemented, alert faculty and staff to struggling students and trigger support when needed. Midterm grades will not do.
Sense of Belonging
While believing one can succeed in college is essential for persistence to completion, it does not in itself ensure it. For that to occur, students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty and staff who value their membership -- that they matter and belong. Thus the term “sense of belonging.” The result is often expressed as a commitment that serves to bind the individual to the group or community even when challenges arise. It is here that engagement with other people on the campus matters. But more important still are students’ perceptions of those engagements and the meaning they derive from them as to their belonging.
Although a sense of belonging can mirror students’ prior experiences, it is most directly shaped by the broader campus climate and their daily interactions with other students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus -- and the messages those interactions convey. Students who perceive themselves as belonging are more likely to persist because it leads not only to enhanced motivation but also a willingness to become involved with others in ways that further promote persistence. In contrast, a student’s sense of not belonging, of being out of place, leads to a withdrawal from contact with others that further undermine motivation to persist.
Here there is much colleges and universities can do. First, they must ensure that all students see the institution as welcoming and supportive -- that the culture is one of inclusion. They can do so by not only speaking to issues of exclusion but also by promoting those forms of activity that require shared academic and social experiences. In the academic realm, that can take the form of cohort programs and learning communities. Within classrooms, it can mean using pedagogies like cooperative and problem-based learning that require students to learn together as equal partners. In the social realm, institutions can take steps to provide for a diversity of social groups and organizations that allow all students to find at least one smaller community of students with whom they share a common bond. However they promote students’ sense of belonging, institutions should address it at the very outset of students’ journey -- indeed as early as orientation. As is the case for self-efficacy, developing a sense of belonging during the first year facilitates other forms of engagement that enhance student development, learning and completion.
Perceived Value of the Curriculum
Students’ perceptions of the value of their studies also influence their motivation to persist. Although what constitutes value is subject to much debate, the underlying issue is clear: students need to perceive the material to be learned is of sufficient quality and relevance to warrant their time and effort. Only then will they be motivated to engage that material in ways that promote learning and, in turn, persistence. Curriculum that is seen as irrelevant or of low quality will often yield the opposite result.
Addressing this issue is challenging if only because student perceptions of the curriculum vary not only among different students but also the differing subjects they are asked to learn. But there are steps institutions can and should take. First, institutions should see to it that students enroll in a field of study appropriate to their needs and interests, that they find the material within those courses sufficiently challenging to warrant their effort and, with academic support, reasonably within their reach to master. Second, they should ensure that the curriculum -- in particular, but not only, in the social sciences and humanities -- is inclusive of the experiences and histories of the students who are asked to study that curriculum. Third, institutions, specifically the faculty, should be explicit in demonstrating how the subjects that students are asked to learn can be applied to meaningful situations in ways that have relevance to issues that concern them. This is particularly important in first-year introductory courses as they serve as gateways to courses that follow. Too often, meaningful connections in those courses are left for students to discover.
One way of making those connections is to use pedagogies, such as problem and project-based learning, that require students to apply the material they are learning to resolve concrete problems or to complete a project that frames the class. Another is through contextualization, where students are asked to learn material within the context of another field, as is the case in developmental education, where basic skills are taught in the context of another area of study. In this and similar cases, students are more likely to want to learn basic skills because it helps them learn a subject in which they are interested. One promotes the learning of the other.
Colleges and universities can also achieve contextualization through the use of learning communities. When properly implemented, students co-register in two or three courses that are linked through an issue, problem or project that provides a unifying theme to the community. Such multiple course linkages can provide not only academic and social support but also promote a form of interdisciplinary learning that is not easily achieved in stand-alone courses. Lest one forget, the goal of persistence is not simply that students complete their degrees, but that they learn in powerful ways while doing so. Education is the goal of our efforts; persistence is only a vehicle for its occurrence.
All this is not to say that students will not persist if they have little sense of belonging or see little value in their studies. Some will if only because of external pressures to do so (e.g., family) or because of the perceived value of obtaining their degree from the institution (e.g., occupation, income and status outcomes). But doing so is a hollow achievement, for it fails to take advantage of the intrinsic benefits of a college education: belonging and learning. At the same time, as Sara Goldrick-Rab has made abundantly clear, many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, who want to persist are unable to do so because they simply can’t afford the full cost of attendance. Many would succeed if only they could find a reasonable way of financing their education.
There is little doubt that many colleges and universities have improved rates of student completion. But they can and should do more. Institutions must expand their conversation about college completion beyond simply how they can retain their students to how they can act in ways that lead all students to want to stay and complete their degrees. Though it is undeniably the case that academic ability matters, student motivation is the key to student persistence and completion. But addressing student motivation requires institutions to do more than simply issue another survey questionnaire. Rather, it necessitates that they understand students’ perceptions of their experience and how events throughout the campus influence their perceptions and shape, in turn, their motivation to persist.
Colleges and universities need to listen to all their students, take seriously their voices and be sensitive to how perceptions of their experiences vary among students of different races, income levels and cultural backgrounds. Only then can they further improve persistence and completion while addressing the continuing inequality in student outcomes that threaten the very fabric of our society.
Vincent Tinto is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University.
The late, great sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote eloquently of what he called “the sociological imagination,” which involved the ability to connect our own biographies to the wider currents of history, to understand the various social and cultural components of who we become. That was a major corrective to the highly individualistic worldview of Americans -- our strong tendency to view ourselves in a historical vacuum, as if our goals, beliefs and attitudes are not powerfully shaped by the social groups of which we are a part.
His invitation to a broader, more sophisticated view of ourselves was extended midway through the last century, at a time when Americans had a compelling need to come to terms with recent chaos and violence on a world scale, along with major ongoing evils in our own society -- racism prominently among them.
While we can consider some of the more extreme ills of racism a thing of our national past, others are very much still with us. Some forms of racial inequality have, in fact, been growing worse in recent years -- for example, the level of racial segregation in many of our public school systems, which is linked to the growing inequality of income and wealth in our society. Such inequality plays out at our colleges and universities in a number of ways, including admissions statistics, the daily experiences of students on our campuses and graduation rates.
As we think about which aspects of racism higher education institutions can most effectively address and how the sociological imagination fits into such a project, we might begin by noting that the word “racism” is often used rhetorically, particularly by college students, as a cover term for a range of things that differ significantly in their level of seriousness. Consider the following, for example:
Some white college students dress in racially insensitive costumes for Halloween.
The white presidential candidate of a major political party asserts that a Mexican-American judge cannot fulfill the professional and ethical standards of his vocation.
White police officers kill black men in incidents that are unlikely to have occurred if all parties were white.
Lumping these situations together under the general category of racism is hardly helpful in terms of what it will take to address each of them.
Institutions of higher education have sought to address racial inequality in a number of ways, including efforts to diversify their faculties, student bodies and staff. Their strongest suit would seem to be their potential for fostering robust communication across the racial and ethnic boundaries that divide members of what should be a community. For those who have not suffered from racism themselves, that will probably involve the risk of revealing some unattractive opinions or replacing denials of racism with the intention of making the racist unconscious conscious. For those who have suffered, it will involve forbearance and perhaps a taste for irony. It presupposes intellectual curiosity and emotional openness on the part of all.
A major obstacle to that has been a growing tendency toward what we might call “identity fetishism,” or seeing a specific dimension of social identity -- race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity -- as a terminus rather than a point of departure. American colleges and universities thus risk becoming places where the sociological imagination has gone to die.
The “safe space” movement, together with an it-takes-one-to-know-one mind-set, can operate to create barriers where there should be bridges. To be sure, it is good to spend comfortable, supportive times with those who are close fellow travelers through life. And achieving a deep understanding of those whose experience has been different in significant ways is a task to be approached with humility. But moving out from the familiar is a core goal of higher education.
Barriers between racial/ethnic groups in campus social life have had a curricular side as well. Separate departments or programs in African-American, Asian-American or Latin American studies, while offering belated, much-needed perspectives on groups that have long been hidden from historical research and teaching, have had the downside of not forcing a fuller, multiperspective approach to American studies itself. The use of the label “ethnic studies” as a cover term for these more group-specific programs, moreover, has been an unfortunate choice: are some people “ethnic” and others not? Was not the upshot to leave European-Americans an unmarked category of just plain folks? Some have sought to correct that with proposals of white studies programs -- hardly the best solution.
Ethnic studies programs are understandably of special interest to the respective members of the groups themselves; they have thus had something of a self-segregating effect in terms not only of students but also, to some extent, of faculty members -- an effect amplified by a tendency to merge the goals of faculty diversity with those of curricular diversity. The result can be a typecasting of faculty members of particular ethnic-racial groups. While an African-American historian can make distinguished contributions to scholarship and teaching in the field of African-American history, another can certainly make distinguished contributions to the field of medieval European history.
And, speaking of faculty, a general question is where have they been in the increasing diversity-related troubles we see playing out on our campuses? Some have been constructively engaged. For example, in the aforementioned Halloween costume example, faculty colleagues came to the public defense of a lecturer who found herself in the eye of a student activist storm by suggesting that we should not overreact to such behavior -- an episode that attracted an extraordinary amount of news media attention. Others have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution -- for example, by making ill-considered, even trollish statements in online media. Fortunately, that will sometimes be an occasion for pushback from their colleagues.
For the most part, however, faculty members have simply been missing in action when it comes to dealing with campus upheavals around race and racism. Students seem to be stepping into a leadership vacuum that pits them directly against administrators.
As we know, faculty members have more than enough problems of their own these days, what with increasing adjunctification and presidents who come to their jobs without understanding the business they are in -- to name just a couple of the most obvious misfortunes. But intellectual leadership is an essential faculty responsibility.
For openers, faculty members can bring the intellectual capital of their respective fields to bear on current debates. Those of us who are anthropologists, for example, have chosen a vocation based on moving beyond the stance that it takes one to know one. Though requiring a self-critical perspective on how well one can know an “other,” it centers on a quest to understand as much about others as we possibly can. Moreover, what we might call the anthropological imagination also presumes that an outsider’s perspective offers its own advantages; at the same time, a detour through another world is a path toward better understanding dimensions of our own, which would otherwise remain below our self-conscious reflection.
Beyond our own particular disciplines, departments and programs, faculty members are also part of a wider academic community with a shared dedication to core educational values. Those of us who believe that diversity is not just about social justice, as important as that is, but is also tied to the intrinsic goals of a liberal -- and liberating -- education have our work cut out for us. Outlines of that work can be found, for example, in the contributions of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, especially through its LEAP initiative (Liberal Arts and America’s Promise). Essential learning outcomes associated with that initiative include cross-cultural sophistication and civic responsibility.
In brief, we need to help make our colleges and universities ideal places for cultivating the sociological imagination. That means exploring with our students not only where we have come from but also where we might be going.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and president and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.