You Say You Want a Revolution?

With so many in higher education talking about radical change, pilot programs may lead the way to real reform, says Jeff Abernathy.

March 4, 2010

It seems everybody is talking revolution in higher ed these days.

How many times have I read in the higher ed news of the coming revolution in classroom instruction, in the major, in the tenure system, in governance?

Google "higher education revolution" and you find radical reform rising in every direction. Many are sparked by the billions state systems are losing as our economy lurches out of the tank, others by the increasing commodification of the college degree. Some promise to "transform" the American university as they have transformed -- egad! -- the American newspaper. New models of for-profit education promise a revolution in the higher education business model that is already threatening the viability of traditional colleges across the country.

But I can't help wondering if we've spirited all our revolutionary rhetoric for another day at the office.

We tend to talk ourselves right past revolutions in higher education. Our burning impulse to revitalize learning often concludes with a return to the status quo: we end up arguing, say, over our respective roles in shared governance, or over the turf we'd have to give up for genuine improvement in learning.

We can do better.

At a recent conference, I had a glimpse into how the real transformation might unfold. The Teagle Foundation brought together professors, administrators and researchers from across the country to discuss with its board members key questions the foundation has been addressing in recent years:

  • How might we make systematic improvements in student learning?
  • What evidence is there that we’re using what we know about student learning to reform academe?

These, of course, were the very same questions asked by the ill-fated Spellings Commission. Teagle has found success by engaging the strengths of the academy -- and especially the talents and creativity of faculty--by supporting liberal arts college in piloting solutions to the challenges before academe. In doing so, they have started transformative efforts that will deepen student learning while also balancing resources.

With the public university system in crisis -- Clark Kerr's master plan for California has been set adrift along with the strategies for renewal in state after state -- a focus on liberal arts colleges could seem to some like a boutique project. The Teagle Foundation's great insight has been that the nation's liberal arts colleges remain a bellwether for the health of the academy and that small colleges have a great opportunity to model what the 21st century higher education might become.

Teagle has funded dozens of collaborative efforts at liberal arts colleges over the past six years supporting faculty-driven, ground-up assessment projects of student learning outcomes at colleges and universities across the country.

The work that colleges are doing in these Teagle pilots tests the basic assumptions of a college education. Some have examined the meaning and value of general education, exploring radical revision of the ways in which general education might come to be embedded in helping students to think about the ways they will live their lives. One project brought four colleges together to assess how effectively undergraduate students acquire and refine the spiritual values that lie at the heart of their institutional missions. Another explores effective models of community-based learning efforts at three prominent colleges.

Such work aims to deepen student learning and growth at colleges across the country. As importantly, it will help small colleges to think about ways to distinguish themselves in a landscape that increasingly sees no difference between a liberal arts college degree and a degree from, say, the University of Phoenix. Liberal arts colleges must, to use Robert Zemsky's phrase, be "market-smart and mission-centered," and the pilots that Teagle has funded in recent years point us toward solutions to drifting missions and to struggling finances alike.

At Augustana College, we are taking seriously the Teagle Foundation's charge to find ways to use what we know about student learning for reform. Working in a Teagle-funded collaborative of seven colleges across the Midwest -- Alma, Augustana, Illinois Wesleyan, Luther, Gustavus Adolphus, Washington and Jefferson, and Wittenberg -- over the past five years, we have begun to question the 100-year-old credit model system that is at the heart of the American baccalaureate. Our consortium of colleges has begun to ask whether we can still justify the existence of a system that was brought into being mostly to serve the needs of our business offices.

Will federal pressure for transferability of credit only make more secure a system that is now straining under the weight of new understanding of learning and the new pedagogies that follow? In an era when we ask faculty to be deeply engaged with students through interdisciplinary education, undergraduate research, international study, and other high impact practices, can we continue to justify a credit system that has remained unchanged for a century? We are questioning whether the course unit as now constituted -- that three- or four-hour sliver of a college degree or the correlating seat time -- is the best means of measuring student learning.

My colleagues at Augustana and I have begun other pilots that will explore the other hard questions before our college, and all colleges: how will we make better use of vital resources while demonstrating the value of a liberal education to parents, employers, and graduate schools?

We have developed a series of experiments that may answer the question. Our faculty have created a senior capstone program -- Senior Inquiry -- by using a backward design model to re-envision nearly every major on campus, ensuring that all Augustana students will have the sort of hands-on, experiential learning opportunity that will demonstrate their skills to employers and graduate schools alike (even as it provides us with a great chance to evaluate all they have done in four years here). We have redefined scholarship in the Boyer model, embracing the scholarship of teaching and learning. We are piloting new partnerships with universities, community colleges and high schools; we are asking how technology might deepen the advantages of traditional classroom learning models. And we have built our newest program- - Augie Choice -- around the idea that experiential learning -- through research, international study and internships -- ought to be the heart of a liberal arts education.

We don't yet know where all of these experiments will lead us. But, in our 150th year at Augustana, we have learned from the Teagle Foundation that pilots may help us to ensure that we will thrive for the next 150 years.

That, I'm certain, is revolution enough.


Jeff Abernathy is vice president and dean of the college at Augustana College, in Illinois. This summer, he will become president of Alma College, in Michigan.


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