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In which my opinion is solicited

Today I received an e-mail informing me that the “Faculty Advisory Council (FAC) to the [name of state-wide university system redacted] Strategic Directions committee has posted a NEW survey to gather faculty input into the strategic planning process,” and asking me for my input on said survey. This became the occasion for another of my frequent reflections on the sad state of higher education. I’m not sure the Faculty Advisory Council will find my responses particularly useful, but at least I found it therapeutic to write. And what’s the point of spending all that time writing a rant about the sad state of higher education if I don’t share it more widely than with some committee which will instantly dismiss it? Here, then, are my survey responses, with just enough quotations from the actual survey to provide context:

The relevant instruction: Please evaluate each topic area in light of what is necessary to enhance the [name of state-wide university system redacted] system.

Topic Area 1
Degree Attainment Goals Responsive to State Needs. This area includes: developing goals responsive to current and future workforce needs and the state’s changing demographics; assessing degree offerings in the context of current workforce requirements and anticipated state needs…

My response
All discussion of degree attainment goals must include simultaneous discussion of academic quality goals. The current nation-wide push towards performance-based assessment and funding too frequently reduces discussion of “performance” to wildly inadequate measures such as retention and degree attainment while ignoring the commensurate need to evaluate actual learning outcomes: Producing graduates with degrees means nothing if those graduates do not actually possess the knowledge and skills which their degrees are supposed to represent. Any performance-based assessment/funding model driven by measures of retention and graduation rates *without* including any measures of actual learning outcomes will by its very nature generate very strong incentives for lowering academic standards — the surest way to increase retention and graduation rates. In the absence of counter-incentives, university funding becomes wholly dependent on producing students with diplomas, and as a consequence such a university must eventually become no more than a diploma mill.

I also think we must be cautious about reducing “workforce needs” to oversimplified claims about the majors of our graduates. Yes, [state redacted] probably needs more nurses, and fewer lawyers. However, we must never forget that the primary and inescapable need of every democracy is an educated, engaged, critical-thinking citizenry — and that the primary responsibility of all educators is to help satisfy that need. An appropriate quotation I’ve seen often of late comes to mind:

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success”, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”
― Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Less idealistically, surveys of employers consistently reveal that a majority of employers are more concerned about general qualities rather than specific job training for most positions they hire for, citing desirable employee qualities such as: problem-solving skills; the ability to work independently; the ability to think critically; effective oral and written communication skills; and basic numeracy. Most importantly, employers say they want employees who have learned *how to learn*, so that they can pick up the specific knowledge and skills needed to perform a given job, specifics that are almost never part of any academic program or major. These are all exactly the qualities that a broad liberal education is intended to inculcate, whatever the particular major — so let us not be misled into thinking that “responsiveness to state needs” requires us to set target numbers for specific majors, aside from recognizing the need to provide specialized training in certain technical fields like medicine, information technology, etc.

Topic Area 2
Strengthen Academic Quality. This area includes: strengthening admissions standards and university policies governing satisfactory academic progress; increasing focus on preparing graduates with the core competencies needed to success; improving academic advising to reduce enrolled time to degree; identifying the most effective ways to assess and assure student learning; and enhancing the use of technology in the classroom and in distance education opportunities.

My response
According to nearly every bit of research and analysis of higher education in the U.S. I’ve read for the past several years, generating a higher proportion of college-educated adults — especially (but not exclusively) in STEM fields — is considered a vital component of our future prosperity. If one of our goals is to increase the number of college graduates, we must increase the number of college students, so we cannot raise our admission standards across-the-board: Admitting MORE students necessarily means letting in more students who are less qualified than students we currently admit, unless American high schools start producing better-qualified students on the whole (which is not, sadly, something we have any real influence over). Our emphasis on academic quality therefore cannot focus over-much on the quality of our incoming students, but on how well we educate ALL the students we admit, even those who are less academically prepared for college.

Absolutely every honest person who has investigated the issue ought to admit that the single most effective way to improve the quality of education — to assess and assure student learning, to ensure that students actually acquire the core competencies required for success in their chosen field, to strengthen academic quality across-the-board — is to lower student-to-faculty ratios, both across the whole university and on a class-by-class basis. There are no technological fixes for having too few educators for too many students, and no plausible substitute for educators simply having more time and energy to spend educating each student by virtue of having fewer students.

Similarly, every honest person ought to admit that students don’t take longer to graduate than they did 10 or 20 years ago because they are inadequately advised, but because more and more undergraduates spend more and more of their time working at jobs other than being a student — because the cost of higher education has skyrocketed at a pace far exceeding inflation. Again, there is not and cannot possibly be any substitute for students actually having more time and energy to be students.

On every front then, the only effective way to substantially improve academic quality — and, therefore, improve meaningful academic achievement (rather than meaningless diploma attainment) — is to fight the long-standing, ongoing diversion of state funding away from public higher education. Any and every other method for strengthening academic quality is naught but smoke and mirrors.

Topic Area 3
Maximize Efficiencies. This area includes: continuing ongoing academic program review to eliminate unnecessary duplication and low-productivity programs; developing cost-effective tools and collaborative strategies to broaden convenient access to online courses and other distance education programs across the university and state; encouraging and implementing more shared services in areas where costs can be reduced and services improved; and strengthening space utilization practices.

My response (which cribs from something I said the last time a university committee asked for my opinion on such matters)
The massive defunding of higher education in the United States over the past few decades — in every state, although better in [state redacted] than in many states — has resulted in non-stop demands that public university administrators and faculty “do more with less,” year after year after year: If there truly ever was a time when increases in efficiency, redirection of resources to teaching from less central tasks, and other transformations of how we do things could improve student education even while reducing budgets, that time has long since passed. I can think of several ways I could improve my teaching this semester — more feedback on assignments, for just one example. But since I typically work on course preparation, in-class teaching, grading, and other basic teaching duties 50-60 hours a week as it is, I cannot imagine where I would find the time and energy to generate more meaningful and detailed feedback on assignments. (Hence my discussion of the importance of lower student-teacher ratios for academic quality above.)

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