Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Issue for Next Year: An Examination of Equity

As we end another calendar, not academic, year, I find myself thinking particularly about one issue in our society, that manifests itself on our campuses too: equity, rather lack of it.

Here we are in what is the last week of the academic year on most campuses and our government has just taken a step that makes an even larger statement to me than the intended focus on this particular government action.

I am referring to the legislation President Obama signed on December 17th extending the Bush era tax cuts for all Americans, including the wealthiest two percent of the population whose joint adjusted gross incomes are in excess of $250,000 a year. While I do believe that we have done this, there is a part of me that is still the rational academic trying to practice critical thinking. How could a country in which one major party claims to be obsessed with concern about the deficit, have just forced legislation on the country to give the wealthiest of our citizens a tax cut costing the government over 800 billion dollars in the next two calendar years, and increasing the national debt by this amount? What this means then is that all Americans have just put themselves in debt to give a huge Christmas gift to the wealthiest, a debt which all Americans will have to repay.

Of course, this is all about inequality. We are surrounded by indicators of increased inequity including on our campuses.

I don’t live and teach on a campus anymore, and haven’t since 1999. But I still “teach” only my “students” are professional higher educators like myself. And while I visit campuses almost every week, I don’t focus my energies exclusively on one. But everywhere I visit I see inequities that mirror the larger society, where on our campuses the high status programs that serve high status students enjoy a much larger slice of the resource pie than low status programs that serve low status students. How could it be any other way in America?

Well, it could be different. Campuses don’t always have to precisely mirror the values of the larger society. At times we take it upon ourselves to practice our academic freedom and take on more idealistic causes to argue for alternative ways of living in our country.

So if I were going to be on one campus primarily in 2011 with my own set of students in their most formative years intellectually, I would be focusing, some at least, on this issue of inequity. Where does it exist on our campus? Why? What are the consequences for the institution, its members, and our country? And what might we be able to do about this. For example, in our own resource reallocations, are we letting the rich get the biggest tax breaks of all? You tell me. Better yet, tell your students, if you dare.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, December 20, 2010

Self Study: It Ain’t Like It Used to Be!

The audience for this blog may well be primarily the older set in the academy, my colleagues who were introduced to and made to endure the kind of self-studies that were inflicted upon us by our curious American system of nongovernmental quality assurance known as regional accreditation. These self studies were laborious exercises in data collection which led to the writing of voluminous tomes read by absolutely no one other than institutional historians and the members of the visiting accrediting teams. This punishment was inflicted on us every ten years. We produced a magnum opus which then sat on a shelf for the next ten years the minute after the visiting team left town. These largely useless exercises were a great deal of work, no doubt. One of the reasons I took “early” retirement from the University of South Carolina was that I knew if I didn’t I would be dragooned, as a good University citizen, into my fourth such exercise.

Well, an interesting thing has happened for me since. I voluntarily got involved in my University’s decanal self study, but this time under the entirely new structure and process for reaccreditation known as the “QEP”, short for “quality enhancement plan”, offered by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools which accredits the University of South Carolina. I have had the privilege and actual “pleasure” of serving on a fifteen person team charged with the designing of the Quality Enhancement Plan.

I have been so pleasantly surprised. We really are creating something new for the University, a major new initiative that I am already persuaded will improve student engagement and learning. We are doing a number of things that many of us have wanted to do for a long time but before we did not have the imprimatur, the urgency, the pressure of the regional accreditor as justification. Even in these dire times financially new resources will be found to launch this continuous quality improvement initiative.

We have spent time in highly collegial dialogue and brainstorming in a group that consists of faculty, academic and student affairs administrators, IR and assessment professionals, and students. We have been examining such basic questions as:
1. How do our students learn?
2. How could/should our students learn?
3. How do we introduce them to the learning opportunities of a great university?
4. What are the overall objectives of a university education, particularly for improving the social good?
5. How can we measure these outcomes?
6. How can we use new technologies to maximize students taking opportunities and helping them make good choices, while increasing our efficiencies?
7. How can we focus on improving undergraduate student learning both inside and outside the classroom in an historic research university culture that often tends to favor research over the teaching of undergraduates?

And the above are just getting us rolling.

I think the accreditors have done a good thing by giving us this opportunity to be rewarded with something we have to have, accreditation, for doing something we have wanted to do: a major institutional innovation to improve student success.

So my message to my senior colleagues is that if you haven’t gotten involved with these new forms of accreditation, you should consider doing so. These are available not just in the SACS region but in others as well. These are processes to make “assessment” truly meaningful and intellectually stimulating. That’s a good thing because while few things are any longer a sure thing in higher education, one of the sure things is that the emphasis on “assessment” isn’t going away. And such reaccreditation exercises now linked with quality assurance and improvement processes are a way to make this inevitability more than bearable. Try it. You might like it.

-John N. Gardner