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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Restoring the Covenant


At breakfast the other day, a British colleague reported that the UK is considering a new funding plan for higher education.  Under the plan, students would pay no fees to attend college; instead, they would pay after they graduate and, one supposes, are employed and making money.  I don’t know the details of this plan.  However, I can imagine consequences—unintended or not—that are worth discussion.
            First, I can imagine that it would further increase the utilitarian bent of most college curricula, since institutions would be rewarded when their students become gainfully employed.   Curricula that cost the student as much as other professional programs, but that do not result in good-paying jobs for most alums (journalism comes quickly to mind), might find a hard time getting internal support, even if there are students who want to study these areas. 
            Second, one might ask what the impact would be on the student’s perception of the general education curriculum?  This part of the curriculum (at least in institutions that take general education seriously) is designed less to prepare one for a career than to prepare one for life as a member of the broader society.  If costs are too closely aligned with the ability of a student to make money, will the student be willing to pay for this part of his/her education?
            It also led me to think more broadly about how about higher education is perceived these days.  Is higher education a “public good” or a “private good?”  When the general population—through tax dollars—invests in the education of individual citizens, are we doing it solely for economic development reasons (to build a professional leadership force that can make us competitive and create jobs for less-skilled workers), or do we provide public funding to higher education because we want our professional and business leaders to be able to function – to make informed judgments, for example – in ways that benefit society as a whole?  Or both? 
            Now I have a bias on this issue.  I believe that higher education and, indeed, all levels of education from pre-school onward, are essential to maintaining a free and democratic society.  This is not just for its relatively short-term economic impact, but because, in a globalized, information-based society, we cannot afford to have separate classes based on educational attainment.  Nor can we afford to have a society in which everyone is trained in a specialty, but with no common culture to hold us together and to make us want to have our work serve the community as a whole. 

Massey: Honoring the Trust

            This is not a new issue.  Writing in 2003, William F. Massey noted, “College may be the ticket to the good life, but its benefits for democracy and culture no longer command a top priority for the public purse.  Higher education increasingly is viewed as a private rather than a public good: very important for those who get it, but something most government officials can safely take for granted” (Honoring the Trust, p. 4).  He summarizes the problem as follows:
Participation rates have soared, but schools have not fully embraced the educational needs and competencies of their broadened constituencies.  Institutional behavior has become increasingly market driven, but the markets generally reward prestige—they don’t gauge the true quality of education, and therefore they produce a perverse set of incentives” (p. 5).  He argues that “Colleges and universities are not all they can be, that they can improve the quality of education without spending more, dismantling the research enterprise, or undermining essential academic values” (ibid.).

Massy posits seven “core quality principles” that can help an institution restore public trust:
·      Define educational quality in terms of student outcomes
·      Focus on the processes of teaching, learning, and student assessment
·      Strive for coherence in curricula, educational processes, and assessment
·      Work collaboratively to achieve mutual involvement and support
·      Base decisions on facts whenever possible
·      Identify and learn from best practice
·      Make continuous quality improvement a top priority

Kellogg:  Returning To Our Roots

            While Massey’s principles focus on basic operational principles, a more far-reaching response was articulated by the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities.  From 1996 to 2000, the Commission studied different aspects of the university’s role in a transforming society and called for a transformation in the relationship between the university and the community it serves.   Like Massey, the Commission noted “growing public frustration with what is seen to be our unresponsiveness” and “a perception that we are out of touch and out of date” (Returning to Our Roots: Executive Summaries of the Reports of the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities, p. 14).   The Commission’s response was that state and land grant universities must go beyond traditional “outreach” and “service” missions and instead aim for “engagement:”
Engagement goes well beyond extension, conventional outreach, and even most conceptions of public service.  Inherited concepts emphasize a one-way process in which the university transfers its expertise to key constituents.  Embedded in the engagement ideal is a commitment to sharing and reciprocity.  By engagement, the Commission envisions partnerships, two-way streets defined by mutual respect among the partners for what each brings to the table (ibid.).

Spanier:  Restoring the Covenant

            Penn State President Graham Spanier, who chaired the Kellogg Commission, recently described five strategies that land grant universities should consider in response to the Commission’s charge to “restore the covenant.”  In remarks delivered at the National Outreach Scholarship Conference on October 4, 2010, President Spanier noted the following:
·      First, focus on activities that play to their particular strengths, pruning those that don’t have a measurable impact or are not aligned with academic strengths.

·      Second, increase access for non-traditional students, who are the most rapidly growing segment of the higher education population.

·      Third, leverage technology to expand the reach, foster new kinds of communities, and engage students.

·      Fourth, push for the inclusion of engaged scholarship in the promotion and tenure process.

·      Fifth, find new ways to engage the public to fund engagement work and become more entrepreneurial in seeking out other sources of support.

            These strategies are especially important today, as public universities struggle to maintain quality and services while living with less public financial support in light of the continuing recession.   While some would see this as a time to pull back from the commitment to public engagement, I believe this is a good time to consider how the university can more effectively reach out, to not only restore the trust and covenant with the public, but to re-invent it for new social and economic times:  to make the land grant university as relevant to today’s globalized knowledge society as it was to the industrial society that gave it birth.  
Getting Started
            Where do we start to implement changes that will not only restore the covenant but refresh it for a new era?  
New University-School Collaborations   Certainly one opportunity is to build new linkages between the land grant university and the K-12 sector.   There is a general agreement that the Knowledge Society will require that a higher percentage of workers have some higher education experience than was the case in the Industrial Age.  With that in mind, the Obama Administration has set a goal of increasing the percentage of high school graduates who earn a college degree from the current 39% to a target of 60% by the year 2020.    This will require not only that we improve the success rate of high school graduates who currently go on to college, but that our high schools produce more graduates who are prepared to enter college.  Engagement between universities and high schools seems like an obvious strategy.
            This strategy might take several forms—none of which are mutually exclusive:
·      We are already beginning to see dual enrollment initiatives in which students earn high school and college credit simultaneously in courses taught by university faculty members. 

·      Universities can create virtual high school programs, directly teaching high school students the skills they will need to successfully enter a university program.   This could be another path toward dual enrollment.

·      These kinds of initiatives not only increase the number of high school graduates who are ready to enter college, they offer an opportunity—especially when combined with service learning and internships—students to complete a degree sooner, contributing to accelerated degree programs that allow students to more quick enter the workforce.

Discipline-based Engagement Strategies   Graham Spanier noted that each institution should build on its strengths in the process of building new engagement strategies.  One way to ensure this would be to ask each academic college (and, in some cases, individual departments) to establish an Engagement Vision that would drive the engagement strategy.   This would help overcome a perception that, within academic units, faculty members tend to define success in terms of academic research rather than societal engagement.  A college/department level engagement vision will provide a means by which to evaluate strategies and to measure progress over time.
Community Engagement Strategies  A key to establishing public trust and creating a true covenant would be for public universities to directly engage their communities (for land-grant universities, this would mean a statewide effort) to identify needs and to collaborate on strategies by which the university can directly engage with the community, using public media—television, radio, the Internet—to address the broad public and partnering with community organizations to help address needs.  
An Extension Service for the Knowledge Society  In the Industrial Era, land grant universities created the Cooperative Extension system to improve agricultural production—a vital issue in a time when we needed a solid agricultural base to support our rapidly urbanizing, immigration-focused industrial economy.   A key element of Cooperative Extension is that faculty members were expected to spend time in the field, directly helping agriculturalists to improve their products.  This concept needs to be re-envisioned for the Knowledge Society.
The Need for an Institution-wide Strategy
            Typically, when ideas like this are raised, the response is:  “We’re already doing this.”  What that usually means is that some individual faculty members or individual units are doing something in one or more of these arenas.   This is wonderful.  These faculty members and individual units should be recognized and rewarded for their commitment to engagement.  However, the real need is for these activities to be part of a visible institution-wide strategy and commitment.   This is the long-term leadership challenge for our public universities.