Friday, July 16, 2010

Diversifying our approach to problem solving in higher education

"Our Projects, if we are wise, will be myriad and quiet, not a grand few visible to the whole world."

This is a passage from Bill McKibben's recent book, eaarth.  In this part of his book, McKibben is arguing that it's time to shift our global paradigm from growth to maintenance and, that with limited resources, it's too risky to bet on a few, large projects or initiatives.  If we are going to make life on our polluted, resource-depleted planet, we need to minimize risk by finding lots of small ways to improve conditions.  In essence, in the end we'll be better off making lots of small wagers rather than a small number of huge investments.  

There seems to be some wisdom for higher education here--try a lot of different things, minimize your risk, pay attention to what works, and then replicate it if you can.  In highly centralized organizations like universities, however, we don't do well with this sort of thing.  It's more likely that we invest huge amounts of resources in large-scale initiatives that are very public and that carry huge risk.  For example, I've mentioned on this blog before how my institution will be launching a freshman mentoring program this fall wherein every freshman student is provided with an upperclassmen mentor.  This has meant vast changes in the way students register for courses, the development of technological solutions involving hours and hours of development and testing, the creation of a new full-time administrative position, and a comprehensive course redesign for one of the largest freshman courses on campus, not to mention a huge allocation of funds to pay and train the peer mentors.  The objectives of the program are to balance resources across high-demand first year courses, connect students with an upperclassmen who can support them in their transition, and increase the likelihood that freshmen will use campus resources (e.g. advisement centers, teaching assistants, etc.)

I hope that the program is a success because I value mentoring and believe that it can make a tremendous difference for first-year students.  But, McKibben's ideas have me wondering whether a decentralized effort across a variety of departments may have been just as useful in improving the first-year experience for BYU students.  What could academic advisors do in their sphere to help?  Is there a low-cost social media campaign that the Office of First-Year Experience could have piloted?  What if Residence Life had experimented with American Heritage course review sessions taught in the halls?  If any one (or all) of those things fail, no one has lost much time or money and central administration doesn't have to worry about looking bad.  As it is, the message has been "Freshman Mentoring cannot fail" (that sounds eerily simialr to the "to big to fail" rhetoric we've heard surrounding the automotive and banking industries as of late) and the individuals responsible for making it work are faced with making the impossible possible.

I recognize the value of campus-wide, coordinated initiatives where a diverse group of stakeholders work together to address a campus issue.  I hope that is what our Freshman Mentoring initiative is and that it works.  If not, we will have spent a lot of time, money, and social capital on a disastrous failure.  

So, the question I'm really asking here is when large-scale, resource intense initiatives are the answer, and when we'd be better off encouraging small innovations across a number of departments and areas in hopes that they add up to some sort of aggregate success.  

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