Friday, September 30, 2011

Measuring the value of a university president

Two institutions in my hometown of Salt Lake City, the University of Utah and Westminster College, are currently in the middle of presidential searches.  And, naturally, this has led to discussion about presidential salaries and the need to offer a compensation package sufficient to attract talented leaders. The Salt Lake Tribune published an editorial this morning ("The Pay Game:  Academic recruitment not cheap") and argued that the salary increases proposed by the Utah State Board of Regents for the presidents of each of the state institutions (but called into question by Governor Gary Herbert) are a good investment when it comes to finding the right kind of leader.

I think the Tribune has it right, particularly given the fact that the total compensation increase, across all eight institutions, amounts to around $100,000.  That's a lot of money, but a drop in the bucket when considering the total higher education budget in the state of Utah.  If paying the University of Utah's new president 4% more than her predecessor means the state gets a great leader who can lead the its flagship institution into a new era in higher education, the Regents have made a savvy move and we should be congratulating them for being wise enough to recognize the need to make salary adjustments.

But, how much should taxpayers be willing to pay university presidents?  And, at what point does an increase in salary no longer translate into increased value for an institution?  For instance, does a $650,000 a year post really pull in a better leader than a search committee would find if the pay were $400,000 a year?  And, how does an institution measure the value added by its president?  Fundraising dollars? High-profile faculty hires?  Athletic success?  Achievement of measurable student learning outcomes?  Hitting enrollment targets?

Although Westminster College isn't likely to publicize a whole lot of information regarding the salary which will be paid to its next president, there is some evidence that attractive salary paid to Michael Bassis (the current president) has been well worth it.  In the article the SL Tribune ran in early September announcing Bassis' retirement, it was reported that his compensation package totaled a little over $500,000 per year.  That's less than the University of Utah's president will make in total compensation, but (I'm guessing) quite a bit more than the other 7 state school leaders.  However, based on what has happened at Westminster during Bassis' tenure--increased enrollment, the recruitment of a much more diverse student body, the addition of several academic and athletic programs, to name a few--it has been money well spent.  The interesting question I would ask now is, would Bassis have taken the job for $400,000 a year.  And, if he did, would Westminster have seen the same improvements during his time on campus?  What we really need is for some brilliant statistician to take the Moneyball approach and figure out how the Billy Beans of the world can analyze presidential performance and get the most value for their money.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The conscience of the academy

In a talk given at the 2010 TEDWomen conference, t.v. executive Lauren Zalaznick argued that television can be viewed as our "conscience" in that it reflects who we are as a society.  It's not really an earth shattering concept (although Zalaznick's talk shares some interesting data illustrating the veracity of this claim); however, it does raise an important question for any kind of group who claims to be or behave in a particular way, be it a corporation, a school, or a family.  That question is "Are we who we really thing we are?" or, put another way, "Do our actions, behaviors, practices, etc. really reflect the set of values we claim to espouse?"

This is an interesting question for academic institutions to consider.  And, leads to another useful question, which is "What is the conscience of the academy?"  At first glance, it seems like a fairly simple exercise:  just examine the mission statement, last presidential address, catalog, or set of standards from the last accreditation.  Clearly, these official pronouncements reflect the values of the institution and give us insight into the degree to which an institution is committed to providing a high quality educational experience for students.

The problem, however, is that saying and doing aren't always in alignment with one another.  Work in the field of action science has suggested that two types of theories influence the actions of an organization.  Espoused theories are those which individuals or organizations claim to follow (i.e. the theories and values manifest in mission statements and catalogs), while theories-in-use are those theories or values that can be inferred by observing the actions of an organization or its individual members.  This is not to say that all universities do one thing and say another (In Chapters 11 - 16 of his book, The Learning Paradigm College, John Tagg describes a number of colleges which have achieved a high degree of alignment between their mission to provide a high quality learning experience for students and what actually happens in the day-to-day happenings on their campuses); however, most organizations struggle to some degree to stay true to their stated missions and goals, particularly in the current economic climate when staying financially viable has become increasingly difficult.

Complicating all of this is the fact that those of us who do the work of education students on college campuses are often unaware of the gap between our actions and our stated values.  So, training ourselves to examine key practices on our campuses can be helpful in making the invisible paradigm influencing our work more visible and apparent.  So, what (or where) is the "conscience" of a campus?  Where do the underlying (and most influential) values manifest themselves?

Just like t.v. is not the only place a society's values are apparent, there are likely a number of aspects of a campus where its values shine through.  Here are a few that seem worth taking a look at:

General Education & Graduation Requirements:  Virtually all students, to some degree or another, view college as an exercise in earning a credential--the degree--which becomes a key for opening other doors (e.g. jobs, graduate school, etc.).  Institutions, then, are charged with outlining a set of requirements which, when completed, demonstrate that a student has "earned" this credential.  Thus, this set of requirements speaks volumes about what an institution believes an "educated," "learned," or "competent," student looks like or has done.  And, this means more than just the classes a student takes.  What a school requires in the way of internships, service-learning, capstone experiences, etc. communicates a set of values about what constitutes an educational experience.

Advisement Centers:  A fly on the wall in an academic advisement center would learn a lot about what an institution really values.  Is it a speedy path to graduation?  A well-rounded educational experience?  Personal growth?  Self-authorship?  The sub-text of these advisement sessions is something students pick up on and use to inform subsequent decisions they make regarding their academic experience.  If academic advisors engage students in conversations about what they are learning, what experiences they are seeking out to experience the growth they hope for, how their thinking or views are changing, etc., students are much more likely to conceptualize their time on a campus as an opportunity for discovery and growth.  In contrast, if these sessions are only about graduating in four years, meeting application deadlines, submitting the proper forms, and fulfilling course requirements, a completely different message will be communicated.

New Student Orientation:  Students make a lot of unconscious judgments about their college based on what they see and hear during their first few days on campus.  If institutions value a particular kind of learning for their students, this should be explicitly stated and modeled during orientation.  Of course, campus tours, social events, and other student-life types of activities are an important part of this experience.  However, if orientation doesn't do any more than disseminate information to passive human receptacles and bring students together for dances, parties, and athletic events, a tremendous opportunity is lost. A campus who claims to value service-learning, collaborative experiences, open dialogue, or undergraduate research, needs to ensure that, when feasible, these values are reflected in what students do (not just what they hear) during orientation.

Faculty Reward Systems:  Like students, faculty shape their work based, in part, upon what is rewarded by   department chairs, deans, and provosts.  What is it that faculty are rewarded for and how much does it align with what we say we really value.

Where else are institutional values (particularly hidden ones) made visible?

Friday, September 16, 2011

College Choice: The myth of the perfect fit school

My friend Gary Daynes linked to a fascinating article from The Washington Monthly in a recent post on his blog. The article reports on the changing landscape of college admissions and highlights ConnectEdu, a company that, among other things, helps match colleges and students in attempt to find "the right fit."

Tools like ConnectEdu and others are long overdue and will be great assets for students, parents, admissions counselors and just about anyone else who cares about the college selection process.  However, there is a potential pitfall in this path which is that some students and parents may come to believe that there is a "perfect college" out there for them.  This isn't necessarily a new problem (no doubt, some students and parents have always believed this myth); however, the proliferation of college choices available to students in today's educational marketplace, the ease of accessing school information via the web, and (now) tools that help students find "the right fit" are a recipe for what psychologist Barry Schwartz has termed the "paradox of choice. "

For a student, finding a college that provides the academic programs, social opportunities, environment, diversity, etc. they are looking for is a great thing.  But, the reality is that the list of schools meeting these requirements is likely to include at least a handful of potential "matches," all of which could end up being a "good fit."  The operative word here is could.  I say that because the college experience a student has on a particular campus is shaped largely by what the student does once they get there.  All the intramural sports, small class sizes, service learning opportunities, and research labs in the world won't make a difference without an engaged, invested, and proactive student on the other end.  And, I don't hear this message being voiced very often in the discussions about school choice.  Rather, many students (and their parents) are increasingly believing that their college experience will be made or broken by the initial choice they make regarding which school to attend.  What happens when a student enrolls at the "perfect fit" school suggested by a match-making service, and then mistakenly believes all her work is done?  Will she put forth the effort to become engaged in her campus, get integrated into the community, and do the hard work to find her niche?  Maybe, but not if she assumes that club membership, relationships w/ faculty members, and engaging academic experiences will happen on their own.

So, it seems important to temper conversations about finding the right fit, with complementary discussion about the responsibility students have to shape and mold their experience once they arrive on a campus.  Otherwise, our institutions will be welcoming excited students who want to be at our schools, but who have no expectation of putting forth the effort necessary to have a great college experience.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Should freshmen be allowed to play?

Stanford's Athletic Director, Bob Bowlsby, made waves this week with his call to ban freshmen from participating in intercollegiate athletics.  While some think such propositions are merely an aim to curb the trend of men's basketball players leaving for the NBA after their freshmen year (the NBA currently requires draftees to be at least 19 and one year removed from high school), Bowlsby's stated rationale is that sitting out a year would give student-athletes time to adjust to the academic rigors of higher education.

While the chances of such a proposal being accepted by the NCAA and its board seem like a longshot, it will be entertaining to see how the rest of college athletics responds and where the idea goes.  Even if some version of this proposal were to be accepted (some reports cite that Bowlsby has suggested mandatory red-shirting during the first year as a compromise of sorts), sidelining athletes, by itself, isn't likely to lead to the improved academic adjustment Bowlsby is hoping for.  Many athletics departments (including the one on my campus) have bridging programs designed to assist student athletes in making the transition from high school to college (both in and out of the classroom), which should become mandatory and monitored closely to ensure they are doing what they propose to do and not just orienting freshmen to the culture of athletics on a campus.  

The bigger issue here is the increasingly wide divide between the academic and athletic missions of big-time college sports institutions.  In an article published this morning in the Salt Lake Tribune, the University of Utah's head football coach, Kyle Whittingham, responded to Bowlsby's proposal.  As a fan of University of Utah athletics, I like Whittingham and think he has done a tremendous job with his team (they win games and rarely have the off-field problems that sometimes plague other high-profile teams).  However, his comments in the article reflect two problematic attitudes that seem to be prevalent among college coaches.

First, Whittingham's statment that "if a guy is ready to play, why wouldn't you play him?" suggests that he wants the best athletes on the field, whether or not they are ready for everything else that comes with being a college student (read: academics) In defense of the corps of coaches Whittingham represents, they face tremendous pressure to be successful and please alumni, donors, and administrators.  So, in many ways, they walk a difficult line as they try to put a good product on the field or court, while also pleasing those who want to hold their athletes to high academic standards.  The problem is that the pro-athletics voice is almost always stronger (and has deeper pockets) than any of the other stakeholders on a college campus.

Second, although the reporter for the story may have misrepresented Whittingham's views, the article suggests that Whittingham believes that if a student-athlete is "mature" enough to garner signficant playing time, it can be assumed that they are ready to take on a college academic load as well.  This seems like a huge stretch and one I'm sure would elicit countless anedcotes from faculty members and administrators demonstrating that athletic maturity/leadership doesn't always transfer into academic settings.  

Whittingham does, however, point out one of the biggest flaws in Bowlsby's proposal which is that it is a blanket solution for a problem that only effects a percentage of college athletes.  Of course, as a former student-athlete I am biased in my belief that there are plenty of athletes (even within high-profile football and men's basketball) who can balance athletic demands with the academic requirements of university life.  Barring all freshmen from participating punishes those who are well prepared and could potentially shield athletic departments from addressing problems which contribute to poor academic peformance (e.g. recruiting and signing students grossly underprepared for college, monopolizing athletes time by involving them in athletic activities for 30+ hours a week, and failing to provide sufficient support and resources to athletes to assist them in being successful in the classroom).  A better solution is to hold individual institutions and the NCAA as a whole more accountable for doing what they say they do--providing an experience for student-athletes that enhances their overall education.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

On the marginalization of the "scholarship of teaching and learning"

"[T]here remains a troubling gap between rhetoric about teaching's value and the realities of teaching's recognition and reward."

This statement from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's latest release (The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Reconsidered:  Integration and Impact) sums up one of the main arguments of the book, namely, that institutions would do well to modify faculty reward structures to recognize the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) as valid academic work on par with traditional research scholars may do within their discipline, be it physics, economics or theatre.  

One associated with such a change is the fact that at most institutions (particularly large institutions), decisions about promotion and rank advancement are guided by general policies which are then interpreted and applied by academic colleges and departments.  While the idealist in we would like to think that one day it might be a formal expectation (read:  requirement) that the vast majority of faculty members engage in substantial scholarship related to improving the way they teach or facilitate learning, that seems like a steep hill to climb.  However, a more feasible alternative would be for each college or department within an institution to commit to having one scholar who conducts a significant portion of their research on teaching and learning within that particular discipline or field.  

A structure like this would lead to at least a couple of productive things.  First, it would be a way for institutions to make good on the rhetoric commonly heard about the importance of good teaching and learning.  Additionally, a researcher in this position (I'll call them "SoTL fellows") would be better positioned to consult with their colleagues than would the traditional teaching and learning consultants working out of the Centers for Teaching and Learning found on most campuses.  They would be fluent in the disourse of the discipline, be familiar with curricula for courses taught in the department, have relationships with others in the college or department, and (hopefully) be engaged in enough traditional academic research that they are seen as credible scholars by those they consult with.  Finally, they could be effective advocates for promoting the SoTL among their colleagues and help them see the difference it can make in their experiences in the classroom, the lab, or the lecture hall.

An institution who was willing to make this sort of change would also be positioned to gather meaningful data about how the SoTL impacts teaching evaluations, learning outcomes for particular courses and programs, satisfaction rates among faculty members who do significant amounts of teaching.  In other words, it would create small cells of innovation across a campus that, in time, could have more far reaching effects upon the learning that students experience.