Friday, March 30, 2012

The search for institutional identity: Who are we and where are we going?

"Before you can be a positive part of change or a facilitator of change, you have to be really sure of what you believe personally. . . .  It is important to clearly understand and to be guided by our values and beliefs if we hope to operate beyond what could be described as a superficial level."

I read this statement about a month ago in a trimmed down version of a dissertation study conducted by Garry McKinnon a number of years ago in Alberta, Canada.  It seemed insightful at the time and I made a note to write a post about it, but then life happened and the post never did.  However, since reading McKinnon's study I have been reminded--at least three times--of the way in which personal values impact administrative leadership in higher education.  I'll comment on those three experiences below.

The first occurred a little over a month ago when I listened to Michael Bassis speak at an ePortfolio conference at Westminster College.  Bassis' tenure will be ending this summer, so he was particularly reflective and self-revealing in his remarks, which was incredibly refreshing.  And, his values were clearly evident in both the substance of his remarks (the value of integrative learning experiences and the necessity of institutional features that promote and facilitate this type of learning) as well as the way in which he interacted with those of us attending the session.  I remember, specifically, his response to one question (I, actually, don't remember the question) from an attendee which was "I don't know," followed by a long, pensive pause.  Eventually, I think he tried to articulate some kind of answer, but his clear humility and recognition that some questions don't have clear or quick answers were on display.  Additionally, his frequent references to his colleagues (and it was clear that he viewed them as such, as opposed to underlings or subordinates) and their good work was evidence of his emphasis upon collaboration across campus.  Finally, the fact that Bassis has created his own ePortfolio, describing and demonstrating the degree to which he has achieved the College Wide Learning Goals he expects students at his institution to achieve, was remarkable.  His personal values are not only clearly articulated in this video welcome to his ePortfolio, but visible across the various artifacts included in the ePortfolio and, more importantly, evident in the way Bassis has approached his presidency.  Westminster College has been transformed over the last ten years because Bassis has worked to make meaningful changes and made sure that his work has been aligned with a grander vision.  What's even more impressive is that, from what I can see, the vast majority of his campus--both faculty/administrators and students--have embraced that vision and made Bassis' values their own.  This has meant that Westminster College has been on a journey towards a clear destination, a destination which influences key decision-making at all levels of the college from admissions, to individual departments, to far-reaching initiatives like the decision to incorporate ePortfolios and College Wide Learning Goals for all students.

The second experience isn't quite as cheery.  A little over two years ago my campus made the decision to implement a first-year initiative that would (a) require students to complete core general education requirements and (b) assign every incoming freshman student an upperclassman peer mentor.  Although I was nervous at that time about how feasible it would be to provide seats in high-demand courses for 5500 students and, even more, be able to provide mentoring support to that many students, I have been pleasantly surprised with how well it has gone and how an "everybody's in" approach has allowed us to provide support to students who would never have received in an opt-in program.  However, as with any new large-scale initiative, there have been hiccups, frustrations, mistakes, and times when we wanted to cry "Mulligan." Also, not surprisingly, there have been a few students and parents who haven't been pleased with things (although it has been a much smaller number than I would have guessed).  And, a small percentage of these disgruntled folks have sent emails or made phone calls to university administration.  To make a very long story short, two years later the university has made the decision to back off its original intention to (a) require students to complete first-year requirements during the first year (its almost all I can do to even type an oxymoronic sentence like that) and (b) ensure that every student has a peer mentor.  For me, this is a clear case of identify diffusion at the institutional level.  As a campus community, we are relatively unsure of who we are and what we value (e.g. Is mentoring that important?  Does everyone need a mentor?  Is general education all that critical?  Should we really require anything of students?), yet from what I can see not all that concerned about it because we have no problem changing the tone of the message we send students on a nearly annual basis (i.e. "Everyone can benefit from a mentor" and "All students should be involved in a first-year writing course during their first year" to "If you want a mentor, great, but we won't really care if you don't" and "Just complete the requirement at some point before you graduate and we won't bother you").  I love my campus and its founding ideals, but honestly I worry sometimes whether we'll ever get where we think we are going.  If our stated message continues to be "expected but not required" (that is language pulled directly from official statements handed down from campus administration), students will hear a much different message.

Finally, a happy ending from an Inside Higher Ed article this week describing how Defiance College President Mark Gordon opens his home to students for weekday study halls, basement ping-pong games, and weekend classic movie nights (his wife also deserves credit for sending a personal letter to each incoming student with a coupon for a free home-cooked meal--what's more, if a student takes her up on her offer and comes for dinner, they receive a standing invitation for dinner for the rest of their time at the college).  While none of these things is evidence that students at Gordon's college are receiving a good education, it is a clear signal of his personal philosophy towards his presidency--Defiance College is a "family" who look out for one another, personal relationships with students matter, and a campus administrator is never too busy to have conversations with students.  Of course, Defiance is a small school, so this sort of involvement with a president would not be possible on some campuses, but the point is that Gordon knows what type of campus he wants and is doing very personal things to try and help that happen.

So, while a campus community is made up of many more people than an individual campus leader, that individual, including their values, vision, and identify, will do much to determine where the ship sails and what path it will take.

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