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Desire and Will, Not Resources, are the Main Stumbling Blocks to Change

The EvoLLLution | Desire and Will, Not Resources, are the Main Stumbling Blocks to Change
The traditional recipe for a successful college or university no longer works—college and university leaders need to adopt a willingness to experiment and change if they are to cement the long-term viability of their institutions.

The higher education landscape is rapidly evolving and pushing college and university leaders to experiment, change and adapt. While many leaders will point to financial constraints as the main stumbling block to transformation, the reality is that the desire and will to change in the first place are much greater hurdles to overcome. In this interview, Karen Gross reflects on the opportunities and challenges to change for higher education institutions—especially those that are resource-constrained—and shares her thoughts on the most impactful changes an institution can adopt to remain successful over the long run.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant challenges facing leaders of resource-constrained colleges and universities?

Karen Gross (KG): To begin, I appreciate this opportunity to share my views with readers. Let me add that my answers are an effort to raise issues that may not be as obvious as others addressed in the media today; in other words, I am seeking through these questions to move the conversation about higher education and resource-constrained institutions beyond where it currently is.

I am glad the initial question noted that there are many challenges facing leaders of resource-constrained educational institutions, and they need to be prioritized. One cannot solve every problem—at least not all at once. I also would add two caveats/concerns with respect to the initial question. First, there could be some debate as to which institutions qualify as resource-constrained (cash available; size of endowment; state supported without major endowments). Second, there are resource-constrained educational institutions all along the K-12 pipeline and that reality too impacts the challenges facing higher education.

The biggest challenge for leaders is that institutions—resource-constrained or not—need to change in order to serve their students well, and the changes will be neither easy nor inexpensive. Among other realities, the nature of our students is changing; the profile of the students of today does not match the profile of students even two decades ago. Many are first-generation, many are minorities, many are low-income, many are immigrants, many are older and returning to college. This chart (US based) is useful in reflecting on who our students are in reality (as opposed to perception).

Many of today and tomorrow’s students are technology-savvy but the institutions of higher learning have not kept up with the ways technology can improve student outcomes in and outside the classroom. Consider for example the way some professors use PowerPoint, often overloading slides with written text. Ponder the possibility of college and university professors visiting elementary schools to garner an understanding of how their future students are managing technology and how these early education teachers are effectively integrating that technology into the classroom.

Institutions could—but rarely do—use technology to “nudge” students before they even arrive on campus, even though there are empirical data supporting such approaches. Emails, texts and other forms of outreach can connect prospective and enrolled students to the institution more effectively. But this outreach needs to be thoughtfully constructed. A flood of emails and texts without purpose and without quality timing will backfire. Blog prompts may have benefits too.

Change can occur but it requires will and resources. One without the other will not produce change that is systemic, systematic and measurable.

Evo: What are a few of the most promising opportunities presented by today’s postsecondary environment?

KG: I am tempted to say: See my response to the above question. The opportunities for change are remarkable and potentially landscape-changing.

But, let me provide several concrete, promising opportunities, all of which are mentioned in greater detail in my forthcoming book Shoulders to Learn On: Enabling Breakaway Student Success (forthcoming Winter/Spring 2017 Columbia Teachers College Press). They can be implemented by institutions, regardless of whether or not they are resource-constrained. We can find better ways to enable first-generation, low-income, minority student success.

One promising strategy is to ventilate the educational silos across the K-20 pipeline. Consider shared faculty development. Reflect on improved transitions across the institutions. Ponder the possibility of visits of teachers/faculty to provide both substantive information and to ease disquiet and diminish mythology. These types of adjustments are doable and the rewards occur at different levels: among teachers, between teachers and students, within institutions.

Next, we can transform pedagogy/andragogy to make learning more engaging, more focused on problem solving and analytic approaches (as opposed to memorization and regurgitation) and to enable students to be better prepared for the workforce and/or graduate school. For me, this requires that professors move from being sages on stages to being guides on the side. Additionally, we need to consider adding two key variables the classroom: depth (along with some breadth) and humanization (focusing on the human dimensions of problems).

In a forthcoming article titled “Layer Cake Learning,” appearing in the UNLV Law Rev., I describe how educators across the K-20 pipeline can teach a single topic or issue, legal states or story or event on multiple levels—starting with facts/storylines and moving to theories/themes, then to historical positioning, then to insights into the lives of the people involved and, lastly, insights into and understanding about the author or storyteller or judge. In this way, the learning depends on developing an appreciation for context, for cultural norms, for the people involved.

By changing how we teach, we are better able to insure that the next generation will be able to engage effectively in their communities, work well in their chosen fields and contribute meaningfully to our Democracy (with a capital D) through voting and civic awareness.

Evo: How can leaders of resource-constrained institutions adapt to take advantage of some of these opportunities?

KG: The suggested changes start with “desire” and “will.” Those are hard to come by but the hurdles are not economic. Institutions need to want to change how we teach. They need to want to change how they operate. And they have to be willing to forgo the comforts of familiarity in exchange for testing out new approaches.

Next, we need to rethink who are our educators and the respect that is given to individuals across the educational pipeline. We tend to view the term “educator” narrowly—educators are those with subject matter expertise who work with students in the classroom. But, in institutions of higher learning, our educators are everywhere: coaches, student life personnel, counselors, tutors, facilities personnel, dining hall personnel, security personnel, among others. Everyone on a college campus can and should help students learn—whether in or outside the classroom. They can be accessible, they can listen, they can guide. Role modeling matters—at every juncture, by every person.

Resource-constrained institutions would benefit for partnerships, collaborations and even mergers. There are ways to leverage resources and talents and we would be wise to take advantage of these opportunities—but they require several preconditions, including the abandonment of institutional autonomy as the be-all-end-all. Secondly, they rely on a willingness to respect educators at all levels of learning and at all institutions, regardless of ranking. Third, it’s critical to engage in creative ways of thinking about institutional strengths and weaknesses and how they can be enhanced, shored up and shared with other institutions, including those one might view as competitors.

Evo: What are a few other transformations taking place that you think will have a significant impact in shaping the future of the higher education market?

KG: Cost and access to financial aid will be a key issue on a go-forward basis. That concern is well known and often discussed. How the government decides to treat gargantuan endowments is an issue we will be facing. The state and improvement of accreditation (of both institutions and programs) will be an issue of sizable import. How we insure that students are workforce ready and meeting the needs of employers is another area that needs to be addressed. The aging of students, the number of students with children, the number of students who are employed while they are in school will impact higher education. It will affect the services we offer, the time classes are available, the need for childcare. We need to figure out how technology can be deployed more effectively—in class and for distance learning; we need to assess hybrid-learning models.

I think there is another major change in the offing: Students are protesting. They are making their voices heard on a myriad of issues: discrimination, trigger warnings, safe spaces, sexual harassment, cost of education. They are asking to participate in the future of their institutions and they are keen on stamping out practices and behavior—within and outside the classroom—that are offensive to them. Some institutions are struggling with giving up their control and listening to the voices of their students (and presuming they know what is best for them).

Finally, I think we will finally focus on early childhood education—from age zero through age 4. And, if we can start to close the equity gap and improve children’s language skills and appreciation for reading, that will have a significant, positive, long-lasting ripple effect. We also need to reduce the levels of homelessness and hunger and illness (physical and mental) among children; we need to curb toxic stress and trauma that a surprisingly large number of children experience. We need to start education early and often—now.

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