Change in higher education


There are a couple of former university presidents whose opinions seem particularly insightful on the subject of the strengths and weaknesses of universities today. One is Michael McPherson, formerly president of Macalester College and author (with Morton Schapiro) of The Student Aid Game. Another is Bill Bowen, formerly president of Princeton and author of Higher Education in the Digital Age. And a third is Derek Bok, twice president of Harvard and author of Higher Education in America. Each of these thinkers and leaders has given serious, reflective, empirical study to the complex of institutions that make up American higher education. And each has had the concrete and challenging experience of leading a college or university through important changes. Given that being able to maintain superlative university education for the broadest spectrum of our young people is critical for our economic and global future, it is worth thinking hard about their assessments. (Another voice I’ve admired on these topics for many years is that of Martha Nussbaum, whose Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities and Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education shed welcome light on the curricular side of the issue.)

Derek Bok’s Higher Education in America appeared a few months ago, and presents over 400 pages of description, analysis, and temperate criticism of American colleges and universities today. (It would have been useful if he had provided a short policy companion, pulling out central concerns and key recommendations for reform, keyed to the full text.) The book includes treatments of research universities, community colleges, public comprehensive universities, private liberal arts colleges, for-profit schools, and professional schools (medicine, law, business).

One point that Bok understands very well is that each college or university is an institution in the technical sense — a set of governance rules, power blocs, constituencies, leaders, and missions and goals. The overall effectiveness of the college or university is the net product of the workings of these various factors, and it is valuable to try to uncover some of their system properties. Do systems of published student evaluations of teaching push faculty towards grade inflation? Do formal rules of faculty governance obstruct needed processes of internal reform? Do presidents and senior administrative officers have built-in incentives to create administrative bloat and mission creep? Do faculty prefer lecturing because it is a time-saver?

Here I referred to “overall effectiveness” as if we knew what that was for a university. But because universities serve a plurality of goals, it is difficult to define “overall effectiveness”. Universities want to support strong and well funded research, provide effective undergraduate and graduate education, play a positive role in regional or national economic development, satisfy elected officials, and raise funds. Are there unavoidable tradeoffs among these goals? If so, how do we make good decisions about how to balance efforts across the various goals? Or is it better to compartmentalize goals by units of effort, asking a dean to optimize undergraduate education in her college and asking the vice president for research to optimize research activities? Or perhaps even worse — should we allow certain goals to coast on auto-pilot while actively striving across units to improve performance on another goal? (Some universities give the impression that they’ve made that choice when it comes to the goals of improving undergraduate education and furthering the research activities of the university.)

This is where the expertise and experience of people like Michael McPherson, Bill Bowen, and Derek Bok come into particular importance. They have been at the center of these kinds of institutional ensembles and have gained important practical insights into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leading a process of change in a university. And they each take the approach that this is a complex empirical process and must be studied using appropriate tools of empirical investigation.

One theme that I found particularly useful in Higher Education in Americais Bok’s treatment of undergraduate education and curriculum. Bok underlines the value of a broad university education at every level — for the individual, for the business who hires him or her, and for the society.

According to employment experts Anthony Carnevale and Donna Desrochers, companies find that graduates who have completed a broader, more traditional program tend to adapt more easily to changes in the nature and skill requirements of their jobs and to be more “trainable” for evolving occupational demands than those who have received a narrower vocational training. (169)

So the idea that an undergraduate education should have breadth across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities finds support in some of the empirical research that Bok cites. And Bok finds broad consensus among university faculties about the most general intellectual skills that need to be cultivated by a university education: critical thinking, capacity for self-directed learning, mastering knowledge in a discipline, and developing ability to write and communicate clearly (167). Along with these skills there is broad consensus as well about fostering tolerance, developing creative abilities, improving racial understanding, and developing moral character.

So how well does the typical university curriculum do in fostering these skills? Bok finds that there is empirical research on this topic, and it supports the conclusion that students typically make measurable progress with regard to core learning goals through their undergraduate years. Here is a summary table from Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research: 2 (Bok, 179).

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This table (measured in terms of standard deviations in achievement exam scores) indicates progress. But as Bok points out, it is reasonable to hope that we might do a lot better than this. Take critical thinking — the data indicate a half of a standard deviation improvement in this skill from freshman to senior. This means that the individual who scored at the 50th percentile as a freshman would score at the 67th percentile if he/she took the same test in the field of similar freshman students. (Other areas show more progress, it should be noted.) It is Bok’s view that this is a relatively modest improvement, and this seems right. (Of course it must be noted that these results are aggregated over many institutions, with students of varying levels of proficiency and ability at the freshman level. So it is possible that the same measurement performed at, say, Berkeley, would lead to stronger results and performed at XYZ university would lead to worse results.)

What this suggests is that university faculty and administrators — deans, provosts, directors — should be paying a lot of attention to the best available ways of measuring progress in key intellectual skills, and equally they should be paying attention to curricular and pedagogical innovations that can improve attainment. If lecturing about the fundamentals of organic chemistry can be shown to be less effective than small-group interactive discussion, reading, and experimenting, then surely faculty and administrators need to find ways of modifying the classroom experience so that the more effective approach is taken. Put it another way: the learning and teaching experience in a university is a complex amalgam of faculty, students, curriculum, prevailing pedagogical approaches, and assessment tools. We should be working intelligently to understand each component of this system with an eye to improving the overall results.

Here is an interesting example in physics teaching that Bok cites:

Two professors of physics, Ibrahim Halloun and David Hestenes, gave a striking illustration of the drawbacks of lecturing after they began to suspect that students in their introductory course did not really understand the basic principles of physics covered in class. Instead of putting their suspicions aside — as professors often do when temporarily assailed by dark thoughts about their teaching — they devised a test consisting of problems students could easily solve if they truly understood the basic concepts. They then gave the test to students prior to the first class. Since the course had not yet begun, the results were naturally abysmal. At the end of the course, however, when students should have mastered the basic concepts, the instructors gave the same test again. The results showed virtually no improvement. The students could recite the concepts, but they did not understand them well enough to apply them even to simple problems that differed from those taken up in class. (188)

Bok then describes the changes that these physics professors introduced into their teaching to improve their students’ basic understanding of the physical principles. One such change aligns with the idea of “engaged learners”: “Rather than lecture extensively, they should spend much of the time in class having students grapple with problems raised by their readings. In many subjects, students will gain more from such exercises if they work in groups where those having trouble grasping a concept or solving a problem can get help from fellow students” (189). This in turn dovetails with the idea that is emerging in the digital learning context of the “flipped” classroom: lectures and demonstrations are relegated to multimedia materials on the web that students are required to study, and the classroom is reserved for discussion, problem solving, and active engagement with the principles involved in the online materials.

There is a great deal more of interest in Higher Education in America — on medical education, on business curricula, on faculty governance, on presidential leadership, and on the challenges and necessity of change within universities in the current environment. The book is worth reading carefully by faculty leaders and university administrators as they make their best efforts to enhance the educational effectiveness of their programs.



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