“Takeaways” for College Presidents

As we enter 2019, our national study of higher education is in its 7th year! During these years, my colleagues and I have often been asked to speak publicly about our findings. But as long as we were still collecting data, this was not possible; and even after data collection has now been completed, we still have much data analysis to carry out.

For several years, the leaders of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC)—a consortium of several hundred small private institutions of higher education—have asked me to talk about our study. As we completed the study, I agreed to speak to their annual “Presidents’ Conference,” in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January of this year. I thought that this would be an apt audience for a set of “maiden presentations” by Senior Project Manager Wendy Fischman and me.

Some weeks before the conference, Wendy and I touched bases with Rich Ekman, the President of CIC, and Hal Hartley, the Senior Vice President. The four of us wanted to increase the likelihood that we were on the proverbial “same page” with reference to our presentations. We learned that the presidents were very busy, did not have much time to read and reflect, and were especially appreciative of “takeaways.”

Though I certainly understand the plight of these often harried leaders, I don’t usually do “takeaways”—and I was not at all sure that our study was ready for a small set of succinct conclusions and recommendations. But after some reflection and discussion with my colleagues, I decided that I would attempt to fulfill my hosts’ request. (For an article from Inside Higher Ed about the convening, click here.)

And so here, with appropriate drum roll, are the seven messages that several hundred college leaders could take home with them from the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale:

1. Not that Different from One Another

Surprisingly, most colleges are much more similar to one another than one might have thought. They confront the same issues. And the differences within and across colleges are, not infrequently, other than one might have predicted. For example, in the course of an hour-long interview, students in a wide variety of colleges used the same words, the same language.

But sometimes, they seem to mean different things by the same word (e.g. “diverse” can refer to students from different cultural backgrounds or to students who favor different activities); and sometimes they may use different words (e.g. “diverse” and “quirky”) to mean the same thing.

More troublingly, mental health challenges and feelings of alienation cut across colleges large and small, public and private, highly selective and less selective.

2. A Mission Known and Understood by All

Formulate and know your school’s mission, enunciate it, make sure that everyone else knows and understands it, including trustees and those who give campus tours. (We saw examples to the contrary—for instance, campus guides poking fun at the liberal arts mission of the school.) In my opinion, the mission should be fundamentally academic, unless the school is avowedly vocational.

If there are libraries, museums, and faculty—and of course there should be!—these should be integral to the mission. There can be a secondary mission—personally I endorse a civic mission or a religious mission—but that mission should be addressed academically and not on a high stakes athletic field.

Alas, students rarely mention these academic essentials. But, put bluntly, if we just want to have athletics, or clubs, or a gathering place for students, we don’t need to have faculty, libraries, or museums.

3. Flexibility with Respect to the Curriculum

Within the academic mission, there is much flexibility. When asked what changes they would make in the school’s curriculum, very few students have specific, workable ideas. At most, they gripe about too many “gen ed” requirements. Precisely because students are not curricular designers, this situation gives faculty and administrators a great deal of flexibility in the creation and curation of curriculum. Working with faculty who are willing and able, leaders should take advantage of that opportunity.

My own curricular recipe? That’s a topic best elaborated upon on another occasion. But I personally believe that all college students should have the opportunity to ponder big philosophical questions (ranging from the nature of truth to the meaning of a good life) and to understand the operation of the various systems of communication (spanning ordinary language to abstruse computer codes) that human beings have developed. Not only are those topics crucial for an understanding of our human world, in its constant and in its rapidly changing guises; but these intellectual topics are most easily broached in the later years of adolescence… or thereafter.

4. Identify the Misalignments and Strive for Better Alignment, But Avoid “Projectitis”

A crucial concept in our study is that of alignment/misalignment. Because over the course of our study we spoke at length to eight different constituencies across ten distinctly different campuses, we have a striking amount of data about agreements/alignments and disagreements/misalignments in American higher education. As an example of alignment, issues of belonging loom large across campuses. As an example of misalignment, constituencies within and across campuses differ strikingly on whether colleges should teach practical and/or vocational skills.

Leaders: Identify the misalignments on your campus and look for ways to bring about better alignment. (The “ALPS” cases that we have collected over the last seven years achieve better alignment. For sample ALPS cases, please see blogs on this site here, here, and here, and, of course, future blogs and publications as well.)

When a misalignment has been identified, address it if you can. Sample programs on other campuses can be helpful—and we believe that our ALPS cases will be suggestive.

However, don’t just create a new program or a new project. As we have dubbed it, “projectitis” almost never works. Indeed, when multiple programs are launched, the various constituencies are prone to roll their eyes and conclude “this too shall pass.” Only launch a program if it has been well-researched and promises to address a genuine need. Also, think carefully about future sources of funding. Externally-funded aligning programs need to be able to continue, assuming that they are working, after the external funding disappears.

The graveyards of colleges and universities are filled with projects that did not have staying power.

5. Invest in People, not Primarily in Buildings

We found a surprising consensus among students: invest in effective teaching, in relevant, pointed advising, and in timely and sensitive personal support—helping students cope with their mental health challenges and feelings of alienation and anomie. And if technology does not demonstrably support the mission, “junk it.”

Of course, for a college president, this takeaway may pose challenges. And that’s because many individuals of means would prefer to pay for rooms, halls, wings, or even entire buildings—especially if a monetary investment provides a naming opportunity. But rather than throw in the fund-raising towel, effective leaders need to educate their trustees about what is genuinely needed and genuinely useful. And indeed, the satisfaction of helping a student, or a cohort of students, to navigate the personal and academic challenges of college can be great. And perhaps someone who has been helped by a generous donor will one day name his or her child after the benefactor!… a new and meaningful kind of “naming opportunity”!

6. Maintain the Ethos of the “Liberal Arts and Sciences,” but Don’t Dwell on the Phrase—It’s Not Understood

My colleagues and I began our study with an unabashed admiration for traditional liberal arts. But we learned that many, perhaps most respondents, cannot define liberal arts at all, or define it erroneously (e.g. “politically on the left” or “anything goes”).

In the 21st century, only a few schools will remain faithful to a relatively pure focus on the liberal arts and sciences, perhaps the Ivies, perhaps the aspiring Ivies, perhaps the occasional St. John’s or Bard.

And of course, there will be a proliferation of colleges that are in effect vocational training centers—whether so named or not.

I believe that the most promising formula for 21st century higher education was identified by a graduating student at the Massachusetts-based Olin College of Engineering. As the student put it, “I’m getting the best of both worlds, a liberal arts education and an engineering degree.” I am sufficiently familiar with Olin College to believe that the student is on to something important. But I also know that the situation at Olin is unusual (small classes, modest tuition, a brilliant and innovative founding president) and not readily replicated. But if quality higher education is to survive in our nation—and perhaps if it is to survive globally—an auspicious blend of liberal arts and vocational training may be the most likely blend.

A lot depends on what is meant by “vocation.” We believe the term should be broadly defined. In our study, we pose this question to students who rate “getting a job” highly: “And what will happen if the job disappears in three years?” Needless to say, there is an enormous difference between students who throw up their hands in despair (“I guess I wasted four years and over $100,000.00 dollars”); those who reply that they are using college to learn about a broad sector (e.g. economics majors learning about finance; biology or nursing majors learning about health) and/or about a stance (e.g. English majors who seek to master effective communication; political science majors who want to focus on conflict resolution); and those who expect to be able to draw on that learning in multifarious ways—some predictable, others less so.

Which brings me to the seventh takeaway—hopefully an inspiring one:

7. College Presidents: Monitor Your Mission and Guide It Forward

If you:

  • succeed in articulating a viable mission;
  • with the appropriate personnel and guidelines;
  • can show that you are moving in the right direction (convincing skeptics as well as true believers);
  • and that others on campus are sharing and embodying your vision:

You will have earned a College President Medal of Honor.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. First Steps Toward Going Public: Our Study at the Start of 2019 | Howard Gardner - January 10, 2019

    […] findings are definitive and which ones will have to be modified or even scuttled. However, in the previous blog in this series, we reported the seven “takeaways” that we presented to the college […]

  2. On Quality Higher Education: An Essay in Three Installments, Part 3 | Howard Gardner - April 1, 2019

    […] aspirations. But it’s clear that no institution can achieve all of these goals (see our recent blog on takeaways for college presidents), and it’s not at all clear that colleges—as campuses, as […]

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