Blog posts tagged in Presidents Blog

For the past several weeks I have been sharing some ideas about ways to change (improve) higher education. While I look forward to reading the creative solutions that are proposed in The Chronicle of Higher Education contest about reinventing higher education, I will conclude my thoughts on this topic with my own proposal.

In my opinion, all of the ideas proposed in The Chronicle’s series are worthy of consideration and have some value. But none of them fully address the two main issues facing higher education … access and affordability. Higher education can always benefit by ideas related to programs and initiatives. But the future viability of colleges and universities may require something more radical.

Simply said, there are too many colleges in America all trying to duplicate the same programs and services. As we compete for students, we do our best to offer all of the curricular options, co-curricular programs and services, and facilities and resources that our students demand. And our students have these expectations because they see and hear about them on other campuses.

New majors, new programs, new services, new faculty and staff and new facilities require increased expenditures. Increased expenditures require increased tuition and fees. Increased tuition and fees make access and affordability a greater challenge.

The only real solution may be significant collaboration between and among colleges. Rather than duplicating programs and services, we should aggressively look for ways to offer programs and services together, sharing resources in every way. Let me offer some examples of what I mean.

Few small colleges can afford to offer a robust foreign language program. Even though we know our students should have the opportunity to study Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, and Sign Language, as well as the traditional romance languages (and even a classical language too), we are reduced to selecting which languages to offer and/or only offering introductory courses.

What if multiple colleges joined together their language programs … pooled together their resources and shared the costs of faculty, learning materials, etc.? If the institutions were in close geographic proximity, classes could be offered on each and every campus with students provided with transportation. A shared bus is a better investment than separate and individual programs.

But even more efficient would be the use of technology. There’s no reason why students couldn’t be sitting in a classroom on one or more campuses (or even in their rooms or homes) taking a class being offered by a professor on a different campus. We do that now with online learning. In this model, our students would now have a full and robust foreign language program with a fraction of the cost for the individual institution. This model could work for any discipline or course of study.

We also need to consider collaboration of administration and facilities. If institutions with 10,000 students function with a single Controller, for example, why couldn’t four institutions of 2,500 students function the same way? This systems approach would bring incredible efficiencies to each institution while maintaining individual identity. There’s no reason why we cannot build, manage and share facilities as well. So many of our facilities are underutilized and with better planning, we could share these resources.

The fundamental challenge in higher education may be the autonomous way we approach most things. Thinking about systems, collaboration and partnerships may be the best and only way to control costs and increase access. But it will take bold leadership on the part of the higher education community. I wonder if we are ready?

What do you think?

Finally, let me wish each and every one of you a happy and blessed Thanksgiving! I hope you and your families have a restful and happy time together during this holiday weekend

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

I want to continue my discussion of ideas related to changing higher education. Last week I addressed the issue of faculty appointments. This week, I want to pick up on two more of the essays included in The Chronicle of Higher Education series that are related to the quality of the educational experience … picking the right college and learning the right things. I think these essays point us in important directions, but don’t go far enough.

In an essay entitled, “High-Tech College Counseling,” the proposal is made to increase the use of technology in college guidance. According to recent data, the average student to high school counselor ratio in public schools in the United States is 459:1. Obviously, few students receive the kind of personal guidance necessary to navigate the complex process of applying to college. This problem is likely exacerbated for first generation and minority students, who may not have the family structure or experience to assist in this process.

The article suggests that more and better use be made by technology. There are already emerging software systems and programs that engage students in the process from beginning to end. These sites remind students about deadlines and requirements; they provide basic information about types of colleges and financial aid; and, they are beginning to become more interactive allowing prospective students to connect online with counselors.

Certainly there are many college-bound students who need this type of basic help. Despite what often appears to be endless communications about admissions requirements and the multiple opportunities for assistance in preparing applications, preparing for exams, etc., navigating the process is only part of the college search process. In fact, I think there is something even more important.

Students and families need more than basic help in determining how to apply for college. They need much more help in deciding why to apply to a specific college. There are hundreds of great colleges that provide extraordinary opportunities for a quality education. But the key to success for students is more often based on fit rather than admission. This is not a case of better or worse, it is about finding the college that meets a student’s educational and personal needs… a place where s/he will thrive educationally and personally.

Data indicate that the student’s first visit to campus is the key determinant in the college decision. Some studies suggest that the decision about fit is made in the first ten minutes on campus. The best decisions … the right decisions … are not typically made on first impressions. Students need to work through a much more reflective process to better understand the type of learning environment, the campus culture and the geographic location that will best serve their needs … especially after the “10 minute impression” wears off.

Once a student arrives at the right college, the next important question relates to curriculum. In an essay entitled, “An Old School Notion: Writing Required,” the suggestion is made to return to an approach popular a decade ago called writing across the curriculum.

This idea was embraced by many colleges that embedded writing requirements (and therefore writing instruction) in every course and in every discipline, rather than only in writing specific courses. These writing assignments took many forms including papers, short essays, journals, etc.

I remain amazed at why these programs seem to be less popular today despite the persistent concern raised by all faculty that incoming students do not write well. But I think we need to do more than writing across the curriculum. We need to consider thinking across the curriculum, research across the curriculum, analysis across the curriculum, etc.

We speak eloquently about the value of liberal education and the need to prepare our students to be lifelong learners equipped with the skills for both professional challenges and citizenship. And yet we often relegate these important skills to specific courses, continuing to focus on discipline-based content that we all know will be less important and likely outdated in a short time after graduation.

High schools and colleges need to work together to better assist college-bound students to make the right choice. And colleges need to rethink their curriculum to make sure these students are well educated and fully prepared for the challenges that will face them. These ideas are worthy of further discussion. These ideas are necessary for the future of higher education.

What do you think?

Posted by on in President's Blog

Last week I shared an overview of a recent series of essays that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education intended to engage people in discussion about reinventing college. I shared the titles of the essays and the fact that readers have been invited to provide their own creative ideas in a contest entitled, “Invent Your Own College!”

Some of the suggested solutions in the essays by reporters and contributors address specific challenges within higher ed, but not necessarily the central issues of access and affordability. One issue that draws a good deal of attention is the state of the professoriate.

One of the essays in the reinventing college series is entitled, “2 Tracks for Faculty.” Sadly, this idea provides nothing new and suggests a strategy that is both unrealistic and unaffordable for most institutions.

The idea proposed is to establish “two types of faculty members.” One type would be those earning doctorates, who are hired on tenure track appointments with significant responsibilities for research and graduate education. This is the common profile of today’s full-time faculty member. The second track would be those hired as full-time instructors, who are required to earn only a master’s degree and primarily teach and advise undergraduate students. At most institutions, these are part-time faculty members.

At face value, this suggestion regarding “tracks” or “types” of appointments, an idea that has been discussed for decades, makes good sense. Training instructors to be better teachers and appointing them to focus on teaching would likely improve the quality of education at most institutions. Further, the idea is that these faculty might be prepared through master’s level programs that focus on pedagogy and instructional methods within their disciplines. But this notion is connected in “2 Tracks for Faculty” with a proposal to turn current adjunct faculty (part-time) instructors into future full-time instructors.

Part-time faculty are typically under-paid with few benefits and little security. They are most often paid by the course with limitations on the number of courses they are allowed to teach. While some adjunct faculty are hired to bring a specific expertise necessary for certain courses in professional programs, most are qualified to teach a range of courses within a discipline. Many are both qualified and willing to teach full time, but are hired by the course and by the semester or year. And they deserve to be better paid and more secure in their positions.

The fact is that most colleges hire part-time faculty as one way to manage costs. This is the primary problem with this proposal. Most college presidents I know would gladly hire more full-time faculty and would see full-time instructors as both a more equitable employment option for adjuncts and a benefit to the educational experience for students. But the simple fact is that if colleges were to reduce the number of adjunct faculty and hire more full-time instructors, the overall cost would be prohibitive. And if affordability is already an issue for too many students, this would only exacerbate the situation.

The solution to the instructional challenge lies more directly in the redesign of the curriculum and the delivery of instruction (course schedule and course offerings). Whatever the optimum class size, colleges would be more efficient (and effective) if classes were all full and the curriculum was more streamlined with fewer electives.

If this was accomplished, resources would be more available to raise faculty salaries, hire more full-time faculty (tenure track and instructors) and manage costs for students. Until the cost issue is addressed, the number of tracks is unimportant.

What do you think?

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

I rarely use my blog for political reasons outside of higher education issues. I also try to take a national perspective since this blog is read by alumni/ae and friends from across the country. But today I want to share some thoughts on an issue that the citizens of Massachusetts will decide in a few weeks. And this issue raises significant moral and ethical questions about which we should all be concerned.

On November 6, the citizens of Massachusetts will vote on Ballot Question 2. A yes vote would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts. In my opinion, and the opinion of many others, this ballot question not only threatens the dignity of life, but contains flaws, which would have unintended consequences to terminally ill patients and their families.

If passed, a patient who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a prognosis of six months or less to live would have the ability to request a doctor’s prescription for medication to end his or her life. Jewish and Christian moral traditions have long rejected the idea of assisting in another’s suicide. Religious organizations are joined by secular groups including the Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Hospice and Palliative Care Federation, American Medical Directors Association, American Nurses Association, American College of Physicians, American Medical Association, and the Massachusetts Osteopathic Society in opposition to the practice of physician-assisted suicide.

Some of the key flaws in the Massachusetts ballot initiative which have been identified include:

  • Doctors agree that terminal diagnoses of six months or less are often wrong. Many with terminal diagnoses live years longer.
  • Patients requesting suicide do not need to be examined by a psychiatrist before receiving a prescription to commit suicide. Many terminally ill patients suffer from depression.
  • Question 2 does not require a consultation with a palliative care or hospice expert.
  •  No doctor is present when the patient takes the lethal prescription. This is not a dignified way to die.
  •  There is no requirement that the patient notify family members. Compassionate care at the end of life should involve the     loving support of family members.
  •  We should be supporting improved hospice and palliative care statewide, not legalized suicide.

In an open letter calling Question 2 “poorly written, confusing, and flawed,” five past presidents of the Massachusetts Medical Society- Leonard J. Morse, MD; Barbara A. Rockett, MD; Philip E. McCarthy, MD; Francis X. Rockett, MD; and Lynda M. Young, MD have cautioned that if the ballot question is passed, “the doctor/patient relationship will suffer and the way doctors deliver health care will be gravely changed.” Last month, the Massachusetts Medical Society posted,

“We are opposed to Question 2 for these reasons:

  • The proposed safeguards against abuse are insufficient. Enforcement provisions, investigation authority, oversight, or data verification are not included in the act. A witness to the patient’s signed request could also be an heir.
  • Assisted suicide is not necessary to improve the quality of life at the end of life. Current law gives every patient the right to refuse lifesaving treatment, and to have adequate pain relief, including hospice and palliative sedation.
  • Predicting the end of life within six months is difficult; sometimes the prediction is not accurate. From time to time, patients expected to be within months of their death have gone on to live many more months — or years. In one study, 17 percent of patients outlived their prognosis. ”

Lynda M. Young, MD, MMS past president, testified about the MMS policy at a hearing of the Massachusetts House Judiciary Committee on March 6, 2012: “Allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good. Physician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. “Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life. ... Patients must continue to receive emotional support, comfort care, adequate pain control, respect for patient autonomy, and good communication.”           

Dr. Joseph Gravel, president of the Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians has been quoted as saying the ballot initiative does not include adequate safeguards to protect poor people suffering from a terminal disease who may want to end their lives rather than become a financial burden to their families. (Eagle-Tribune). In a statement he issued on behalf of the more than 1,000 family doctors who are part of the academy, he announced the group’s opposition to Question 2. “The role of family physicians is to provide compassionate, high quality health care to all the patients, in each stage of life.”

He continued, “This certainly includes end-of-life care. It is clear that we need to continue to work to provide those suffering from serious illnesses, depression, and other conditions that can lead to hopelessness highly effective palliative and hospice treatments that are now available. To really address this patient need, we also need to work to assure that everyone has access to a pre-existing, trusting, personal relationship with a primary care physician that can be enormously important during these very difficult situations.” (State House News Service)

The question of legislation by referendum has also been called into question given the complexity of the legal, ethical and moral issues involved. If the ballot question passes in November, there will be no other steps or requirements to be fulfilled and the flaws and unintended consequences will be part of a new law. If passed by the voters, physician-assisted suicide will be legal in Massachusetts on January 1, 2013.

As you can see, this is more than a religious issue … it is a legal issue … it is a medical issue … and it is a fundamental moral issue related to all people of all faiths and traditions. For those in Massachusetts, I would hope that much thought and reflection would precede a decision on how to vote on November 6. For those outside of Massachusetts, issues like these need our attention and concern.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Posted by on in President's Blog

This past week, the media has covered stories related to student debt and the challenges for recent college graduates. The student debt level in this country has risen to almost $1 trillion. Of equal concern, the delinquency rate on student loans has increased to 8.9%. Having written these past weeks about the issues of access and affordability, especially for first generation college students, I thought it might be helpful to clarify some of the data related to student debt.