Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why Focus and Investment are the Keys to the Higher Education Kingdom

Most good universities offer a range of excellent program.  While some of these efforts are better than others, quality is generally strong. What separates good universities from great universities are the truly excellent, world class programs that great universities have developed over long periods of time.  These are the programs that are well recognized, ranked and envied.  They have the star faculty, excellent professional and support staff, the best graduate students and the most talented and accomplished alumni.  They bring the university resources and fame.  They are the jewels in the universities crown.  In many cases, they are a national treasure.

I suspect that to an extent, these programs are created at the expense of other efforts. Resources are scarce and only some areas are going to rise to the level where they can add to the university's reputation.  This doesn't mean that we should do a poor job on these areas,  only that investing in greatness is important.  Maybe we can't afford to do everything.

The difference between brilliant administrators and merely competent ones is that they can recognize the difference and act on that knowledge. This involves  assessing what is possible and what advantages in location and resources a university has.  It also means rising above conventional ideas and local politics to create something great.  It is much easier to do this some other way.  It involves saying "no" more than some administrators are comfortable with.

Great programs are built over long periods of time.  This is slow food not fast food.  They require long term commitment and a core of scholars who are willing to work on a core problem or issue.  We live on a world of immediate gratification.  Many  managers, including those in higher education, want to see greatness achieved over night.  While I cannot say that it never happens it rarely happens.  Spending a lot of money is the way to build a football team not an academic center of excellence.

It is going to be more expensive and ultimately less successful to build programs in what are "hot" areas.  This comes and goes but competition is likely to be heavy.  It is easier and probably more successful to identify an area, however trendy, that is already substantial and work on that.  A good decision might be to invest in an area that your are already a leader and where resources are less costly.  What would be your return on investment?

So what is the antithesis of focus in academic programming?  It means having a lot of programs that you can't invest in and if you did, the results would be poor.  This is called empire building in the social service world.  It usually results in a large thud when it ends unsuccessfully.

Building great academic efforts is a quest not unlike creating a great painting or sculpture.  It involves focus, discipline and commitment.  It is worth the effort.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The World Famous Problem

I spend many a happy weekend day looking for lighthouses.  I track my quarry through small towns, two lane roads and all matter of rural settings.   Many of the towns that I visit have a restaurant, a bar or a store that heralds itself as a  Famous Diner or home of so and so's Famous Hot Dogs or Pizza or Chili.  I never eat at any of these places, so I can't comment on the food.  While it is possible that all of these establishments are famous or even world famous I've never heard of any of them so I question this.  It's easy to put up a sign and hard to check on a reputation.  I doubt anyone gets hurt.  On balance, this process is also found in other arenas.

 One of those areas is colleges and universities. Reputation is important in higher education and all the players know that.  The general logic is that you go to the best place you can get into.  How do we know what the best places are? 

Everybody knows that Harvard and Oxford are wicket good schools.  There is general consensus about a lot of other places.  After that, we are not always so sure.

We have rankings (which everybody criticizes but seem to be a part of everybody's advertising) which are generally limited to whole  institutions but occasionally deal with departments and professional schools.  The criteria used vary widely.  Some are reputation rankings and others use a set of factors to judge the effort.  A lot of this is a judgement call but its better than nothing.

Rankings cost money so not everything gets ranked.  This means that in a lot of ways you are on your own in figuring out what the best really is.  Being famous might help (although Hitler is famous) but how do we know that a particular program is famous?  Like the restaurants that I pass up on my weekend trips, many programs claim to be famous or notable or the best.  Nobody advertises that they are a low quality program.  They often offer some reasons about why they are the best.  Here is a short list:

1)  We were the first or we have a program that has existed for a long time.  This says a lot about persistence but little about quality.  While it stands to reason that poor quality programs would go out of business, that isn't always true.Survival is often more about politics than quality.

2)  We are expensive.  Also not a measure of quality.  You don't always get what you pay for.  

3)  We are the Largest Program:  Size doesn't equal quality.  In some cases it doesn't mean a lot of resources.   On the other hand it is often difficult for small programs to mobilize the effort to achieve renown.

4)  We are highly selective.  This doesn't mean that your program is any good--it means that your incoming students are.  It also might mean that you have really good advertising or that you are situated in an attractive city, have tons of financial aid or have the reputation as a fun campus.

5)  Top People hold us in high regard.  What people are those?  How do you know?  Is it in writing anywhere?  I don't believe anything that isn't in writing.  If everybody knows it, somebody wrote it down.  At that point, you can deal with source credibility.   Other than that, it's gossip.

6)  Accreditation makes us the best.  Sorry--accreditation means that you met a set of standards.  Those standards are often very basic. You know what they call the person who graduates last from medical school--answer: Doctor.

7)  All of Our People Went to Great Schools.  How wonderful.  Were they any good there?  What have they done since?  Just because people had potential doesn't mean they did anything with it.

Quality, particularly quality in graduate and professional education, depends on  having an excellent faculty, cutting edge research, first quality students and a well developed curriculum.  It needs good leadership.  It needs faculty who are part of the important conversations in their professions and in their disciplinary specialties.  If this sounds like hard work, you can be sure that it is--it's a lot easier to hang out a sign.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The World Famous Problem

I like to go on road trips (largely looking at lighthouses) and I have seen a lot of small town America in the process. It is rare that I see a town of any size without a world famous or at least a famous restaurant. Most of these places look like average eating establishments and I doubt that most are referenced in the tour books or restaurant guides.  But famous doesn't really mean anything beyond well known and maybe well thought of and as long as it isn't qualified by something like "World" or "Nationally" it might be very well true that this is the most famous restaurant in a small town.  Restaurants actually have criteria.  There is the ratings the health department provides and then there are offline and online ranking systems.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Honey, I shrunk the Enrollment!!!

Tuition is an important source of income for many academic programs, a fact that leads to considerable anxiety when numbers of students are declining.  While some universities never encounter overall declines in numbers of students (although individual programs may experience declines), others always fret over their numbers.  Most institutions have sophisticated enrollment management strategies and developed marketing plans.

At the program or department level, however it is not that simple.  University strategies take the lead. The unit is left with less maneuvering room.  What seems to be more problematic however,  is the way that many programs approach their marketing efforts.

Academics are not well known for their ability to promote even good ideas and it is truly remarkable that people who are trained to analyze complex problems are often willing to tie enrollment decline to a single variable. It's been my experience that it is almost never true that one thing is to blame for declining enrollments. It also means that one thing will probably not turn it around. Marketers tell us that organizations create a marketing mix encompassing product, price, promotion and place.

Fundamentally, a healthy department, program or unit has found a way to integrate the teaching, research and service in synergistic ways. It has a sense of purpose and everyone works together to address the needs of the students, the academy and society.  It is a welcoming place that seems like a center of important activity.  There is a focus on something good.  People want to be there.  Programs like this still do not sell themselves, but they are certainly easier to promote than those that move away from this model.  They also create more social value.

Not everybody works in a place like that.  Having said that, it might still be possible to create products

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Professions Need to Have a MOOC

The growth of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is a development that promises to make significant change in Higher Education.  Coming on the heels of a huge expansion of online education, MOOCs have the possibility of changing further the troubled business model of higher education. 

Basically a MOOC makes courses available to a wide range of people, often for free. There are a number of major providers that involve courses from a range of universities. This means that you can take a course for free and in certain cases get certification for it.

Higher education provides, among other things, the transmission of knowledge (instruction) and and the granting of degrees (credentialing). While online courses changes the dynamics on the instructional side of higher education, MOOCs have the potential of changing the credentialing side.

This is important to the professions because future professions receive their initial status as a consequence of some activity of higher education. Professional schools and professional programs have long been part of higher education (there are exceptions) and what changes one part of the system impacts all areas of the system.  Even a casual reader of the Chronicle of Higher Education have seen how this dynamic plays out in professional education.

There are differences between what professional programs do and what traditional academic programs do and those variations must be considered.  Large graduate enrollments are common in the professions and unheard of in most traditional disciplines.  This has made professional programs the cash cows of universities while traditional disciplines look to their undergraduate enrollments (mostly lower division general ed courses) to support much smaller graduate efforts. Recruiting and marketing is also almost completely different.  Most traditional discipline recruit through scholarly networks while professional schools tend to favor graduate fairs and mass media advertising.  By the same token, intellectual ability is often not as important as professional suitability as a criteria for student performance. Practica are an important part of most professional education. These conflicts are often difficult to deal with in the traditional bricks and mortar institutions.  

If MOOCs develop along traditional lines, it is unlikely that professional schools will be happy with the results. Open education and professional education have a number of conflicting interests and some of those interests are critical to profession building.

There are broader reasons for professions to become involved in the MOOC movement.  The boundaries between academic institutions and other aspects of society are becoming more fluid and the MOOC movement can be a major movement in that direction.  Learning continues for the life of the professional and this changes the way that happens.

Professionals are, in many ways, the original knowledge workers.  This means that there is both a huge initial knowledge base as well as a continued demand for the acquisition of new knowledge. The potential support of lifelong learning in a MOOC environment makes continuing education both easier and harder. It makes the delivery option potentially easier and might support the credentialing function as well (creating an interesting potential conflict between universities and private CEU providers). This potential might be lost or delayed if MOOCs concentrate only on traditional college courses.

Given the consequences for professions and professional education, it is clear that the MOOC movement is potentially important.  Two strategies present themselves.  First, the professions might use their considerable influence to affect the development of the MOOC movement and the major MOOC providers.  This would be difficult because the platforms are already quite advanced and changes might be both difficult and expensive.

While it might seem like a daunting task, a better strategy might be profession specific MOOCs sponsored by professional associations and professional schools. This could support and variety of approaches and needs.  It can incorporate professional norms and controls as well as gatekeeping issues.

I make no representation that this will be easy but consider this: knowledge is what separates professionals from technicians.  The MOOC revolution can radically change the way that knowledge is transmitted.  That can be either a dagger at the heart of the professions or a movement to the bright future that the professions need and want.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Eighties are Over

Recently I went to see the movie version of Rock of Ages. Basically it was about Rock at the end of the 1980’s and the music was great.  Sadly, my date thought it was a little hard on boy bands but we will leave it at that (I could have been more sympathetic). I started thinking that the eighties were a great time in higher education—at least for me.  I had my first teaching job and started work on my doctorate.  I also began to wonder what happened. After giving the matter some though I came to a conclusion--The world changed and higher education began to change as well.

Starting in the mid-1970s we began to see the unmistakable growth of a global information economy. The huge round of deindustrialization, downsizing and so forth that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s were an early result of this trend. A lot of the changes in higher education were attempts to address these developments.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to see this as being different. I like the analogy that our environmental science friends have with boiling a frog.  If you drop the frog into hot water it will jump out. If you drop the frog into cold water and slowly increase the heat, it will boil to death.  Sadly, a lot of faculty and administrators are in the position of the second frog.  So as a service to the academic community I thought I’d offer a brief tour of the present.  Sing along if you know the words.   

Are you ready to Rock?

Paradise City:  Colleges in the 1980s were almost exclusively traditional bricks and mortar arrangements and the total numbers of students was smaller than it is today.  Pressures for research and publication at smaller and midsize institutions were modest. Students enjoyed a large range of financial aid options that easily covered the relatively low cost of higher education.  Jobs for college graduates were relatively easy to get, in spite of the recessions that periodically hit the job market.  This was especially true for PhDs who found multiple offers for their services. 

Rock You Like A Hurricane:  Things changed. The demand for students increased due to the smaller demographic following the baby boom and other factors, such as the increasing size of administrative staffs.  Even smaller Universities began to see that teaching would not pay for operating costs and pressure for funded research increased. Universities also began to grow more concerned over prestige and rankings. To be fair, some universities were always like this.  In the last two decades however, it became more and more mainstream.

In the last two decades, Higher Education changed a great deal.  Class sizes increased, pressure for research grew and the demands of the faculty role became more substantial.  More and more teaching is done by adjuncts and TAs. The huge growth of administrative staff is dramatic and costly.  The cost of higher education increased dramatically leading to an explosion of student debt. Many new graduates are having a hard time finding jobs.  The economics of higher education will likely drive many institutions into oblivion.  The job I had in 1980 is nothing like the job I have today.  These forces have sparked a number of developments:

Any Way You Want It:   Most universities have moved from only on our campus day offerings to a range of possibilities.  Things like night classes, classes at more convenient locations, classes on Saturday and so forth were well established by the 1980s.  The growth of technology and distance education has accelerated this process. One exciting development, the spread of free courses online promises to change everything.

A lot of people balk at technology, even in the face of overwhelming evidence from the research community.  The truth is that the alternatives are huge classrooms (200-500 students), lot of adjuncts or burning out your faculty. None of those are good choices. Courses that are too small don’t make money.  If you run too many of these courses, you go out of business.

The other side of this is the global search for students.  Many universities have established programs in China, Korea and India. Other universities have created programs to bring international students into the fold.  They are a huge part of the emerging market and you ignore them at your peril. 

I Want To Know What Love Is:  The growth of metrics and activity based budgeting systems is taking a lot of the occasionally capricious choice out of the system.  We now have numbers that are difficult to finesse.  While some of the metrics are not that helpful, others provide needed clarity.  Years ago everything was a judgment call, now that’s changing. 

Students and families are beginning to use metrics to separate spin from substance. They have access to a variety of freely available metrics. It is kind of difficult to mislead an informed consumer.  If you say your program is world famous it had better have the rankings to back that up.

Some of the things that once worked for building fame and glory have fallen on the altar of metrics. Things like prestigious visitors, fancy parties and the like count for nothing in the new world.  Having a nice brochure is useless when a student can look at your placement rate or what your faculty really produces and draw their own conclusions. Transparency might be hard but it is really the way of the world. 

Waiting for A Girl Like You: Because of metrics, especially in the fields that use reputation rankings, schools try to recruit people with substantial reputations, publications and networks.  This is like incorporating a famous actor in your B-Movie.  People will come to see them.  Someone who is good at what they do can revitalize a department and lift it to new heights.  Sadly, that doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes you are there as window dressing for a mediocre program with unproductive faculty.  No one likes that. One of the things that I have learned is that you better be willing to respect what these colleagues bring because if you’re not, they leave and that reputation turns against you.
I’m Gonna Harden My Heart:   Getting a tenure track faculty job is getting more difficult every day and some places are trying to abolish tenure completely.  When I got my PhD, most doctoral students did not publish.  Now it is pretty much a prerequisite to getting a tenure track job at even mediocre universities.  While some schools are still hiring people for their teaching ability, more are looking for researchers.  Many of the former schools are unlikely to survive the next decade.  The quality of your research training, who your references are, publications and what your research plans are for the future can make the difference between a good job and an adjunct role at multiple institutions.

In spite of what people think, this has always been a hard job and it’s a whole lot more than teaching a few classes. After more than 3o years in this role, I push every day to keep up.

We're Not Gonna Take It:  Civility has taken a major turn for the worse in higher education.  Competition over resources always leads to conflict but I really think this is different.  In many cases, people see their positions eroded by changes in higher education and its environment. Even if your job isn’t in jeopardy, your self-concept might be. 

Frustration often leads to bad behavior and occasionally to mental illness.   The fact that the university wants you to produce more does not mean that the people who are already producing are out to get you.  It means that the university wants you to produce more.

When people say their having differences about the “Soul of the University” they are usually are arguing about resources.  It might be better if we dropped the pretense and just fought over that.   The truth is that universities make money on some things and not on others.  That doesn’t make those other things unimportant. There needs to be a balance. Most universities will support productive programs even if their enrollments are modest. What they won't support are programs that do nothing well.

Some departments degenerate into an almost cult-like state with incredible delusional systems that one almost has to see to believe.  Any questioning of the central set of beliefs is met with immediate and very hostile reactions.

Since managing higher education is much harder than it used to be, many talented leaders decide to go elsewhere or avoid management all together.  There are some very good leaders in higher education and some who try very hard to be so.  On balance, there are people who fulfill the old saying that those who have to have power are the ones that shouldn’t have it.  They can be a disaster.

Don't Stop Believin:  The big news is this is not the eighties.  That time has passed. Higher education is a whole different place. Sadly, some people don’t see it that way and for them, life is frustrating. You can make things happen in your mind, but that doesn’t make them real.  Many ideas that seemed to work in the 1980s are not going to work today, even if you wish really hard.

Higher education is changing but many of the changes have yet to come. Like most organizations, successful universities will become flatter, tech savy, more data driven and better able to deal with their various constituencies. State support for higher education will continue to shrink as state finances become tighter.  Universities will have to find less costly ways to deliver instruction. They will also have to find other sources of income. This is a challenge, not a disaster.

I suspect that in 3o years the university system will be far different than it is today. As always, the future will be what we make it. If we do things right, we can be the shining city on a hill.  If not we will be the used car no one wants—or maybe a boy band.