an immodest proposal

Rethinking the liberal arts university in an age of uncertainty

While many have warned that higher education is a bubble about to burst, fewer have advocated specific, integrated steps to reinvent it.  The situation calls for drastic measures, however, particularly for private liberal arts institutions where public dollars are limited and expected to decline.

As an enterprise these colleges and universities face a period of creative destruction—one in which an entire system will be eliminated or replaced by a more efficient and more effective one.

The ideas suggested below are not modest ones, especially when taken together.  But this is no time for timid, incremental steps.

Redefine mission.
Teaching colleges have focused largely on credit hour production as the currency of the realm.  This has led most schools to address financial challenges almost exclusively by creating new programs and recruiting new students.

This is understandable. Credit hour production can be easily measured. Unfortunately, it can no longer be predicted.  Cultural expectations and attitudes about the liberal arts are shifting rapidly, and economic pressures (including burgeoning costs and resulting student debt) have resulted in fewer students and more competition between programs that have been overbuilt.

But what if the driver of such institutions was to serve their local communities instead of to increase credit hours?  This is not as measurable, but it resituates the liberal arts as a practical and tangible force in both local and global contexts.

To redefine the mission is a cultural shift, and has less to do with rewriting goals than with rethinking values.  The liberal arts are transformative, or should be.  But this transformation can not be measured by degrees.  Or at least not by the number of them.

The importance of broad, interdisciplinary approaches to myriad cultural, economic and social problems can not be overstated.  But it can be overlooked.  And as the challenges to liberal arts schools mount, it is easy to turn inward and to count the things that can be counted.

Counting (and accounting) are necessary, obviously.  But turning outward is more necessary.   And more urgent.

Solve problems
For liberal arts colleges to see themselves as agent of positive change in their communities opens up new sources of income. Infrastructure becomes more available to local organizations and causes. But the institution and its faculty also begin to see themselves in a different way, as resources to their neighbors.

This means workshops and seminars become as important as classes and serving citizens becomes as important as matriculating students.  Recruiting students becomes no more important than engaging boomers.  Research becomes more practical as the problems of local businesses and nonprofits are addressed.  The arts move from the campus to the street.

This invites a new curriculum where students and faculty are more motivated as the focus shifts from critical thinking to situated action.  Communities will support such efforts and students will come.  They are well aware of the problems in the world and they want to make a difference.  Or they can be taught to want to.

The issue of community, which is so important to liberal arts institutions, can be addressed differently by raising the stakes. If we were to create projects that mattered, that made a difference, students would care more about their work and about each other.

Requiring every course to engage the community radically alters the curriculum, of course.  It may mean the end of survey courses as we know them.  It alters everything, actually, requiring new relationships and accepting new responsibilities.

Create partnerships
College and universities that see themselves in this way will also attract political, economic, aesthetic and social interest, so cultivating relationships with local leadership is critical as schools create laboratory experiences off campus.

This requires administrators not to see such relationships merely or even primarily from a development perspective.  While such initiatives will probably result in more donations, the focus must be on the services themselves, some of which may be paid services.  Sacrificial ones are more likely.

Nevertheless, new income streams must supplement or even replace tuition as reliance on credit hour production alone is not sustainable.  While grants may also contribute to the bottom line, some services could and should be fairly compensated as dedicated faculty and students help solve real problems or create new venues.

Students who have learned to do this will be sought after, based on portfolios of meaningful work.  They will have increased confidence based on meaningful accomplishments.   Their continued relationship with mentors and with the university is assured.

Partnerships need not be local, however.  Technology allows dispersed teams to work together across geographical barriers.  Coalitions of like-minded liberal arts schools could interact with organizations and communities to address global issues. Social networking tools enable more immediate issue and concern based learning with broader collaboration.

Reduce student debt
Student debt is of course the elephant in the room, as students and their parents are increasingly less willing to mortgage an uncertain future.  Reducing student debt is mission critical.

One way to do this is to reduce costs, of course. Privatizing various aspects of the universities operation can help.  While food service and book stores are commonly handled in this way, janitorial and maintenance services—often staffed by poorly supervised and unmotivated student workers—are examples of areas where private management would result in reduced costs.

Not-for-profit universities, unfortunately, are less likely to focus on workplace efficiencies than their for-profit counterparts, and breaking off units not essential to the core enterprise of student development and learning would reduce administrative and operational bloat.

Students could still work for such services, but they would probably be more accountable.  Interactions with the community would also result in more, and better paid, opportunities for students, providing a better real world experience.

Other aspects of university operations could also be privatized, including athletics, housing, media outlets, etc.  New revenue streams from community engagement and reduced operational costs are essential.  But these streams alone do not reduce students debt enough to make a university education attractive again to middle class parents whose neighbors have a child that is $60,000 in debt and can not find a job.

Shorten the experience
Another way to reduce student debt would be to reduce the time they spend in college. While some schools are looking at three-year bachelor programs as one way to do this, it might be more fruitful to rethink the semester itself.

Typically students take five classes over 14 weeks, meeting two or three times a week.  This is not like any schedule they will encounter the rest of their lives.  It may also not be a model consistent with their attention span and learning styles.

Imagine then a five-week term as the standard; residential students only take two classes per term.  If each class is worth 3 credits, and there are nine sessions a year, a student could earn 54 credits a year, easily finishing within 3 years.

This does not diminish the time they spend in a course.  Two hours a day every weekday for five weeks is 50 hours, roughly the same “seat time” as the current model.  But the shorter term has several academic advantages:

  • By limiting students to two course in five weeks, there is plenty of time for laboratory or field work, learning to solve problems that matter.
  • Students are more focused, with fewer courses to concentrate on at one time.
  • Daily interactions reduce the time needed for review, since the student’s mind is less cluttered and the interactions with mentors and instructors is more frequent and immediate.
  • Courses could be moved off campus to different, more appropriate venues—a theater downtown or an orphanage overseas.
  • Creative and innovative learning experiences could be created which are not consistent with current models.

An argument can be made that some courses, such as a lab science, require more processing time.  In rare instances a 10-week course could be offered, but for the most part any five-week project based course could result in significant learning and practical portfolio pieces.

Other practical (and marketable) advantages exist as well:

  • A student who has a family or health crisis only misses one five-week term, not an entire semester.
  • Struggling students are identified earlier and helped sooner.
  • Students with two classes can schedule work more easily.
  • Students can take two to four terms off each year and still finish in four years, allowing them more flexibility in finding work since everyone is not competing for the same summer jobs.
  • Rolling enrollment allows the student to enter the program at any time, without waiting until September.
  • Students can mix and match delivery systems, all available within the same five-week terms.   This allows more opportunities for them to work, thus reducing overall debt.

Rethink faculty contracts
Shorter terms and more community engagement would require new ways of thinking about faculty “load.”  If credit hour production is not the only important thing, or even the most important thing, other activities will need to be compensated.

But assuming, for the sake of illustration, that a full-time contract is 24 credit hours.  In this example we will call them units. Already, most schools assign load for some non-teaching responsibilities, but a more fluid approach would be necessary.

Community engagement would be part of a course, but practical research and service have to also be incentivized.  More activities have to be rewarded if more things are going to happen.

But the flexibility needed in this model would be better served by connecting these units of production (sorry, that’s what they are) to flat rate compensation and giving contracted faculty more flexibility.

Suppose any contracted faculty can choose to complete any number of units between 12 and 36, with a certain number being required for certain benefits.  Suppose also they could spread them out or condense them as long as institutional needs are meet.

So one person teaches two courses (3 units each) for four straight terms and they have 24 units.  Another does so for six terms and they have 36 units. Someone else does one course (3 credits) for nine terms and has 27 units.

In return for this flexibility, which allows ample time for travel and study, faculty has a new, and higher, set of expectations about community involvement.  They take students into these contexts, helping to fulfill the new, broader mission.  Poetry students do readings.  Science students monitor water quality.  Literature students develop a curriculum for an at-risk high school.  Accounting students help seniors with their taxes.

Eliminate textbooks
Faculty in this model would be more engagement in the material they teach, with fresher and more pertinent perspectives.  Helping solve real problems will require preparation and research that is responsive and applied.

New technologies allow the creation and updating of learning materials on the fly, of course, but they also allow immediate connections with diverse scholars and practitioners.  Students can interact with people who have direct knowledge of the problems they are trying to solve.

In such an environment textbooks become a crutch, limiting timely, creative engagement with the material and the community.  Finishing the textbook becomes the real objective, regardless of what the syllabus may say.

Textbooks can thwart innovation and interaction. They lack the currency of trade books and the immediacy of conversation.   They create distance between students and primary sources.

While many teachers engage students in conversations about the textbook, they do so at the expense of real engagement with real problems or real conversations with real people.  And while good students may be able to apply the material in the abstract, all student need to experience success or failure in concrete ways.

At least some lead faculty may need to be compensated for creating or assembling learning materials, but all faculty members should be expected to be fresh, prepared and engaged.  And while we expect that even now, the current structure of three to five preparations encourages shortcuts and the reliance on textbooks enables sloth.

By limiting teaching assignments to two in a five-week term, however, faculty has more time to focus on keeping their material relevant and to move themselves and their student out of the classroom.

Raise standards
As expectations for faculty increase in this way, the expectation for students would also increase.  It is one thing to learn and even analyze the material.  It is quite a different thing to apply it to real problems.

Once we connect students to the welfare of an actual child, the expectations of an actual audience, the livelihood of an actual business, the needs of an actual congregation or the health of an actual neighborhood, then we must expect more from them.

And they will expect more from themselves.  We change the conversation.

What did I do wrong is not about earning points but about solving problems. What do I have to do to get a B becomes what do I have to do to make a difference.

The answer is step up.  Start sooner and work harder.  Think carefully and act intentionally, because it matters. Get over yourself, which is the truest measure of a liberally educated man or woman.

Assessment changes in such a world.  New communities of practice emerge.  Innovation roots itself in new realities and transformation is grounded in new insights. Bright, earnest people will want to teach at, attend and give to such schools.

Flatten management
None of this would be easy.   But with current management structures most of it is impossible.   Too many levels of approval are necessary and too many committees are involved.   And way too many bosses.

Within budgetary constraints, departments and contracted faculty need to respond quickly to community needs and opportunities.  Approval processes should be streamlined and decision making pushed down to the lowest level possible.

The privatization of services would reduce the number of things administrators have to manage, freeing them to coordinate and evaluate an explosion of service focused educational innovation.  Clearly the oversight of every student need distracts them from the essential enterprise of learning and doing.

Every dean, and every vice-president, would have to focus on creating partnerships and engaging constituents in a more vital mission.  But the execution of that mission would have to be much closer to the ground, by people who have the freedom to act and the expectation of support.

Simpler hierarchies with visionary leadership are not easy to create.  Training, technology and off campus travel are expensive.  No one knows if this would actually work. But we do know that what we are doing now is also expensive and almost extinct.

No utopia is envisioned here. Reinventing the liberal arts college will require more work than we do now and result in different problems than we have now.

But just adding a new program is not bold, even if it is online.

Bold is rethinking the whole thing.

10 thoughts on “an immodest proposal

  1. Christy says:

    Since we just bought a college textbook for our son at the bargain price of $190, I’m all for eliminating textbooks. I couldn’t believe he still had to have one considering the technology available. After all, he’s taking the college algebra course online.

    There are some excellent points in here, many I wouldn’t have cared about just last year. But now that we are approaching college for two of our children, many of these ideas just seem to make sense. In addition to the textbook idea, I love the thought of shorter terms, making college more flexible.

  2. Kim says:

    It’s been a while since something I read got me more than mildly excited. But this is good stuff! No, this is GREAT stuff! It’s the first time I’ve seen anything on this subject outlined in a comprehensive, comprehensible format.

    Back when I took a marketing class and we had to create an advertising campaign for a fictitious company, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on something that served no ultimate purpose (beyond a good grade). So I approached a camp about doing something for them. It was so more enjoyable — and rewarding — to see them implement most of my ideas. So from a student’s perspective, this kind of shift makes a lot of sense.

    But I wonder what kind of feedback you’ll get from the faculty… It would mean more work for them — or maybe work of a different kind, I should say. Some might not be comfortable with that.

    However, as you say, something has to be done, because higher education in it’s current form is most definitely unsustainable.

  3. Gordon Stueber says:

    As I started reading through this I completely agreed, but observed the one word that describes the largest share of what you are trying to say, “mentors”. We have lost the desire to “take others under our wings”, so to say, and teach them thoroughly. Instead we “instruct”, whatever that really means.

    From what I have seen from my experience is that many instructors quite often instruct the student to read a textbook, complete a segment of the review questions and test them on the subject. Until I attended several institutions that required labs with real practical applications, most instructing I received was of little or no value in the real scheme of life. It was valuable information, but not practical as a young individual trying to learn a vocation.

    I have spent many years in the jewelry industry and learned quite a bit about mentoring. In Israel, to be a diamond cutter, at a very young age you begin to learn about the diamond cutting, something that your father does, who learned it from his father who is probably still cutting them, if he is alive. It is nearly impossible for an outsider to get the training unless they give up their life and fully devote it to the lifelong relationship with those that are training them, and that is only if the owner of the business lets you in. If the opportunity is given, you become part of the family, but if you betray them beware, you will never get a job in the industry again.

    As a I became Graduate Gemologist the training followed a similar track. Someone showed me a stone and said it was magnificent. I knew they had to kidding when I looked at it. They suggested I communicate with the Gemological Institute of America who had educational programs to understand what constituted a good stone. I signed up for the complete program. Soon after I completed the first block of training and followed it with their practical lab program that traveled throughout the USA.

    Soon after I found employment at a local jeweler as an assistant appraiser. The manager took me under his wing and taught me the most in-depth practical training I could ever receive. He was so detailed that anyone seeing his appraisals ridiculed him for the inane depth of measuring and descriptions he had done.

    Life happens, and after a couple of years I had to move on. I continued my studies in gemology while also attending another university in another field. At the university it was required to complete a lab with each class. Unless the lab was one that had to be done on computers, we were required to complete our project by visiting local businesses and learn how they performed certain tasks, as it related to the course we were taking. After we completed the study, these companies would ask us to return with our findings. Later on several of us were given employment at these businesses because of valuable information the studies provided.

    When I completed my university degree I continued the gemological side with sales jobs here and there. One day just before completing my Graduate Gemologist degree a wholesaler came by and asked me to grade some stones. Later I was hired by his employer because of the skill I had. To this day my grading skills are occasionally tested and found to be accurate. I have since moved on to another vocation, but am so grateful of the “mentoring” that I have had along the way.

    In medical training as in the highly specialized fields or in sports, there seems to be quite a bit of mentoring going on. I am sure there are many more fields of study out there where mentoring takes place. But when are universities going to reevaluate the value received from students and parents who are overburdened with debt and still rather unskilled for the workforce. Or maybe the value received years later from the students that were mentored and and changed the world for good bequeathing huge sums of money for furthering the education of many more.

    The real issue comes down to a few conditions that we as Americans don’t like. 1.) We want now. 2.) We want it without too much cost and 3.) We expect to win the big bucks immediately after a sheepskin is in hand. Another discovery I have seen is that frequently people realize what they were degreed in is not really what they want to do. It wasn’t what they understood it to be, and were disappointed and unwilling to step out and try again because of the same three conditions that put them in the position they are in now.

  4. Jen says:

    I like Tom’s comment. And I like that you are an administrator. This seems so much more like the idea of what a university ought to be: a place where there are people knowledgeable about their chosen field, imparting that wisdom in a practical and ever growing way. What strikes me too is how much the university has to learn from the community…

  5. Gina Burgess (@ginaNpicayune) says:

    Dr. Metts, you said, “New technologies allow the creation and updating of learning materials on the fly, of course, but they also allow immediate connections with diverse scholars and practitioners. Students can interact with people who have direct knowledge of the problems they are trying to solve.”

    This scares me, no terrifies me because I had to do this very thing when training volunteers to be advocates for abused children. It was a 12 week course meeting 2 nights a week at 2 hours each. It was the most grueling teaching I had ever done because I had to take all the info provided and re-vamp it to make it pertain to Mississippi codes and regs. (Workbook on CD, no textbook) I worked 50 hours a week and it was incredibly hard. I don’t know that I could do that for 2 other courses and teach it all at the same time to make it different each semester.

  6. Dr.Howard says:

    I love this new model – for many reasons. It narrows the gap between liberal arts colleges and larger research universities by emphasizing the practical applications at the heart of the disciplines. Doing research isn’t about publishing r perishing as much as its about using the tools at our disposal to do what we say that we supposed to be able to do. Even more importantly, by connecting to real life problems in commutes, the distinction between teaching and doing comes down. One of the main reasons that I was dissatisfied with my roll as a faculty member at a liberal arts college was that I had few opportunities to demonstrate the practical applications of what I was teaching about. Getting students engaged in real world problems outside of the classroom has not been valued as much as the bottom line. Rethinking academia necessarily involves revising structures that keep academia completely separate from “real life”- for both faculty and students.

  7. Mike Jennings says:

    Wally, your community orientation to liberal arts is radical. The word highlights a return to basics rather than a focus on innovation of the status quo. Context based and driven education offers a contact point from the student’s pressing interests to broader issues which animate liberal arts. It also offers a recovery of local issues and needs which can serve as a deterrent to multinational corporate co-opting of curriculum. Finally, local context offers the prospect of student mentoring in which the teacher functions as a life coach as much as a knowledge gatekeeper. The spiritual, moral and political implications of your immodest proposal must be also assessed. Please consider sending this to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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