David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Color My World With Hope

April 6, 2017

I am back from the Higher Learning Commission Annual Conference, and have had about two days to process everything I saw, heard, and ate.  As my previous blog (and other years' blogs) have indicated, I often go with low expectations.  However, this year I came back a little more charged and optimistic than in previous years.  I now realize that the Annual Conference is becoming a guilty pleasure for me, much like Chicago, not the town, but the musical band is for me.  The themes of the conference seem wrapped up in Chicago song titles.

I. Old Days -- There is no going back "to the world gone away."

The two keynote presentations both focused on the fact that higher education can no longer be the intractable force we have wished it could be (at some point during the conference, I realize that Chicago, with the last baseball team to install lights for night games; with its long history of corruption and crime; with its fame as the place the Twinkie was created; with its self-named band refusing for over ten albums to use anything but freaking Roman Numerals for titles; is the most appropriate conference location for a stubborn-to-change industry of higher learning).  Between a University of Chicago law professor's "Academic Freedom in a Changing World" and author Jeffrey Selingo's "Higher Education in a 21st-Century Economy," the Commission's educators heard a volley of "how are you going to adapt" series of questions.

For Geoffrey Stone, the law professor, he argues that the intersection of higher education with academic freedom cannot be taken for granted and has always been applied per the tenor of the times (during World War I, for instance, institutions of higher education essentially collapsed the notion of academic freedom).  Interestingly, the current dialogue about academic freedom comes largely from students themselves (72% of current students support disciplinary action if speech offends them).  This acceptance of censorship, in essence, might be the impact of helicopter parenting; or, it could be because this generation of students is more attuned to the inequities that poison our nation; or, it could be the voices of some students finally emerging from their marginalized backgrounds.  Ultimately, Stone urges colleges to stand up and educate about the importance of civility and respect, the importance of free speech, and that the impact of free speech falls primarily on the marginalized.  At that point, I can't help but think that his words are breath.

For Selingo, the clarion call is for colleges and universities to collaborate to provide platforms for lifelong learning.  Learning is now occurring all the time, and higher education needs to be more receptive to the ways humans can learn all the time.  He argues that this is all the more important in an era when most "kids" don't earn financial independence until 30; when future students may be ones who never travel far from home (including to go to college); and where debt level, internship/experiential learning and a credential are the three factors most likely to define a person's life beyond high school.

While he doesn't directly attack our fairly standard curricula in higher education, Selingo provides me pause when he cites the latest version of what "employers are looking for" -- the infamous soft skills lost as general education requirements get drained from the curriculum.  By the way, Selingo's terms for those key soft skills: curiosity, creativity, digital awareness, contextual thinking, and humility.  Humility?  Humility!  Boy, I love that it has cracked the Top 5.

II. If You Leave Me Now - "you'll take away the biggest part of me" . . . tuition.

O.k., so all the focus on retention, persistence and completion rates is more about an ethical responsibility to students (or avoiding the snares of the "Achieve The Dream" police).  Nevertheless, I sought out numerous presentations related to persistence and completion, especially. 

I bit my Mountaineer tongue and listened to Marshall University's presentation on "Experimental Access to Student Mindset."  While I may not have learned much new, I was heartened to hear things that align with SMC's efforts: 

  • High School GPA is enough to predict retention and success;
  • Continuous, constant contact and communication throughout the semester is key (including over breaks, which is where SMC could do better);
  • Mentoring and advising needs to include an inquisitive approach so that prodding can get students to reveal what they won't initially say;

Among colleagues in the HLC's Persistence & Completion Academy, more advice rang true to my ears:

  • Qualitative data is as valuable, if not more, as quantitative;
  • Much can be done with simple predictive models in Excel, so institutions don't have to invest in expensive vendor products;
  • Institutions should look at grade dynamics related to GPA: try to determine what happened to make significant change to the GPA;
  • Keep it simple: know what you need and build something that fits that;
  • Do micro surveys (two or three questions) several times a semester to get more frequent data.

At "What Matters Most in the Undergraduate Experience," I, first, found the book that should drive SMC's Outcomes Assessment Day conversations at the end of this Spring and during Faculty Welcome Back week in August:  The Undergraduate Experience (SMC faculty and staff, by the time you read this, the library should have a couple of copies). 

Secondly, and more importantly, I am heartened by the authors' belief that any institution can identify and develop what matters at their institution within their missions and limited resources.  They just have to see that for undergraduates, 6 main things matter:

  • Learning Matters;
  • Relationships Matter;
  • Expectations Matter;
  • Alignment Matters;
  • Improvement Matters;
  • Leadership Matters.

As the writers say, getting to what matters is more about culture than anything else.  Any institution not designed for the students we have now, with reward systems that don't equate learning style to teaching styles, and where institutional values don't align with institutional mission cannot provide an undergraduate experience that matters. 

My copy of the book arrived yesterday and I can't wait to read it.

Finally, the best session at the conference (also the last one I attended before I hit the Dan Ryan) was a panel of student voices, talking about what their institutions had done (or not done) to attribute to their success (or non-success).  It was genuine, it was passionate, and it, occasionally, hurt to hear. 

For instance, when asked what is the best way to communicate, they basically said try everything, just don't overwhelm us, especially with emails.  (I did have a slight heart flutter when one gentleman says he prefers newsletters that "are like Buzzfeed" where he can click a link to what he is interested in.  FlemFeed may be resurrected!)  Overwhelmingly, the barrier they mentioned had to do with their anxieties and "self-care," a term I hadn't ever really heard in this context until that moment.  Their overwhelming opinion is that institutions, especially some professors, are too inflexible with policies that don't allow them to tend to their self-care.  The one scenario specifically cited, frankly by the adult student who was returning to college, was the infamous "attendance policy" ("If I can do the work and pass the class, why does it matter if I miss 3 times instead of 2?").  Finally, I can only hang my head when I hear "surveys are generally a hassle."

Above and beyond the things I heard that made me hurt, they really did share a lot of things that I believe in my heart.  The instructors are the single most important factor in their completing (although they can tell who is "authentic" when he/she says, "please talk to me"); good clear advising and financial aid support is important; upper-level students are often the best mentors; they want more time to explore different subjects; and they generally feel their instructors' stress levels (which can impact how much they may ask of them). 

These students were clearly hand-picked, prepped and represent student leaders.  However, any cynicism I had about whether their voices could be SMC's student voices went out the window when I heard many of them talking about their imposter syndromes (believing they really weren't cut out for college but got in because someone made a mistake); when I heard about the adult student driving 2 hours into Chicago to get to class; when I heard the veteran talk about having class 4 days a week at 6:00 am and 1 day a week at 5:30 am.

III. Dialogue -- "Thank you for the talk, you really eased my  mind."

Let's face it, with 10-year Assurance Review coming in 2020-2021, I needed to spend a lot of time at Accreditation Process Sessions.  Back at home here in Michigan, I am starting to put together our timeline for assurance argument and visit.  I have a feeling I won't be traveling alone to the annual conference the next three years.  The details are not important now, but tightening up policies, especially around faculty qualifications, credit hour definitions, federal compliance, and persistence and completion rates will be the focus of much work the next two years. 

In addition, "outcomes assessment" (yes, those were horses neighing in terror that you heard) will continue to be the dialogue faculty and I have starting the end of this semester.

IV. Look Away -- "I wasn't prepared to hear those words from you."

Or, in this case, I wasn't prepared to hear you read those words to me.  There was only one session where I left early, as I don't really need someone reading a paper to me.  Unfortunately, it came right after the presentation on brain-based learning and humor, so the contrast was stark.

V. Hard Habit To Break - "I'm addicted to you."

Irish Pub for dinner one night, Chicago style pizza for dinner a second night, brewpup the third night.  One of these days I will give up one of you for that Thai place just down from my hotel.  Just not this year.