David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Navigating the Future; Ignoring the Present

March 31, 2017

Tomorrow I head to Chicago for the Higher Learning Commission Annual Conference.  For those who don't know, this is the major conference related to the accreditation of 100's of schools across the United States, primarily in the Midwest.  Our theme this year is "Navigating the Future."  I can't help but think it should be themed "Ignoring the Present."

The closest we get to the present, if you ask me, is in the opening keynote session on Sunday: "Academic Freedom in a Changing World."  At least we are acknowledging the changing world, probably specifically for higher education, but I would argue that of all the issues plaguing higher education right now, our defense of academic freedom is probably the least congruent with our critics' attacks.

Sure, safe spaces, freedom of speech, liberal vs. conservative values are at the heart of most attacks on academia, but those are not truly captured by "academic freedom," which comes across as more self-serving for the faculty and often the universities and colleges themselves.  The presenter, a constitutional law professor from University of Chicago, wants to put the subject in context of the "changing makeup, attitudes and needs of a new generation of students."  Not sure exactly the tack he will take, but it makes me a little nervous when the keynote is followed by a book signing and almost certainly the prerequisite book-selling.  Talk about self-serving.

The second most relevant session appears to be the final one, "Stress and Strategies for Mental Health in Academia."  Knowing that many of this "new generation of students" require psychological support, I hold out hope for this session as I saw its title.  Turns out this session, too, may be a little too self-serving, as the topics cover "stressors . . . decreasing the health and wellness of educators and administrators alike."  Now trust me, I am the first to admit that my job is very stressful, and the topics here are ones that keep me up at night ("budget cuts, " "mass violence events," "political polarization" and "increasing student mental health needs"); however, these are not necessarily to be discussed in terms of the stress on the student, but on "burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma."

Look, I am no fool (even though I am traveling on April Fool's Day), but higher education accrediting bodies need to think a little more about our PR and a little less about our MO.  Yes, the mental health of people who work in academics is important, but overall we still have pretty good jobs in a pretty free environment.  Hell, we aren't coal workers.

For me, I am even more discouraged by the range (or lack thereof) of session topics between the opening keynote and closing session.  There are few titles that an outsider might see and feel confident that all these educators are truly understanding the challenging state of education in 2017.  Heck, even I can't get motivated to attend some of these sessions:

  • Designing an Undergraduate Curriculum With Embedded Assessment (this is early in the morning, so a tough choice between in-bed versus embed);
  • Skills Enhancement for Faculty and Administrators: Making Academic Change Happen;
  • Closing the Gap With Data for Strategic Planning and Accreditation;
  • Advancing the Equity Imperative and Completion Agenda Through Gateway Course Continuous Quality Improvement Efforts (this one wins the award for most jargon jammed into one title);
  • Raising the Bar: Narrowing the Success Gap Between Online and On-Site Learning (probably not the bar I will be anticipating at this point);
  • Integrating Guided Pathways and Strategic Planning to Ensure Student Success;
  • The University Journey of Assessment and Student Success (all in under an hour, apparently a short trip);
  • Leading a Campus Team to Navigate Through the Comprehensive Evaluation;
  • Learning Outcomes Analytics: Collection and Use of Assessment Data;
  • Student Learning Assessment: Minimal Assembly Required.

Good lord, even when someone tries to get a little cute with the title, as in this last title, it's not enough to deflect from the generic topic that is being presented.  I know all of this is important to what we do (which technically is more about getting accredited than it is about moving students through our programs quickly).  I have hopes that I will learn some nuggets to bring back to my campus, but the pickings look lean before I have even arrived in Chicago.

And then there is Chicago.  We always meet in Chicago.  Thousands of us will end up spreading ourselves around the streets of Wacker, Michigan, Lake Shore, and so forth, clogging the Windy City's downtown bars and eateries with our tweed, patched sports jackets and flat shoes, forgetting that only a few miles away the violence now associated with Chicago is occurring in part because of our society's inability to show many kids in poverty a pathway through higher education to a better life than guns and drugs.  What about the gap between these kids and upward mobility?  Certainly a huge equity imperative in the South Shore neighborhood this week. Talk about a group that could use some pointers on stress strategies. 

Unfortunately, there will probably be few of us around to share what is learned from that closing session.  Notoriously, closing sessions reach a handful of attendees, as everyone else is O'Hare-, Midway-, or Dan Ryan-bound.  Screw navigating the future, try navigating an exit from downtown Chicago.

*Some lines in this blog provided by my sister, Lisa, who according to my assessment, may or may not have had a glass of wine!