Following is a talk by William G. Durden, president emeritus of Dickinson College and a newly appointed research
Linking education—especially liberal arts education—to jobs is not an alien notion in the United States. In fact, it is the original defining ambition. This is also the compelling reason why all sectors of advanced education in the United States ... should mix skill acquisition appropriate to its sector with serious liberal learning in the humanities, social sciences, sciences and the arts.
-William G. Durden
professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Education and operating partner at Sterling Partners. Durden, serving as the University of Baltimore's Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Speaker for Spring 2014, delivered this talk to the UB community on April 16, 2014.
Thank you for this gracious invitation to be with you this afternoon and to think out loud about student success at the University of Baltimore and elsewhere across this country. You have resolved to engage one of the most vexing and seemingly intractable issues in American education—and in a nation that historically exudes optimism and a belief that anyone should have the opportunity to be whatever they want to be, that affirms comprehensive access not only to schooling but to undergraduate studies (we have not yet extended this resolve to graduate school, but that may be coming) and that is committed to solve problems that seem insurmountable—an essential feature of the American "exceptionalism."
The challenge that you have before you to improve student success at a university with "opportunity-access" is daunting. Such a commitment naturally encompasses many students who are either first-generation college and/or come from challenging educational environments. Just consider this data:
This data outlines a seemingly intractable challenge to the future of the nation that cannot be solved by superficialities, "marketing" or historical bias-- empty talk such as self-esteem infused rhetoric (students feeling confident without actual achievement); inconclusive support programs arriving too late in a youth’s cognitive and emotional development; the avoidance of those fundamental reading, writing and numeracy programs that form the basis of all future learning and job accomplishment; contemporary "deficit thinking" that all too readily places blame for under achievement on the class and racial identifiers of certain students and their families and not on the societal and economic structures that fail to create and fund conditions for success; the lowering of academic standards to achieve the appearance of achievement; and finally, the call for higher completion rates without the assurance that college-level learning is really taking place.
Acutely frustrating is that many of the remedial programs colleges and universities embrace to increase retention often do not yield results. The gap between competency in the basics of reading, writing and numeracy brought to college from high school and what is needed to succeed at college cannot be so great that a summer, semester or at most, a year’s supplemental coursework will not make up the deficit. If students cannot read or write coming into college, they will likely fail. Naturally frustrated and demoralized, they drop out in high numbers.
What I am outlining is a deep-rooted obstacle at the intersection of society, family, education, economy and politics that will only be improved if all sectors of society share responsibility and dismiss playing the "blame game" as too often occurs. For the vast majority of Americans—myself included—education in the United States was and remains the key to a more fulfilling and financially prosperous life. No steps should be taken to disrupt this trusted vehicle to increased success.
I talk about this issue from a personal interest. You see, I am a first-generation college student. My father retired after 30 years of military service and then, while I was growing up, was an assembly line worker making wooden boxes and a cook at a hospital. My mother did not work outside the home. But it was our conviction that a substantive education--a liberal arts education normally reserved for those who have always led the nation in many diverse fields--was the one viable way to change status. We wanted what they took for granted. I was not about to be cheated by an education that was targeted solely on my achieving my first job, that consisted essentially of technical skills soon to be rendered obsolete and that would not carry me through a lifetime of self-inquiry and engagement not only in the United States but globally. I wanted knowledge and skills that would permit me success over changing times, locations and economies.
Of course, it is important for any college or university to agree upon a definition of student success. When faculty and administrators are not agreed and working in a shared direction across the entire university for the advancement of students, students are faced with yet another obstacle to their advancement—mixed messages—and thus confusion about what they should pursue at the university and how they should prioritize their time and energy.
Often student success is defined as preparing undergraduates to move freely and confidently in what is called the "21st century workplace." They are to hold education accountable for life satisfaction tied directly to job placement.
Linking education—especially liberal arts education—to jobs is not an alien notion in the U.S. In fact, it is the original defining ambition. This is also the compelling reason why all sectors of advanced education in the U.S.—four-year institutions, community colleges and vocational institutes—should mix skill acquisition appropriate to its sector with serious liberal learning in the humanities, social sciences, sciences and the arts. This practice of always blending academics with technical skill in more focused job training—tech colleges and apprenticeships-- is a primary reason, for example, why Germany remains a global force in advanced manufacturing and technological innovation.
The first colleges and universities in the American colonies were unequivocally vocational. Their curriculum was devoted to providing a ready supply of ministers to the various protestant sects on home territory as the sources of renewed labor become more inaccessible through an ocean’s distance and political strain. And the distinctive higher education issuing from the American Revolution favored—in stark contrast to what was to be found in the UK—an applied liberal education--a "useful" education that succeeded the degree to which college graduates possessed sufficient knowledge to perceive and thwart oppression, understood the workings of the new democratic form of government and could contribute through innovation, knowledge, values and occupation to the growth of the nation. What this education was definitely not, however, was "useful" understood as purely vocational and liberal arts perceived as "useless."
The principles of a useful liberal education most prominently issued from two friends, both signers of the Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, and Dr. Benjamin Rush, founder of Dickinson College, Franklin & Marshall College and the College of Physicians. The two men differed only on the place of religion in the American undergraduate curriculum—Dr. Rush wanted it and Thomas Jefferson excluded it from UVA.
Here is Dr. Rush on the new direction for a distinctively American education presented as part of a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1795:
"I shall begin by taking notice that the same branches of learning … are taught in an American seminaries [colleges and universities] and in the same way, in which they were taught 200 years ago, without due allowance being made for the different obligations and interests which have been created by time, and the peculiar state of society in a new country, in which the business of the principal part of the inhabitant is to be obtain first and foremost necessary means of subsistence…. It is equally a matter of regret, that no accommodation has been made in the system of education in our seminaries to the new form of government and the many national duties, and objects of knowledge, that have been imposed upon us by the American Revolution. Instead of instituting our sons [yes, it was the 18th century!] in the Arts most essential to their existence, and in the means of acquiring that kind of knowledge which is connected with the time, the country, and the government in which they live, they are compelled to spend the first five years after they enter school in learning two languages [Latin and Greek—speaking and writing these languages are the objection—reading was acceptable as it provided access to access to ages of wisdom and guidelines to virtuous actions] which no longer exist, and are rarely spoken, which have ceased to be the vehicles of Science and literature, and which contain no knowledge but that which is to be met with in a more improved and perfect state in modern languages [German, French and even Native American languages, according to Dr. Rush]."
Several key features emerge from Dr. Rush's ambitions for a distinctively American education that might well be worthy of adherence today:
1. American higher education is defined by a liberal education oriented exclusively to practical concerns of growing and maintaining a democratic nation—to include graduates making a sustainable living through work. There is no cognitive or material dissonance between liberal arts and jobs. One informs and advances the other.
2. Both the curriculum—what is taught—and how it is taught are critical to distinguish an American higher education and must be constantly subject to reform through evolving times.
3. An American education is efficient and effective. It achieves this by matching subject areas and pedagogy closely to evolving pragmatic conditions and needs outside the academy.
4. College or university serves first and foremost the nation and only secondarily the individual learner. The degree to which the learner serves the nation is the measure of student success.
5. An American undergraduate education is a scrappy, pragmatic, active and engaged affair. It has little to do with remoteness and removal from the needs of the nation. It possesses "attitude" as should its graduates.
Numerous interested parties—to include outspokenly business leaders—want college and university graduates to perform successfully in the 21st century in a manner that differs little from what Thomas Jefferson and Dr. Rush wanted at the beginning of the nation. Learning is to yield that knowledge and those skills that can best be applied to insure that the republic thrives and that individuals can, in the words of Dr. Rush, "obtain first and foremost necessary means of subsistence." It's about jobs skills, but also the applied liberal arts that support a lifetime commitment to advancing democracy and the individual’s ability to contribute to it in a variety of ways.
Some of the attributes today's employers desire from college graduates culled from various public sources are a rigorous level of academic proficiency in verbal (reading, writing, comprehension), mathematical, scientific and technical literacies and the ability to apply those skills to concrete situations; critical thinking skills; time management; ethical decision making; the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity; the ability to solve complex problems; research skills; the ability to assume personal responsibility, yet work in teams; broad cross-cutting knowledge and skills; evidence-based reasoning; intellectual and interpersonal skills that contribute to innovation in the workplace; and, the ability to communicate clearly.
The particular major that students declare is not as important in the 21st century workplace and daily life as the knowledge and skills cited above. What is abundantly clear, however, is that the majority of these 21st century workplace requirements are based upon a rigorous foundation of verbal and mathematical knowledge and skill—currently the most vulnerable deficit in many students preparation for college. Without correcting systemically this issue beginning in the schools, the achievement gap challenge is merely cosmetically treated through the introduction of unproven or ineffective programs at the college level in an attempt to accomplish in a very short period of time what was not concluded in 12 years of previous schooling. Retention often remains depressed, even while the admission of unprepared students to the university increases to fulfill ever-increasing enrollment and financial objectives. And with that, students are cheated of an education for sustained success in the 21st century.
Interestingly, the knowledge and skills most cited as required in the 21st century workplace resemble those that are yielded from a liberal arts education and not merely job-specific skill instruction. In a recent book, Living on the Diagonal, I cited those skills that I derived personally from a liberal arts education many decades ago. I was a German and philosophy major—areas of concentration that many people might think are totally useless in the contemporary workplace. How wrong they are. Here is what I said:
I have been [in my life]—sometimes simultaneously—a military officer, a precollegiate teacher, an administrator and a coach. I have founded an athletic team, developed a major center at a prestigious research university and been a senior consultant to the U.S. Department of State with diplomatic status, a senior executive in two publicly traded companies and, most recently, president of Dickinson College. All of these jobs involved leadership…. [W]hat I realized is that the breath of knowledge and the depth of cognitive skill that my core college courses and all the courses in art, political science, science and social science I took at Dickinson prepared me to master independently and rather rapidly any field of professional pursuit with which I was confronted.
I was prepared for professional chance [and only one of these jobs, including the one I have in private equity now, existed before I arrived]. I knew regardless of area of job activity how to ask the right questions, how to gather information to make things work, how to make informed decisions, how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge and activity, how to see what others never see, how to learn quickly the basics of a profession, where to go for more information, how to discern pertinent information from that which is false or misleading, how to judge good, helpful people from those who wish you ill. All of this I gathered in a useful liberal education in and out of the classroom—in my formal course of study; courses in the humanities, arts, sciences and social sciences—and in an intense residential setting where experimentation with citizenship and social responsibility were guiding principles.
The knowledge and skills that I profess I gained from my useful liberal arts education are mirrored in a recent report,
"A Review of West Point's Academic Program Goals" (2012), requested by the United States Military Academy—perhaps among the most practically-oriented, job-focused universities in the nation-- to potentially revise its curriculum to reflect the demands upon its graduates in a rapidly changing combative landscape. These curricular objectives reflect arguably West Point's reclaiming of George Washington's plan for military leadership university—a course of study defined by the liberal arts. Centuries ago those in charge of curriculum at West Point rejected President Washington in favor of Alexander Hamilton’s notion for military education—an institution focusing almost exclusively on immediate knowledge for deployment through studies in engineering and artillery.
To conclude my reflections with you, I would like to switch from what I have been actually doing before you for far too long—indulging the popular and most self-indulgent contemporary education genre of "lament" (what is wrong with everything)—to the potentially more immediately helpful genre of "solutions"—(what you might actually do to fix things—a methodology inherent in design thinking). Some cynics—or realists— claim that we have in fact become a nation that enjoys far too much eloquently identifying and describing challenges, but are incapable of drafting solutions and therein lies our social, economic and educational Achilles Heel.
I shall start with a few recommendations treated without extensive elaboration and conclude with a recommendation that, I believe, is fundamentally important to any effort of an educational institution to motive people to learn against great odds. It is the institutional prerequisite to any interventional strategy to assist students to close the gap in college preparedness—and it is not what you might anticipate.
* A college or university must decide whether it is the best use of its own faculty and staff time to develop and conduct a robust "transitional"—that is, remedial—education program that concentrates on pre-collegiate knowledge and skills rather than university-level performance. The most critical focus of such instruction, of course, is verbal and mathematical reasoning—the essential platform for all university-level learning—a very narrow focus for university-level instructors. A higher education institution must decide whether it can accomplish at competitive cost the desired outcome of closing the achievement gap or whether the outcome can be delivered most effective pedagogically and cost efficiently by a third party non-profit or for-profit organization that specializes exclusively in remedial education. By considering the alternative, a college or university would be stepping away from the notion that it must do everything for everybody, thus adding to the cost of higher education and potentially the price (tuition) students. It would arguably, however, be stepping away from direct control of its academic program.
* Since the college-preparedness gap develops over many years and begins during pre-collegiate education, colleges and universities should commit to numerous partnerships with key feeder high schools to engage remedial coursework to close the gap specifically in verbal and mathematical reasoning between high school and college. This is the point of vulnerability and the major cause of failure for aspiring students. These partnerships must be sustained, reliable and highly structured. They cannot be offered from year to year depending on funding. Students with considerable gaps in learning from high school to college arguably already have too much uncertainty and lack of structure in their lives and do not need more in the delivery of the most fundamental knowledge and skills that determine their future success. Remedial courses must also compensate for the often radical and unfortunate misalignment of academic achievement levels per subject area between high school and college, if college is to be a qualitatively different experience from high school.
The University of Baltimore seems to have many of these partnership programs with local schools in place and to be successful in preparing students to pass its college readiness tests. Since Fall 2009, approximately 465 students have come through these programs: 72 percent earned placement in one or more college course, thus eliminating the need for developmental placements in college.
But that might not be enough. Partnership programs at the high school level must also lead to a robust and structured program at the university to continue verbal and mathematical skill development and related skills for college success. Critically essential to student success are one-on-one or small group tutorials that parallel classroom instruction. It is with such detailed support that remediation programs have most often proven effective. Such an effort takes major planning, resources, personnel, time and constant revision based upon continuous assessment. To the best of my knowledge since UB is only fairly new at offering entrance to first and second year undergraduate students, it has yet to put in place a full array of structured support services not only for its students in skill transition, but all students. Such services—self-selected or referred by faculty—must be available to students in all departments without artificial obstacles placed in their way and must be widely and repeatedly advertised. The best way to remove obstacles to student services at a university is to centrally coordinate planning and execution of disparate offerings from department to department so that students are presented with one voice to success. While individual departments may rightfully claim singular requirements for success, these can be readily integrated—with some humility and give and take—into a clearly articulated one-stop menu of services. The extent to with such support services are integrated into existing credit-bearing courses in all departments and not viewed by students as "add-ons" only increases the degree to which they will be taken seriously and used. These services must be presented so that they appear as a regular part of the undergraduate life at the university and used by all students. Every member of the community--faculty, student, administrator, staff, alumni—must be united in the belief that these services are important and indisputably supportive to comprehension and application of the academic content conveyed in classes and beyond.
There is nothing "exceptional" or secondary about these services. They might include targeted verbal and mathematical skill reinforcement courses; ancillary workshops in, for example, time management, study skills, workplace responsibility, career counseling; special interest support groups; and, faculty-student workgroups to review constantly the knowledge and skill alignment of college readiness programs before and during university studies with regular credit-bearing courses. These workgroups might also examine by department the alignment of prerequisites (to include college readiness coursework) to advanced courses to insure that there are no gaps in preparation that would thwart continuing accomplishment.
* Consideration should be given to increased use of electronically enhanced competency-based/adaptive learning and advising to close the achievement gap. Apparently, use of the short, condensed Khan Academy instructional segments that lead students through targeted learning obstacles are achieving success at the school level and thus, should perhaps be applied at the college level as fundamental gaps knowledge and skill remain for many students following high school. It is important to remember that adaptive learning, however, might not work for all students and that it requires considerable faculty engagement to create a tightly-composed curriculum subject to objective measurement. David Schejbal, in a recent essay entitled "Competency as One Answer" (IHE, March 27, 2014) describes the situation accurately: "Faculty in competency-based education work collaboratively to determine the structure of curriculum as a whole, the levels of competencies, and assessments that best measure competency. When constructed well, a competency-based curriculum is tight, with little ambiguity about how students must perform to demonstrate mastery, move through the program, and qualify for a degree."
* An intensive orientation program for first-year students is also necessary to set community expectations, to introduce the university's leadership narrative and orient students to the array of support services for them in their new environment. But only one orientation at the beginning of the school year is insufficient. Continuing structured assistance is required throughout the undergraduate years. For example, during the initial orientation first year students might write a short statement about what they wish to gain from their undergraduate years and what kind of person they want to be when the graduate. These statements could be reviewed in a formal setting each year and aspiration to goals assessed. The second-year "orientation" might treat the selection of majors; the third year, internships; and, the senior year, careers. There is new evidence that even short-term initiatives that introduce first-generation students to how to navigate the middle class culture of higher education, learn the rules of the game and take advantage of college resources can affect striking skill improvement and close the achievement gap (Stephens, Hamedins and Destin in a forthcoming Psychological Services article). I believe time should also be devoted to introducing students to (and eliciting from students) those positive learning traits that often emerge from what are often considered purely "deficit" backgrounds—traits such as focus, singular ambition, resourcefulness, even intolerance towards the status quo and existing privilege that propels innovation. Such initiatives recalibrate for achievement gap students and others from non-traditional origins to higher education the definition and dynamic of student success.
* UB might engage for all undergraduates a third- party program such as The Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP) sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. In its own words, BTtoP encourages colleges and universities to reassert their core purposes as educational institutions, not only to advance learning and discovery, but also to advance the potential and well being of each individual student, and to advance education as a public good that sustains a civic society. The Project supports campus-based initiatives that demonstrate how learning that actively involves students both within and beyond the classroom directly contribute to their cognitive, emotional, and civic development. Service learning plays a significant role in BToP student engagement.
What is most appealing about a project such as BToP is that students are treated comprehensively—academically, socially and emotionally—and are urged to see their education as serving larger societal purposes (larger than a focus on themselves). Their motivation is challenged to deepen as they find active engagement and a sense of purpose in their learning—beyond only getting a job. And while students may publicly profess to be going to college just to get a job, many—especially those who are first-generation or coming out of educationally-depressed environments—also desire what they believe, perhaps erroneously—the privileged have always had readily available to them—a higher sense of purpose. What is, however, often cynicism towards higher purpose for the historically privileged is idealism to many first generation students.
* To accelerate eliminating the knowledge gap between high school and college once students are enrolled as undergraduates, the entire community—faculty, staff, administration, even fellow students—must commit to noting, correcting and praising verbal and mathematical skill achievement on a daily and very informal basis.
Senior leadership and individual divisional and departmental leadership must put aside historical distrust and academic politics and declare jointly the institution "a total learning zone," and do so with both a sense of purpose and good humor. Such an overarching disposition can help all young people attending the university fill in learning gaps without accompanying shame. It is important for any pronouncements from senior leadership to explain thoroughly and candidly to the community why everyone is called upon to be a "mentor on the go." I have noticed over the years that many professors will leave without correction students' grammatical and usage mistakes as will student life professionals when dealing with students out of class. Valuable learning is forsaken, often to preserve, in my opinion, the mistaken notion that "self-esteem" must be advanced at all costs, even if the result is the perpetuation of incorrect skill and knowledge. Indeed, schooling has just gone through decades of surrender to the "self-esteem" movement much to the detriment of students gaining competencies.
Again, leadership must create a purposeful and enjoyable learning community where improving basic knowledge and skill is taken for granted. When I was president of Dickinson, I initiated such an effort with English grammar. I dubbed myself, in the spirit of self-amusement, "Dr. Grammar," and sent the community via e-mail every week an example of a common grammatical transgression and its correction. At the end of a cycle of messages, I posted a self- graded grammatical quiz to add some additional fun to the learning experiment. To this day, former students speak of their delight in Dr. Grammar and ask me to revisit it with even more common transgressions. We had a blast as a community with this, but we all learned—even I as students and alumni challenged my suggested grammatical solutions.
* UB might solidify its applied liberal arts-career oriented mission by becoming the first university in Maryland to adapt fully the cooperative education model at Northeastern University. Interestingly, most universities have not adopted Northeastern Co-op plan despite highly positive praise of its ability to match education with the workplace. The reason for this lack of interest might well be the dominating—yet unspoken—"Holy Grail" of university aspiration at the moment—to be research institutions with star professors, the recipient of major grants and recruiting from the best and brightest students as much as possible. There are many—far too many—universities crowding onto the pinhead of research and traditional notions of prestige to rankings. Teaching informed by research and dedicated to student advancement is unfortunately not generally a dominant institutional ambition. It is not rewarded.
I suggest that UB's adoption of the Co-op program will motivate its entering students to more willingly commit to non-credit achievement gap courses. Motivation is created by earlier access to the workplace—linking academic coursework and basic verbal and mathematical skills--than would be the case in the traditional university. And importantly access is informed and structured so that often frustrated and discouraged students expecting college-level courses and not getting them appreciate concretely through the defined Co-op program the purpose for which they are being educated. Such early awareness and activity could well improve retention and thus, student success.
* UB should consider transforming its career services beyond what the majority of colleges and universities offer—that is, UB expand career guidance into career placement. To do so, UB might have to consider third-party management of this enterprise. Students today—especially those from difficult socio-economical backgrounds—are seeking their first jobs through education. To accomplish this ambition, the university can be establish its indispensable utility in a student's life by being the operative link between study and a job. The degree to which the university is the vehicle of job procurement is the degree to which students will commit to whatever it takes to get to their goal. Additionally, UB might consider what a traditional liberal arts university, the University of Chicago, just did—locate its career services in its admissions office. In so doing, Chicago signals to prospective students its linking of liberal knowledge and skill with jobs and it has a large staff that is now well-versed in the career paths of Chicago graduates and can present thoroughly the outcomes of a Chicago education to those who might attend it.
* I suggest that the University of Baltimore join with those colleges and universities nationally and internationally working to extend the scope of the undergraduate transcript. Such extension would include, as expressed in a Feb. 10, 2014 Inside Higher Ed commentary by Matthew Pittinsky, currently a faculty member at Arizona State University, "a set of broadly applicable skills aligns [teaching] with an 'outcomes' orientation increasingly promoted by academic, business and political leaders … writing better, speaking better, thinking more analytically and a little more comfortable with numbers."
The current format of transcripts permits none of this critical knowledge and skill acquisition to be documented. Were it to be documented and placed permanently in a transcript, it might make this document more useful to employers and motivate students even more to value and seek learning competencies. Such an effort would, of course, require that the every professor—whether in the sciences, humanities, business, social science or the arts—treat deliberately this set of broadly applicable skills in the classroom—thus reinforcing the university as a total learning community.
* I suggest that UB faculty unite across all divisions—giving up their respective disciplinary imperatives and prejudices (even forsaking a bit of academic freedom for a shared, uniform aspiration)—and offer students at the beginning of every course an explanation about what the material "does"—its effect on the wider world and potentially upon the student herself. Every course thus begins with a sense of purpose and the attempt to differentiate it in meaning and capability from other areas of knowledge. I know that this recommendation may seem trivial, and yet, far too often courses are taught today without any contextualization of the material covered. Nobody reads the preface anymore and thus students learn often the mechanics of knowledge with no greater understanding its scope, power or intentionality. Far too few professors bother to begin a course with explaining its distinction and purpose. They just jump right in and never look back. Connecting students to knowledge and sense of purpose is a tremendous motivator for learning and the degree to which the subject area can be connected to the institution’s leadership narrative, the more powerful the ability to motivate. Students know why they are taking this subject at this particular university at this time in their lives. The linking is particularly important to students who are frustrated by basic college-level earning gaps and who must be encouraged to persist despite the distance to be closed between academic skill and required performance.
* And lastly, in addition to seeking out the most reliable assessments of college readiness to permit students in transition courses to move into regular college courses, colleges and universities must have in place measures of student learning and success that are continuously employed for all coursework throughout students' undergraduate years. There are numerous third-party, standardized instruments to accomplish this difficult task (and ETS is developing even more), but I suggest for a variety of cogent reasons peculiar to academic communities that the institution also develop its own assessments not unlike that of Sarah Lawrence College. The Sarah Lawrence faculty and administration took upon itself the task of developing assessments of student success that it thought related directly to its distinctive mission. It felt that its own assessments would be more "authentic" than what others could offer. With complete engagement from many parties—especially faculty—the community agreed upon an assessment—so far accepted by its institutional accrediting agency—that is thoroughly described in a Feb. 12, 2014 article in Inside Higher Ed:
"The faculty and administration agreed on six 'critical abilities' that they believe all graduates should possess and for each of those categories there are subcategories to illustrate what's covered. Faculty members must evaluate each student on each skill at the end of each course."
What is important, I believe, in the Sarah Lawrence effort, is that all academic departments contributed to framing this assessment of learning and while there are institutionally shared markers of success, each professor evaluates progress based upon performance in his or her class, thus balancing institutional objectives with disciplinary integrity.
But institutional leadership narrative is my main focus in offering you solutions to the learning gap. I wish to talk about institutional narrative that "optimizes the immediate,"—that is, uses singular assets (often historical) immediately available to an institution to define its own representation and in so doing, offer guidance, focus, pride and, most importantly, motivation for achieving to members of its community—students, faculty, staff and alumni.
I am a devotee of Harvard professor Howard Gardner's perspective on leadership. Leadership is all about crafting a narrative that people want to inhabit; they want to be a character in the narrative with you, and in that way they are brought with you to new levels of motivation and accomplishment. For Prof. Gardner, a leadership narrative has three components—a protagonist, goals and a foil.
Now, let me go out on a limb—a limb upon which I have not really be invited to tread—and assert that the University of Baltimore already possesses a very dynamic and persuasive leadership narrative that is exclusively your asset and that delightfully conforms both to the ambitions of a distinctively American education as established in the 18th century—a useful liberal education-- and to the compelling knowledge and skills that are in demand for success in the 21st century workplace and life.
From its beginnings, UB was the "bootstrap" school—feisty, ambitious, transformational, a "battling-against-the-odds" disposition—that got immigrants and other first generation college students into the professions rather than the blue-collar working class to which they might have been destined except for opportunity at UB. UB was never "the College on the Hill," removed from the push and pull, the "grit" and "grind" of life and work on the streets of Baltimore and beyond. UB historically has appealed especially to students who have often faced challenge after challenge—even failure after failure—and who have expended the immense effort to transcend this destructive cycle. Most UB students were not told every day that they were "great."
This profile, fully grasped, can be a very positive moment in students' lives. For example, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of People Operations for Google, observes in a recent editorial by Tom Friedman (the New York Times, Feb. 22. 2014), that students with such an uneven path through life are more likely than perpetually successful students at prestigious colleges and universities to possess "intellectual humility." "Intellectual humility" is a state of mind wherein failure yields creativity much appreciated by the likes of Google in its hiring practices. Bock asserts, "Without humility, you are unable to learn…. Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don't learn how to learn from that failure. They, instead, commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it's because I'm a genius. If something bad happens, it's because someone’s an idiot or I didn't get the resources or the market moved...."
UB began as the merger between a law school, founded in 1925 and a business school, and with careers at their core. Its founders were a group of Baltimore civic leaders who wanted to provide low-cost, part-time evening study in business and law for working adults.
The university added a college of liberal arts in the early 60s, partly as a service wing to the business school and partly to widen its offerings—but within a very applied, pragmatic educational culture. In 1975, when UB became part of the state system, it was on the condition that it drop the first two years of undergraduate study, partly so as not to compete directly for high school students with Towson University and other state four-year schools, and partly—and again in the narrative of opening access and taking students from one status in life to another through its education— to accommodate students finishing in the newly developed state community college system who decided they wanted further education. Those students, generally, went to the community college because they hadn't seriously been considered for or encouraged to attend college and thus, hadn't taken or even had available college prep courses.
For decades, career preparation informed by the liberal arts has been the orientation of the UB administration, faculty and students. UB is a vivid manifestation of the "useful liberal education" proposed in the 18th century as a distinction of American undergraduate education. And UB represents a distinctive choice among Maryland's colleges and universities—in fact, among the nation's institutions of higher learning. It appeals to a no-nonsense student who is ready for opportunity and wants to do so without all the arguably superficial social trappings of most other colleges and universities. UB has no intercollegiate athletic teams; it does not have a comprehensive residential life and its course of study is focused on a relatively modest number of majors that are preparatory to a range of careers—business, criminal justice, human sciences and management, digital communications, simulation and digital entertainment, psychology, jurisprudence, and integrated arts. There is a sense of urgency that defines the UB narrative—its students want to improve their lives through education and they want to do it now. Their lives for the most part have not been formed by indulgence and the notion that they have all the time in the world to mature. In fact, they bring "street" maturity to their study and propel it forward. Students attracted to the UB leadership narrative—those who want to inhabit the story—naturally possess a wide range of skill readiness levels and thus academic intervention at the high school level and readiness support services during the undergraduate years are also defining of the institution. A robust student support service throughout all the undergraduate years should always be part of the UB narrative. But the UB community and those beyond it can take great pride in its narrative for it represents young people overcoming great odds, to include an imperfect and incomplete pre-collegiate education, to secure a college degree.
And this is the twist—the "hook" in marketing terms. UB apparently never considered itself a vocational school—it was not focused solely on specific job training a to the exclusion of broader goals—but a bona-fide university whose education was grounded in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences and applied to the world of work. Before the university embraced the current branding slogan "Knowledge that Works"—an explicit nod to its historic narrative—it used the slogan "The Career Minded University," and before that, something equally pragmatic and yet, always sufficiently subtle in phrasing to extend beyond a narrow focus on education as mere training.
At its curricular core, UB has always been about a productive, at once imaginative, intersection of theory and practice defined by applied liberal arts in the service of employment. For example, this purposefully designed nexus is displayed in Publications Design that for its first 25 years required students to begin the program by reading Aristotle's Rhetoric and various other humanities texts and using these as the basis for thinking about how to most effectively (and ethically) communicate ideas to market. The University of Baltimore has the distinction of offering over decades many students from less than prosperous environments and at a relatively low cost that which they need pragmatically to improve their status—both job preparation and that which has always belonged to the more privileged in America, liberal arts education.
You as a community have to decide whether your distinctive narrative is articulated and embraced sufficiently by students, faculty and staff to support a comprehensive program for student success that overcomes the seemingly intractable challenges of a severe learning gap for numerous of your students between high school and college. Additionally, you have to ask whether your historical leadership narrative is sufficiently developed and communicated to attract also far more students from privileged backgrounds who could well benefit from gaining an undergraduate education amidst the prevailing dynamic student diversity and energetic, ambitious narrative of the university. This opportunity for overcoming achievement gaps for student success is perhaps to be even more valued by this target audience than has been traditionally assumed—especially by them. Elaine Tuttle Hansen, past president of Bates College and currently executive director of the Center for Talented Youth at the Johns Hopkins University, stated in a March 11, 2013 commentary in Chronicle for Higher Education how unprepared so many incoming students are, even at highly selective universities. She states, "The truth is that not all of the smartest kids who have jumped through the hoops required for selective college admissions are ready for the demands of college-level work."
Again, I congratulate the University of Baltimore for confronting the critical issue of student success at a time when solutions are elusive and higher education is in turbulent transition. Questions of educational value to cost abound. Access to even greater numbers of students to community college and college is demanded. Respected alternatives to traditional college such as those highly respected and rigorous academic-vocational institutions that exist in Germany are regretfully absent. All this is taking place when arguably the Golden Age of university expansion and easy money of the last 40 years have ended.
All groups currently examining the issue of advancing student success at UB are asking the right questions and focusing on an ample array of what might well yield results. I hope in a modest way that my observations contribute to the discussion and further, to those elusive solutions.