A Compelling Challenge in Utah

title slide

Today I addressed the 18th annual “What Is An Educated Person?” conference hosted by the Utah System of Higher Education.  You can download a copy of the presentation by clicking on the image to the right.

Like most states of the union, Utah is less ethnically diverse than California but picking up speed.  Educators have identified as the state’s “compelling challenge” the need to keep up with this new kind of demand while maintaining quality learning outcomes and respecting the traditions of faculty governance.


The Mint Theater

meet-the-mint-500x281A few blocks from Broadway in New York City, at 311 West 43rd Street, you can go up two floors and back in time.

The Mint Theater is devoted to rediscovering great and forgotten plays of the 19th and early 20th century.  Sometimes the writers are familiar — Hemingway, J.M. Barrie, Tolstoy — but often they’re not, and the titles never are.  But the material is always great, well reviewed and recognized in its day, a day that has passed.

If you’re ever around you should go.  There are many reasons to love this place, and if you work in higher ed there a couple more.

First, to attend these plays is to cash in on a certain kind of learning, a broad familiarity with recent cultural history and a delight in new discoveries.  To come here is to enjoy something mostly available to people who’ve spent some time studying up, whether in formal degree programs or on their own, and who like to keep learning.

"Photo: "The New Morality" By Harold Chapin Directed by Jonathan Bank Cast:     Christian Campbell     Clemmie Evans     Michael Frederic     Kelly McCready     Brenda Meaney     Ned Noyes     Douglas Rees presented by The Mint Theater Company; Dress rehearsal photographed: Friday, August 21, 2015; 2:00 PM at Mint Theater, New York, NY; Photograph: © 2015 Richard Termine. PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine"

Second, this is serious scholarship as public service.  Plays are presented in fanatically accurate historical detail.  The programs come with interesting accounts of the text, its author, and its lasting significance — despite the intervening decades of obscurity.  One recent essay was from Yale trained dramaturgical advisor Maya Cantu; this is one of the few playbills in New York’s theater district to come with footnotes.

The upshot of all this research, scholarship, and interdisciplinary execution is an uncannily vivid look into the recent past, made the more immediate because the source material is unfamiliar, and not yet become a subculture of its own.

And although production values are high, ticket prices are about a quarter to a third of prevailing rates.  Worth going, to be glad our universities contribute to this corner of the mainstream, and to harvest your own education for the fun of it.

demographics, part 2

IMG_9845In a post a couple of months back, I pointed out that my home state of California and the whole world are on parallel actuarial tracks.  On both scales, we’re seeing a declining share of the demographic groups well served by current educational practice, and rapid growth in the populations that colleges and universities don’t serve well.  That is, more people are born every day to the ethnicities, countries, and socioeconomic strata for whom earning a degree is less likely.

In the long run this threatens not just our sense of fairness, but also our world’s economic and civic vitality, and its people’s health outcomes, happiness, and ability to get along.

Maybe it’s because I work in education, but it’s hard for me to picture a more urgent problem — especially since solutions to all the other problems we face, with climate, energy, food, and human rights, will come from people who’ve been well educated.

I wish I could say we had an answer in California, since we’ve had such a head start offering college to a diverse populace.  But in fact our answers are patchwork and provisional.  They seem to turn on contextualized learning, reconceptions of education that locate student work in real-world settings to vary the performance cues, surprise the learner, and illuminate proficiency.  You can see in a recent report that our faculty have no shortage of good ideas for making the first two years of college feel integrated and purposeful, but administratively we have very far to go; most of the time when we say learn we mean sit and listen.

My earlier post emphasized the mismatch in pacing:  global demographics are changing quickly, while our higher ed machinery is still organized to serve the old majority.

Yet I’m happy to note that the world seems at least on track to get more of its educational act together, in a few ways.

International_Islamic_University_in_Islamabad,_PakistanReason for hope #1: growing demand. Countries in the developing world are showing record interest in postsecondary education, and they keep inviting U.S. consultants to show how it’s done. Since starting this blog I’ve been to the United Arab Emirates and Kenya on such missions, and my friends are getting flown around too, often to obscure and poor countries. Those cultures have prized learning for a very long time, but it’s a new thing to make universities your marquee infrastructure project.

(I’m not alone in this particular zeal:  see a recent Smithsonian article on how a former California college administrator is leading an American university in Nigeria, and what she believes it can do.)  This makes me hopeful because the learning from such interaction is inevitably two-way.

Reason for hope #2: migration. Most observers think this century’s imbalance in birth rates will be offset by migration, so that developed countries really won’t shrink. In the words of a Rand study, we “will see increasing pressures for migration to the developed world.”  (You think?  It’s been a harrowing few weeks of evidence on that point.)

A Roland-Berger analysis concurs: “International migration will continue . . . with North America and Europe the main destinations for migrants.” But presciently, Rand singled out the U.S. as the developed country best prepared for this:

Japan, which faces the prospect of losing a quarter of its population over the next 25 years, makes little allowance for immigrants. In Europe, any liberalization of immigration policies must involve a multilateral response, and an attendant surrender of sovereignty will be opposed on national sovereignty grounds.

Furthermore, unlike in the United States, citizenship in most European countries and Japan is based on blood (ethnicity) rather than country of birth (nativity). Given the complexity of these issues and the fact that most developed countries have no history of immigration, it is instructive to look at the debate about immigration policy in the United States, where immigrants are currently responsible for about two-thirds of total population growth.

Between the lines, Rand is suggesting that we in the United States might benefit from our head start, if we can just rein in the rhetoric, and figure out how to bring in newcomers fairly, legally, and intentionally.

And combined with the global vogue for higher ed, these are signs we could eventually make up for the shortfall in the world’s production of college grads.

Syrian refugees in Hungary, in an image from The Guardian.
Syrian refugees in Hungary two days ago, in an image from The Guardian.

What do we do in the meantime? Well, the usual but for more reasons.

First, we need to close our dang gaps. Our present diverse population – especially California’s – is teaching us how to educate them, and the rest of the world is counting on us to listen and respond better. Because more are coming – by birth rate, by growing interest in college-going, by migration. And we want them all in college, and then we want them out there, with degrees, pitching in.

Second – and this is just me talking – we should support more of the half-baked ideas from our colleagues about how to embed liberal learning in unusual settings, like work. We need our students writing everywhere, and not just in freshman comp. We need them quantifying problems on internships and in their communities, not just in workbooks.

Many experiments will fail, but others will teach us how to make GE look less irrelevant, and more like what it is: the source of the expansive and versatile intellectual capacity that drives opportunity and equity.  That’s the defining feature of American higher education.

To the extent there’s truth in advertising, we seem to be what the world needs now.

news from the 19th century


These are tense days at State of Art U.  Over the next two weeks long-running battles will culminate on several fronts, relating to core beliefs about curriculum, learning, and even institutional research.

Suddenly nothing is routine, and every meeting is charged.  And these are mostly open-minded, unselfish educators; when they get this stubborn it usually means they believe giving in will harm students, and at that point compromise is impossible.

The resumption of the academic year adds to the pressure at all levels.  Yesterday my new boss flew last-minute to a distant campus, to mediate what I think of as the Wars of Northern Succession.  He has been on the job for seven weeks.  Today will be the fourth day of class.

Such times call for a bit of perspective, and maybe as a result I’ve been engrossed in Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, about the first quarter-century of the United States.  It’s part of a series I’ve been enjoying over the years, and reading out of order.  (That’s the thing about history; you don’t need spoiler alerts.)

Even in calm times I would find this hard to put down; it’s not escapism so much as immersion in a fascinating, pivotal time.  And it’s beautifully written.  (Click on the cover image above to read more at Amazon.)  Highly recommended.

In case you can’t get to it — say, if you’re too busy excoriating colleagues over the difference between a C- and a C — I’ll thumbnail one bit here.

First, the setup.  Like many of us I have been through the chronology of western civ many times.  In each telling, 18th century neoclassicism is cast in contrast to its successor, romanticism.  The former was austere and rational, the latter mystical and emotional.  Simple, right?  But of course, drenched in hindsight.

What I like when Wood gets to this part is that he doesn’t even mention the Romantics.  He’s so completely absorbed in his story that he sees the contrast only to what came before, as contemporaries did.  And what came before neoclassicism was the clutter of baroque and rococo, something that struck early Americans as decadent, aristocratic.  For them, neoclassicism wasn’t austere, it was just clean.  It was intelligible to the masses.  It was a relief.

Here’s how he explains it:

By the middle of the eighteenth century European and English philosophers were already redirecting the content and form of art away from frivolous and voluptuous private pleasure toward moral education and civic ennoblement.  Infused with dignity and morality and made subservient to some ideological force outside themselves, the arts could become something more than charming ornaments of an idle aristocracy; they could become public agents of reformation and refinement for the whole society.

Isn’t that awesome?  It’s so eloquent, concise, and — steeped as I am in the received counter-narrative of hindsight — refreshing to have this presented the way it felt at the time.

hqdefaultWhich kind of brings me back to the present, and our academic cage fighting.

These are real struggles, and my friends on all sides who feel our students’ lives in their hands are right.  And we’re a big system; this is a lot of lives.

But however fraught our actions feel to us in our fascinating, pivotal time, it’s all lopsided, and past-facing only.

We will be judged differently than how we seem to ourselves, by people who weigh our decisions against what came after as well as before, and know how our stories turn out.

Life after CPEC

Life after CPEC title slideCPEC was the California Postsecondary Education Commission, and its demise in 2011 made us one of the few states without an office to coordinate its public colleges and universities.

Today’s presentation describes what that’s like to my counterparts from other states, as part of the Policy Conference of the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

You can download (and freely reuse) my presentation by clicking on the image to the left.  My remarks are available in Notes Page View; for the visuals to make sense you’ll need to use Slide Show.

world map

demographics, part 1

silhouette student

We’re proud in California to be the demographic bellwether for the other states: as we pick up more dialects and ethnicities, so shall they. That affects our work on student success; for us, closing achievement gaps isn’t merely a matter of social justice, but also urgent:  as white people age and die off, those left to carry on will be more diverse than we are.

So far our position out front has done us little good.  We face stubborn gaps along ethnic lines in academic preparation, achievement, and completion.

Lately I’ve wondered if the remedy might lie in learning outcomes assessment, of all places.  For decades we’ve placed our student success bets elsewhere, delivering homogenous teaching and curriculum to increasingly heterogeneous students, and adding auxiliary functions or remediation to accommodate difference.  It’s a failed strategy.

Focusing instead on demonstrated learning may better address variations in learning style, culture, and preparation, by letting go of mandated inputs, and giving local educators more discretion to serve local needs.  Get to the agreed finish line however you want, the thinking goes, just get there.

One area of such reform is at the level of individual courses, “redesigned” with technology.  The technique reduces each course to the learning it seeks, then rebuilds the semester with student work meant to develop and highlight those proficiencies from multiple angles – for example by blending real-life science labs with computer simulations.

Gaps are closing, but these are early days. Experience with past efforts suggests that over time and across multiple instructors, practice regresses. In the absence of larger scale reform – an outcomes approach at the level of the degree rather than course – it can feel like digging a hole in dry sand.

At a broader scale, we’re experimenting with bulk articulation of courses bundled into Associate Degrees for Transfer.  In theory, these new roomier containers of credit could house explicitly contextualized, practically motivated experiences – including the traditional list of high-impact practices, but also on-campus employment and others with a paycheck – that transcend individual courses.

Such approaches might be especially beneficial for the likeliest to drop out, by making college look and feel more useful, and less like a four-year hiatus for the affluent. Early results are good, but the programs are in infancy.

So that’s our answer to observers in other states: we’re working on it.

Let’s zoom out a little.

irish voteAs a descendent of Irish Catholics, I was as surprised as anyone when the old country voted overwhelmingly last May to recognize gay marriage.

Amid the commentaries one point stuck with me, that not just same-sex marriage but homosexuality itself remains illegal in most undeveloped countries – a symptom of what we could call the tolerance gap.

That is, along with per capita domestic product and a free press, we can add legal recognition of diversity as one of the symptoms that you’re purple instead of blue:

world map

(This post uses the United Nations division of countries into “Advanced” and “Developing.”)

Before we get even purpler with self praise we should note how far we still have to go.  North Africans in France, say, or immigrants in Japan, would be surprised to learn they inhabit a zone of enlightenment.  And that’s to say nothing of the U.S., where race relations have managed to sink lower since the Irish vote.

But the broad trend seems to hold, that in wealthier countries legalized bigotry is going the way of famine and Ebola.

Educators can claim some credit. For all our failings and conflicted interests, we at least seem to be doing the one thing we agree we should, which is opening minds.  And indeed, there’s a correlation; our best estimate is that people in the purple area are more than three times likelier to hold a college degree:

attainmentThese metrics of education, wealth, and tolerance are related. Smarter people make better choices, which accumulate to make a smarter culture.

And yet – just as we see with California and the other states – globally the demographic trend is to add more of the people who aren’t going to college.

That purple area of developed countries is not only fewer square miles than the blue; it’s also fewer people, and slower population growth.

In fact, the populations in the college-going countries actually shrink between now and the end of this century, while in the countries that go less, the population grows:

population growth

In other words, college seems to work globally the same way it does in California: mostly for a population that’s in the minority, and getting smaller.

This is distressing. The world’s problems going forward – like sustainability and resource distribution and human rights – will be solved only if we can develop more of the human capacity to address them. And on our current trajectory, we’ll instead be developing less of it.

Can California’s experiments with gap-closing and outcomes-learning help?  Maybe, if we keep prioritizing this, and stay connected to those efforts elsewhere.

I see a couple of other reasons for hope, too, but I’ll save them for a later post.