institutional integration

Lately I’ve been wondering about how our colleges and universities might be organized to foster more of the learning our students need.  At the right you can download today’s presentation on this, made to a town hall meeting at CSU Los Angeles.

The occasion was the management team’s last meeting under this president, James Rosser, whose long tenure is distinguished by the way his campus welcomed all students, including those whom higher education usually fails to serve.  We saw a set of interviews from seven students conveying their sense of genuine belonging, despite strikingly diverse backgrounds.

So how to build on that?  How to take that remarkable head start and get it to the bottom line?  For all the warm and fuzzy, six-year grad rates at CSU LA have been in the 30 percents.  In other words, students love it there, but few get what they came for.

It’s a tricky subject, relating to more than one facet of higher education.  But I believe institutional integration toward a unified sense of purpose, may be it.  But that’s tentative, in part because the upshot is a little strange looking.  But here it goes.

1.  Start with the learning.

If it’s fifty years ago, then industry and knowledge are advancing by specialization.  You get good at your own thing, and your social connections are mostly to people in your own field.  In the same way, your personal life is weirdly proscribed, by class, custom, Jim Crow, habit, or just the high price of phone calls.  That was the world before everything was connected to everything else.

7053902-black-1950-s-pay-phone-on-a-white-backgroundPreparing students for that meant steeping them in the traditions, knowledge, and modes of inquiry particular to one discipline, or one industry.  And with less need for interdisciplinarity comes a lower bar for socialization:  I can devote less energy to empathizing with others, when they mostly think and act like I do.

So we organize postsecondary learning around a mostly-knowledge curriculum, funneling students from breadth at entry toward narrowness at exit.  Choose your major at the halfway mark, and don’t look back.

For their part, colleges and departments survived in either of only two ways:  recruit majors to your tip of the funnel, or persuade all your colleagues that you belong at the wide end, as part of the “general education” that all students should have.

If instead you are an unpopular specialization failing to make the case for universal need, then your enrollments and funding dry up, and you go the way of astrology and Esperanto.

That was then.

By contrast the current age subjects our graduates to relentless churning, to urgent demands of cross-cultural team-forming in pursuit of the one-off goal.  When there’s less time to work out the hierarchical org chart, reporting structures get murky.  Your effectiveness depends more on your ability to understand and persuade others, whose backgrounds, expectations, and training may not be like yours.

These proficiencies – flexibility, drive, interpersonal efficacy – might result from college, but we’ve hidden them.  Our departments and disciplines have been ruthlessly winnowed by natural selection,  surviving only if they could assert their differentness to recruit majors or to claim their essentialness, as purveyors mostly of content knowledge.

The other, dispositional proficiencies haven’t been touted much in academic affairs.  Their visibility is instead in student affairs, in co-curriculars, clubs, and residence halls.   The “extra” in extracurricular didn’t mean “bonus,” it meant “outside of.”  As in, deliberately segregated from curriculum.  Can you imagine?  Institutional redlining.

It gets worse:  further down the pecking order are the time management coaches and itinerant tutors, who pick up what others won’t do.  Imagine our chagrin to wake up in the 21st century and discover they’re serving up what our students most need.

So that’s the learning.

2.  The experiences that foster the learning we want.

On  this the jury is in:  a suite of high-impact practices like service learning, learning communities, undergraduate research, international experiences, and civic engagement  get the hyper-specialized 20th-century learning out of its compartments, and reunite dispositional skills with the content in the curriculum.

Students can only get through these high-impact practices by  working together, innovating and problem solving, forming temporary teams in pursuit of tangible goals.  In other words, such experiences prepare them for their own lives, instead of their grandparents’.

student-group-presenting-electronics-linda-nathanThat advantage, of course, isn’t lost on the students.  Put them into these things and they recognize the relevance and value of the whole baccalaureate.  Grad rates rise, and gaps narrow.

The challenge is that we are not even remotely set up to deliver these experiences universally, or even consistently.  They’re expensive and labor intensive, when compared to hiring a solo academic to get up and explain his field to an auditorium.  Private and selective public institutions pull this off, but until we can get this to the rest – like say, 23 large-scale regional comprehensives in the Pacific Time Zone – we’re confronted by some troubling inequity for individuals.  And for society, we’re not developing all the human capital we should.

So that’s the learning, and those are the experiences.

The question is, how do we de-specialize, and get mass higher education from here to there?

3.  Three interventions that put dispositions into the curriculum.

  • CSU Chico’s Public Sphere Pedagogy:  first-year students select topics of pressing national concern, conduct research and develop recommendations as teams, and then organize and present the upshot at massive year-end conferences.
  • Participatory Design curriculum at Utah State University:  student teams act as outside consultants to their own university, interviewing administrators, faculty and staff at all levels and developing concrete recommendations to improve the student experience.
  • Campus as a Living Lab:  undergraduate research, peer mentoring, and service learning are brought on-site to improve sustainability at the university, develop an understanding of a complex social and technological ecosystem, and — not incidentally — bring high-impact practices within reach of part-time and commuter students.

What I find strange about this – suspiciously symmetrical – is that with all three of these interventions, the organization itself models the multifaceted thinking we want from our students.  If we want them integrating everything, then we have to do it first.

Does we have to?  Really?

That feels like sloppy thinking to me, an error of displacement.  One analogy is to weight loss:  the pop culture wisdom in the early 1990s was that eating fat makes you fat.  So we thought things without fat — like bread – must be fine.  Bagel shops proliferated, carbs were consumed, and guts grew.  These days we’re likelier to distrust the carbs and seek the proteins, even if they come marbled with a little fat, and we seem better off.  It turned out that assuming the input would equal the output was a red herring, because there’s a metabolism in between.

In the same way, I find it fishy to conclude that if we want our students learning content, skills, and attitudes all at the same time, then we need to deliver that kind of education with a consortium of departments, programs, coaches, and community partners all working seamlessly together.

In other words, is institutional integration really the only path to integrated learning?  Got me.  But we seem inclined to figure it out.


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