Culture & Learning Beyond the Classroom


Most of the work that I do in my current position is with international students coming to study in the US, and one of the big challenges we will be tackling in the next year is preparing colleagues across campus to support growing numbers of students from abroad studying and living on our campus.  That has made me reflect on my own travels and the cultural aspects of transition for international students.

On a recent recruitment trip to China, the hotel I stayed in while visiting Zhengzhou (pronounced “Jung-joe”) was right across the street from the school whose students we were presenting to and interviewing.  On the gray morning I woke before our full day visit, I heard music outside my window, which faced the school.  Outside on the large walk in front of the main school building, students in identical dress were stretching, bending, and reaching in unison.  Standard calisthenics required of all students each morning.  I only had a few minutes to watch before heading out myself, but this display made me think of the huge cultural shift students coming to study in the US must experience at colleges and universities.  To go from morning workout to weekend partying?

It’s not something we always account for or are even aware of in higher education.  We don’t think about the need to explain a system we inherently understand, but even if we academics do think about it, we focus on the classroom experience, perhaps the shift from face-to-face time toward homework done independently or the need to engage in class discussion rather than take notes and learn facts.  However, our students—international and not—see us in a panorama, across disciplines, across divisions.  To them, we are one silo and fundamentally un-siloed.  In the case of international students coming from many places around the world, schools have often been one cohesive, integrated experience for them, and they bring that idea with them even more fully than our domestic students coming out of US high schools.

So, what do we do with that as teachers, administrators, and people who care about the future of higher education?  First, we listen and we learn.  Our students know where they come from and how things were for them in past schools, and we enhance our ability to support them in and out of class when we learn about their expectations, assumptions, and needs.  Second, we explain.  When we pull the curtain back on the parts of the machine that they need to understand the workings of, when we give words to the motives for the things we do, we are helping students see how the rules have changed, how their expectations need to change, and why they need to respond to the reality of their current context and not what they thought it was.  The next time they need to decode part of US higher education, they will be better equipped.  And isn’t that our shared ultimate goal?


Lessons from Home


In some of my posts here, I had shared that I was engaged in strategic planning at my own home institution.  I am and have been.  And that is where I have been focusing my strategic brain has been occupied—with my university’s strategic plan, with strategic and forward looking operations for my own office.  I’m returning to the public conversation because it seems time for lessons to be shared from this intense, professionally “inward looking”—if you will—work.

Lesson 1: Change can only succeed with input and support.

My campus has prided itself on collaboration and shared governance for far longer than I have been here.  However, this campus-wide strategic planning process has shown that to me in a new and special light.  Sure, some people come to town halls and feedback-gathering meetings to champion the thing that keeps them employed, but so many of my colleagues came wanting to think about the institution and what it would need to do for the students of tomorrow.

That has also been true in the smaller context of growing my own office’s programming.  My colleagues have been invaluable in helping me see possible roadblocks and challenges, in revealing new strategies and simpler processes.  That collaborative process, in turn, made the staff feel valued and valuable—which they are.

Lesson 2: Don’t sweat the details too soon.

Yes, someone must ultimately be responsible for getting things done.  Yes, the details do matter.  However, when you need to stay macro and focus on clarifying the big picture, needing the details stops you dead in your tracks.  We did this more than once in our large campus-wide committee.  The result was operational thinking that didn’t inspire or engage anyone.  Strategy should be exciting; vision should make people want to contribute.  No matter the level of decision making, strategy must precede operation.  Then, operational planning—and the details—can have the full stage.  I’m a “get-things-done” kind of person, and my current position requires that I have a handle of all of the macro and some of the micro.  The difference and the timing matter.

Lesson 3: Look ahead; think ahead.

I often joke with my colleagues that “it is already April in my head” or whatever far-off-seeking time I am actually planning for in my day-to-day work.  Strategy of any kind requires that you think toward the future.  Leadership, then, is seeing that goal and the road ahead that will take the organization there.  Any big picture conversation, almost by default, must begin with that future vision, but seeing the full path is what connects the idea to the operations that accomplish it.  This lesson, for me, is that it’s a good thing that I think so far ahead, but it also seems a lesson that many of us could use here in higher education from time to time.


These lessons learned in planning have helped my home institution see and plan for the future, but that future is the university for tomorrow’s students that we all must envision.

Next week, I’ll be thinking about what diversity can and should look like in that future.


The Struggle


For the last several weeks, I have been struggling with the death of a good friend who helped me survive and even thrive in college.  When I learned late on a Friday night that she was too ill for home hospice but was going into residential hospice, my life became a 12-hour blaze of social media messages and constant communication.  It lasted only 12 hours because that is when she died.  But then it kept going.  The flood of people who knew what she had given them, who knew where they would not be if not for a piece of candy, a bummed cigarette, the thing that opened the door to personhood and possibility for so many.  Myself included.

You see, when I met this wonderful woman who became my boss and friend and mentor and role model, I was a first generation college student who knew so little about academia that I didn’t even know it had rules of its own, a language and a pecking order I could not see, and a hidden system navigable only with a password and secret map in a foreign language.  Claudia taught me how to detect the code of that language and how to live in it with grace and spunk, even when you wish it did not exist at all.  Basically, she is the first mentor-teacher-friend of my academic life.  And in case you are wondering, she was the assistant to the Dean of Students.

Why am I giving you this very personal start to a post on a very impersonal and issue-oriented blog?  Because I was then what so many of our students are today: first generation, unsure, afraid of the code we do not know.   Claudia was someone who helped me decode in the midst of this struggle, and when I heard about her much quicker than expected death, I was planning to write here about the responsibilities inherent in a first-generation Ph.D., but then I realized that the issue is not the Ph.D. and who does what.  The issue is the struggle our students face when they cannot decode the system, just like me.  Who helps them?  It can and should be every person in a classroom who was a first generation college student, but it must also be the folks who are “front line” for students in other ways–as professional academic advisors, advising student organizations, working in residential life, working in Student Affairs wherever student interaction happens.  And, yes, in as many classrooms as possible, giving personal contact and interaction.

Basically, Claudia was someone who understood the struggle and helped so many students through it.  I needed it; many others needed it.  Many more will need it.  The trith is that we must be the Claudias of the world offering a safe space, a friendly ear, and a roadmap of the way forward.

My own way forward finds me in China for the fourth time in 15 months working on educational development for my college, now successfully holding a 2+3 agreement in my hand.  Writing this, I think of how Claudia would have viewed my worldliness and my years today.  Lordy, she would have been proud–and had cause to–as without her, there would not be this version of me.  And now that she is gone, who will the Claudias be?


Supporting the Students of Today and Tomorrow


Last week, I promised to follow up on exactly how we can go forward in higher education to better serve tomorrow’s students and work to close the achievement gap that promises to do nothing but widen.  To do that, I will take you back to something I said about the future of higher education for a piece in University Business called “Higher ed thought leaders forecast 2015 trends” : that many of our students would look and seem like the students we have always known, but their needs will be very different.

As we have all spent the week talking and reading about Sweet Briar College and the decision of its Board to close, this point becomes even more important. For schools like Sweet Briar—and by way of disclaimer, I am a native Virginian—the future was already here, and the type of student they had been serving and were founded to serve was disappearing. Why else such a steep discount rate (high scholarship rate)? Combine that with a nearly 100 percent acceptance rate, from which less that 25 percent enrolled (or yielded), and the answer is clear: students were no longer choosing Sweet Briar and what they believed it had to offer. It wasn’t a question of quality—and likely not even of service—but of a reality of changing demographics.

How then do we respond in higher education? Certainly I started this conversation last week in response to Kevin Kruger’s comments.  However, what I didn’t say clearly is that we make assumptions about who our students are and what they need that need to change immediately.  Instead, we must accept that history is not our best teacher here and discover what students really need to be successful by paying attention to who they really are.  There are two specific support service areas our students today and tomorrow need for success:

1) Streamlined and Partnered Writing and ESL Support

As an increasing number of recent immigrants and international students seek to study in the US, the connections among writing centers, writing programs, and English language programs become essential.  Students who struggle in a composition class but don’t really belong in an ESL classroom are the most at risk.  How colleges and universities choose to bridge these students, support the development of vocabulary, and teach strategies for successful writing across the curriculum needs to become a focus for many schools, and the truth is that, currently, it is not. Data gathering on student demographics can help managers convince their leaders of the need for this work and the necessary financial support of it. Coordination among offices, as these tasks are usually spread across many units and even divisions will be key. It will also take time away from the hands-on work with students. That will mean staffing increases or increases in faculty for areas that too many schools consider adjunct to their core educational experience. Maintaining that view will be costly.

2) Mentoring and Advising for Academic Success

It has been many years now since colleges and universities started developing student success centers with various names in response to retention concerns. Okay, great, but depending on how those centers are framed and staffed, they may not be ready for the real challenge ahead. Specifically, they need to be available to and active with all students, not just those in specific classes, class years, or scholarship programs. They also need to be staffed by people who give them no only tools for “student success” like note-taking and time management but also a roadmap to the campus system. First-generation students need help understanding how to get things done, who to go to, what the basic expectations are for using office hours, attending class, reaching out—even what services are available for free. They won’t ask because they won’t want anyone to know that they don’t know. It will reveal who they are—and (they often think) decide they don’t belong.


Without these two important supports, students won’t persist, they won’t be retained. They won’t be enrolled. And that’s not what higher education is supposed to be about.



The Achievement Gap: Widening Our Lens


Last week, Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, the professional organization for student affairs professionals, spoke on my home campus at The College of New Jersey, and made a claim about the future of higher education that struck me: The achievement gap is our next great civil rights challenge. He’s right, but I think responding effectively to this call to re-envision education and higher education will require that we change the cultural connotation of “civil rights.”

Here just after Black History Month, shortly after celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and remembrances of his death and that of Malcolm X, and after media coverage of the anniversary of the Selma march and the movie, Selma, we would be tempted to continue to think of civil rights as a black/white binary. However, the skills gap is wider and more complex than America’s longest standing racial binary.

Kruger presented as part of his talk data that we should all be familiar with: tomorrow’s students are increasingly first-generation, increasingly Hispanic/Latino, and increasingly from lower income families. He also talked about how few African American students, particularly young men, are earning bachelor’s degrees. So, it is all of these categories of student who experience the achievement gap in differing degrees and are, therefore, part of this next civil rights challenge Kruger was heralding.

In urban centers, we know why this is happening: the long, slow suburbanization of middle class families, leaving poorer communities in America’s cities. Demographically, we know that this also means urban populations that are primarily ethnic minorities and new immigrants. But what about rural areas? What about first generation students in the American South and Midwest? Many of them are not ethnic minorities but do come from lower income families and face the same challenges as other first generation, low income students: a primary and secondary education that did not prepare them for the challenges of higher education, difficulty funding higher education, and—perhaps most importantly—no way to easily understand and navigate the complex system of a college or university in order to be successful.

It is all of these students who are the future (and even the present) of higher education. They are not the students that many schools are used to supporting and educating, but they must become so. If we widen our sense of the civil rights issue of the achievement gap, we see all of our students and their collective challenges. This will allow us to put into place the things they need on our campuses to succeed. Success is both retention and persistence, and we need to talk about them, about why they aren’t happening, and how they could.

Come back next week for a follow-up to this piece where I talk about that “how.”


“Skills” Education & the Future of Higher Ed


Last week, I wrote about a recent AAC&U report on a skills gap between what employers want and what students believe they can do. This week, testing giant ETS released its own “skills gap” report, using data from an international assessment with very different measures than those used by AAC&U.  We might expect this difference, given that AAC&U is run by and for educators and educational institutions and the same can certainly not be said for ETS.  The real problem here is not with the simple fact of the report being issued, as you might imagine, but with its content.

Most of the media coverage has focused on the (quite right and interesting) claims the authors make about how educational opportunity and access correlates to socioeconomic status or parental education level. When I first heard about this report, I didn’t view it as a something that might threaten higher ed.  In fact, I was planning to write about an entirely different subject this week.  Then, I read about this report before spending two days in a strategic planning retreat, after which I read the full report.

So, just what is the problem? Inside the report, the authors take on higher education with the following statements, among others, emphases mine:

  • “By exploring both in absolute and relative terms the skills associated with different levels of educational attainment, these data shed light on both the quantity of education our young adults have received and some evidence about the quality of our secondary and post-secondary educational institutions.” p.19
  • “Therefore, understanding how we gain skills, and what levels of skills we have—not just in K-12 education, but also in formal higher post-secondary institutions and informal education—is critical to grasping how our economy functions and how individuals within our society rise and fall with the shifting demands of the global marketplace.” p. 20
  • “U.S. millennials who have successfully attained undergraduate and graduate degrees demonstrate skill levels below those of all but a few of the participating countries.” p. 23

Are you ready for the kicker? Here you go:

And finally, if a large percentage of our adults are receiving post-secondary education but still do not demonstrate that they possess adequate skills, what benefit does that education provide and at what cost?” p. 21-22

This is where it becomes important to understand what skills the PIAAC, the data source used by ETS here, actually tests. The report addresses three categories: literacy, numeracy, and “problem-solving in technology-rich environments”.

Like many academics, I resist the call to skills-based education, but that is not my chief  concern here. These statements—and that final question—represent a set of value judgments that do not fall in line with what most higher education institutions are doing—or should be doing today.  Instead, it forwards, though subtly and through implication, a claim that quality higher education would be training students in these skills, and if that is not what we are doing, then we are failing our students at great cost to them, both in the short term, monetary form of high tuition and then again when they are unable to get jobs.

So, just what happens if the influence of a testing giant like ETS or a particular policy shop that isn’t really run by educators gains significant traction in government or public opinion with claims like this?  It calls back to mind Margaret Spellings and what many of my then-colleagues in DC called “No Freshmen Left Behind,” which was a recipe for disaster.  It should be the educators, who know what post-secondary education looks like, really shaping this national conversation. We owe it to our profession to stand up and speak back to and even in place of attempts (like this report) to measure the football field’s worth of work we do with a 12-inch ruler.  Higher education must continue to be about more than skills—and certainly more than these three categories—and that is where some things we often eschew in our colleges and universities become important, most prominently assessment and strategic planning.  If we don’t tell ourselves and the world what we are doing and what evidence we have that we are doing it well, someone will do it for us.  This recent report is just another example of that.


Diversity & Employability


The AAC&U recently released a report called “Falling Short?: College Learning and Career Success.” Here is the press release.

Much of the news coverage—and that press release—focus on the differences between what students thought about their career preparedness and what employers thought about the same. However, the very questions raise a different issue: the presence and integration of diversity on campuses across the country.

Diversity can mean so many things, and on my own campus, we have been reexamining what “diversity” means to our community. Given my position, I am often the person in the room raising the question of cultural diversity.  The questions in this survey and responses seem to make clear that the ability to communicate, build teams, and produce products across cultures is important, but how can higher education institutions do a better job of that?

First, we have to value cultural diversity across campus by recognizing it and greeting it with respect and a desire to learn. By this I mean that we need to acknowledge that a student who has just arrived in the US from, say, Kazakhstan, has a set of cultural (and not just language) challenges that will be different from those of a student from the same country or region who has been in the US for two years.  But they will both have challenges.  We have to see how an African American student, a Latino student, and a white student from the same city will all bring different cultural understandings of education to campus.

Then, we need to serve those differences in our classrooms, offices, and residence halls. Yes, students who come from places where education was segregated by gender will have some difficulty integrating into a co-ed campus or co-ed classrooms.  Yes, students who were raised to listen to teachers and take in knowledge will struggle to participate in some classes, depending on the student dynamic.  And our responses need to come with the recognition that these are often cultural barriers and not a language deficit or lack of ability.

To achieve this second step, higher education leaders need to equip their campuses—across units—with the tools to do this well. This can take a host of forms, depending on one ‘s campus context, but it requires identifying areas where development is needed and dedicating resources to faculty development, staff with particular expertise in student affairs, a reconfigured Writing Center—just to name a very few.  This kind of planning is necessary not just for the future but for the present.  This diversity is already here and everywhere, but if we don’t know how to support it and work within it, we cannot serve as the role models students need when encountering difference and help them better adapt to what America’s international workplaces demand.


Introducing Strategic Revision


Many years ago, when I was in the midst of my research on contingent academic labor, I was asked to blog about this topic from a scholarly, activist, and personal perspective. At the time, I had been working as an adjunct faculty member for a handful of years and was actively involved in public advocacy. I said no. Not because I didn’t think the issue was important but because I knew my stance on the growing contingency of faculty, and I knew my opinions would not change. A blog, to me, as a reader of several academic blogs, should be something that evolves—in itself and for its readers. The beauty of electronic publishing is that it needs new content about new and changing ideas to remain current.

Enter Strategic Revision. But first I must answer the whys of this act—why me, why here, and why now.

My years as a faculty member and higher education administrator have taught me that we have the tools to meet the challenges that are already facing US higher education, but we are not connecting the dots. When many of us weren’t looking, the nature of the students in our classrooms changed, and the business model our leaders are working with changed. Leaders making the decisions didn’t have the information those of us on the ground had, and those who could see the details did not see from the broader perspective available to leaders. No one was looking at both views, adjusting the lens for the variable perspective necessary to evolve together. Instead, we all fell into various degrees of fear about the dire state of higher education and failed to notice that, if we did not adapt to the growth in first-generation students, those not born in the US, those whose first language is not English, those fears would become a reality. It seemed—and seems—a perfect storm of “we are not ready.”

But we have the tools, and we can adapt—on all sides of the faculty/admin line. We can listen to each other, learn more about the system, change it, show it to students with greater transparency. Here in this space that I am calling Strategic Revision, I will be blogging about the current and future state of U.S. higher education and trying to think through how we get from where we are to where we should be and need to be. I’m doing this because I believe in the system and its possibilities; I believe that knowing the system helps you master it and change it for the better. We don’t need to throw away everything we’ve built in US colleges and universities; we need strategic revision.