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.

“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.