By: Jim Salvucci, Dean, The School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Stevenson University
We got so much in common
We strive for the same old ends
And I just can’t wait
Wait for us to become friends
I feel a change coming on
And the fourth part of the day is already gone.
-Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter
A running assumption throughout the 2014 AAC&U/ACAD Annual Meeting was that higher education should prepare for “a change coming on”—a theme shared with other annual meetings in recent years. Many presenters addressed this inevitability directly or offered ways of managing, adapting, or otherwise mitigating the coming change. But is there anything particularly remarkable about this current period of transformation? And is it unwelcome? After all, Benjamin Franklin is widely attributed as aphorizing, “When you are finished changing, you are finished.” Change is a major component of life and may be the most significant marker of continued existence. Granted, entropy is a form of change, but is that the sort of change we in the academy are facing? The consensus at AAC&U seems to suggest otherwise as colleagues propose and demonstrate their creative responses to anticipated change with great frequency and commitment.
Friday’s HEDs UP session was a fine example of such creativity and even practical advice. The HEDs UP sessions at AAC&U are a relatively new format in which presenters offer ten-minute commentaries “in the spirit of TED talks.” While the topics of each HEDs UP talk are less closely aligned than in most panel sessions, the ten-minute presentation window makes for more cogent statements and thus a livelier tone.
On Friday, Kate Kazin, chief academic officer of the College for America of Southern New Hampshire University, described her institution’s mastery model for working adult learners. In a similar vein, Cori Gordon, assistant clinical professor of liberal arts at Northern Arizona University, outlined her institution’s three competency-based “Personalized Learning” programs in which students follow “Critical Paths” adapted for them to complete their studies. The offerings of the other two HEDs UP panelists—Jen Page, director of the Pre-Health Collection at the Association of American Medical Colleges, and Laura Palucki-Blake, director of institutional research and effectiveness at Harvey Mudd College—may initially seem thematically unrelated to the first panelists. Page spoke on her database of shared learning and teaching resources while Palucki-Blake argued that “More Data Is Not Better,” the succinct title of her presentation.
All four presenters, though, directly confronted the problem of a changing world of higher education with clear and practicable solutions. And whatever one thinks of their approaches, their directness is admirable. Later that afternoon, with his own charismatic directness, José Antonio Bowen, winner of the 2014 Ness Book Award for his Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology out of Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, addressed a packed and enthusiastic hall and offered his hands-on advice for engaging today’s learners. As disparate as these presenters’ suggestions are, they all captured the meeting’s general collegial can-do spirit.
One could hear solution-rich pragmatism amid the zeitgeist of sinking anxiety in many panels and presentations. For instance, the panel “Preparing for the Apocalypse,” which I described in an earlier blog post, was an exploration of the possibility of moving liberal arts instruction out of the traditional university setting in order to preserve it. Aptly, even AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider’s commentary at the closing plenary was an optimistic call for reasserting the strength of liberal studies and moving forward.
Change is happening in and around higher education. We all seem to agree to some extent. Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, said, “If the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is near”—words we should heed. The sort or scope or speed of that change in higher education remains open to debate, but the attendees and presenters at AAC&U meetings generally have rallied around a strategy of rising to the challenge of the unknown. Whatever the future, we can be assured of our collegial resolve. I usually am inclined to a cynical—some would say pessimistic—outlook, so it should be telling that I would make this statement: after four days in DC, I am out-and-out sanguine about looming transformation. The challenges of the future will be formidable and remain largely mysterious, but we educators have a tremendous capacity for adaptability and a vast store of creative ideas, and we appear ready to use them. If we rise to the test with honesty and aplomb, higher education will be better for it.
One more aphorism:
Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by hitting back.
I think of that rhyme often in the face of a sticky dilemma, and we, the professionals of higher education, would be wise to take it to heart as we venture into our future.