My View from South Hill
Thursday, March 11, 2010
I spent the first part of this week in Phoenix at a meeting sponsored by the American Council on Education (ACE). The meeting offers a great chance to interact with college and university presidents from across the country, and to discuss common concerns.
We had a lot to talk about this year! Mainly money, of course: the loss of value in our endowments, reductions in support from state governments that are themselves cash-strapped, the difficulty of simultaneously holding down tuition increases and increasing financial aid to students whose families cannot pay the full cost of a college education. Above all, we talked about ideas on how to control our costs while continuing to offer students an excellent educational experience.
We also reflected on other kinds of concerns, including the receding percentage of young adults in this country who complete a baccalaureate degree – just when the need for higher education is greater than ever. We not only need to enroll more students, but also to increase the percentage of students who complete their degrees within a reasonable length of time. We need to find the keys to serve an increasingly diverse student population who must become life-long learners in order to thrive in a rapidly changing world.
One plenary speaker, a nationally respected college president, even suggested that higher education is adrift, with a loss of vision and of our characteristic optimism about the future.
I flew home Tuesday night with a heavy heart. If college presidents feel weighed down by the financial and educational challenges we face today, no wonder there is growing evidence of reduced public and political support for the work we do.
At 35,000 feet somewhere between Phoenix and Ithaca, though, my thoughts began to leave the ACE conference and focus instead on the IC campus. I began to think about our gifted and dedicated faculty and staff, and our amazing students. Which is real – the gloom of the conference or the bright vibrancy of the campus? Wednesday morning I rescheduled all appointments that I could and decided instead to have a day of immersion into the life of our campus.
I had breakfast with three members of our men’s cross country team. They were startlingly bright-eyed at 7:30 am, a fact even more puzzling because while I was gulping coffee they were making much healthier choices in their food and drink. The dining hall was filled with the buzz of happy chatter, including from students participating in breakfast study groups to prepare for midterms. When did our students learn to be so focused and relaxed at the same time?
I dropped in unannounced on an audio production and editing class taught in the Park School, and was welcomed graciously by Professor Gossa Tsegaye and his students. The students described their projects for the first half of the semester: producing a three minute news segment, a 30 second public service announcement, and a five minute talk show segment. Their enthusiasm was infectious, especially for the talk show segment, which challenges them to conduct an interview and monitor the sound board at the same time. When did learning become so much fun?
Despite the mounds of snow left on the ground from last week, it was a mild day and students were lounging near the Textor Ball. Some were chatting, some were listening to their iPods, and some were reading for class. Everyone had a beverage with them, so I did a quick survey: four waters, 2 decaf coffees, 1 herbal tea, and 1 fruit smoothie. I thought back to my two quick cups of (caffeinated) coffee for breakfast; when did our students become so health conscious?
I then attended a class session taught by Professor Hugh Egan of the English Department. The class was discussing the first person account of slavery written by Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The classroom conversation was engaged, thoughtful, inclusive of every student in the class, and showed an astonishing empathy for the interiors of a life unimaginable in our experience today. When did our students become so smart?
In the afternoon I continued my odyssey of the student experience on campus. I spoke with students who work in the Robert Colbert Wellness Clinic, using their skills in physical therapy and exercise science to interview faculty and staff on their life styles, determine their wellness and fitness objectives, and then work with them as trainers. The students told me how great this real world experience is for them. “In class we practice on each other, but we learn more by dealing with real world situations in which people aren’t as fit or healthy as we are.” I thought back to my two coffee breakfast and nodded in understanding.
I dropped by IC Square and came across the students who started Standing Room Only. SRO is an audition-free organization that gives students who love to dance, act, sing and play music an opportunity to participate in the musicals that the organization puts on every year. They were in IC Square this afternoon to plan the performance schedule for 2010-2011. When did our students become so far-sighted?
In the late afternoon I had an opportunity to stop by a reception organized by the cadets of the Ithaca College ROTC Detachment to acknowledge faculty who have had the greatest impact on them. As a long-time faculty member, I am aware that no praise means as much as the praise of a current or former student. When did our students become so generous of spirit?
My day on campus ended well, with an evening concert in Ford Hall offered by the IC Symphonic Band and Concert Band. It was heaven to sit back and let the music wash over me. When did our students become such virtuosos?
The issues in higher education that the presidents discussed at the ACE meetings are very real. It is our responsibility to do something about those problems of cost, access, effectiveness and excellence. In the meantime, and while we work on reshaping American higher education for the future, we should not lose sight of the lived experience of 6,500 Ithaca College students who are attending classes, studying, practicing and performing. Every day, from morning till night, there are on our campus uncounted thousands of educational moments in which students come to understand something new and important through their interactions with faculty and with each other. Everything that higher education is supposed to accomplish happens at IC on a daily basis. In solving the problems of higher education, our students, faculty and staff are our ACE up the sleeve.
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