President's Notebook

President's Notebook

My View from South Hill

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Posted by Thomas Rochon at 9:30AM   |  6 comments

Last week I summarized the challenge for Ithaca College to continue to attract high quality students who can benefit from the educational experience we offer. In brief, there are more options for higher education today than ever before and most of them cost less than IC. In addition, every year the cost of IC becomes unaffordable for a larger fraction of families. For us to succeed in that environment, we must focus on increasing our VALUE to students. Value = Quality / Cost, which means that to increase value we must increase quality while at the same time slowing the growth of our costs relative to competitors.

This week I want to focus on the QUALITY part of the Value equation; we will take a closer look at Cost next week.

Increasing quality is a more complex task than is decreasing cost. Everyone knows that less expensive is better than more expensive, but there are differences of opinion as to what quality means in a college education. Our understanding of quality at Ithaca College derives from our educational mission, which is to provide a foundation for life-long learning following three principles: “that knowledge is acquired through discipline, competence is established when knowledge is tempered by experience, and character is developed when competence is exercised for the benefit of others.”

This long-standing educational mission is in sync with student expectations. Students hope their IC education will lay the foundation for future success both in terms of a career and in terms of a rich and happy life. They want to graduate READY for the challenges they will face throughout their lives, including challenges that cannot be imagined from the perspective of today’s experience.

Our Quality challenge is to focus on constantly improving on our ability to deliver on this educational mission. Continuous improvement takes place when we identify, celebrate, and reinforce those things we do very well, and when we are fearless in identifying and seeking to improve things we do not do as well. It is said that Michael Jordan would work obsessively on the weakest areas of his basketball skills every off season. ("Weak" is a relative term in this context!) If his first dribble to the left was slower than his first dribble to the right, he spent the summer practicing his move to the left. By the next season, defenders who thought they could count on him going right in a key situation would be “left” behind. It is human nature to get the most pleasure from practicing the things we already do well. But his willingness to focus on weakness led to the player-without-peer that Michael Jordan became. 

During my first year at Ithaca College I held a series of "Listening Sessions" with faculty, staff, students, alumni, retired employees, and members of the wider community. I asked people what they were proud of about the college and what they thought could be better. I was struck at the time by the high level of agreement on both our strengths and our weaknesses. One of the greatest strengths identified was the degree to which faculty care about student learning. You might think that would be true everywhere, but there are many campuses where showing too much enthusiasm about teaching is taken primarily as a sign that one is insufficiently engaged in their research. IC faculty, by contrast, seemingly have their most passionate arguments about curricula and about teaching pedagogies. As a closely related point, our faculty care about each student as an individual, with their own strengths, weaknesses and aspirations. The most powerful faculty-student conversations often happen outside of class and frequently are only loosely connected to course material or assignments.

The second area of excellence at IC is the extent to which staff consider themselves to be educators. Students fill 3,000 jobs on campus every year, generally working closely with members of the staff who take pride in the opportunity to be part of a student’s professional and personal development. Late shift facilities workers who clean and service our buildings have told me with pride about times they sat next to a discouraged student in a lounge in their building in the middle of the night. They offered a sympathetic ear, and when asked they offered some advice. These members of the staff are making real our commitment to become the standard of excellence for residential comprehensive colleges.

Quality comes together at the Academic Center to be built on campus, housing student and faculty development offices, a cafe, and H&S faculty offices.

There was a nearly equal level of agreement in my listening sessions on our relative areas of weakness. The quality of student advising came in for substantial criticism from students, faculty and staff, not that it was generally poor but that it did not meet the high standards of consistency we set for ourselves. A second common area of criticism was the difficulty of taking courses in schools other than one’s own, and then having those courses count toward one’s degree program.

Like Michael Jordan’s ability to make a quick move to his left, these areas of criticism need to be understood as relative weaknesses rather than as matters of incompetence. But a college committed to continuous improvement must be willing to identify such weaknesses and focus extra attention on them. Accordingly, the development of the IC 20/20 strategic plan was shaped by eight task forces, each co-chaired by a faculty member and a dean or associate dean, that centered on the relative weaknesses previously identified by the campus community. Not surprisingly, one of the task forces focused on student advising while another centered on models of integrative learning that would draw together the resources and perspectives of multiple disciplines and schools.

Ideas from each of the task forces were incorporated into the IC 20/20 strategic plan. Consistent with our commitment to constantly improving quality, the greatest attention in IC 20/20 is given to the identified areas of relative weakness. We continue to celebrate and support our points of greatest pride, including the faculty culture of commitment to student learning, the staff culture of being part of the total educational experience, the excellence of our majors and professional programs, and the richness of student life on campus. The plan, though, is focused on areas where we can be better.

We are now in the second year of implementing the IC 20/20 plan for educational quality, and we have for various reasons chosen to tackle the most demanding parts of the plan first. Faculty are working very hard on the Integrative Core Curriculum, whose development has required significant planning and accommodations to fit it in with the established major fields of study. Staff are working hard, especially in Student Affairs, to envision an even richer educational environment for students in campus and residential life. This is the hardest part of the process, when the reality of the work to be done hits home but we have not yet booked the successes that begin to bear tangible results.

Please stay the course in our commitment to quality. The potential rewards are great. With the Integrative Core Curriculum in place for entering freshmen in the fall of 2013 – at least in its first version – we will have turned an area of relative weakness into an area of distinctive strength! Michael Jordan would be proud.

The bedrock of quality at IC rests on the fact that members of the faculty, staff and administration each understand how they can contribute to excellence in our mission as a residential, comprehensive college. I take pride in the attitude displayed by a member of the IC faculty when he wrote to me last week in response to my first Monday morning message on the challenge before us. In an email that was in significant part critical of what he regards as administrative impediments to the achievement of excellence, he commented that he hoped IC would be able to

capitalize on this energy, move … forward in new directions, and … move our development [fund raising] success forward substantially. All of this will help us become a place where we put our money where our mouth is: a place where prospective students know that if they attend they will be transformed into "world-class professionals", become successful and impressive advocates for [their professional fields], and build careers that are much more rich and influential than just [mastering the tools of their profession]. 1

To the extent we all adopt that attitude, including the element of criticizing procedures and arrangements that may impede our quest for excellence, I think our continued growth in quality is assured.





Elisions and edits to this quotation are made solely to generalize a point this faculty member made with specific reference to his school. 


This post seems to focus more on platitudes that inform the IC 20/20 plan than actual details. President Rochon, in future posts, could you offer more details about how the implemented changes will be assessed to ensure improvements are taking place?

Dec. 4, 2012

Dear Tom,

I am writing in response to your first two Monday letters to the IC community (Nov. 27 and Dec. 3), which focus on value and quality at IC.

Your Nov. 27 letter argues for obtaining as much value as possible from an IC education while simultaneously keeping costs within the reach of the students who want to study here. Your second letter points to several reasons why IC is an attractive college despite the high cost of tuition.

Your Dec. 3 letter specifically cites the quality of the faculty as one of the major reasons why an IC education offers value: “One of the greatest strengths identified [in the “listening sessions” of your first year as president] was the degree to which faculty care about student learning…. As a closely related point, our faculty care about each student as an individual, with their own strengths, weaknesses and aspirations. The most powerful faculty-student conversations often happen outside of class and frequently are only loosely connected to course material or assignments.”

An issue that I think deserves discussion in this context is how to maintain the quality of the faculty. We have an Institutional Plan (2001, updated several times since then) that covers all aspects of life at the college, and we have Master Plan (2002) that covers specifically the built environment at the college. Between these two plans, we have a road map of how to maintain the excellence of our faculty and the college as a whole.

One of the principles articulated in the 2001 Institutional Plan came under the rubric of Quality of Work Life, where Goal number 1 was to “Ensure that all employees have balanced workloads appropriate to their job descriptions,” and the Implementation Strategies were: “Conduct a study to provide an objective analysis of the perceived problems of over and under-utilized employees. Evaluate staff workloads in each department. Analyze the results of the Associated New American Colleges workload project to see if it produces models for other departments. Review faculty workload, recognizing that “workload” is not restricted to number of courses taught and includes such matters as credit-hour productivity. Study the feasibility of a 21-hour teaching load maximum for full-time professorial faculty within the context of broad definitions of workload” (p. 20, emphases mine).

It was at this time when former provost Jim Malek and former president Peggy Williams started moving IC from a 24-hour teaching load to a 21-hour load and beyond—to the eventual goal of an 18-hour teaching load—by proposing a two-step solution. First, the college would annually supply enough funding so that all FTE faculty would be able to get an annual one-course reduction via CFRD funds. Then, the CFRD funding would be rolled over into salary so that the college could pay for a permanent 1-course reduction. Again as I recall, that was the plan for getting us from 4-4 to 4-3. The plan worked, despite the fact that the early 2000's were not the best of financial times.

Moreover, compared to other private colleges, tuition at IC was considered a bargain in 2001. In those difficult financial times, we were ready to move towards an eventual 3-3 load. We have not yet achieved that goal, but we should still pursue it as a priority. While there are clear benefits to an 18-hour load in terms of quality of instruction, providing faculty time for service, and scholarship, an 18-hour load is even more important strategically for recruiting the best and the brightest young faculty to replace those retiring in the near future. An 18-hour teaching load was the goal five years ago when H&S searched for a new dean. I was on the search committee then, and with the provost’s blessing, we asked every candidate for a commitment to that goal. More than ever, there is broad faculty support for a commitment in this area and for developing a prudent plan to achieve this goal.

The way forward is a matter of priorities, the very issue raised in the faculty response to your Nov. 27 letter. A budget is an expression of an institution's priorities. Is it important for the college to provide a permanent bricks-and-mortar facilities for all of the five schools equally? Is it important for the college to reduce the teaching load so that faculty can better fulfill the college's teaching mission? These are questions that the budget implicitly answers via its priorities.

At the same time the college began working toward an 18-hour load in 2001, it also began developing the master plan. From the beginning of the conversations, the plan included a new building for H&S. I know this because I was the English Department chair at the time, and I participated in meetings with the dean and the architects. One of the ideas presented as a material part of the plan was a new H&S building—probably not exclusively for H&S, since the college strives for maximum use, but a building that would ease the chronic office shortage in H&S. That shortage has caused the Philosophy/Religion Department to be moved from Dillingham to Park and now from Park to the administrative annex. But although the 2002 Master Plan recommended it (p. 39), ever since then, the H&S building has been shoved to the back of the facilities line.

To sum up: Ten years ago, with broad support from the administration and faculty alike, IC articulated institutional priorities aimed at reducing the teaching load. A lighter course load means more one-on-one time with students, more time to prepare classes, more time to develop the cutting-edge curriculum that the college expects of us so that IC can be competitive. It means truly delivering the quality you cite in your Dec. 3 letter, and it means justifying the high cost of tuition at this private college—all of which is supposed to be conveyed by the college’s motto, "Commitment to Excellence."

Similarly, ten years ago, again with broad support from the administration and faculty, IC made a new building for H&S a priority. Especially as we move towards a new college-wide core that is one of the key pieces of IC2020, it is crucial to focus ourselves on the college’s teaching mission, and since so much of the common core will comprise courses in H&S, it is important to send the right message to prospective students—and to the larger academic community—about our priorities. If we value teaching, if we value students, and if we value the new common core, then we must put our money into the 18-credit load and into better facilities for H&S.

Let’s not let ourselves be distracted any longer from these important goals.

Michael Twomey
Charles A. Dana Professor of Humanities and Arts
Department of English

Thank you for this comment Zack, though I would prefer to call it generalities rather than platitudes! Your observation is correct. I was not trying in this message to describe the IC 20/20 plan in detail or how its various initiatives will advance our level of excellence at IC. I have in focused on that in many off-campus presentations, some of which you have heard. My goal here was instead to put IC 20/20 in the context of our on-going commitment to increasing quality. Those on campus are aware that we are taking a very careful look at our expenses, seeking greater efficiency and effectiveness in order to slow the annual rise in the cost we charge to students. Some have asked why we are pursuing a quality agenda at the same time as we are seeking to cut costs in some areas. Between this post and the next one on cost, I hope to answer that question.

I am sorry I will be missing the meeting tomorrow (I have a cold) but I wanted to share a few thoughts related to quality and higher education.

1. On Friday just before class I asked about 10 students who came early to share their feeling about the quality of their education at IC (they ranged from 1st to 4th year). Most appreciated the experienced very much and the reason was close connection to faculty. Some who did not feel that way (some exploratory students) said they they feel "kind of lost" (my interpretation).

I want to add to it that from my own perspective the true joy of teaching comes from connection with students, witnessing their growth and learning from them too. Teaching and learning is a two way street.

2. I googled "problems with higher education" and read this:

One of striking facts was that the perception that higher education can secure jobs is recent. I don't think most of the faculty at IC and other colleges see it that way but that was the subconscious message the public received over the last 60 years. In 1950. A related quote from the article is:
"In 1950, 2.6 million Americans – less than two percent of the population – were enrolled in college. By 1990, the number of Americans in college had jumped to 13.2 million, or more than five percent of the overall population. And between 1997 and 2007, undergraduate enrollment rose by 25 percent."

3. In my opinion the sooner we come to grips with reality the easier it will be for us to go through the storm that did not even start yet. A reasonable measure of the health of a department or a school is the quality of the students applying to that department or school.

4. I found this link to have a collection of wonderful quotes as to the purpose of higher education:


Students will perceive a greater value to their Ithaca College education when there is a truly personalized approach. One way for the faculty to personalize our teaching is to learn students’ names and use their names as soon as possible. For those of us who teach large sections of classes, having headshots of students posted next to their names on our class rosters would be a real help. This technology has been available for years. I have suggested this upgrade for years. ITS always has an excuse. Can you assist in helping us personalize our approach by seeing this simple and probably, inexpensive, upgrade in our rosters? Thank you.

I entered Ithaca as a freshman in 1989 and was part of the "Exploratory program". I truly had no idea what I wanted to major in. The Exploratory Program was supposed to provide me with extra guidance and support in helping me to select a major. At least that is what I was told and sold during my visit during my college tour and interview.

I received NO extra guidance in the selection of a major unless the words of "take a class from each major area on campus and see what peaks your interest" is considered extra advising. I learned through taking classes, talking to professors, and ultimately looking at every major offered to determine what I was most interested in. Ultimately, it came down to what jobs will be there for the long term after I graduate. That reflection, not "advising from the exploratory program" led to the selection of my major.

If the school plans to continue promoting the Exploratory program make sure Ithaca is prepared to offer assistance in a systematic way that supports the selection process. Otherwise, kill it and allow students to figure it out the way they always have done it.

Once I selected my major and started taking the classes, I thoroughly enjoyed the small class size, ability to know everyone in my major, the ability to get to know my professors, and be comfortable with my choice. I continue to work in the field I chose for my major.

If you are going to try and quantify the quality and value of an education, make sure to include the ability to land and keep a job after graduation in your discussions.

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