My View from South Hill
Monday, December 3, 2012
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.
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.
1Elisions and edits to this quotation are made solely to generalize a point this faculty member made with specific reference to his school.
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