Friday, September 24, 2021

Challenging old norms

A tremendous thanks to our heroes—students, faculty, and staff—for enabling a return to something approximating normal campus operations. Without your patience, understanding, and more importantly the care, respect, and courtesy you show one another by masking, getting vaccinated in the interest of personal and public health, our universities could not possibly have done this.

Eventually, this pandemic will recede or become endemic and part of the fabric of our lives. As it does, it is hard to not think about our future—the future of higher education generally—and the choices we are making today that will shape it. Inspired by summer reading, let me offer a few thoughts and, as always, invite your feedback, which you can share by contacting me at

The transformation of our nation’s universities will proceed incrementally, then all at once. That is the conclusion reached independently (for the United States) by Levine and Van Pelt in The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future and (for Oceania) by a team of futurists at EY Parthenon in “The Peak of Higher Education: A New World for the University of the Future Incremental change has been a feature of our lives for decades. Will the pandemic be an accelerant into hyperdrive? The significant shifts we are seeing in enrollment patterns and in student preferences with respect to instructional modality, regional location, available student services, and credentialing type suggest we are (see Hanover Research, Kirschner, and Credential Engine).

Responding to these shifts, universities and colleges across the country will undoubtedly accelerate the pace of transformation, even where responses are intended as short-term expediencies to navigate a hyper-competitive market for student enrollments. And yes, those responses are already apparent. The persistence of test-optional admissions is a good example. So is the growing emphasis on job-readiness at traditional degree-granting colleges and universities. This includes expansion in experiential learning opportunities and an explosion in the number of non-degree credentials. And one cannot ignore the emergence of mass-market platforms such as LinkedIn’s Learning Hub that have potential to encroach significantly on the near monopoly that the degree-granting institutions have traditionally held over post-secondary education. 

Kirschner’s reflections on the “omni-channel” university is as fascinating. For some time, universities have offered multi-modal degree programs including fully on-ground, fully online, and even some hybrid formats (most evident in executive post-baccalaureate degrees). The omni-channel university goes a step further taking multi-modality to the scheduled class level. In this regard, it continues an approach that emerged during the pandemic as a matter of necessity—one where students living on or near campus could choose daily whether to attend a scheduled class in person or remotely by Zoom, or in some circumstances to engage fully in the online instantiation of a course’s relevant learning objectives.

The thought of maintaining the omni-channel university makes my brain hurt. At the same time, it is tremendously exciting. It affords us the opportunity of personalizing educational offerings at the scheduled class and learning outcome (rather than the program or even course) levels. More importantly, it responds directly to student preferences, which together cry out for the deepest kind of “personalization”—that is, the ability to combine curricular and co-curricular experiences in a way that suits the student’s particular needs, circumstances, and learning styles.

I first noticed it here at home during student focus groups that I conducted last year during virtual campus visits. Yes, students pretty much uniformly expressed an intense desire for a full “return to campus” (not surprising—these students had enrolled by choice in an on-campus experience, not a fully online one). But they also brought diverse perspectives to what “return to campus” should entail. A student-athlete whose schedule was consumed by training and the resultant search for fuel needed flexibility day-by-day to determine how to engage in scheduled courses. She represented a broader group whose life schedules required them to accommodate pressing and evolving priorities—athletics, work, family—as well as higher education, and preferring to decide daily rather than committing wholly to one modality or another. Others yearned intently to get “back to class,” but to continue some non- or co-curricular aspects of their educational experience remotely, e.g., 1:1 support services and/or basic administrative and business functions. And yearning to get “back to class” turned out also meant different things to different students. Some didn’t like or had trouble learning in remote modalities and wanted face-to-face experiences uniformly across the board. Others wanted some of their courses face-to-face (e.g., lab sciences and performing arts and/or courses contributing credits towards their major), but actually preferred other courses remotely. 

My take away from these focus group discussions had absolutely nothing to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of different educational delivery modalities. Rather it revealed how, in a world that increasingly skews to the personalization of everything, universities and colleges still emphasize a very traditional “few-sizes-fit-all” approach. Quaint, perhaps, but I’m not convinced that “quaint” will continue much longer as our strongest selling point. Given the dramatic shifts referenced above in demographic patterns and student preferences—and the intensity that those shifts will inject into an already hyper-competitive marketplace—a race to re-establish the “old normal” is likely to be catastrophic. Beware reactionary traditionalist approaches to pandemic recovery. As an industry (and as a society), we will eventually “return to normal,” but that normal will look a lot different than the one we knew in March 2020.

Under the heading of challenging old norms, let me suggest that Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook” (1963) is a must-read. It is short, accessible, powerful. A scathing critique of persistent racial injustice, it offers advice to Black men and boys about how to navigate oppression and survive as well as recipes for dismantling systemic racism. Re-reading this essay (it featured originally as a co-curricular component of my high school education), I was overwhelmed by searing anger, profound sadness, and shame. Prepare to weep, not cry. But I also put it down feeling uplifted with a renewed sense of hope. Claude’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lesson for Our Own (2020) provides another opportunity to think about these critical issues during Baldwin’s time and our own.  Both reads also reinforced how our State System’s emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion is 1.) more important now than ever, and 2.) the right thing to do for all members of our communities.

Like Genovese’s work on the Antebellum South (Roll, Jordon Roll), Baldwin reminds us that the social (non-biological) construction of race, systemic and pervasive racism, and relentless racial injustice are constructs that define, diminish, disempower, and de-humanize everyone. The fact that Black and Brown students graduate and retain at far lower rates than other students, is not a Black and Brown problem. It is our problem. The fact that Black and Brown students are made to feel uncomfortable on our campuses through routine micro-aggressions and occasional full-on racial attacks—discomfort that, by the way, contributes directly to lower than average enrollment, retention, and graduation rates—does not testify to hypersensitivity or progressive political tendency.  It reflects our inhumanity, worse—given its persistence—our apparent willingness and ability to tolerate intolerance.  

Yes, I understand that intolerance is once again a defining feature of our nation’s political discourse; as Anderson shows us in Fantasyland, this is a feature not a bug in American political culture. It characterizes newly-minted forms of tribalism (perhaps in a revised edition of Lord of the Flies, the presence or absence of masks or COVID-19 vaccines will be the defining characteristic of the island’s ascendant and ultimately murderous tribes). All the more reason for universities to take a stand and fight the trend, to shape a better future by modeling healthier and more civil discourse that honors and respects differences in opinion, world view, culture, upbringing, race, gender, identity, and more. 

I also spent time this summer with “Equitable Value (the report of the Postsecondary Value Commission), which shines a harsh light on the extent to which student outcomes in U.S. higher education reflect and reproduce inequity, and Grawe’s  The Agile College, a catalog of evidence-based “interventions” that universities can use to reduce those inequities. Reading them, I was struck by how the two themes elaborated in this blog collide to potentially incredible positive effect. Equipping ourselves to personalize the educational experiences we offer naturally and necessarily forces us to comprehend and engage effectively with diversity writ large. A direction we travel to remain relevant (frankly to survive as education providers) in a world where student demographics and preferences are rapidly changing, reinforces and draws from one we pursue in the interest of racial and social justice. The two strategies intertwine to become one. That’s a good thing. Aligning effort sharpens focus, amplifies impact, and promises real and lasting progress in two areas. First, we have a chance to ensure Pennsylvania maintains a robust economy—lifting the adult education rate from its present anemic value of around 50% to the required value of 60%. News flash: this is mathematically improbable unless we address issues of equity and social mobility. Second, we have an opportunity, finally, to make real and lasting progress against racial inequities that exist across higher education in the United States, albeit 400-plus years since the first slaves were brought to the western hemisphere, nearly 160 years after The Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. Maybe this time.

Let me offer one last thought as a shameless trailer for my October blog, yet still in keeping with the theme of challenging old norms. We are uniquely positioned to succeed in the transformative work that lies ahead—transformative work that is essential to fulfilling our historic mission into the 21st century in the interest of our students, their communities, and the Commonwealth. We have, in short order, put ourselves on a path to financial stabilization, re-framed our partnership with the Commonwealth, and—through our collective work on System Redesign—developed and financed a number of high-impact strategies that will enable us to navigate the challenges outlined above. Perhaps as importantly we are positioned to build our future on our enormous existing strengths. These are a legion of strengths, but let me focus on two.

The transformative work is hard, but it is worth it for our students and the Commonwealth. This will become evident in data we will be releasing this fall. They testify to the enormous value we offer our graduates who are rewarded for the investments they make in a State System education. The data also demonstrate the value we offer to the state as an engine of Pennsylvania’s economic development and its people’s social mobility.  There is evidence that a State System university reduces inequities which are smaller amongst our graduates than they are amongst our enrollees.

The transformative work needn’t be de novo, conducted entirely in green fields.

It will be built upon core competencies, including our tremendous agility. After what we have pulled off in the wake of a global pandemic, no one can credibly claim that higher education is unresponsive, change resistant. We are tired—all of us—but I hope we are also tremendously proud of who we are, what we have done, what we continue to do under the most trying circumstances for our students, their employers, our communities.

It will also be built upon existing initiatives and strategic university investments that are already bearing fruit across the system in areas we know we must excel. A few examples, but please, the list is nothing like exhaustive so forgive omissions: it includes progress strengthening transfer student pipelines (e.g., at West Chester); expanding high-school dual enrollment opportunities (e.g., at Mansfield); improving traditional students’ retention and graduation rates (e.g., at Kutztown); making university communities more welcoming for all students (e.g., at East Stroudsburg); making progress against equity gaps (e.g., at Shippensburg); expanding non-degree credentialing opportunities in partnership with employers (e.g., in the northeast integration); forging partnerships to expand student internships and externships (e.g., at Cheyney), and expanding fully online opportunities to those seeking undergraduate degrees (e.g., in the western integration).
It will be built—it can only be built—upon expanded investment of our owners, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and we are committed to make that happen.

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