I want to return to the theme of the first faculty meeting of the academic year on September 8, 2009 when I presented excerpts from Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize Lecture in Literature:
"Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead."
"I don’t know," she says. "I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands."
But that is exactly our case today, at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania.
And if you think we have problems, consider number one ranked Harvard University, which is having an identity crisis of the first order. Harvard is struggling with whether or not the scholarly study of theology or faith is a proper mission of a great university in a secular society that prizes reason as the greatest of all human attributes. Not even the Harvard Board of Overseers has stepped in to take sides in the debate. That makes me feel for Harvard, as I sense that the exercise of free will to ignore the scholarly study of faith in human societies will spell ultimate educational peril for Harvard. I would also say that Lincoln University can count itself fortunate as Lincoln’s Trustee Board has viewed our national rankings with alarm and taken a definitive step in the new overarching themes to appeal to the Lincoln University faculty to radically transform how we manage teaching, learning, advising, and all facets of student life outside of the classroom.
Trustee Boards signal their desires through the passage of resolutions and the pronouncement of policy. By law, it may do this without any formal consultation with anyone outside of itself. Many current notions of shared governance consider this to be illegal (It isn’t.) or unconscionable (Possibly.), but be that as it may, the states have charted universities to operate and have vested all of the power and authority in a Board of Trustees.
The Lincoln University faculty now has opportunity to ignore, resist, or embrace the institutional reality of a Trustee Board empowered to set policy. It has opportunity to embrace and participate in shaping policy implementation in a way that accords with its view of higher education practice that helps our youngsters succeed.
Regional accreditors―like the Middle States Commission on Higher Education―are voluntary and associational entities. They are federally chartered to impose rules on how educational entities must operate. But these are voluntary associations; entities that do not measure up face sanctions of varying levels of severity, the most severe being loss of association membership and loss of accreditation and the right to receive Title IV financial aid for students.
The most recent accreditional mandates require that all institutional decisions are to be made on the basis of assessment of measurable student learning outcomes in each class that is taught and in every co-curricular activity. Lincoln just submitted its report to Middle States and we will know by the end of June 2010 if we passed muster on having in place an assessment plan that yields assessment results that are no longer “limited and sporadic,” but comprehensive and systematic. We will know in June how well cooperation of the faculty and student affairs staff played out with the assessment effort to help or hinder us.
The next test we face is the current reality of the Trustee Board’s strategic priorities embodied in the new overarching themes. The faculty will be asked to give formal consent to the following themes and the student outcomes to which they are coupled.
- Embrace an academic culture that improves the university’s reputation measured by teaching, research, and service, and to embrace an ethic that fosters Graduate School-Ready Standards for all Lincoln students.
- Structure and sustain an environment that provides each student with the best opportunity for their academic, cultural, social, physical, mental, and spiritual success.
- Provide a mechanism to financially support the university’s strategic initiatives and to ensure the effective delivery of the university’s operational and support services measured by both professional efficiency and customer service.
- Recruit and enroll 35% freshman with SAT scores of 900 or better for Fall 2010.
- Increase freshman to sophomore retention rates to 85% by Fall 2012.
- Increase the six year graduation rate to 48% by Fall 2012.
- Rank among the top ten HBCU Ranking by Fall 2012.
How good do we want our students to be?
- Academically capable to matriculate at a top-fifty graduate or professional school
- Professionally prepared to be identified as a high-potential employee and fast-tracked within the company.
Finally, paraphrasing from Toni Morrison’s story when the old woman says, "I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive," I would say that I am optimistic about the path forward for this historic and venerable institution. I cannot know whether the future of Lincoln University is dark or bright. But what I do know is that it is in your hands.