Sunday, April 4, 2010

Whence Cometh Academic Excellence and Student Success at Lincoln University

Guest Blogger: Grant D. Venerable

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.

Overarching Themes
  • 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.

Specific Objectives
  1. Recruit and enroll 35% freshman with SAT scores of 900 or better for Fall 2010.
  2. Increase freshman to sophomore retention rates to 85% by Fall 2012.
  3. Increase the six year graduation rate to 48% by Fall 2012.
  4. Rank among the top ten HBCU Ranking by Fall 2012.

Student outcomes
How good do we want our students to be?
  1. Academically capable to matriculate at a top-fifty graduate or professional school
  2. 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.

7 comments:

  1. It may be true that the future of Lincoln University is in the hands of the faculty rather than the Board and/or administration. It would be helpful, nevertheless, if we assessed this, using the standards recommended by Middle States; to ensure the soundness of our argument, avoid unnecessary disputes about the truth of our premises and convince ourself and others, including Middle States, of the presence of a culture of assessment at Lincoln University.

    According to "Understanding Middle States Expectations" published in 2005 by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, here are some of the questions institutions need to answer in the documentation of assessment: (1) Do institutional leaders support and value a culture of assessment? (6) Have assessment results been shared in useful forms and discussed widely with appropriate constituents?

    If there is a culture of assessment at Lincoln University and the Trustee Board's strategic priorities are based on assessment, the assessment will be shared and discussed with the faculty before being adopted. Was that the case?

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  2. One comment from a [somewhat disgruntled] graduate faculty person's point of view:

    The first overarching theme currently reads, "To 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.

    Here's my problem. There are currently about 600 Lincoln students right now who are already in its various graduate programs and thus, one must expect, already demonstrating "graduate school-ready standards."

    I'm not arguing that the overarching themes and the objectives should not be focused only on the undergraduate school; undergraduate education has been, is, and should be Lincoln's core mission.

    I am simply saying that if those in power are going to keep graduate programs around as a cash cow, they might at least have the words of the university's planning documents acknowledge the graduate presence.

    So my humble suggestion for change is that perhaps the first bullet of the overarching themes could read--for internal and external documents-- "To 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 undergraduate Lincoln students.

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  3. Are these consistent?

    1. "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." (Grant D. Venerable, April 4, 2010
    'Whence Cometh Academic Excellence and Student Success at Lincoln University.')

    2. "The Faculty shall prescribe, subject to the University Charter and approval of the Board of Trustees, requirements for graduate and undergraduate admissions, graduate and undergraduate courses of instruction, graduate and undergraduate conditions of graduation, the degrees conferred, and rules and methods of conducting the educational work of the University." (Faculty By-Laws, Article II, Section 2.01)

    3. "The Faculty shall recommend to the Board of Trustees requirements for admission, courses of instruction, conditions of graduation, the degrees to be conferred, and rules and methods for the conduct of the educational program of the University." (By-Laws of Lincoln University Board of Trustees, ARTICLE X, Section 3)

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  4. The tone of the original post seems to suggest that the Trustee Board has the right but not the 'conscience' to determine our future goals. Is it proper for our administration to put that out there? Will the elephants soon go to war and if so what will happen to the grass beneath their feet? Also, I read in the Board's minutes that the chair of the Board wanted to see Lincoln University in the top 10 of institutions of higher education, not just HBCUs. Finally, in all due respect to Dr. Stine, the statement may still be appropriate to our graduate students as we need to assert their quality level also.

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  5. To Anonymous: Yes, I agree that we need to "assert the quality level" of the graduate students. My argument is that we need to hold them to a higher standard than "graduate-school ready" unless we are claiming that our graduate programs are not already starting out at that level. "Graduate-school ready" should be the entrance criterion, not the exit criterion.

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  6. The email that I just received from Academic Affairs inviting faculty to vote on asking the Board to postpone their scheduled vote this Saturday on the Draft Resolution regarding GREs, LSATs, etc. has finally motivated me to get into the conversation. I voted in favor of postponement, and I hope others will do the same, in order to give us faculty members a voice in this important discussion.

    Am I the only faculty member who feels uncomfortable with the idea of adopting minimum performance levels on standardized tests for our students, based on requirements for admission at top graduate schools? I happen to come from an academic family (both parents were college professors) and I was an undergraduate at one of the finest institutions in the country, Bryn Mawr College, but holding all graduating students to a standard that would assure them acceptance into a top graduate school seems unnecessary and even counterproductive. Why should we assume that every graduate of our institution should go on to graduate school? Rather, we should create an environment for learning that encourages those who wish to take that route and provides them with the necessary tools to PREPARE THEMSELVES for graduate school. It seems to me that a well-rounded student body should include those whose goals do not extend to graduate school.

    Standardized tests may be useful for those who want to attend graduate school, but they should NOT be a requirement for those who do not have any interest in doing so.

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    Replies
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