27.4.06

WHY GETTING THE MISSION RIGHT MATTERS. Northern Illinois University is considering three finalists for provost.

“The Provost is NIU's chief academic and student affairs officer,” said NIU President John Peters. “He or she will bear much of the responsibility for helping us reach the goal we established five years ago: to be recognized as the nation's premier regional public university.

“Our next Provost must rise to the challenge of creating a great intellectual environment, enhancing the student experience, driving an aggressive research agenda, expanding our graduate programs, creating sustainable scholarly and creative initiatives, encouraging active engagement in our region and continuing our efforts to internationalize the campus.”

That surely does not sound like becoming a community college with a climbing wall, which is encouraging. But what, exactly, is a "premier regional public university?" Not quite a "flagship" campus? Active in research, but not overwhelming the major journals? Teaching our students, but not having the expectations a Northwestern or a Wisconsin might?

The answers matter. I have long maintained that Northern Illinois is one of the better-kept secrets in the state, despite mistreatment from the legislature and faddism from the administration. But the signs of strain are showing. The dean at Anonymous Community identified the problem going on a year ago.
The schools in between (i.e. if the name ends in “State,” or has a compass direction in it) often want both [access and excellence], and resolve the contradiction by demanding that their faculty, like Mary Poppins, be practically perfect in every way. That’s insane. Most of these schools started as teachers’ colleges – a perfectly worthwhile mission – and gradually grew in whatever direction seemed to make sense at the time. Mission creep, driven by politics, fashion, and funding, set in, and the near-impossibility of actually eliminating programs meant that change was usually additive, rather than transformative. Got an idea for a new program? Just glom it on. Over decades, the underlying shape gets harder to discern, and the add-ons make governance clunkier. Since these schools can’t attain excellence by focusing their resources, which would require actually saying ‘no’ to some programs, they try to get there by just raising the bar for tenure higher and higher, while cutting professional development money and stuffing class sections ever fuller. Let the faculty figure it out. Do more with less. Seek efficiencies. Form public-private partnerships. Charge faculty for parking.
Indeed. A comment on that post identifies what happens next.
I taught at Mission Creep U for many years. When I started, we were all told that MCU was going to be Research 1, that we should do the minimum of teaching and publish, publish, publish. Then we became "scholar-teachers," which meant that we still had to publish, only while teaching 50% more. Then we told that we all had to distance-teach. Then we returned to Mission #1. At the end of a ten-year period, everyone at MCU had been told at one point or another that what s/he was doing was worthless.
Presumably that is as the emphasis shifts from "premier" to "regional" to "public." Everybody is frazzled. An anonymous tenure-tracker at another Upwardly Mobile (I have some conjectures who and where but it would be beastly to reveal the information and there are at least three to five ways I might be wrong) has the questions that I hope somebody had the time to ask the provost candidates (the faculty forums conflict with my office hours, and with papers due -- remind me to time-slip the English department -- I will not cancel those hours to go to the forums.)

Thus, when we start talking about things like "improving quality, student success/retention, faculty morale, reputation of the institution" as if they are distinct from a goal of efficiency and more money, I think that we're being kind of naive. For example: what counts as quality, when one is attempting to get more funding for a university? How do we measure quality? How do we measure student and faculty satisfaction? How do we measure the reputation of the institution? And what factors do we value as we make those measurements?

Let's start with the last first. Let's say that the reputation of an institution comes from the way that others outside the institution regard it. Who are the "others" that we're talking about here? Are we talking about people in the general community around the university? What, for those individuals, would constitute quality? Is it the same thing that, say, our colleagues at other institutions would consider? Or are we talking about lawmakers at the state level? If we measure reputation based on the perceptions of lawmakers, how do the criteria for judging "reputation" change?

But why do any of these things matter? Do the gripes of a few journeyman scholars in the mid-majors amount to a hill of beans? Yes. There is accumulating evidence that the reputation of a university (particularly if it's as mis-measured as U.S. News has it) is less important in a student's success than the motivation of the student. The Northern Illinois student who applied to Urbana or Wisconsin has the potential to do as well out of Northern Illinois as out of the others. The responsibility of being a "premier regional public" is to provide an environment, and a critical mass of peers, in which that student realizes that potential. And with some more reputable (read visible) institutions and programs imploding (University Diaries has been on a roll. Start at the top, or if you're in a hurry start here and follow the trail here) the aspirants to "premier regional public" may have the responsibility of keeping the academic tradition alive.

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