On surveys and civility

Inside Higher Ed (IHE), an online producer of news about higher education (think newer and trying to be more modern and relevant than the Chronicle of Higher Education), recently published its 2015 Survey of Chief Academic Officers. I haven’t read the entire report yet, but I found myself interested in the article for two reasons: First, because I am always curious as to how other universities are dealing with similar concerns, and second, because I took part in this survey and wanted to see how my responses compared to others who took part.

If you read the article, you can see what IHE chose to highlight–so I’ll work form that.

  • Many provosts report that their institutions are not feeling the impact of the widely reported improved economy. Most do not feel their institutions are operating in an improved financial situation, and many anticipate further budget cuts and paying for new initiatives through reallocations, not new funds.

Unfortunately, this reflects my responses to the survey and my concerns. Especially here in New Jersey, we have not seen a great economic turnaround. Our state’s economic picture is cloudy if not downright stormy. Here at William Paterson we are able to maintain our current operations, but we have few resources for growth. We will need (as noted in my spring address to the faculty) to be very efficient and effective at using what resources we have.

  • The idea of competency-based education is now attracting strong support from chief academic officers, especially in public higher education.

I am also in general agreement with this finding–for two reasons. One–as a faculty member, the course I have taught the most often is Public Speaking. As a course, this is one that is pretty readily assessable in terms of competency based learning. I know what I need to see in an effective speech, and I know what needs to be done by a student to research, prepare and present an effective speech. I can assess competency here. As an aside, and maybe why I feel strongly about this–I “tested out” of my public speaking class as an undergraduate. I had competed on the speech and debate team in high school, and was able to convince my speech professor in college to assess my competency. Secondly, though, I do think there are some good places for competency-based education–not everywhere, mind you–but some good places. Thomas Edison has already signed on as one of the key players in a project designed to look at the place of competency-based education. I hope we can explore this as well.

The report highlights a number of other findings–some of which reflect my responses, others of which do not.

One area where I find myself not in the majority has to do with the topic of civility and higher education. Here is where my education and my scholarship put me somewhat at odds with the prevailing sentiment.

The report notes a concern with decreasing civility and asserts a significant role for civility in many areas of higher education.

OK–I’m not saying we should all be screaming and gnashing our teeth.

But as someone who researches and writes about freedom of expression issues, I am always skeptical about calls for civility. Being nice to each other is a good idea. But too often, calls for civility can be turned into reasons for silencing or attempting to silence the speech of those with whom we disagree. Civility as a term is very context-bound and culture-bound. What passes for civil in one culture is rude in another or taboo in another. Civility as a concept also can be turned into a method of regulating not only content but tone and style. Civility has the potential to be used as a tool to question the legitimacy of the content and form of communication that may not adhere to the mainstream, and thus civility can sometimes be a means to continue practices that silence those individuals outside the mainstream.

So again–my concern about civility is not a call or an excuse to turn every conversation into a screaming match. My concern is that we don’t allow “civility” to control and dismiss communication with which we may not agree.

Spring Semester Begins!

And we are back!

The winter holidays are ending and we are set to take off at a run for spring semester.

I have heard from many of you that this past fall was busy, fast and seemed like we were all in a race–and we know that spring term will feel even quicker. As we move into spring term, I hope we will be able to continue the focus on student success–making sure our students are learning what we say they are learning, and that we are helping them reach their academic and personal goals.

In a few days we will all gather to listen to the President’s message to the community for this spring. I am sure she will highlight many of the successes we have had this past fall, and also remind us of the continuing challenges that await us.

One of the areas I hope we are able to spend a little more time with this spring–and in the future–is looking at our academic programs and curriculum.

Our world is always changing, and the needs of our students, as well as the tenets of many of our academic disciplines, continue to change as well. It will be important for us to think and act with both alacrity and foresight as we consider how we wish to continue to grow our academic offerings at a time of limited resources. This will be difficult, but we must keep responding to our world and we have to do so with the resources we have at hand.

So welcome to spring 2015–let the race begin.