Author Archives: Young, Jon

Higher education is a public good

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education by Phillip Trostel offers a good argument to support claim that university is a public good.  As he correctly points out, while post-graduation earnings are among the greatest benefits of a university education.  Most college graduates will have more lifetime earnings than individuals without college degrees.  The exclusive focus on earnings, however, tends to support the argument that college is a private good, i.e., earning a college degree is beneficial only for the individual who earns the degree.  If a university education is an exclusively private good, then states and the federal government would have little incentive to invest in higher education.  As Professor Trostel points out, in addition to earning more money — which means college graduates pay more taxes (a public good) — college graduates require less public assistance in the form of Medicare and unemployment benefits, give more to charity, volunteer more often, and have higher levels of civic engagement.  The article provides more detailed evidence for each of these public benefits of higher education.  The belief that higher education is an exclusively private good may seem innocuous on the surface, but it serves to justify reductions of public support of higher education.

Beyond the College Earnings Premium. Way Beyond

Implications of the New Faculty Workload Policy

I am convinced that revising the faculty workload policy is absolutely necessary for FSU to become the kind of university we want to become. Effective, engaging, and innovative teaching is the single most important way that faculty help develop highly qualified graduates who will bring about the “…educational, social, cultural, and economic transformation of southeast North Carolina and beyond.”

Yet, faculty must also have time to devote to service and community engagement, research and creative activities, mentoring of students, and other professional development activities. The new policy establishes time for these non-instructional activities.

With this new policy, tenured and tenure-track faculty will teach six courses per year (18 credits) while full-time non-tenure-track faculty will teach eight courses per year (24 credits.) “Non-standard” instructional activities like supervising internships and directing dissertations will have to be translated into credit-hour equivalents for the purposes of implementing and monitoring teaching load.

The workload policy affirms the priority of teaching by indicating that faculty will spend approximately two-thirds of their time on instruction and instructional related work. At the same time, it reserves approximately one-third of faculty time for service and research/creative activities.

The new workload policy complements our procedures for faculty evaluation. At the beginning of each year faculty have the opportunity to specify their annual goals; these goals provide the basis for the end-of-year evaluation. By offering general guidelines for the percentage of time for teaching, service, and research/creative activities, the workload policy provides a foundation for setting realistic goals.

The new workload policies has significant implications for course reassignments and extra duty assignments for pay. Except for those funded by external grants, both will become very rare – for the following three reasons.

  1. Teaching four courses per semester leaves little time for other activities. Hence, course reassignments and extra duty pay were necessary to support non-instructional activity. By reducing the teaching requirement, faculty now have time for the activities for which they previously received course reassignments and extra-duty pay and which should be considered part of a faculty member’s normal responsibilities.
  2. The UNC Board of Governors’ (BoG) policy requires faculty at Master’s Comprehensive 1 institutions, like FSU, to teach six courses per year. So, previously we could reduce a faculty member’s teaching load without violating the BoG policy. Such is no longer the case.
  3. Finally, we cannot ignore the costs associated with the new policy. My rough estimate is that moving from a standard load of 4-4 to 3-3 for tenured and tenure-track faculty will cost about $600,000 a year. Additional course reassignments and extra-duty pay increase the costs of implementation.

For these reasons, I will be very skeptical about requests for any course reassignments or extra-duty contracts. (Except for those funded by external grants. Bring in those grant dollars if you want course releases or extra-duty pay!)

Next year will bring many challenges and unintended consequences of the new policy. I am confident that we can work together to address these issues so that we can realize the potential benefits of the new policy both for faculty members and FSU.

Proposals Regarding Commencement

I enjoy our commencement ceremonies!  It’s one of the few occasions when everyone is joyous and happy!

The image of graduates walking across the stage receiving degrees is the single best reflection of all our collective efforts.  It is a vivid reminder of why we come to work each day.

Yet, I don’t always enjoy the days leading up to and days immediately following commencement.

As a faculty member, I have always found it difficult to administer two final exams – one for graduating seniors and one for other students.

I certainly do not enjoy the panic of students and often their families about missing final grades.

All too often, I have heard the complaints of disappointed students and their families – who have often invested significantly in travel and lodging to be here – when they have been informed just hours before commencement that they cannot participate.

Or, I have had to explain to transfer students with 4.0 GPAS that they are not eligible for the highest honor, Summa Cum Laude, because they have only earned 70 hours at FSU.

Two proposals pertaining to commencement currently under review by the Faculty Senate will help resolve some of the problems we regularly face at commencement.  They will also bring our written statements in line with practices that have emerged in the past several years.

The first proposal establishes guidelines for participation in commencement.  This proposal states that students who are enrolled in all outstanding degree requirements in a semester and have no class withdrawals that semester will be permitted to participate in commencement. This provision also permits students who are able to complete degree requirements in one or more summer terms to participate in spring commencement.

This proposal states in writing what we have been informally practicing since spring 2012 when we started encouraging students to complete outstanding degree requirements in the summer rather than waiting until the fall semester.  Participating in May commencement has proven to be a strong incentive for students to complete degrees in summer.  Our catalog statement about commencement has not been updated to reflect the current practice.  This proposal does so.

This proposal “rewards” the students who make it to final semester by permitting them to participate in commencement. It avoids the situation described above of last minute notification of non-participation. This means that some students who do not successfully complete all requirements in the final semester will be permitted to participate in the ceremony.

But, the real prize – having the degree conferred – will not occur until all degree requirements are met.

This proposal has a second beneficial consequence for faculty.  It eliminates the need for early administration of final exams for graduating seniors.  It permits us to clear students for graduation after commencement when all final grades have been submitted.

The second proposal does two things:  1) it revises the FSU hours required for graduating Summa Cum Laude (the highest distinction) and 2) it discontinues recognition of Valedictorian and Salutatorian.

To make sense of this proposal, it is essential to understand why virtually all higher education institutions require a minimum number of hours for graduating with honors.  Students who earn degrees at the same institution where they enrolled initially must earn grades of A and B over their entire academic career – at least 120 hours — to graduate with honors.

The situation is different for transfer students.  When students transfer from one institution to another, only their credits – but not their grades – transfer to the new institution.  This means that their final GPAs may be based on as few as 30 credits – the minimum permitted for earning a degree at an institution.  Earning a high GPA for one or two years is not as challenging as earning them for 120 credits.

Requiring a minimum number of hours for graduation with honors is an attempt to balance the disparate challenges of graduating with a high GPA.

Currently, at FSU we require at least 60 institutional hours for graduating Cum Laude and Magna Cum Laude and at least 90 FSU hours for graduating Summa Cum Laude. These hour requirements are coupled with required minimum GPAs of 3.2 (Cum), 3.5 (Magna), and 3.8 (Summa).

Transfer students have regularly called on us to reduce or eliminate the required FSU hours since it has prevented some of them to graduate with honors.  It is easy to understand the disappointment of students who complete degrees with very strong GPAs, but do not qualify for honors because they have earned fewer than 60 hours at FSU.

In light of these concerns, the Academic Affairs leadership reviewed all other UNC institutions’ policies regarding graduation with distinction.  (This information is summarized in the attached proposal.) The minimum hours required range from 30 to 70, but the most common are 45, 48, and 60.  Institutions that have a minimum of 45 credits tend to require higher GPAs.  We concluded that a minimum of 60 credits is reasonable especially with our current GPA ranges.

We found, however, that we are the only institution that requires 90 hours for graduating Summa Cum Laude.  The proposal to reduce the required hours from 90 to 60 for Summa Cum Laude brings our criteria more in line with other UNC institution.  Though it does not lower threshold for earning honors generally, it will permit more transfers students to graduate Summa Cum Laude.

A second component of the proposal discontinues the recognitions of Valedictorian and Salutatorian.  FSU is currently one of only two UNC institutions that name these honors at commencement and the other institution reports that efforts are underway to discontinue them.

Discontinuing these distinctions will eliminate the rush to submit final grades early enough to calculate the two highest GPAs.  The feedback from other UNC institutions suggests that this is a main reason why they do not recognize these distinctions.

Taken together, these proposals achieve the following important results:

  1. Clarifies who can participate in commencement.
  2. Eliminates the need for early final exams for graduating seniors and reduces the panic over missing or late final grades for graduating seniors.
  3. Permits our top performing transfer students to graduate with the highest honors.
  4. Eliminates the rush to clear students in the few days before commencement – a practice that can lead to serious errors.
  5. Establishes consistency between our written statements and practice.
  6. Brings our practices in greater consistency with other UNC institutions.

Please review these proposals for further details.  Please feel free to contact me by email if you have questions.



Proposed Reorganization (disapproved by Faculty Senate)

Update:  This proposal was not approved by Faculty Senate. 

I have submitted a proposal to the Faculty Senate for reorganizing Academic Affairs. The proposal is based on feedback from faculty and deans. The proposal must be approved by the Faculty Senate so please share your concerns and questions with your department’s senators.

The proposed reorganization has several major components:

  • Define “college” and “school” to distinguish their meanings. A college includes multiple degree programs and multiple departments. This change will entail renaming our current schools to colleges so that we will have a College of Education and College of Business.
  • A school, according to the new definition, includes a single discipline that focuses on preparation of professionals. Based on this definitions Establish a School of Nursing and a School of Social Work consistent with the new definitions.
  • Establish a College of Science and Technology (CST) to support an increase in the number of graduates in STEM disciplines.
  • Establish an Office of Adult Learning and Professional Studies (OALPS) that will serve as a one-stop portal of entry for all adult learners seeking to complete a degree.

The proposed reorganization is driven by the need to increase enrollment and degree completion over the next decade by highlighting those areas in which we have potential for significant growth. Remember that as an Institutional Partner for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we have committed to increase our number of graduates by one-third over the next decade.

The Nursing Program is now producing more graduates (BSN) than any other degree program at FSU and the number of Master of Social Work (MSW) graduates is greater than all of the other graduate programs combined. Part of this success is due to the MSW at Fort Sam Houston, the only such program on a military base in the country! We can expect continued growth in these two disciplines over the next decades because of the demand for graduates with these degrees in the region. Establishing schools in these disciplines helps to highlight their importance to FSU and should help us with student recruitment and grant writing.

Thanks to the grant-writing success of our faculty in STEM disciplines, we have developed instrumentation and support programs that significantly enhance our capacity for teaching and research in STEM disciplines at FSU. In view of the state and national need for graduates in these disciplines, it is an important potential area of growth for FSU over the next decade.   Establishing the College of Science and Technology means that we will have an academic unit whose singular focus is on increasing degree productivity in the STEM disciplines.

Another area of potential growth is with adult learners, those students 24 years or older. We have already made great progress in this area with nearly half of our current enrollment comprised of adult learners. The ACE Alternative Credit Project, the professional studies program, expansion of online programs, establishment of professional advisors, our community college articulation agreements, and other factors have the potential for increasing enrollment of adult learners. The proposed Office of Adult Learning and Professional Studies will facilitate enrollment of these student by providing information and assistance to all prospective students seeking to complete a degree.

I look forward to receiving comments and suggestions from faculty as the Senate reviews this proposal. If approved by the Senate, the proposal will also have to be approved by the Chancellor, Board of Trustees, and Board of Governors.

Remarks for Psi Chi (Psychology) Honor Society Induction Ceremony

September 23, 2016

I want to begin by thanking all of those who have been involved in planning and carrying out this program and also for this invitation to speak, which I consider a real honor.

I also want to thank each inductee for excelling academically to qualify for membership in this honor society. Nothing is more gratifying and affirming for all of us in academic affairs, and also for me personally, than for students to take full advantage of the resources we make available for you to excel. You have done that. Thank you!

On behalf of my colleagues, I also want to congratulate you for this achievement.  Earning this honor speaks to your intellect, commitment, and discipline.  These are the attributes that will propel you to even more and greater achievements in the future.

Of course, an irony of honors is that as soon as you are recognized individually you are immediately reminded that the honor is not yours alone. Without the support of family and friends, you would not be here today.

Honorees, please show them your appreciation.

To the family and friends of the inductees, welcome to Fayetteville State University. I hope this is not your first time on our campus. But if it is, I hope it will not be your last time.

As the provost, I have primary administrative responsibility for making sure that we have effective and high quality instruction, degree programs, and academic support.  In my role, I have the benefit of getting to know the work of our faculty and staff across the university.  And I tell you I am amazed by and grateful for the individual and collective talent, knowledge, and commitment of the faculty and staff and department chairs and deans.

Please show them your appreciation.

I want to say a special word about the faculty.  The most important way that I can support students is by supporting the faculty.  Each of these faculty members is quite remarkable.  To be a professor is to embrace with all of your intellect and energy and time a set of questions and methods of inquiry for answering these questions as developed within a specific discipline.  They are your most important resource – each faculty member is much more important to you than I or any other administrator.  Learn from each one – overlook their idiosyncrasies – and benefit from their expertise. You will never again be surrounded by such intellectual power.  Take advantage of this situation to learn as much as you possibly can, try to not just learn from them, but to see the world as they see it.   Though bear in mind that none of their answers can be your answers – you have to discover your own answers.

As I reflect upon this occasion, I am reminded of three of my core beliefs about a university education that have emerged from my own intellectual, academic journey and which inform my decision making as a provost.  I would like to share them with you briefly.  A university education is important because

  1. Of its power to transform the way we understand ourselves, others, and our world.
  2. Of the opportunities it provides to learn from and cooperate with those with whom we disagree.
  3. It provides the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that enable us to leave our communities better than we found them.

The transformative power of a university education

There are many benefits of a university education.  We hope that each of you will find success in a career – I hope each of you makes lots and lots of money and that you will consider giving a little of it back to support future students.  We also hope you will become responsible and engaged citizens, that you will assume leadership roles in your professions and communities, and that you will enjoy personal well-being – financially, physically, and socially.

The most fundamental value of a university education, I am convinced, is its transformative power.  I was probably in high school when I first encountered those images of Gestalt Psychology, the ones where when you look at it one way you may see a vase, but then with a shift of foreground and background, you see the profile of two people looking at one another.

This experience of looking at one set of images but seeing different objects has always served for me as a metaphor for the kind of transformation higher education brings.  You suddenly see things differently.  You gain a new perspective.

To this day I remember the intellectual excitement I felt the first time I encountered Plato’s Cave Allegory – written nearly 2500 years ago – which suggests we are all like prisoners chained in a cave with our eyes fixed on wall on which shadows are projected and we mistake the shadows for reality so that one of the most basic challenges of life is to distinguish the “real things” from appearances.

Similarly I remember encountering Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, written about 1640, where he said to establish a firm method for discovering truth, he must first find one certainty, one truth that will withstand all doubt.  He systematically calls into question the certainty of sense experience – I can be certain of the things I see and hear and touch right now – well no, because I cannot prove that I am not dreaming right now.  Then he says, even if I am dreaming the truths of mathematics are certain – 2 =2 = 4 whether I am awake or dreaming. But, what if there is some all-powerful, evil genius who uses all of its power to deceive me.  He finally concludes, that even if there is this all-powerful evil genius, it cannot deceive me about my own existence since I must exist in order to be deceived.  So, Descartes concludes that it must be true that I exist so long as I think that I exist – so his famous – I think, therefore I am.

While I don’t accept much of Descartes’ overall philosophy, I remain impressed by his clarity of thought and the rigor of his analysis.

(Incidentally I ran into two former students in Lowe’s.  They graduated 20 years ago. After we spoke briefly and I was walking way – he said, Descartes – I think therefore I am – I still remember it. I wonder how often Descartes is quoted in Lowe’s!)

I have enjoyed many other transformative moments in my university experience – and that is the great thing about working at a university, one is able to continue to discover and learn.  The fact that you are here tonight suggests to me that you have had such moments.  Those of you who went on the study abroad experience this past summer had these transformative moments.

The reason I think this transformative power of higher education is so important is because the most essential fact about ourselves as humans is our capacity to learn and discover and to come to arrive at new insights.  Many years ago, Aristotle suggested that the experience of discovery of learning and discovery is one of the highest and most fulfilling experiences in life.  And that is one of the reasons why I am in this profession.

As provost – above all else, I hope to make this transformative power of higher education available for each of you.

  1. The opportunity to learn from and cooperate with those with whom you disagree.

A university education includes many opportunities for debate, discussion, and analysis of ideas. And in that give and take of discussion, I think we learn what it means to learn from and cooperate with others, even those with whom we may not agree.  Two key ingredients:

  1. The dialogue, debate, and discussion so essential to a university education – which challenges our beliefs and thoughts — helps us develop a healthy skepticism toward our own certainties. I think we learn the humility and intellectual courage necessary to recognize that consider the notion that when we are most certain of our views, we may very well be wrong.  (With more than 200 Ph.Ds watching what I do and say you can be sure that many times that have shown how I am wrong.)
  2. The dialogue, debate, and discussion so essential to a university education – at its best — helps us to develop a respect for others in their unique individuality instead of understanding or seeing others exclusively in terms of our own needs or prejudices. In philosophy, we sometimes speak of the “principle of charity,” that is, the practice of reconstructing our opponents’ views as strongly as possible as opposed to creating straw man arguments that can be easily defeated. This sense of charity is essential to learning from and cooperating with those with whom we disagree.

Note the qualities that emerge from a university education – humility, intellectual courage, respect for others, and charity – that a university education — at its best – helps us to develop.

What I am describing stands in contrast to a troubling aspect of social media that has been noted by many.  The concern is that even though our virtual communities are typically much larger than our real communities – we can connect with hundreds and thousands of others – but all too often those with whom we connect all see the world the same way we do.  So somebody tweets, “Clinton’s a fool,” or “Trump’s an idiot” and thousand people tweet back, “For sure!”

We must beware of our virtual communities serving simply to harden our unquestioned opinions – and make us less likely to develop the healthy skepticism about our own views and the charity and respect for others who disagree with us.

One of the most wonderful things about a university community – you will encounter many who challenge you and that’s a good thing – because without such challenges you will grow intellectually or personally.

This is the second reason why I am in this profession.  And as a provost, my goal is to promote this kind of university community.

  1. The most important benefit of a university education, I am convinced, is that it enables us to leave the world a little better place than we found it.

For this point I make reference to my grandfather, who did not go to college and didn’t even finish high school. Wisdom is certainly not the exclusive possession of college graduates.  By one of those rich coincidences this event occurred when I moved into my first senior academic administrative role and it has shaped my understanding of my role.

My grandfather lived in a small town in the mountains and he was diagnosed with cancer and knew he had just a few months to live. One of his projects prior to his diagnosis was to establish a place to collect used clothing that could be used by people in need or homeless people in the community.  One of his top priorities after the diagnosis was to make sure that this used clothing resource would remain in place after he died.

It is a small example of someone trying to leave the world a little better than he found it.

This story has helped shape my understanding of my role as an educator and provost.  We want to help you develop the wide range of skills and knowledge – communication and thinking and quantitative analysis and theories and methods and practical applications of the deep knowledge you are developing.  But the ultimate benefit of what you learn and can do is not for yourself alone.  Your ultimate responsibility is to use all that you learn to leave your communities and the world a little better than you found it.

I urge you to approach the world and your life NOT as an “all-you-can-eat buffet” – to get as much for yourself as you possibly can, but rather – to extend the metaphor – figuring out how you can expand the buffet to include more people.  That is, to do what you can to improve the lives of others.

So, to those of you being inducted into this honor society today, I am confident that you have experienced and will continue to experience the transformative power of a university education.  I am also confident you have learned a great deal about learning from and cooperating with those with whom you disagree.  Let me challenge you to remember that with the honor bestowed upon you today comes the responsibility to do your part in some small way or grand way to make the world a better place than you found it.

Again, thank you for this invitation, thanks to all who made this event possible and to all in attendance.

Congratulations to our inductees!

Career Preparation and/or Liberal Learning

It is unfortunate that in the current debates about the purpose and value of a college education, career preparation and liberal learning are often seen as mutually exclusive.

As a chief academic officer, I am convinced that higher education institutions generally and we at FSU must be very serious about preparing our graduates for careers. Career preparation, as I understand it, entails preparing our graduates for meaningful work – work that is personally fulfilling and enables one to meet basic economic needs. And meaningful work is an essential component of happiness and well-being.

Moreover, in the wake of dramatic increases in the cost of higher education and student debt, which has eclipsed all form of debt in America except for home mortgages, it is understandable for students and their families to be concerned about the career options that a degree or specific major will open up for them.

As convinced as I am that career preparation is an important goal of higher education, I am equally convinced that defining higher education exclusively in terms of career preparation greatly diminishes the goals and purposes of a university degree.

Liberal learning – with its emphasis on thinking, writing, speaking, using numbers, understanding the natural and cultural forces that shape our world, and other related skills and knowledge – is essential to preparing our graduates for the ever-changing demands of professions and citizenship.

I am very grateful to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) for its advocacy of liberal learning.

What else? What other goals do we have for our graduates? If career preparation and liberal learning are important outcomes of a university education, what other goals do we have for our graduates? What impact would we hope to have on the lives of our graduates five, ten, and twenty years after they graduate?

In the upcoming semester, I hope to work with others to launch campus-wide discussions intended to answer these and related questions.

In answering these questions it will not be enough to define these outcomes. We must make sure that we are providing educational experiences that lead to them. And, we must have strategies for assessing our success. I recognize the difficult of assessing outcomes five, ten, and twenty years after graduation, but we must tackle this challenge if we seek to make sure that we are providing the quality educational experience that has a positive lifelong impact on our graduates.

Thanks to Dr. David Barlow

David Barlow has transitioned from his role as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to serve as Special Assistant to the Provost until the end of the 2015-16 academic year. In the fall, he will resume his role as Professor of Criminal Justice.

Thanks to a coincidence of timing, David served as a dean for exactly ten years; his first day as dean was February 1, 2006 and his last day was January 31, 2016. A long-time advocate of revising the faculty workload at FSU, David will assist in the implementation of our new policy.

As the dean of FSU’s largest academic unit, David contributed to FSU’s success in many ways. He worked diligently to promote effective faculty recruitment efforts that have led to many strong faculty members joining FSU during his tenure. He did an excellent job of implementing college-wide assessments that helped us meet SACS requirements and promote continuous improvement. The community college dual degree programs he developed have provided a model for other programs. He has been a helpful mentor to department chairs and faculty.

One of our most effective administrative moves was to establish the role of assistant department chair, who carried out the many tasks that arise in the summer when chairs are on leave. Work in this role has proven to be excellent preparation for serving as chair. Establishing this position was David’s idea.

With rapidly-growing enrollment and successive years of perfect licensure exam scores by its graduates, FSU’s nursing program is now one of the strongest in the nation. The direct credit goes to Dr. Arhin and the faculty, but no department is able to thrive without the support and guidance of the dean.

Despite the administrative demands of being a dean, David continued his work as a scholar. As a professor, he will have more time to devote to his research and I know he will make important contributions to the national discussion about problems related to police practices and race.

Anyone who has worked with David is well aware of his careful attention to detail. In fact, he was sometimes criticized for being “too picky.” Many who complained did not understand that he was trying to do what was expected of deans by my office and the chancellor.

I could mention many other accomplishments, but the one I consider most telling about David’s character was his response to the first faculty evaluation of deans as implemented by the Faculty Senate. Rather than become defensive and angry about negative comments, David developed and implemented an improvement plan that led to much better ratings in subsequent evaluations.

David’s willingness to learn from his critics and respond with actions to improve are marks of a good leader – and a good person!

Thanks, David, for a decade of leadership and service. FSU is a better institution thanks to your hard work and commitment to excellence!

Reflections on 35 Years

January 2016 marks the 35th anniversary of my employment at FSU. (To paraphrase Woody Allen, in a blink of an eye one-third of my life has already passed me by!)

In January 1981, I arrived here as a non-tenure-track instructor and now have the privilege of serving as the chief academic officer. Few people are so fortunate!

I have often been asked why I have stayed so long. Of course, there are many reasons, but the primary one is the social justice mission of the university. The original impetus for the founding of the school that eventually became FSU was to provide qualified teachers for the children of former slaves. The seven founders correctly recognized that political freedom is a hollow achievement without the skills and knowledge necessary to participate meaningfully in the political, social, and economic life of the nation. FSU’s positive impact on the lives of its graduates and, in turn, their impact on this region and beyond is a legacy we can all claim with great pride.

Today, as more career pathways require a university degree, many adults are at risk of being left behind. And these students at risk, historically and even today, are highly represented among the students we serve: African-American, Hispanic, Native-American, individuals from low-income families, and adult learners. U.S. higher education generally does a great job for affluent and white students, but educational opportunity decreases significantly for those who are poor and non-white.

This is wrong! It is wrong for conditions of birth — such as socio-economic status, race, and ethnicity – to shape educational opportunity as significantly as it does in the U.S.

Extending high quality higher educational opportunity to all is part of our DNA at FSU. I am proud of our legacy and proud to be a Bronco!

Continuous Improvement – Beyond Busywork

Opening note:  “OPAR” and “OPARties” have become part of the lexicon of Academic Affairs at FSU.  “OPAR” refers to the Operational Plan and Assessment Report, while “OPARty” – an attempted play on words combining OPAR and party, as if this process could be fun – refers to the annual meeting in which each department’s OPARs is evaluated.  (See attached rubric.) OPARRubric The OPAR score becomes part of the CIR – another common acronym – the Continuous Improvement Report, which enables academic departments to earn additional funds based on their performance on 10 metrics.

The commitment to continuous improvement is one of the few non-negotiables in Academic Affairs.  I am willing to discuss and debate virtually any issue and entertain alternate solutions to any problems — except for my expectation that as individuals, departments, and a division we will strive to get better and better in all that we do.

Few would object continuous improvement as an abstract ideal.  Like love and truth and justice and the Golden Rule – who will say they’re against it?

Affirming continuous improvement in the abstract is not the problem.  Operationalizing it — infusing it into the way we do business on a daily basis — is the challenge.  OPARs enable us to operationalize continuous improvement by bringing together the essential components of continuous improvement — goals, measures, and use of results — into an integrated plan.

Continuous improvement is always relative to specific goals which, for us, are derived from the university mission statement and strategic plan, namely, to improve student learning, increase the number of graduates, provide effective educational support, conduct research, serve the university and extended communities, achieve operational efficiency and fiscal sustainability, and increase external funding.  OPARs explain how each department will help accomplish one or more of these goals.

OPARs delineate how we will measure our progress.  It is one thing to talk about continuous improvement or to strive for it; but it is a qualitatively different thing to be able to empirically demonstrate and measure improvement.  To measure improvement, we must set meaningful targets and have reliable and relevant data.

Measuring progress, however, is a waste of time, if we do nothing about what we learn from these measures.  Our OPARs enable us to develop and document strategies implemented to use results for improvement.

After more than six years of OPARties – previously under the leadership of Dr. Marion Gillis-Olion and now under Dr. Rollinda Thomas – our use of OPARs as a vehicle for continuous improvement has vastly increased.

Yet, progress remains uneven. In 2009-10, the first year we developed OPARs, virtually all of us – including me — viewed OPARs as busywork, that is, meaningless activity with little connection to the work we do on a daily basis. When viewed as busy work, the OPAR is set of templates to be filled up with something – information, narrative, and numbers — whether it makes sense or not.

Most often, compliance with SACS was seen as the driver of this activity.

For many departments, OPARs have evolved into much more than busy work. These departments are marked by several important characteristics.

  1. The OPAR is reviewed periodically throughout the year and updated as needed. It is not developed at the beginning of the year and reopened a week or two before the OPARty just to have something to present at the OPARty.  It is discussed throughout the year; the implementation of strategies is monitored and documented.
  2. The OPAR is not a one- or two-person project. All the members of the department are engaged at some level in collecting and analyzing data and developing strategies following from the data.
  3. The OPAR provides an occasion for deep and careful reflection on big questions such as, “Why does our department exist?” “What is our role in achieving the missions and goals of the university?” “What should our students be learning to prepare them for success in their careers and personal lives and as responsible citizens?”  “How will we know if students have in fact learned what we say they have learned?”  “What do our assessment results reveal about student learning land what will do about it?”
  4. The OPAR provides an important occasion for clarifying common goals and discussing ways of achieving them. Any successful organization has a sense of common purpose that is shared by its members.  The OPARs serves to delineate that common purpose in departments that use them most effectively.
  5. The OPAR encourages creativity and innovation. Defining goals, developing assessment tools and measures, translating assessment results into the strategies for improvement, and other similar tasks require creative approaches and innovative solutions. We cannot do things in the same manner year after year and hope to improve.
  6. The OPAR generates a “hunger” for good data. These departments seek to obtain relevant, accurate, comprehensive data to measure improvement. Consider the example of critical thinking, one of the most commonly cited outcomes of higher education.  Departments committed to developing critical thinkers do not just talk about it, but develop meaningful assessments that can guide improving these skills in our students.  The same can be said for all other learning outcomes we value. For departments committed to continuous improvement, data always initiate, rather than stop, dialogue.

Virtually all departments exhibit some of these attributes; very few exhibit all of them.  As we begin 2016-17, I encourage departments to consider the extent to which these attributes apply to them.  The most essential question:  “Is your OPAR mainly busy work or a tool for continuous improvement?” “What will you do in response to your answer to this question?”

I hope this discussion itself promotes continuous improvement.