Friday, August 26, 2016

University of Chicago as a model for discourse

International higher education faculty and administration are often influenced by the actions of elite U.S. universities. There is growing awareness that U.S. practices, even when they are borrowed from elites, should be carefully considered and perhaps adapted or avoided; the University of Chicago has provided a perfect example where caution may be warranted.

The University of Chicago recently announced that it advocates an open marketplace of ideas that students need to understand and learn to accommodate. Practices such as "safe zones" for those who believe they are marginalized or threatened by other's views, "trigger warnings" for potentially unsettling topics, or restricting speakers of any perspectives will not be part of the University of Chicago campus scene.

This news has been posted in a variety of social media and appears to be embraced by many. When I first saw the announcement my reaction was positive as well - advocate open exchange which then takes away any need to prepare for, monitor, or take action that can be construed as a violation of free speech rights so highly valued on university campuses and more broadly in the U.S.A.  On further reflection, it may be important for educators, students, and families to all consider the context and then determine if the University of Chicago's approach is one that could/should be transferred elsewhere.

The University of Chicago has a venerable history based on the Germanic institutions of higher learning that dominated research exploration and productivity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. William Rainey Harper, early President of the University of Chicago and a driving force for higher education reform, advocated for education based on the "great books" of standard authors thought to be worthy of study and he didn't want first and second year students at all, believing that such low level education should be handled by "junior colleges." As one of the most elite intellectual institutions in the U.S.A. it has drawn students, many of whom were from privileged economic or social backgrounds, who by virtue of their class had a voice that they believed was valid, therefore allowing them to be comfortable in contributing their ideas to the marketplace of ideas that the University of Chicago has been so successful in creating.

So, to the question of transferability... While the idea of establishing a climate where all voices can be expressed is laudable, not all institutions have students (or faculty/staff for that matter) who have the intellectual privilege and assertiveness to compete when differing voices become strident. In addition, where do all students, regardless of their privilege and backgrounds, learn how to express dissent, to discern the worth of an argument, and to gain comfort in abandoning their own perspective long enough to learn from someone with a different view?

The University of Chicago has established a very interesting and provocative position regarding free speech on campus. It may work for some institutions but others may not have the climate to make it work. Most importantly, in an era where political discourse has sunk to new lows in relation to evidence and rationality, what should higher education do to establish practices and approaches that free intellectual discourse rather than push divisive discourse to the level that few can tolerate listening to each other?

Not surprisingly, there have been numerous responses to the University of Chicago's announcement to its new students that the campus does not provide safe space or refuge from uncomfortable issues. One of the responses that raises the core and complicated questions that higher education leaders might need to explore was offered by Brown University's Chair of American Studies, Professor Mathew Pratt Guterl. Guterl concluded his essay with, "Faculty members and administrators thus have a calling to act. Without delay. To remove that racist mural and relocate it to a museum. To rename that building and historicize the old name. To practice discernment in scheduling talks or speakers, so that we don't bring that bigot, thug or provocateur to the campus just to win a news cycle or to get your think tank in the paper. To prioritize ideas and visitors who are actively, constructively engaged in solving (and not making) social problems." This has a much higher likelihood of creating both a more open dialogue as well as a culture of respect and learning on the campus than simply saying, "It's not the university's business to make the hard decisions related to cultivating a campus culture that empowers all to speak their truth."

A letter from more than 150 faculty at the University of Chicago was published in the university's student newspaper on September 13 expressing concern about the Dean of Students' letter to entering students. The letter linked to mid-20th century efforts "to create places protected from quite real forces of violence and intimidation." One faculty member in Middle Eastern History, Holly Shissler, indicated that the faculty were not consulted in drafting the Dean's letter, saying that the "statement touches fundamentally on our role as teachers and mentors. We were -- or at least I was -- taken aback to have such a public statement made about teaching and intellectual life generally at the university without any consideration of the actual views and experience of the faculty."

The discussion became increasingly complicated when Theresa May, Prime Minister of the UK, criticized the idea of "safe spaces" as closing down necessary debate in the academic community.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Preparing for life by studying religion

One of the topics not often discussed in U.S. universities is the importance of religious understanding and tolerance. William "Chip" Gruen makes the case that study of world religions has become more important asserting that the "Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations." Perhaps the place to learn about other religions is in the classroom but many students learn more from late night "bull sessions" where different perspectives are explored among friends.

UK universities final push to recruit students

United Kingdom universities are turning to social media to close the deal on admissions to their programs. "Getting Creative with Clearing" provides links to several videos that reflect interesting variations in the approach each takes to distinguish itself from others. It might be of particular interest to international educators to see how the holistic experience of students is portrayed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Canadian university withdrawing from campus in Saudi Arabia

Algonquin College of Ontario began three academic programs at an all-male campus in Saudi Arabia three years ago but has now determined that they will turn the initiative back to its Saudi operator. While details on the withdrawal are not available due to negotiations with Saudi Arabia on the withdrawal, the reports focus on financial viability as well as human rights concerns. An earlier report also reflected concerns that "it has become clear that the students applying to AC-Jazan do not have the academic and social preparedness for which our academic programs were contractually designed."

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Investment in higher education pays

In justifying the expansion and improved quality of higher education, return on investment is a frequent question. A new study referenced in Inside Higher Education indicates that, indeed, it pays. The investment has to be seen in the long-term but the study indicates that enhancing human capital and innovation will be the result.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stress and student success

An article by Karen Costa, an adjunct professor working out of Massachusetts, addresses the issue of stress in students' lives with the apparent primary target of U.S. domestic students. Costa's views were partially informed by Medina's (2014) warning that our brains don't function as well when we are subjected to debilitating stress. If we want students to succeed, Costa recommends that educators take a more careful look at how to help students become more comfortable with their learning community and resilient in the face of intellectual and personal challenge.

Costa does not address the stress that may be different for international students studying in the U.S. or U.S. students studying abroad. However, it doesn't take much to sort out the variables that might cause more stress or make it more difficult to handle - cultural difference, language, family expectation, learning style, support system, and the presence of advocates for their learning. This article raises many important points that should be considered by international educators seeking to enrich student learning and achieve broader success for all.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Changes in faculty hiring procedure at University of Hong Kong

Controversy is emerging from changes proposed at the University of Hong Kong related to faculty hiring. Critics view the move to centralize decisions on faculty hiring to two administrators as autocratic and undermining faculty authority.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Student affairs in the U.K.

A short essay by Eric Stoller for Inside Higher Education supports the increasing professionalization of student affairs work in the U.K. Beyond Stoller's advocacy, there is a lot of evidence of the good work being done by student services/affairs staff in U.K. institutions. One specific example is the work of Andrew West and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield. The work at Sheffield is one example of finely focused and effective work supporting "care leavers" (students who have been in the U.K. state/foster care system) as they seek college degrees. This work is one of the chapters included in the upcoming release, Enhancing Student Learning and Development in Cross-Border Higher Education (Robers & Komives, Eds., 2016). Watch for the release of this book in October 2016; it includes practice examples from around the world.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mass higher education may lead to increasing inequality

One of the assumptions of higher education expansion across time and place has been that providing broader access will offer greater opportunity to all. Looking at U.S. higher education, one would have to conclude (see Geiger, 2015, review) that massification in higher education in the late 19th and early to mid-20th century provided access but not necessarily equality of educational and work opportunity. Indeed, the disturbing evidence is that privileged access to elite higher education has been a very carefully protected opportunity based on family, associational networks, and ability to pay.

A recent study of expanding higher education opportunity in China has now documented the same inequality of impact. The responsibility doesn't necessarily fall to institutions; in the case of China (and this blogger would propose in the U.S. as well), the inequality emerges from the role families play. It appears that more highly educated and privileged Chinese parents play a more prominent role in their graduates' post-college employment. "The expansion of higher education may not promote fairness but may instead intensify educational inequality" is the unfortunate implication for China and likely other countries as well.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Chinese students lose intellectual edge once in university

The preliminary findings of a study at Stanford University indicate that Chinese students enter universities ahead of students from other countries in critical thinking but lag behind after just two years of study. While definitive conclusions have not been reached, a combination of factors may be the cause. First, the "poor quality of teaching at many Chinese universities,"with a focus on rote memory and lecture could be a major contributor. Second, once admitted to Chinese universities, students are all but assured that they will graduate which contrasts with the fierce competition required to gain admission.

In the face of China's declining economy, creating opportunity through a creative and innovative workforce of critical thinkers will be important to China's future. Focus on fostering deeper learning and development is at the core of China's challenge, a challenge which is likely not to be met if Chinese policy makers and educators do not understand that one of the greatest advantages of Western education practice is experience and inquiry based learning coupled with a commitment to holistic learning inside and outside the classroom.