Friday, March 26, 2021

Why being a commodity hurts us all

I've often struggled with the emerging dynamics of higher education being a commodity, with warning from the U.N. about viewing it as a consumable reinforcing that view. This slippery slope has now taken us (i.e. students, families, and employers of graduates) from a place of students aspiring for a "better quality of life" to little more than a transaction on the way to a job. Not that receiving a college degree should be disconnected from the acquisition of workforce preparation, but the issue is that it should never have become the primary purpose of a higher education. While redirecting higher education commodification is a formidable challenge, there are ways to reverse it that aren't that difficult if embraced broadly by institutions and faculty/staff within them.

Higher education expanded in the post-WWII era because the U.S.A. needed to feed a growing economy with a generation of more highly qualified workers. Especially in post world war times, expanding seats in colleges and universities meant preparation for roles as community members, citizens, consumers,  workers, and more. As the Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal  demonstrates, for some (if not many) students and families, the ticket to college has now become a commodity for which wealthy families will pay a handsome price. And the more elite the institution, which is often projected through large applicant pools and few acceptances (although some deny it), the higher the price! That higher education is a commodity in this sense undermines the broader purposes of college attendance and it also perpetuates the wealth inequality that is tearing at the fabric of our democratic society. As Sunwoo Hwang commented in an Inside Higher Education article, the real scandal goes beyond pay for play in that it is "not just rich kids getting into schools they don't deserve, it's low-income students who can't go to the schools they deserve."

Student affairs is frequently seen as a marginal aspect of colleges and universities but it strives to center important issues of student learning and development, capacity building for a public and private leadership, and embracing the ever increasing diversity among the students enrolled in these institutions. However, it is not unusual for a focus on service and customer satisfaction to contribute to the commodification of attending college and student affairs is often a part of this.

Suze Orman's speech to the 2021 NASPA Virtual conference was apparently to have focused on financial literacy. Response to Orman was so negative that NASPA leadership issued an apology including the statement, "Suze's comments tied self-worth to financial progress, ignored the difficulties that many individuals experience when navigating existing systemic structures and tools, and used offensive language to describe the area of Chicago in which she grew up." NASPA also noted that it would not post Orman's speech on their platform for later viewing. While some criticized Orman for being corporate and lacking an understanding of higher education, others attributed the backlash, particularly among younger and more diverse members, as a reflection of the generational differences among student affairs staff. The controversy over Orman's speech continued when some defended Orman's speech as an example of free speech that should be protected while others viewed her speech is the result of incompetence - not knowing her audience and properly contextualizing her point related to financial management.

I ponder how these two incidents are related. How has the commodification of higher education overwhelmed broader purposes and what kind of soul searching is now required in order to recenter higher education beyond simply being a ticket to economic prosperity?

Friday, March 19, 2021

Turnover at Australian universities - is it a wave?

The fatigue of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shockwaves felt throughout higher education has been a heavy weight to shoulder. One result of this pressure, coupled with issues of work and life balance, is that higher education institutions in Australia are experiencing a flurry of resignations at top administrative levels.

Reading about Australia raises red flags about similar resignations of higher education leaders throughout the world. Senior leaders are generally older and may have stayed in their positions into later years because they enjoyed the work and were so fulfilled in doing it. Unfortunately, the joy has gone out of much of the work because of pressures brought about by the pandemic. Should colleges and universities elsewhere begin contingency planning before their upper administrative leadership is depleted?

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Death to silos - geographic, intellectual and organizational

An interesting proposal from a marketing and communications expert called for "Death to Silos" saying that academic "silos make interdisciplinary collaboration difficulty and limit opportunities to maximize resources and create highly effective communications for our audiences. They also hinder innovation, limit access to alternative perspectives and invite territoriality." While the proposal is directed at how a university communicates its academic work and impact, most of those who have served in a U.S. institution of higher education would readily recognize that the most important and debilitating impact of silos is that they allow ideas to be marginalized through asserting expert and niched knowledge while neglecting to see the multiple and interactive causes and solutions to many of the questions intellectuals and researchers seek to answer.

In an effort to bridge geographic separation, academics in Ireland have proposed pan-Irish collaboration to connect all of higher education. Gerry McKenna, senior vice president of the Royal Irish Academic, offered the opinion that "Universities are an important player in terms of promoting social cohesion, promoting political tolerance, and support for democratic institutions. This is not something that we should take for granted. A higher education system that embraces the entire island and all its regions is an important factor in promoting not just prosperity, but also peace and stability." Although Ireland is small, could its commitment to collaboration be a model for other countries on how to bridge spacial as well as other academic barriers?

One network of training programs in higher education has proposed that greater cooperation in addressing research questions would require: collaborating with the competition; redefining credit and success; and reimagining what you teach. Academic collaboration is perceived to be so difficult that guidelines about how to do it successfully were offered in lessons on teaching together and interdisciplinary research collaborations are hardMatt Reed suggested that affinity groups, many now virtual, could foster greater academic cooperation. In Australia, the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales have committed to cooperate more than in the past. These measures would at least begin to break down the silos that so dominate the U.S. and other higher education cultures.

"Reimagining Campus Experience" proposes that the privileging walls of the extracurriculum need to be permeated in order for the broader diversity of students to benefit from it. While I do not agree with the assertion in the article that "Student life, in turn, produced campus cultures that downplayed the value of academics and glorified athletic prowess, style, parties, pranks and casual socializing," I agree with the next assertion in the article that campus life in the American model of wholistic education "explains much of college's appeal." The important point of this article is that all students should have access to full participation on campus. The ways that inclusion can become reality is by observing several principles and adopting practical strategies that complement them.

The principles are:
  1. Don't expect students to become more academic
  2. Maximize participation
  3. Encourage a multiplicity of options
  4. Blur the boundaries between curriculum and extracurriculum
  5. Do everything in your power to develop audiences
The practical strategies are:
  1. Take student satisfaction surveys and focus groups seriously
  2. Rethink your campus' student life priorities
  3. Think outside the box
  4. Make faculty student life partners
  5. Evaluate your student life initiatives in terms of inclusion and diversity
I often blog about issues of what I would characterize as intellectual and organizational "Balkanization" in higher education. The evolution of specialization, bureaucracy, and entrepreneurial autonomy brought us to the point where our institutions are wasteful and ineffective and it's time we get serious about fixing it.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Health and well-being in higher education

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought more attention to issues of health and well-being to all in higher education. The focus of CDC and the American College Health Association on comparing and coordinating mitigation strategies in the face of the largest public health crisis in a generation will help. However, concerns about healthy and positive campus climates have been present for many years; recent increases in reported crises and student suicides simply spotlight the problem, one that includes high levels of anxiety and burnout that is likely to last for some time. The pandemic has also spurred increased numbers of students who claim psychological disabilities, therefore requiring evaluation and accompanying accommodations to help them succeed.

As the fall 2021 semester entered full-swing, some surveys reflected a decline in student stress and anxiety but other studies suggested a continuing rise in stress as a result of COVID variants. Health centers reported high demand that was overwhelming some health providers and the Departments of Education and Justice issued guidelines to help with severe mental health challenges that have led to increases in suicide ideation.

As of Winter 2022, assessments indicated that 34% of current students struggled with anxiety disorder, which justified a breadth of responses to individual needs. Those who express concern about anxiety differ in level of severity and symptomatic expression. Providing triage that effectively guides students to pursue appropriate levels of help is key. Some may respond to student support groups and willingness to be open about their struggles while others require referral for intensive counseling or medication. Student Voice surveys timed throughout the COVID period of 2019-2022 documented shifts in students general mental health, with Winter of 2022 being the best during this period. And further evidence of improvement was that seniors who were preparing to graduate in 2022 were upbeat and positive about the futures, suggesting that resilience had been one of the most important lessons during their studies.

Instead of focusing on what's causing an apparent decline in student wellness, some advocate that institutions should focus on the factors that create student distress. The inter-association initiative Health and Well-being in Higher Education: A Commitment to Student Success offers a chance for institutions to adopt "upstream approaches that will allow increasing numbers of students to flourish and thrive." The Student Voice survey identified seven key things faculty can do to contribute to an institutional approach to student health. Access to and analysis of data is key to getting out in front of mental health concerns. Centering student success in conversations about, and plans to address, well-being requires looking at the identities and traumas that students face. Childhood trauma, learning disabilities, or coming from a lower socio-economic background are key factors that result in increased challenges in everything from time management to fitting in.

The bottom line is that students will be most successful when faculty, staff, students, and the campus environment is all more healthy. Makerspaces are a relatively easy way to provide oases on campus that foster both individual and community well-being. A pan-campus approach may also need to view mental health as a "trauma-induced" phenomenon that requires faculty teaching and advising informed by safety, transparency, peer support, mutuality and an overall commitment to empowerment, voice, and choice. A fundamental question has been raised about one of the greatest and most persistent stresses for students - grades.

Responding to student mental health decline, the whole community idea is particularly important, and "community" should also include entities outside the confines of a given college or university. Examples of how to respond include calling for higher and secondary education cooperation in providing "well-being" courses to students while they are still in high school and another is focused on cultivating students' mental immunity to the disruptions they experience. Partnering with students is essential, especially when seeking to reach underserved groups. Most institutions are investing in mental health resources, some funded by donors concerned about student mental health, including peer helper networks like Lean on Me and offering virtual health resources and online peer counseling. Students' satisfaction is mixed and diverse methods, including referral to off-campus resources, will likely be the only way to meet their mental health needs.

The interim director of counseling and psychological services at the University of New Hampshire says that actually students weathered the pandemic storm better than some believe and that encouraging students to adopt self-care and ongoing access to informal and primary care mental health resources is key. Research on the changes in student habits resulting from the pandemic highlight the need to assess and then intervene when they undermine health.

Boston University has demonstrated responsiveness to student mental health needs by actively providing guidance to students who might be considering, or are taking, a break. A student cited in the BU article recounted the isolation he felt as he struggled with anxiety and depression, absorbing the stigma he felt he would endure if he dropped out of his studies. Openly communicating to students that stopping out is alright and can be managed well is critical to students who are challenged. Student success coaches at 25 institutions in partnership with Inside Track reached out to 27,000 students who stopped out, an intervention resulting in the return of 3,000.

Counseling centers on many campuses are under-utilized, which is ironic in the face of reported higher need. Reaching more vulnerable students, such as first-generation and minority students, can be done through such simple gestures as providing "mental health kits" to signal support. Some are calling for senior academic officials to become healing leaders, including things such as conducting wellness checks, building inclusive teams, and monitoring their own health. Actively promoting mental health services, with a resiliency focus among marginalized groups, is part of the solution. LGBTQ+ students are at higher risk as well as Tribal college students, especially in mental health concerns. A pilot program called the Equity in Mental Health on Campus and Colorado State University's inclusive practice demonstrate the focus on serving students of various identities. With recent highly visible suicides among college athletes, the unique stresses of competitive athletes are receiving greater attention. Recognizing counseling as education and involving faith community leaders offer other opportunities. A report on how community college leaders look at the overall experience of students reveals the importance of collecting and utilizing data. The point is that awareness of our strengths and vulnerabilities, and the importance of learning to manage our mental health, could achieve a great deal in regard to prevention and effective coping.

The pressure on faculty and staff, coupled with more virtual work, has caused many to abandon any attempt to maintain boundaries on when they work. Joshua Kim offers 11 questions that quickly surface the problem. If the pervasive answer to these questions reflects a 24/7 view and little control of how that time is used, then it's pretty easy to conclude that the work environment is not healthy.

The Biden administration eventually urged colleges to use their Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) to enhance mental health services on campuses. With such a complex issue, each institution will have the latitude to devise approaches that fit its unique environment.

Inside Higher Education compiled a "Wholistic Approach to Student Wellness" summary as a resource for educators. The idea of viewing campuses as "wholistic" systems is central to a student affairs perspective. This doesn't mean that student affairs educators are the only, or even primary, ones who advocate this view but it does mean that one of the most powerful ways to improve campus climate is being a catalyst with and through others. Especially as institutions recalibrate to the financial restraints of COVID-19's impact, partnerships across campus such as the "Health and Well-being..." initiative are likely the only way, and perhaps a better way, of fulfilling a commitment to wholistic learning and development.