Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Rewarding work

Few would disagree with an assertion that higher education is one of the more important dimensions of a free and prosperous society. For even those who resist the idea of a college education as a pathway to work preparation, one has to recognize that those with college educations have higher lifetime earnings and contribute more to the common welfare because of their productivity and ingenuity.

Yet, what evidence do we have that rewarding work is part of the way higher education functions or what it teaches. Two glaring contradictory examples hit the media in the form of the U.S. Supreme Courts unanimous action on college athletes and the other is Amazon's employment model.

At issue in the Supreme Court ruling is defining the parameters of educational aid offered to athletes while they contribute their athletic prowess to the universities for free. Justice Kavanaugh wrote in his opinion on the case "Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate." The NCAA asserts the importance of amateurism in athletes as the justification for denying more substantive compensation for athletes. But how can an institution defend "amateurism" in the face of the incredibly uneven field of play (pardon the pun) between big-time athletic programs that generate millions and those institutions that scrape by trying to adhere to the amateur assumption. If the actors (athletes) in an economic model bring disproportionate benefit to the institutions they serve, especially when other actors (coaches, athletic directors) are directly compensated based on how often they win, how can a reasonable argument be made that those on the field deserve no compensation at all? The Supreme Court decision is not definitive on broader compensation but leans toward a model I've long advocated - define big-time sports programs at select universities as semi-professional farm teams and allow appropriate compensation for all who help generate revenue. Then the rest of U.S. higher education can return to a truly amateur model, competing among themselves in balanced ways that offers athletes the opportunity to develop skill, agility, strength and health as educational outcomes.

Poll findings indicate mixed support for paying college athletes. One of the key issues is whether compensation would come from university funds, with most respondents opposing it. The NCAA took steps to revise the amateurism rules by allowing athletes to promote and benefit from commercializing their names, representing the first opportunity for greater personal gain.

Communications staff on college campuses need to start conversations with athletic departments to revise strategies for communicating the purpose of athletics. The messages will require realignment with the reality of what sports are really about on campuses.

Jeff Bezos is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world and Princeton, his undergraduate alma mater, is presumably where he learned things that would lead to his success in creating Amazon as a pervasive and highly lucrative industry. The only problem with claiming the victory with Bezos is that his financial model relies on highly pressurized employee performance, minimally acceptable compensation, and advocacy for high turnover that preserves low production costs and undermines joint labor action that could demand a more humane model of worker welfare.

Both of these cases beg the question of what higher education is teaching about rewarding work. If creativity, innovation, individual and community uplift are the goal, then diametrically opposed examples such as uncompensated semi-professional athletes and employers who implement victimizing employment practices require further examination.

Monday, June 21, 2021

After the pandemic - What did and didn't work and what to expect now?

Most educators have already concluded that, with limited options, higher education pivoted fairly effectively in the face of the pandemic. Most would also say that students suffered regardless of how hard campuses tried to do their best.

The "Student Voice" survey identified a number of areas where students believe that they were impaired in achieving the level of success they had hoped over the last year. The specific areas that presented challenges were:

  • On-line courses take more time
  • It's hard to stay focused during remote lectures
  • Most professors want help
  • Academic dishonesty is trackable
  • Feshmen need special attention
The second set of recommendations for how to improve student success included:
  • Support on-time graduation goals
  • Anticipate new and more intense student needs
  • Prepare for a support-packed new year
The research of both Student Voice and Blackboard found that the widest gaps in expectation were among at-risk students. With hopes of a return to normal in-person courses, some of the challenges of the last year may be self-correcting. However, there are lessons to be learned for both in-person and virtual learning. Three areas that impact all students, and possibility at-risk students to an even greater degree, are; continuity (flow) of learning, preferred areas of study, and changing views of the ultimate purpose of higher education. All three of these tie back to a common factor - human contact and the realization of its importance in learning and in choice of lifestyle and work.

Campuses need to prepare to address the fundamental difference in what what students will encounter when they return to partial or full in-person learning. Some suggest that there may be even a reverse culture shock as students return to learning environments that they left behind over a year ago. To be sure, students look forward to returning to in-person learning but actually being back there will require an adjustment for all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Student Affairs scholarship

Most of the literature in student affairs, development, and services is written by faculty in graduate preparation programs. Analysis of articles in journals confirm that as graduate faculty have been increasingly rewarded for research and publication, the literature shifted to accommodate their contributions. The days of significant numbers of scholar-practitioners, staff who researched and wrote as a function of reflective practice, authoring published works has declined over the last 50 years.

Chelsea Gilbert wrote that "Colleges should recognize that research grounded in the daily experiences of those most knowledgeable about students' lives is crucial for meeting students' needs." While I heartily agree that student affairs staff should write more, it's an error to claim superiority in being the "most knowledgeable about students' lives," primarily because it has the potential of alienating many faculty who are also deeply informed about students and may resent the assertion that they are not.

I don't know of research that will confirm my assertions but my belief is that many student affairs staff don't write because they have not benefitted from the cultivation that many faculty receive. Student affairs has been an oasis for diversity in many institutions, first welcoming women, then colleagues from diverse cultures, and then opening the door for LGBTQ+ colleagues. In addition, many may have been first-generation students whose families were not able to mentor them into the culture of writing and research. All this adds up to a population group that has much to offer but is silenced in a system that rewards certain kinds of academics, with specified elite credentials, and sponsored by senior colleagues who encourage them.

Chelsea proposes three corrective measures: provide time, provide funding, and provide a spotlight. Addressing these three issues would help but the reason student affairs staff are constricted in their scholarship goes much deeper to issues of background, identity, and reward.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Purdue struggles with autocratically imposed civics literacy

As a testament to the importance of institutions being careful to act in ways that are consistent with their rhetoric, faculty are pushing back at Purdue University's civics requirement. Alice Pawley, associate professor of engineering said, "It's like democracy and civic literacy are so important, we're willing to be dictators about it." Other faculty said that their own colleagues did not engage the planning and decision making process so the fault is not that of the Purdue President or Board but of the faculty.

Leadership in higher education is not easy and it requires everyone to embrace the idea of fluid leadership that moves across different individuals and groups. Those in positional roles have a responsibility to exercise inclusive leadership and those without specific roles must authentically participate through active followership. It's too easy for either group to point fingers but shared leadership should be easier in higher education than it usually is in actuality.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

First-generation students and scholars struggle

There has been increasing recognition of the struggles that first-generation students face in going to college. The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and the Suder Foundation initiated the "First-Gen Forward" project to increase the focus on success within this group and to recognize institutions committed to this goal.

In addition to undergraduate students, first-generation graduate students and scholars face barriers as well. Kelly Craig, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah, expressed that the resilience that first-generation graduate students bring to their studies and work is typically unrecognized. Matthew Jerome Schneider, an assistant professor at UNC-Pembroke, described the awkwardness of being asked to comment on his research agenda in a new graduate student welcome session, a task that his fellow graduate students seemed to understand all to well and were enthusiastic to answer.

For students and for aspiring and advancing scholars, first-generation naiveté is often an unrecognized barrier. Those who have not come from first-generation experiences do not understand the privilege that they bring to academic circles where there are many unwritten rules, customs, and expectations. These privileges do not all of a sudden disappear once the doctoral degree is granted or an academic assignment is secured. Seasoned academics know about the importance of networks, riding the coattails of significant leaders in the field, and publishing in the journals that result in the greatest number of citations of one's work.

The disadvantages of first-generation naiveté impact all those who seek to advance in the academic world. For those whose cross-sectional identities include other barriers such as sex, race, language, or other difference, striving to enter and excel in academic circles is even harder. If higher education seeks to be more representative of the population at large, these disadvantages have to be highlighted and addressed.