Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Missions and Omissions

Academic Customer Service and Retention
Mission statements often sound like they were generated by some folks who write PR platitudes for a living. High-sounding principles filled with carefully chosen ideologically and PC correct statements like contributing to society, creating knowledge, opening the minds of our students; developing students to become leaders and citizens who will enrich the future; serving the people of….; advancing cultural values; develop knowledge, skills and understanding for life, work and responsible citizenship within a diverse and changing world and culture; encourage exploration that will enrich the individual and our nation and so on and so forth. In most cases there is some euphemistic wink to the institution’s recognition of the value of students, teaching and learning. But we don’t really mean it. It’s just something we have to say and gosh it does sound really good and impressive. Sort of like the Gerber baby food mission “students are our business, our only business.”

Of course we know that for Gerber and colleges, these are just mission statements. Gerber really means that selling stuff for babies that we can make money on is our business. But that does not make for a promotional mission statement that can help sell baby food. “Selling cheaply made goods from China and baby food is our business” just doesn’t cut it.

It’s just like most academic mission statements – something that can make the school sound trust and money-worthy, you know, principled but nothing we are going to be held to. We recognize that the mission statement is for putting in the catalog, maybe the web site, certainly for printing on posters to put up in some administrators’ offices and perhaps where potential students might see it. But please, we all understand it is not important to the day-to-day life of the institution and nothing we need to bother ourselves with.

Want proof? Okay. Tell me. What is your mission statement? What are the stated principles of the institution? Okay. Just list a few parts of it. A phrase or two. No! You can’t go look them up and pretend you knew. It is not required to know them after all. They really don’t matter.

Need proof of this? Compare your mission values statement to what the priorities really are. Where is the money spent? Time devoted? Recognition given? Actions rewarded? There are often real variations between what we say guides an institution and what really does.

Nowhere is this variance between what we say is important and what really is valued more glaring than in what should be central to any college or university – student learning and success- and what is at the center of it all – research.

An example? Alright. Michigan Technological University where We prepare students to create the future.

Michigan Tech states as its very first principle The success of our students will always be the most important measure of the success of the institution. This would imply that teaching, learning and student support services would hold a primary position in what the University values, rewards and spends time, money and effort on. So we should expect that the strategic plan would focus on this primary mission principle. Let’s see. Here is the first part of the strategic plan.

Michigan Tech will grow as a premier technological research university of international stature, delivering education, new knowledge, and innovation for the needs of our world.

GOAL 1: Attract, retain, and support a world-class and diverse faculty, staff, and student population.

1.1 Provide an outstanding professional and cultural environment for all members of the Michigan Tech community.

  • provide competitive compensation, recognize, and reward successful faculty and staff;
  • support professional development and collaborative opportunities;
  • recruit, enroll, support, and recognize bright, motivated, and adventurous students.

One would think that if the mission statement had some reality, some guiding truth or principle, the strategic plan would begin by stating a strategy to implement that principle. I suppose one could argue that by attracting a world class faculty and staff that could constitute support for instruction. But since the rest of the strategy focuses on research, I think not.

Moreover, since the first statement in the strategy focuses on becoming a premier research university, we need to wonder about any subsequent nods to anything that varies from becoming a premier research university, like teaching as Prof Vable found out. He is discussed below. And the first action supports this contention. Michigan Tech will recruit world-class (whatever that really means ) faculty, staff and oh yuh students as will be later defined. Not students first but faculty. In fact, recruiting students is in third place here and as any middle child will tell you, birth order does matter.

Moreover, the further delineation of the student aspect of the first strategy is to recruit, enroll, support and recognize bright, motivated and adventurous students. That definition of what students Tech seek leaves out a huge swath of the potential market they might actually be attracting. They might have good students but if you are not bright, motivated and adventurous, are you not going to get support? Bright, motivated but timid? Forget any help?

(Why is it anyhow that every school wants better students than it has? I have yet to work with a college or university that did not want better students. I suppose some of it is the Groucho observation that “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member” but about students. More like “I don’t want to be at any college that would have you as a student since I really belong at a better school that would have students equal to my superior abilities but this is all I could get since I really am not as good as I think I am so I blame students for my lack of success since they are an easy target being low academic caste and all….

A college or university that really cares about students and teaching understands and employs Academic Customer Service Principle 7.)

7. The goal is not to recruit the very best students,

but to make the students you recruit their very best.

(Want a copy of the current 15 Principles of Good Academic Customer Service? Just click here and ask)

And how well has Tech done just that? Measure its success? How about some simple benchmarks like retention and graduation rates? Of all students. Even timid or under-motivated students. Even whatever the appropriate antonym of bright is? Dull? Not so smart students? Are they what Michigan Tech has not been seeking up to now? Could be. Let’s look at its last five years’ graduation rates. Michigan Tech has an interesting set of six year graduation rates by the way. In 2007, it self-reported a graduation rate of 63.50% whereas in 2002 it self-reported a six-year graduation rate of 91.60%. That’s a 28.1% decline in five years! I wonder how closely the decision to become a bigger player on the research university level correlates to that 28.1% DROP in graduation rate.

Teaching Counts… but not that much Why am I focusing on Michigan Tech? Well, because it points out the hypocrisy of mission statements that proclaim to focus on students and their success while not really doing that much at all. Michigan Tech also provides an unfortunately good example of how teaching and student success is very far from what it really does reward and recognize. When we look into the reward system at the University, it quickly becomes apparent that its sense of valuing has little, maybe nothing to do with the classroom.

A March 14, 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled Charging That His College Undervalues Teaching, a Professor Strikes Back exemplifies the pretense not just at Michigan Tech but at most every college and University in America. The article discusses Professor Madhukar Vable. (Well actually Associate Professor to be accurate which is important to the article since it is about a double teaching award winner not getting promoted to Fool Professor since he did not do enough research or oversee enough graduate assistants since he focused on teaching the bright, motivated, and adventurous students Michigan Tech selected to recruit, enroll, support, and recognize as t says in Michigan Techs mission principle and strategic goal 1 so why promote him just because he is helping the University attain a primary strategic goal? What a dumb question? Because he is focusing on teaching; not on what really matters to the University and most of higher education which is not what we are really about. Education that is. What we really focus on research. That retaining, teaching and all that stuff about students is just that high faluting mission stuff that is for show. For the taxpayers and families that are going to pay higher tuition to offset the recent increase in Pell that was supposed to help pay for tuition but we keep raising the tuition and fee bar while saying we really do care about students and the rising costs of education while we hire more adjuncts at wages so low that they can eat ramen and sleep in their cars so full time faculty can get release time to do research in universities. Well, the ramen and car stuff maybe a bit of a metaphor for indentured servitude which sounds better than calling them serfs who must have advanced degrees to make less than non-degreed people at Wal-Mart who might get some benefits while adjuncts don’t. We use the term adjuncts because it sounds better than at will, part-timers that teach most of the undergraduate sections in college nowadays while getting paid so poorly they will be among the major beneficiaries of the new health care bill. They are a metaphor for the lack of valuing of teaching and learning that penalized a double award for teaching excellence winner like Dr. Vable winner who supported the mission principle of the University which we all know is really just the wink, wink, nudge, nudge stuff we have to put out there to be able to claim we really do care about students and can we have more money please so we can promote research and not teaching?)

Dr. Vable sent back his two teaching excellence awards because he was not promoted to full professor. As the article states, he sent the plaques back to the University and the State with an explanation for his protest.

Too many colleges, Mr. Vable wrote, chase prestige and research grants at the expense of undergraduate instruction—and his own institution had penalized him because he had not done the same. "A dedicated teacher is becoming THE SUCKER in the system," he wrote. "I will continue to do my best in teaching and scholarship, but I am no longer willing to perpetuate the hypocrisy that excellent teaching ... is still valued at Tech."

… Mr. Vable's letters have not received official replies, and they might easily have slipped into obscurity as just another angry gesture by a disgruntled faculty member. (Not long before he returned his awards, Mr. Vable had lost a grievance hearing over his salary and rank. He won tenure in 1990 but has never been promoted to full professor, and his salary now lags significantly behind those of his colleagues who have won the university's research prizes.)…

At the heart of Mr. Vable's complaint are his department's tenure-and-promotion guidelines. Those guidelines were revised in 2000, shortly after he had received the university's Distinguished Teaching Award and a similar prize from a statewide association of governing boards.

Under the revised criteria, faculty members are given many more points for supervising graduate students than for teaching undergraduate courses. "I can teach an undergraduate course with 44 students and get only three points," Mr. Vable says. "But a faculty member who supervises a graduate student gets 19 points and can be released from course duty. So that totally skewed the algorithm."

Hmmm, revised promotion guidelines in 2000… Helps explain some of the 28.1% drop in graduation rates between 2002 and 2007? Perhaps.

Are You Better Than Michigan Tech?

Maybe not? Perhaps we all need to review our mission statements and what we actually practice. Students and their success are nice to talk about in our mission statements and principles but talk is as they say cheap. Talk did not help Prof. Vable and is certainly is not helping our students, our society and our future.

Mission statements should be important.

They should place educating students for success at the forefront of what higher education is about.

Please realize I am not asking for us to rewrite our mission statements, our stated principles, but to actually be guided by them.

If we do not, higher education will continue to lose the support of the American public, our graduation rates will continue to be abysmal and we will continue to disrupt, destroy and demean our students’ goals, finances, dreams and lives along with our collective future.

If this article makes sense to you
you will want to get my new book The Power of Retention
by clicking here

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