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Excerpts from a National Symposium on the Future of higher Education

Westminster Matters

Excerpts from a National Symposium on the Future of Higher Education

A Message From President Michael Bassis
Winter 2004

When I assumed the presidency of Westminster College, I invited some of our country's most creative and thoughtful educators to campus to talk about the changing landscape of higher education in America.

Colleges and universities are now being challenged in ways we never anticipated. Enrollments have soared; government support has stagnated; and political and parental concern about the cost of attending college has escalated. In addition, students are graduating from high schools unprepared for college-level work; technology is revolutionizing the ways we teach and learn; and too many institutions have emphasized research to the neglect of teaching.

In this uneasy environment, we explored four issues: Values, Citizenship, and the Role of Liberal Learning; Student Learning In and Beyond the Classroom; Diversity as an Educational Resource; and The Changing Economics of Higher Education. Our panelists brought clarity--but not closure--to these issues. Given the complex challenges education faces, we can't expect a magic bullet to vanquish all enemies, or a single solution to eliminate all problems.

We used the insights generated by this conversation to help create an exciting plan for the future of this college. I hope that your reading of these brief excerpts from our symposium will stimulate you and encourage you to share your thoughts with me.

Michael S. Bassis
President, Westminster College


Robert AtwellRobert H. Atwell
President Emeritus, American Council on Education





Edgar BeckhamEdgar F. Beckham
Senior Fellow of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives





Cecilia FoxleyCecilia H. Foxley
Commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education and Chief Executive Officer to the State Board of Regents


Alan GuskinAlan E. Guskin
Co-Director and Senior Scholar, Project on the Future of Higher Education, Distinguished University Professor and President Emeritus, Antioch University

Evelyn Hu-DeHartEvelyn Hu-DeHart
Professor of History and Director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity in America, Brown University

George KuhGeorge D. Kuh
Chancellor's Professor of Higher Education, Indiana University

Jay MathewsJay Mathews
Washington Post education reporter and columnist

Rosalie OteroRosalie C. Otero
President of the National Collegiate Honors Council and Director of Honors Program, University of New Mexico

Carol Geary SchneiderCarol Geary Schneider
President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities



Mr. Bassis: Welcome to the Westminster College Symposium on the Future of Higher Education. We are about to embark on a planning process at Westminster designed to make the college an even more powerful place for learning. So it seems very fitting to talk seriously today about the future of higher education. Let me express my deep appreciation to our distinguished panel for agreeing to join us.

Now it's my pleasure to turn the podium over to one of the wisest and most influential people in American higher education, my friend, Robert Atwell.

Mr. Atwell: Thank you, Michael. We have a big topic. We have divided it into four themes: citizenship and liberal education, student learning, diversity, and the economics of higher education. Each panelist will respond to a key issue arising out of one of the themes. Let's get right into the topics.

Values, Citizenship, and the Role of Liberal Learning

Mr. Atwell: Rosalie Otero, it seems that student volunteerism is at an all-time high, while student participation in voting and discussion of public issues is at an all-time low. What's the problem?

Ms. Otero: Volunteerism, service learning, working with communities, are all important ways of educating people about the world we live in. When I talk to students about civic engagement, they tell me that they're not interested in voting. I think it has to do with a failure to make connections. Our students take courses and they engage in service learning or volunteerism, but they don't make the necessary connections among these activities. The key is to have an interdisciplinary curriculum that helps our students make the important connections.

Mr. Atwell: Carol Schneider, is this a curricular matter or does it go beyond that?

Ms. Schneider: Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that there's a lot of innovation in the curriculum and the co-curriculum that makes the connections Rosalie has just argued for. For example, more than 150 institutions are currently working to connect required science courses in general education to social questions like HIV, AIDS, and environmental waste, so that students can see the social outcomes of scientific judgments.

The bad news is that in much of the curriculum we tend to take democracy for granted. There isn't nearly enough discussion about us as a diverse democracy now trying to recognize people who have historically been marginalized, as a world power that now has the ability to take the whole Middle East into war. So there are things we're leaving out of the curriculum and the co-curriculum that are fundamental to our future as a world power democracy. But I think the trend is in the right direction.

Student Learning In and Beyond the Classroom

Mr. Atwell: George Kuh, on the question of student learning, have we seen a paradigm shift from teaching to learning?

Mr. Kuh: There is an emphasis on making certain that students actually leave college with more than a degree--that they leave with the skills, competencies, and attitudes required to participate in the civic life of an increasingly diverse global society. Institutions have to learn how to do that, to increase the amount of experience students get with people from different backgrounds, and to use that experience productively to contribute to the college, the community, the country, and the world.

The best predictor of future behavior is what we've done in the past. So it's about getting students to do the right things while they are in college.

Mr. Atwell: What's the role of technology in this effort to improve student learning outcomes? Is technology the thousand-pound gorilla that's going to change everything?

Mr. Kuh: It's not clear how important technology is to learning. There's some fascinating research that indicates that the wise use of technology can improve learning, but the jury is still out on that. But technology does represent a huge financial challenge. It requires a major reallocation of budgetary resources in a time of decreasing financial support.

Mr. Atwell: So it is a thousand-pound gorilla?

Mr. Kuh: The question is, will we get stronger by lifting the gorilla off our backs, or will the gorilla break our backs?

Mr. Atwell: Jay Mathews, are we overdoing testing? Does the emphasis on student learning outcomes versus teaching mean more reliance on testing? And what about the SAT and the ACT?

Mr. Mathews: I would argue that the testing we're now doing in K through 12 in public schools is worthy. On the other hand, we use the SAT and the ACT to sort college applicants, and that's not a very useful enterprise.

My daughter is a high school senior going through all the angst of applying to college, and my one constant message, which she totally ignores, is: "Soon you're going to get into a good college, and once you're in that college, you are in an entirely different atmosphere where the importance of testing recedes exponentially and where the experiences are what count."

My college experience was saved by the fact that I discovered the student newspaper. I married the managing editor and learned a craft that's provided bread on my table for the last 31 years. That's where college shines. College is not about grades--it's about what you're going to do with your life, what kind of person you're going to be. That's the great joy of college. That's why I think we should try to push everybody to go to college. It's something that will open up this democracy to places it's never been before.

Mr. Atwell: I understand that you are currently writing a book on the question of whether it's important to go to institutions that are high in the pecking order. How much does that matter?

Mr. Mathews: The book makes the point that success in life is determined by character traits like persistence, humor, and patience, that develop long before you take your first SAT. There are a lot of kids with those character traits in great small schools like Westminster that their grandmothers haven't heard of.

Diversity as an Educational Resource

Mr. Atwell: Evelyn, affirmative action seems to have slipped out of the language and been replaced by the term "diversity." Tell us what you think diversity is and why you think it's important.

Ms. Hu-DeHart: I was the first affirmative action admit at Stanford University--a young refugee, four years in this country, whose English was clearly deficient. But Stanford thought I had promise and allowed me in with a very low verbal SAT score. Today Stanford is full of kids like me--Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and many immigrants and refugees.

Affirmative action was created to address an American legacy of racial discrimination. Then it was expanded to include women and other groups that had been denied a shot at the American dream of higher education.

I don't think diversity was the intended outcome of affirmative action. But higher education likes to avoid controversy, so when the onslaught against affirmative action began, we shifted the discussion to diversity.

My problem with diversity is that it's a very fuzzy concept. It means different things to different people. Affirmative action is a more specific concept. It's a policy issue with a specific practice attached to it.

As long as I have been in this country, now 40 years, we have practiced a kind of diversity that I call the three "F" approach: "food," "fad," and "fiesta." My critique of diversity is that it's a celebratory approach that we have always done very well in America.

Mr. Atwell: Ed Beckham, why is diversity important to a liberal arts education?

Mr. Beckham: Diversity is an educational asset, a way of educating people to know more about themselves and others. Instead of asking, "What is diversity?" the question ought to be, "What does diversity mean to you?" If we asked everyone in this room to answer that question, we wouldn't end up with a dictionary definition of diversity--we would end up with a wealth of expressions anchored in the life experiences of this richly diverse group. And that would produce educational capital of enormous value.

The Changing Economics of Higher Education

Mr. Atwell: Alan Guskin, you've been the president of both a public and a private institution. What is the outlook for the financing of higher education?

Mr. Guskin: It's terrible. We created a financial model for colleges and universities that sustained the educational model for a long time. But as expenses rise and revenues fall, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the financial model no longer works. I think that if we continue to operate the way we currently do, it will undermine the quality of faculty work-life. The educational delivery system we have is frozen. And the only way we can get more productivity from the faculty, who represent 50 percent of our expenses, is by increasing the workload of current faculty or hiring less expensive faculty to teach a larger course load. That's what many institutions are doing. We are locked into an educational model that the institutions can no longer support financially and that is the danger I worry about most.

Mr. Atwell: Cecilia Foxley, is the outlook for public funding of higher education pretty dismal for as far ahead as we can see?

Ms. Foxley: For the last ten years our country has taken higher education for granted. We have prided ourselves on being a country with the very best higher education system in the world. And yet even before this latest economic downturn we have seen states' revenues and higher education's share of those revenues on a decline, and tuition costs on an incline.

Mr. Atwell: Why is higher education's share declining?

Ms. Foxley: Because of the competing needs of a growing population -- transportation, corrections, human services, Medicaid. And at the same time the value of higher education and the need for it are greater than ever before. It costs money to pay attention to the value of diversity, to bring those who have not been in the mainstream into higher education, to provide experiences outside the classroom and to deal with the thousand-pound gorilla we call technology. Technology is the future. No matter where our students end up working, they had better know something about technology. And technology nay be one way, not necessarily less costly, to enhance learning. Not alone, not without the human touch. We need both high-tech and high-human touch in education. But all these things require resources.

Mr. Atwell: But you both seem to be saying that the resources are not there unless we do some restructuring inside. But what about private funding? That also seems to be problematic at the moment with the stock market decline and the economy falling off.

Mr. Guskin: We always assume that the president can solve the problem by raising enough money to offset higher expenses. But except for maybe 100 colleges in this country, that won't work. You can't raise enough money, and you can't continue to increase tuition enough either. And endowments won't be able to fill the gap.

Mr. Atwell: This is an unhappy note on which to end this session.

Mr. Bassis: I'm not unhappy. This has been a wonderful experience for me. The conversation was thoughtful, stimulating, and probing. I think it proved we can confront complex and serious issues, that we can address important questions, that we can learn a great deal, and that we can do it with respect for diverse views. I believe we have all benefited from listening to this conversation and I very much appreciate the contributions our panelists have made.