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Archive for the ‘Higher Education’ Category

There is an interesting proposal emanating out of Pittsburgh City Hall. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is proposing a one-percent surcharge of college tuition for students in his city. The plan hopes to net upwards of $16.2-million for city coffers and will cost students between $20 and $400, depending on their tuition costs.

The tension between town and gown is nothing new. However, this proposal is unprecedented. Students have never been asked to directly pay taxes towards the city their college resides in. Needless to say, many cities are watching to see how Pittsburgh’s proposal proceeds. Cash strapped cities across America (not to mention small college towns), will be eagerly following suit if successful.

Cities currently provide very little services towards their university/college student population. Indeed, many city services are denied to college students. Colleges themselves provide the bulk of services needed by students (garbage collection, health care, education, recreation, etc.). Instead, cities tend to be the net beneficiaries of students, by collecting revenue from the infusion of student dollars, visits/tourism and economic development from technology transfer (spin-offs from research innovations). Colleges don’t displace other industries, but add to them. So cities don’t lose industrial development opportunities.

However, colleges generally don’t pay property tax, which does mean they don’t directly support city revenue. This makes sense for public universities, but for private colleges, it’s harder to understand. Anyone who has visited New Haven, CT can’t help be note the stark contrast between the Yale campus and the city itself. One drips with money, while the other displays abject poverty.

Surely town and gown partnerships are needed. But Ravenstahl has pulled out the nuclear option. What is interesting is that this is being attempted in Pittsburgh, who can credit much of its modern success to being an intellectual hub. Home to Carnegie Mellon University as well as the University of Pittsburgh, the city has thrived as a result of its spin-off start-ups and medical industry. In trying to save his city, the Mayor has decided to bite the hand that has supported its success after the steel industry collapsed.

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Ontario’s Ombudsman, André Marin, released a damning report today that was highly critical of Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario, and the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU). Let me begin with a brief summary, as presented in the Ombudsman’s Report:

  • Cambrian introduced a new program (a course of study resulting in a diploma) called the Health Information Management Program (HIMP);
  • “In the first years of the program, prospective students were told in promotional materials and through outreach activities about the exciting possibility of entering the ‘high demand’ field of professional health information management, where there was a national shortage and the potential to work in a variety of settings, including acute and chronic care hospitals.” (Marin, p. 1)
  • The program was not accredited by the Canadian Health Information Management Association (CHIMA), which controls entry into the profession through a national certification examination. (ibid.)
  • It was the expectation of prospective students, the College’s Board of Governors and MTCU that the college would seek accreditation.
  • “However, despite the fact that CHIMA encourages programs to apply for recognition six months before admitting students, Cambrian did not apply to CHIMA until it had been operating its program for 18 months, just as its first crop of students was preparing to graduate.” (ibid.)
  • When the college tried in 2007 and again in 2008 to be accredited, it failed.

In the end, Marin concludes that the college failed to provide the path to accreditation that students had thought they would enjoy.

Marin’s report is critical of the college for its apparent shortcomings. However, he also states, “When it comes to Ministry oversight of the College, the Ministry is not immune from censure.” (ibid. P. 3) Underlying Marin’s report is the view that the Ministry’s role should be to act as the consumer advocate for “education consumers.”

A major conclusion of Marin’s is for greater government oversight of program development and approval. He states, “Colleges are on the honour system when it comes to program development. While the Ministry sets broad policy directives, it has no effective mechanisms in place to ensure that colleges comply.” (ibid.)

There is a traditional plank of higher education theory that would be quoted at this point: the academics should control the academy and academic freedom should trump all. However, in the development of Ontario’s community college sector, traditional notions of higher education were removed from the deliberation. The colleges were established as children of the province with the purpose of training the Province’s workforce, not necessarily educating them. This is an important distinction that would normally render mute calls for greater academic freedom.

However, Ontario’s colleges are in a time of transition. They are being called upon to offer more than training. Some colleges offer degrees, they are entering into agreements with universities and are expected to support student transfer to university (even if universities are not always so obliging). Also, colleges are engaging in applied research. These advances serve to blur the line between colleges and universities. They also serve to blur the line between government control and autonomy – or at least should.

What stands out for me is Marin’s continual reference to students as consumers. Yes, students pay for their education. It is a fragment of the total actual costs, but a cost none the less. Yet, they are not engaged in the purchasing of credentials. They are engaged in an educational process that will lead to credentials. This may sound like a small difference, but it is fundamental, especially in the context of Marin’s recommendations.

I don’t believe government should have a role in determining the appropriate educational process for people. That is a role for the academy, ruled by academics, to govern. The problem with Cambrian was that it was left to government and the government-appointed Board of Governors to approve the Health Information Management Program. Instead, a panel of external academic peers should have been convened to advise and approve this new program.

Clearly, Cambrian failed in its obligations to its HIMP students. That they failed their students, as opposed to their consumers, should be of far greater concern to Mr. Marin. However, this failure is not evidence for greater government oversight, but greater academic oversight. Rather than placing colleges on the “honour code,” MTCU should ensure that colleges adhere to the academic code.

[See Cambrian College’s response to the Ombudsman’s Report here.]

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Little Boxes

I just came upon this song, which is decades old but has found a resurgence of popularity as the theme song for the Showcase series “Weeds.” However, it speaks to an important recurring issue in higher education. Are universities simply institutions that enforce social norms and package people into boxes, or a forum that encourages students to think critically about society and develop individuality?

This version is sung by Pete Seeger, but the song itself is by Malvina Reynolds. They lyrics are provided below. Like most songs sung by Seeger, feel free to sing along.

1. Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

2. And the people in the houses
All go to the university,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

3. And they all play on the golf-course,
And drink their Martini dry,
And they all have pretty children,
And the children go to school.
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
And they all get put in boxes
And they all come out the same.

4. And the boys go into business,
And marry, and raise a family,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

1. Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

2. And the people in the houses
All go to the university,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

3. And they all play on the golf-course,
And drink their Martini dry,
And they all have pretty children,
And the children go to school.
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
And they all get put in boxes
And they all come out the same.

4. And the boys go into business,
And marry, and raise a family,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

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When to say no

University of Saskatchewan Stamp

University of Saskatchewan Stamp

CBC News reports the following (original article):

The University of Saskatchewan has turned down a $500,000 offer to endow a scholarship because the donor wants the money to be spent only on non-aboriginal students.

According to the university, a 57-year-old graduate of the Saskatoon-based university offered the money, with the stipulation linked to race.

Heather Magotiaux, vice-president of advancement for the university, told CBC News that setting up such a scholarship would violate human rights legislation.

“We do make exceptions where those exceptions have been identified by the human rights legislation,” Magotiaux said about other scholarships that target minorities such as aboriginal students and students with disabilities. Outside of those categories, she said, “our core position is that scholarships should be made available to students regardless of race.”

Magotiaux said the university would take the money if the race-related clause was dropped

She said, however, that the potential donor was adamant.

“It became evident that that was a criterion that the donor insisted on, and therefore, we had to decline the gift,” Magotiaux said.

Universities routinely accept donations that seek to serve under-represented populations. Can the reverse be justified?

First, universities aren’t just institutions of learning, but corporate entities that have to adhere to legal obligations. Indeed, U of Sask. would face considerable difficulty if it tried to offer a scholarship that was denied to one specific racial/ethnic group.

However, were the University free of such obligations, could an institution that values academic freedom accept such a donation? No. Academic freedom comes with the responsibility to base your argument on legitimate research and based upon a methodology. It’s not the right to think and say any foolish thing you wish.

Support for under-represented groups is based upon a desire to expand participation in higher education amongst all citizens. Aboriginals have the lowest participation rate in higher education of any group in Canada. Therefore, to offer support to all but aboriginal students, would be to offer assistance to all but those who need it most. Academic freedom cannot abide this and an institution of higher education could not accept such an offer.

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c/o The New York Times (www.nytimes.com)

c/o The New York Times (www.nytimes.com)

In the April 26th edition of The New York Times, Professor Mark C. Taylor argued that “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.” Taylor, who is the chair of the religion department at Columbia University, argues that universities need an overhaul akin to that needed for the auto industry. His ideas are thought provoking, but a little misguided. I encourage you to read his op-ed first, but allow me to briefly summarize his suggestions for change:
1.    Overhaul education to eliminate a focus on disciplines;
2.    Abolish departments and replace with “problem-focused programs”;
3.    Increase collaboration between institutions;
4.    Transform traditional dissertations by offering “alternative” theses; and,
5.    Expand the range of professional graduate programs.

Taylor would seem to suggest that disciplines are what you study. I disagree. Disciplines are the way you study it. What you choose to study is the decision of the scholar. However, disciplines train you to undertake that study by providing you with a framework in which to work, a methodology, a scholarly tradition and a societal outlook. Taylor suggests that “problem-focused programs” are a better way to train students. I think there are certainly great benefits to interdisciplinary education. Problem-based investigations are a method to achieve that. However, you can’t ignore depth for the sake of breadth. Also, there is more to learn than problems in this world. How does one appreciate modern art if we only analyze it to identify the problems?

Departments in higher education are generally organized around disciplines. The problem with departments are not that they exist around disciplines, but that a scholar might see it as the “pen in which they must play.” I don’t think that’s the case by and large. In fact, a common refrain I hear is that too many faculty find it difficult to find colleagues with whom they can collaborate in their own departments. Fields have become so specialized, that many scholars need to look to other department and other institutions to find collaborators. Therefore, I think Taylor’s aim for inter-institutional and inter-departmental collaboration is occurring at a higher level then he realizes. However, the Department’s continue to reinforce the strengths of the disciplines and demonstrate how old methodologies can be applied in new ways.

I am more sympathetic to his suggestion that dissertations need to be adaptable to the needs of the student and the focus of their research. A lengthy document may not appropriate or necessary in every case. However, the point of the thesis is to demonstrate advanced original research in a field. Though the page count might drop, the rigour is still necessary. I also agree that higher education needs to be responsive to the need for advanced studies (beyond undergraduate programs) that better prepare students for leadership roles in different professional settings. A new array of professional programs are needed. However, it’s important that institutions retain their integrity and don’t simply become degree farms. A professional master’s program should include not only advanced seminars, but research opportunities and a significant portfolio or written assignment.

Taylor’s comments seem to be motivated out of a concern about the division of labour in higher education. Taylor rightly notes that, “without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations.” This dilemma is well described by Marc Bousquet in “How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation.” However, both Taylor and Bousquet suggest that the purpose of a Ph.D. is to become a professor and researcher. I don’t agree. There are personal and professional reasons beyond joining the academy that would lead one to complete a Ph.D. Universities would not be doing a service by denying Ph.D. studies simply because a faculty position did not await the graduates. No university guarantees undergraduates the job of their dreams upon graduation. Why would they do so for Ph.D.’s?

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The following is a response to a April 9, 2009 editorial in The Varsity, the student newspaper of the University of Toronto.

I wish to congratulate The Varsity on a strong and successful year. Your newspaper is a great asset to this University. Congratulations!

I also wish to respond to Ms. Levack’s editorial “Down but not out” (April 9, 2009). While Ms. Levack’s perspective is always appreciated and well stated, I found this editorial a tad nihilistic.

First the good news: you’re not the first “Generation Recession.” Those students who departed university in the early 1990s faced an economy in decline, as did those in the early 1980s, the mid-1970s… not to mention the U of T grads that experienced the Generation Depression in the 1930s. Each thought they were experiencing unprecedented circumstances from which the economy would never fully recover; it did, and most have survived the initial stress and strain to found successful and happy lives.

Second, you’re not fucked. Or rather, you’re only as fucked as you want to be. You can choose to be mired in the misery that abounds or you can pledge yourself to change. It’s up to you to decide if you want to be “Tara Reid on Quaaludes” or someone of inspiration, talent and dedication.

Third, program fees are not new to U of T or unusual amongst other universities. Full-time students in the Faculty of Arts & Science are the only students on the St. George campus who don’t pay one lump-sum tuition fee. Other universities – McGill, UWO, and St. FX, among others – have program-based tuition fees. No one can suggest that their students are less active than U of T students as a result. Nor are they free from financial pressures. Ms. Levack’s assertion that the flat fee proposal is “…a terrifying initiative on the way to a creepier, privatized regime, making us the Harvard of the North Korea,” is unfounded and unsupported by fact.

Now for the bad news: the university doesn’t care any more about your university experience than the average student does… and that ain’t much. The zombies that need to be awakened are not your own dreams and ambitions crushed by an insensitive or unconcerned institution. Rather, those in need of reanimation are students who seek nothing more from university than the piece of paper at the end. Students who treat university like a fast food outlet – picking up a few nuggets as they drive through to graduation – get what any fast food patron can anticipate: indigestion. Once students themselves place a higher priority on their experience, the institution will follow.

As Ms. Levack rightly observes, U of T students are smart and resilient. Your experience is based largely on your level of engagement. Students who wait for the administration to deliver the experience you seek will be disappointed. Instead, take action, become engaged, and like Ms. Levack, seek the lessons that exist outside of the classroom.

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University Hall at The Ohio State University

University Hall at The Ohio State University

A thoughtful blogger, Socrates Votes, asked a question not too long ago: what’s the purpose of a university. It’s a big question (as most of Socrates Votes’ questions tend to be), but an important one. Much has been written on this subject – perhaps the best of all being Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University. In it, Kerr adroitly chronicles the developing notions of higher education.

Cardinal Newman, speaking before a crowd of Dubliners contemplating the establishment of a new university (see Idea of University), articulated a vision in which students gathered with their masters to contemplate big questions and review classical texts. This vision was rooted in Plato’s Academy, forged by UK institutions like Oxford, and the modern version can be seen in the small liberal arts college.

Abraham Flexner argued for a university that was focused on the training of future scholars through graduate programs and the research productivity. Flexner’s notion was broadly adopted in Germany early in the 21st century (i.e. Humbolt University). Its foundation is in the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece and its modern representations are institutions like Johns Hopkins.

Kerr himself coined the term “multiversity” to describe the hybrid intuitions’ that are today best represented by state universities. The “multiversity” seeks to provide a meaningful education, significant research and adds to the demands by adding contributions to the public at large to its grand mission. This is a uniquely American concept that has since spread. In the US, the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act (1862) laid the foundations for the establishment of public universities. In the example of the University of Wisconsin, their motto became “Our campus the state.” Their role was not just to educate and research, but to increase the human capital of their region and develop the economy of their state. This tradition can be rooted in the Sophists of ancient Greece and is now the most dominant model for universities.

Kerr, who was the first Chancellor of UC Berkeley and later President of the University of California system, had a unique ability to offer pithy statements. (He once said the role of a university president was to provide “parking for faculty, football for alumni, and sex for students.”) To summarize these conflicting and competing traditions, he said, “A university anywhere can aim no higher than to be as British as possible for the sake of the undergraduates, as German as possible for the sake of the graduates and the research personnel, as American as possible for the sake of the public at large – and as confused as possible for the sake of the preservation of the whole uneasy balance.” (pg. 18)

So how does a university provide a balance these days? Well most institutions follow a pattern known as “40-40-20.” A faculty member’s time should be divided as follows: 40% of their time for teaching, 40% for research and 20% for public service. So if a university’s purpose is teaching, knowledge development (research) and broader service to the public, is 40-40-20 the right balance? This is perhaps the bigger question that looms over the multiversity. Those whose views are more closely associated with Newman argue that teaching needs to be a bigger priority. Those who support Flexner will argue that research needs more time. Sorely, there are few arguing in support of the needs of the public within the academy (thought spend anytime listening to discussion of higher education within state legislatures and you’ll hear this point loud and clear).

So, what would be your ideal division of labour (yes, I am Canadian and spell labour with a “u”)? Respond in the comments section.

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