We live in a splintered society, one in which the arguments of ideology often undercut the possibilities of rational decision-making, leaving us paralyzed by anxiety and mistrust. In the midst of the storm of political debate leading up to the election are ongoing arguments about the purpose and effectiveness of higher education.
Critics say that higher education, too, has lost its center, that it lacks a unifying purpose and has splintered into a myriad of incoherent fragments, none of which lead students to thinking about, much less conceptualizing, the larger questions of life. If truth be told, some of that criticism applies.
That dangerous fragmentation comes from faculty who are territorial about their disciplines, academic leaders who fail to embrace the larger picture in defense of their own particular unit, and students and families who seek only a fast-track jobs. And in North Dakota, it has come from a system that, over time, operates less as an integrated system and more as a series of related but not necessarily integrated pieces.
Just as we look to politicians to act with the courage of real leadership, so we must insist that our academic leaders take the long view and act with courage and insight and then look to our legislators and the public to support their vision. North Dakota University System operates in the public trust. To fulfill that trust, we must have a clear idea of what we intend to accomplish. Without a coherent purpose, we fall victim to trivial pursuits.
This need — determined by the very real need to serve the future of this state by preparing our young people for an ever-changing, ever-challenging future — is the driving force behind the Pathways to Student Success plan.
The truth is, our colleges and universities in North Dakota are accomplishing far less than they could and should be. We have been too focused on filling classroom seats and residence halls rather than addressing issues of quality. Numbers do matter, but not at the expense of quality. Similarly, if our students are burdened by an incoherent or irrelevant curriculum and a poorly paid and indifferent faculty, the results will show up quickly.
The Pathways for Student Success plan also provides for a better return on taxpayer investment while, at the same time, gives greater transparency to and helps hold down the cost of tuition for students. We need clarity in our expectations and we need to develop clear processes that will support our vision for what the best system of higher education in North Dakota can be.
When I consider the challenges of higher education and the purposes for which we in academe bring together our collective strengths, it seems clear that we are tasked to (a) develop the ability in students to communicate to a variety of audiences and in a variety of modes; (b) enhance their ability to think critically and clearly; (c) help them to find a clear set of ethical principles on which to conduct their private and public lives; (d) prepare them for responsible citizenship; (e) provide the tools to learn how to live and work morally and responsibly in our global community; (f) find comfort and curiosity in a breadth of interests; and (g) prepare them for a world of work whose skill sets are continually changing.
Our energies over the next decade must focus on those goals and activities that center on student learning. This means raising the ACT scores of students, making their senior year in high school more focused on college preparedness, connecting student readiness to institutional capacity, increasing the productivity of our faculty, and participating in ongoing self-evaluation.
This challenge applies to faculty as well as students. While we have many distinguished and committed faculty, we need to recruit and retain more. Where feasible, we need to encourage hiring adjunct faculty with terminal degrees in their disciplines, while recognizing and retaining many of our highly experienced instructional staff who are expert teachers.
How can we set our collective sights on attracting the ablest students from around the country and from around the world to enrich our state with highly skilled and highly motivated professionals? How do we keep North Dakota’s best and brightest from seeking education in another state? The Pathways to Student Success proposal lays out a plan that will address our low graduation rates, standardize tuition, and assess how well our secondary schools are preparing students for higher education. With a focus on accountability and transparency, this proposal creates a clear system that will best serve students — demanding that they be prepared and then giving them an effective education to meet their needs. By doing so, we will attract the better students-and faculty-and see greater success across the board.
There is no greater risk to a university than complacency. Our students, their families, and the citizens of North Dakota expect much more from us. We need to examine our programs, question our pedagogies, identify promising innovations, develop better measures for assessing our progress, and include in all our learning objectives the critical elements of oral and written communication, moral and quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking.
As we watch the current election unfold, we need to ask ourselves how higher education can become a more energizing force in the life of our citizens. We need to ask; How do we foster leadership — in politics, in business, and in every walk of life, including, of course, in higher education itself? And we need to look at how many of our disciplines provide courses on leadership and moral responsibility. All too often, we assume that these components are imbedded in every college program but the world tells us a more cautionary tale — of leaders, including those in higher education, whose ambitions are neglectful of moral issues. We need to teach the benefits of civil discourse and to model for our students the value of an engaged and participatory citizenry. And we need to hold everyone in our own university system to the highest standards of integrity, without exception.
These are big demands. Our university system needs transparency, accountability and a coherent center. Pathways to Student Success offers a clear vision for the road ahead. I ask for your support.