Education

Authors discuss book on “becoming great universities”

A new book, Becoming Great Universities: Small Steps for Sustained Excellence (Princeton University Press), outlines 10 “core challenges” facing every college and university. The authors insist that the problems and their solutions are not premised on a college having a ton of money to spend. The authors are Richard J. Light, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, and Allison Jegla, a higher education strategist from Michigan. They responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: How did the two of you come together to write this book? You seem quite an unlikely pair.

A: It’s true—from first glance, we couldn’t be more different. Dick, a grandfather and longtime Harvard professor, grew up in hardscrabble Bronx, N.Y., and attended three unchallenging urban public schools. Allison, a recent graduate student, went to a small high school in rural mid-Michigan. When we arrived at the University of Pennsylvania for college, albeit separated by roughly 50 years, we each struggled. Both of us ultimately figured it out, thanks in part to Penn’s strong commitment to its students’ success. That bit of shared history, even though our experiences were so many years apart, gave the two of us plenty to talk about when we were fortuitously paired as academic adviser/graduate student advisee at Harvard. In our many conversations, particularly about the powerful impact that a great university can have on many aspects of students’ lives, we realized that we had a unique perspective to share. This book really was inspired by our shared love for and optimism about higher education.

Q: Dozens of books are written every year about higher education. What makes yours different?

A: There are several key things that we can highlight. First, our book is intentionally conversational and focuses more on real-world examples than complex theoretical frameworks. We offer many actionable examples that we hope leave readers feeling energized to implement the ideas we highlight, or to consider acting upon their own.

Second, Dick has visited more than 250 college campuses globally during his career. He speaks with students and advises administrators at each, delving deep into both their specific challenges and triumphs. This has led to his ongoing work to synthesize strengths, pain points and opportunities for improvement across institution type, size, student body composition, wealth and geography—all of which has been infused into the book.

We also take a focused approach when discussing the importance of building a culture that encourages sustained campus improvement. One of our early arguments is that there are hundreds of good, even very good, universities across America and the world. Yet a far smaller number are truly exceptional in some way. Nearly every one of those that are exceptional focuses on building a culture of innovation and improvement into campus life. Our friendly challenge to readers is that everyone on campus, from a first-year student to faculty to staff and many among the university leadership, has a key role to play for enhancing the undergraduate experience. We give many concrete, achievable, evidence-backed suggestions for getting started. The words “evidence-based” are a driving theme for this book.

Finally, we are proud that our book has a strong undercurrent of positivity and optimism. We believe that there is much to be excited about in the world of higher education. We hope that our book feels like a breath of fresh air in what is today an often-criticized field.

Q: Does your book focus entirely on the academic, “inside the classroom” side of a student’s experience at a college or university, or does it also explore the nonacademic piece?

A: This is a great question, because the challenge of how to enrich students’ time out of the classroom probably constitutes more than half of our book. In Jim Collins’s management work Good to Great, he and his research team examine a number of American corporations to understand why some are considered to be exceptional. Meanwhile, others never made it past a stage that could be characterized as merely pretty good. We ask what that same concept—assessing the qualities that lead to earned distinction—would look like when applied to the student experience at America’s many colleges and universities.

After exploring our own experiences, including Light’s research findings about the topic of higher education excellence, and Jegla’s work for 10 years helping young women from the Midwest to widen the scope of their college search, we offer one answer that we hope many campuses will consider. It is the transcendent importance of the idea of cultivating personal relationships. Those relationships might be focused among students’ engagement, friendships and collaboration with one another. Or they might focus on engagement between faculty and students. In yet other cases, it might be a team of research colleagues working with a group of student advisees. Whatever the details, a key point in our book is that each student should feel that someone on their campus knows them, knows a little bit about them and cares that they are there.

Q: It is no secret that Harvard is, by any reasonable standard, incredibly well resourced. Professor Light, you are a longtime senior professor there. Ms. Jegla, you recently earned your graduate degree there. Most other universities don’t have anywhere near Harvard’s profile. Do your suggestions in this book require substantial financial support? What do you say to the leaders of universities who might think, “Our institution is nothing like Harvard. We don’t have its resources, so we are limited in what changes we can make”?

A: Your specific question was on both of our minds as we designed and wrote our book. We offer over all more than 100 concrete examples of steps any campus can take to enhance their students’ experience and overall learning. Each example is actionable. Not a single one of those more than 100 costs a significant amount of money. Actually, the vast majority cost exactly zero. A few do require some minimal level of faculty or staff time and effort, such as a staff or faculty member running a 90-minute workshop for students. Several others have truly small expenses (for example, photocopy expenses for creating handouts to distribute to students, or posters for publicity for workshops). We are proud that not a single idea we offer is expensive.

Q: Can you choose one of your main themes that you don’t think other higher education books have written up, that you feel makes your book unique, to share with us? Perhaps “investing vs. harvesting”?

A: One of our themes poses a challenge even to strong universities, because we don’t believe most campuses have quite figured out how to implement an important idea for students. Our book explores in some depth the effects of students’ decisions about what activities to engage with while at college. What trade-offs should they be making? How can universities help to guide some wise choices that students can make?

For many undergraduates, college presents an exciting opportunity to independently manage their own time. Each student must make sometimes difficult decisions about how to spend their precious hours both in and out of the classroom. We therefore introduce both the concepts and trade-offs of investing vs. harvesting. We suggest ways that advisers can help students navigate the decision-making process to make productive trade-offs.

Our definition of investing is when students try something completely new. They make a new effort. They invest their time. Meanwhile, they are taking the risk that a new talent or interest may or may not emerge. Coming to a university now is their opportunity to try something they may always have wanted to try yet never had the chance before. Or maybe they might even try something so new they had never even heard of it until they arrived at their college or university. The big point is that our concept of investing means, “If you try something new, you don’t know yet how good you will be at it, so you are taking a risk. Just like financial investing. It is hard to bank on a particular outcome in advance.”

Our definition of harvesting is almost exactly the opposite. Harvesting is when undergraduate students continue to pursue at college something that they already know they excel at: something they already have worked at and know they enjoy. Thus, they are harvesting the fruits of a seed that has already been planted. They are reaping the rewards of a skill they have developed over time, often with sustained hard work, and they know they will enjoy it. These efforts can be the payoff of years of hard work. For example, a talented and experienced cross-country runner in her high school may well choose to continue the sport at college and improve her speed under the tutelage of a college-level coach. In this way, she would be building upon her existing strengths.

On campus after campus, we have some concrete data. It shows that graduating seniors report these choices can matter a lot—that juggling a healthy balance between investing and harvesting is, for many, a key to both a successful and a happy experience. Campus advisers can help students who might not find it easy to make important decisions about how to achieve a constructive balance of investing and harvesting, with the goal of helping each student get the most out of their college-going experience. Our book offers several brief, real-life vignettes of what success in harvesting and investing can look like. We offer a series of actionable recommendations for colleges that may want to revise their extracurricular policies and to develop new, low-cost advising strategies. In each case the goal is for each student to achieve a healthy balance between investing and harvesting. We understand very well this goal may seem a bit obvious to some readers. Yet most campuses that we know find it hard to implement good advising systems, specifically to help students make wise choices about trade-offs for investing vs. harvesting during their precious time at any university.

Q: Could you share a concrete example of such an idea that costs very little and could be implemented across campus types, regardless of resources?

A: Sure. One of our favorites has to do with the role that undergraduates can play in enhancing the experience of many of their fellow students. A few years ago, a group of students were lamenting the fact that on their campus, with many hundreds of superb professors, they were only able to hear from and learn from roughly 32 during their four years—their own professors. These students decided to do something about that. They initiated a meeting with a dean and proposed creating a public event on campus called 10 Big ideas, 10 Professors, 10 Minutes Each. The dean welcomed their idea and especially welcomed their offer to do some work to contribute. She quickly set aside an evening to use the college’s largest auditorium.

Students chose and invited 10 professors to each present their one most exciting new idea in less than 10 minutes. Each faculty member whom the students invited enthusiastically agreed to volunteer their time. No one knew in advance how many students would even show up, since no one would be getting any academic credit. The event was a resounding success, with lines that snaked around the building and thunderous applause after each presentation. Students ended up hearing about fields they may never have explored or even known existed. Most also gained a far deeper appreciation for the vibrancy and diversity of thought at their campus.

How much did this initiative cost? Zero. This seems important. No money changes hands in any direction. No college needs to be wealthy to do this. Hundreds of students benefit. The campus is enriched with new ideas and activities. New traditions are created. This is what can happen when students come up with an idea for their college and then actually do some work and implement it. Our book urges more students to begin to think along these lines. It is chock-full of examples across topic areas. We urge campus leaders to encourage students to come up with new and creative ideas. Both of us bet that many students will be surprised at how supportive most campus leaders will be to receive productive ideas from students about new campus programs that can enrich university life for everyone. Especially when those students are even volunteering to put in their own effort to make it happen.

University leadership may sometimes underestimate this point: how students can come up with good new ideas that simply had not occurred to deans or to others. This example illustrates our core theme—that engaging everyone on campus to contribute what they can to enriching the undergraduate experience helps to build a thriving and vibrant campus. This requires some planning and intentionality. If readers from a diverse group of universities find some of our actionable recommendations helpful and worth actually trying, we will consider our book a great success.

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