Monday, November 25, 2013

On the Road

I am getting ready to leave to be part of a reaccreditation team at an out of state University. The University and the school involved are first rate and I am also pleased to be part of a strong reaccreditation team. I agree, approximately every other year, to be part of a reaccreditation team and I think this is an important responsibility for deans and provosts. I know it is always difficult to leave your office for an extended period to focus on the strengths and challenges of another institution but I also believe we are all stronger as a result of this self monitoring process.

I have been involved with accreditation for decades, first on the receiving end as dean and provost and also on the “giving” end once again as dean and provost. My initial experience was helping get ready for both Middle States and AACSB visits many decades ago and subsequently, I also gained experience as part of multiple visiting teams. There has never been a visit that I have been on or a visit that I have prepared for that hasn’t resulted in my being better informed and better able to function as dean or provost. In addition, self monitoring through a regional accreditation organization or a specialized discipline based organization is so much better, more helpful, and more accurate in my opinion than having government involved more than it already is in these areas. Just seeing how government has recently dealt with K-12 testing in New York or teacher and administrator evaluations has reinforced my strong feelings in this area. Only when over testing has reached crisis proportions does government finally realize that perhaps they have gone too far. And now, how do we reverse the negative effect on the students involved? I have to believe that if superintendents, principals and teachers were leading this effort the results would have been different, and I think the same situation applies in higher education.

Very often, accreditation teams seem to be populated by individuals who have been involved in many previous accreditations and previous visits. I recognize that I resemble that remark and I also recognize the value of experienced accreditors. But I also understand the value of new blood. I don’t have the data to know whether there are many new deans and provosts involved in accreditation activities. But I think this involvement is extremely important and should be encouraged. When the next opportunity arises to be involved in this effort, please say yes and encourage your colleagues to do likewise. It really does make the positive difference we are all looking for.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Both of my daughters are good athletes and both have been active at the school and the community level. I encourage them to pursue both athletics and the arts, in addition to their core academic studies, as part of a well rounded education that will serve them well in the years ahead. My involvement, growing up, with athletics was, however, more limited. I played softball and was for a number of years, part of a bowling league. I was a better bowler than softball pitcher but there was no chance in either case that my number or shirt would be retired.

I also considered learning how to be an umpire or a referee but ultimately didn’t pursue it. I did realize at an early age the key role played by individuals who serve in these important capacities. A few weeks ago my younger daughter came home, after one of her community games, and talked at length about the referees for game she had just played. She indicated that the kids on her team, as well as the coach, were upset at how biased the referees were in officiating at the game. Rules violations made by the other team were ignored while every violation and even some non-violations were singled out for her team. I have also witnessed, at other games, what I have thought to be some bias in officiating (not at the college level) but also realize that my knowledge of the rules and at times my less than total focus on the game may cloud my objectivity. I also understand that the more informal the league and the younger the kids playing (often with referees that are just a few years older) the more likelihood that there will be errors.

Errors happen but if there is biased officiating, it needs to be reported and corrected. We all know that cheating is a major problem that permeates many schools and levels of education. We all do everything we can to limit academic dishonesty so that the work we judge is the student’s work and not the result of someone else’s efforts. Biased officiating tells kids that results may not be based on effort or skill but rather on manipulation and distortion. Biased officiating is clearly cheating with the rules of the game differently and selectively applied. Neutrality and even-handedness need to be the baseline for referees and umpires.

I am a strong advocate for not looking the other way when there is academic dishonesty in any form. The message and the response need to make it clear that cheating is not acceptable and the penalty must reflect the seriousness of the academic dishonesty. Refereeing needs to be kept at the highest standards possible even if that requires more training. There is an important life lesson in losing a game if you have been outplayed by your opponent. But losing because the playing field wasn’t level is a life lesson that causes our kids to question the fairness of the system and also gets them to question whether their effort is worth it when the result is based on other factors. I know this is also an important life lesson, but for me, especially when it comes to our kids, I would like us all to demonstrate that such problems and failures of the system are relatively few and far between.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Personal and Impersonal

The lead story in the Money and Investing section of the Wall Street Journal had an ominous headline that immediately caught my attention. It didn’t rise to the level of war and peace issues or life and death issues but for me it mattered tremendously. The headline stated “Chocolate Prices Soar in Dark Turn” and the article focused on two key factors responsible for the substantial increase in chocolate/cocoa prices. The first reason for the price increase is weather related and caused by dry weather reducing the harvest. The second is changing taste with more consumers developing a taste for dark chocolate in place of milk chocolate. So, in summary the price increase is related to both supply and demand factors; over time the supply issues will likely improve while the increased demand could continue (my prediction) or moderate.

Under full disclosure, I have been a long time chocolate fan and my preference has always been for dark chocolate, typically chocolate that contains 70% or slightly more cocoa solids. Milk chocolate does remind me of my childhood. The taste is milder and creamier and if there are nuts or crisps included, those flavors are more prominent. But I prefer good taste now to reminiscing; I do buy milk chocolate now and then but never get the satisfaction that a good piece of dark chocolate provides.

Consumer price index/cost of living increases are often difficult concepts for college students (and others) to relate to. If what triggered the increase has no direct tie to them or their families, the concept seems separate from their reality and not particularly meaningful. My response in class has been to assign students to develop their own consumer price index. Students put together their own market basket based on their own regular expenditures and track cost increases for that market basket. They also note whether increases in costs trigger substitutions of one product for another. For example, the increase in chocolate prices could trigger substituting milk chocolate for dark chocolate since the price increases are more moderate for milk chocolate, or could trigger substituting vanilla or butterscotch for chocolate. For some, the level of satisfaction wouldn’t change with this substitution; for others, like me, the thought of these substitutions is depressing.

An individual’s consumer price index is an effective educational tool for increasing comprehension of a price index. The next challenge is to demonstrate that increases in the national or regional CPI which don’t directly impact you are still extremely important. Often, if it doesn’t touch you directly, it doesn’t seem to matter. However, increases in health care costs now may not have an immediate or short term impact your cost of living. You employer may cover these increases or your health care plan may have short term fixed monthly payments. Increases in gas prices, may not short term affect a mass transit rider. Even if these increases aren’t personal for you, it pays to be fully informed and plan for the future impact.

It is likely that I will adjust to the changing chocolate prices by increasing my expenditures for chocolate. It is also clear to me that we should be increasing economic literacy at all levels.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Our new students have been on campus for about 6 weeks but we are already entering prime season in recruiting new students.  I already have had the pleasure of talking to the first fall open house group of the season and potential students and their families were very clearly focused on the decision they likely would be making in the next 6 months.  In thinking about my talk to these students and their loved ones, I focused on what I have heard from parents and new/potential students last year as well as what I have heard from talking with students and parents in the school district where I live. 

There seems to be, up to the last few weeks when the ill conceived effort to defund Obamacare threatened to undermine the slowly progressing economic recovery, a greater sense of optimism permeating our country.  Hopefully, that sense of optimism will reappear in the weeks ahead.  Optimism works to shift some attention from the sticker price of higher education to the value inherent in the education.  In a weak economy, price often trumps all; when the economy improves, class size, personal attention, and support services all take on greater prominence.  Scholarships, however, remain an important part of the currency of higher education; parents clearly feel they have been more successful, along with the son or daughter, when a scholarship is part of the attraction.

Even with the economy improving, students and their families seem to be maintaining their focus on the job or graduate school opportunity at the end of the baccalaureate degree studies.  Thankfully our increased attention to outcomes assessment provides us with reliable information on what recent graduates are doing and that information is very reassuring.  Students and their parents also seem to be maintaining their interest in and enthusiasm for an internship along the way. I strongly agree that an internship can provide that important bridge between school and a career and provide the student with added sophistication that increases the chances for success.  Dual degree programs also seem to be more and more attractive to potential students.  The opportunity to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in an overall shorter period of time enhances the value proposition.  Think about it, even five years ago and certainly a decade ago, there was much less concern about the job at the end of the degree, much less emphasis on internships, and much less emphasis on dual degrees.  I believe the new priorities have strengthened higher education but there certainly has been a price to be paid.

The price has been the declining appreciation for the importance of a well rounded liberal arts education as the foundation for higher education.  A dual major, a minor along with a major, more time for internships, a chance at a dual degree, all are often made possible by a reduction on the number of foundational liberal arts courses that are the critical source of the common body of knowledge that higher education should provide.  The appreciation for the liberal arts is often overshadowed now by the desire to have more professional experiences, certifications and credentials.  Graduates are often expected to be more specialists and less generalists, more sophisticated in the imediate needs of the chosen profession but less able to understand world issues and challenges.

We all work hard to provide incoming students and their families with the quality education they want in their chosen field.  We change with the changing times and here there is no choice.  But along with the changes, there also has to be an ongoing commitment to the liberal arts.  Higher education should never be confused with a trade school education.