Maintain Academic Excellence?

A new president of a public university has these four goals*:

  1. Increase student enrollment
  2. Maintain academic excellence
  3. Expand community engagement
  4. Develop additional sources of funding

Notice anything odd among the four goals?

It should be Goal 2, “Maintain academic excellence.” Goals 1, 3, and 4 imply some sort of improvement over time, but not Goal 2. Goal 2 is static; it exists under the assumption that academic work is excellent and that nothing needs to be done to improve academic excellence. How can that be?

Well, it cannot be, as anything can be improved. Academic work is no exception, given its myriad facets and challenges.

I have tested the assumption that academic work is excellent, particularly in the realm of teaching. Teaching is far from excellent in any academic institution. How do we know this to be true? When you ask a graduate how many good teachers they had, they cite just three or four out of the 40 professors they experienced during their undergraduate program. I call that the 10 percent problem.

In my book Lean Teaching: A Guide to Becoming a Better Teacher, I cited data that showed:

  • There are 45 common teaching errors (Chapter 2, Appendix III)
  • The various forms of waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness that exist in teaching (Chapter 3)
  • Numerous teaching process improvement (Chapters 3 and 5)
  • The results of improved teaching methods (Chapters 4 and 6)

Goal 2 must be written as: “Improve academic excellence.”

To believe that academic excellence need only be maintained is to believe in the myth that anything can be improved EXCEPT academic work (teaching) and, concomitantly, to misunderstand the value of higher education. Adhering to myths and misunderstandings do not make the future bright for higher education.

Nothing is exempt from improvement, and greater thought and creativity is needed than what is typically offered.

*What is the purpose of these four goals? Goal 1, Increase student enrollment, and Goal 4, Develop additional sources of funding, is to generate more revenue in response to the steep decline in public funding over the last several years. Goal 3, Expand community engagement, is to demonstrate the value or worth of the university to the local community and state political leaders. Goal 2, Maintain academic excellence, exists to achieve one or more of the following: to confirm biases, to make faculty feel good, to fend off criticism from outsiders, to signal the administrator’s intent to avoid interacting with the faculty on academic matters, etc. In total, the purpose of the goals seem to be more about preserving one’s self than to serve others.

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