Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Is Utah's Undergraduate Education Stagnant Or Improving In Meeting Educational Objectives?

I just finished reading an interesting assessment of American higher education. It was written by Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a spate of books came out critical of various aspects of higher education in America led by Allan Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987). Others were critical of liberals and intellectuals dominating and misdirecting the educational pursuit for personal and political ends. Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education had the subtitle of The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991). Bok’s book is also critical of the education establishment but for much different reasons.  

Bok looked at the traditional or historical and a few contemporary purposes of undergraduate liberal education and asked how the academy is doing in its efforts to meet these objectives. Those purposes were outlined in chapter 3 and subsequent chapters dealt with each one in detail. They included “learning to communicate,” learning to think critically, “building character,” “preparation for citizenship,” “living with diversity,” “preparing for a global society,” “acquiring broader interests,” and “preparing for a career.”

Bok argues that in virtually every case the colleges and universities of our land are not doing well in any of these categories. In some cases, such as character, the purpose was abandoned for a long time, but is now making a slow comeback. In relation to the others there is often apathy on the part of administration and faculty, or there is contention over the meaning, purpose, relevance, importance, as well as implementation of the these objectives. The result has been little movement and almost no internal assessment by the institutions themselves to see how well they are doing in meeting these societal expectations of undergraduate education. And when programs are in place there is almost no evaluation of the effectiveness of the teaching taking place. Administrators and faculty alike are abominably ignorant of the large number of studies that not only challenge the effectiveness of the traditional lecture method, but have also found a number of student-participatory and involvement strategies that are very effective.  So reform is slow if not non-existent.

Bok has two constant refrains, both having to do with research that has taken place the last 6 decades or more which has produced literally thousands of studies about the (in)effectiveness of universities, colleges, and departments showing that effective teaching can indeed influence each one. The maddening thing for the reader is that universities who are expert in evaluating almost every other institution in our society and recommending procedures for their improvement, are the very institutions which show the least interest in using or applying the findings to improve their own teaching and programs designed to meet the objectives of undergraduate education!  All of this, of course, raises serious doubts about the quality of undergraduate education America's young are receiving.

The mixture of apathy and pride lead to this failure to confront the issues or do much about them. Yet Bok believes in the genuine good intent of most American educators and that the problems can be fixed, despite the autonomy of most university faculties and departments. His recommendations, it seems to me, are sensible and practical. He suggests that state governments, accrediting agencies, and local school boards can have a significant impact on change and improvement, without being heavy handed.  Here are some of his arguments:
"A better role for government officials (and accrediting agencies) would be to examine what colleges are doing to assess their own performance and how they make use of what they find to attempt improvements. For example, does the institution participate in NSSE, and, if so, how vigorously does it act on the results? What steps does it take to examine its own teaching programs, identify significant weaknesses, and experiment with new methods? What efforts does it make to identify promising innovations in other institutions? Are there serious programs to train new teachers? Does the college make effective use of teaching evaluations and, if so, how well are they constructed? How much account is taken of teaching in making faculty appointments and promotions? Are funds regularly made available to faculty for trying and assessing new methods of instruction? 
...  If state agencies and accreditors began to concentrate on each institution’s processes for self-scrutiny and reform, college officials and their faculties would have to pay more attention to developing the procedures most likely to bring about educational progress. ... 
Government agencies and foundations could give further impetus for change by funding exemplary efforts by colleges to install a systematic process for evaluating educational programs, identifying problems, and experimenting with potential improvements.   ... Instead of financing specific innovations, public agencies and foundations would contribute to the creation of a continuing process to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning. 
Another useful step that foundations and funding agencies could take would be to support promising efforts to develop better ways of measuring and analyzing the progress colleges are making toward important learning objectives, such as improved critical thinking, moral and quantitative reasoning, writing, oral communication, and intercultural competence.   
Finally boards of trustees could give an added boost to reform by making a point of inquiring regularly into efforts by their colleges to become more of a learning organization."(1)
In this regard it would be interesting to survey Utah’s university and college presidents and boards, as well as those in our government charged with oversight of those institutions, to see how well our schools do with self-evaluation of both their success in meeting the objectives of undergraduate education and of the effectiveness of teaching in reaching these goals. I would like to know if Utah undergraduate institutions are guilty of the same problems which beset most of American universities, or if we are doing anything positive to bring about assessment, innovation, reform, and improvement?

Let’s think together again, soon.


1. Derek Bok,  Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 331-333.


  1. Sometimes I feel that part of the necessary evaluation you noted needs to involve a University redefining or simply reminding itself who their customer is. Is the customer prospective students, the workforce, or the Board of Directors--satisfying the metrics they set? Just as any business enterprise must understand their niche of customers, a University could benefit from similar alignment practices.

    1. Travis, one of Bok's points, also mentioned by many others, including myself, is that modern universities have been so persuaded by their clients (students and parents) to turn higher education into vocational training--that is to prepare young people to get a "good job" that they have largely abandoned or ignored traditional societal needs of preparing students to think, to be good citizens, to communicate, etc., etc., etc. This is, of course, referring to state run schools that should serve some important societal objectives. I read recently one person who said we are not educating an individual, we are educating a society. The pendulum probably swung too far on that one, but it does make the same point, which I believe is worth considering.