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University Presidents Say Elitism Can’t Be Part of Plans for Future

Georgia State University President Mark Becker says all students will graduate “if we do our job right.”Georgia State University President Mark Becker says all students will graduate “if we do our job right.”
WASHINGTON — In order to graduate larger portions of the nation’s increasingly diverse and economically challenged students, universities must shun the elitism of the past and adopt new practices that smoothen and enrich the college experience.

Those were some of the key points several university presidents made Tuesday at the New America Foundation during a daylong higher education forum titled “The Next Generation University.”

The presidents said it is paramount for institutional leaders to approach their jobs with the premise that the students admitted to their institutions will graduate.

“Start saying, ‘OK, we’ve got all these students. They won’t all look the same and have the same experience, but we expect them all to graduate,” said Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University, one of several institutions featured in a New America Foundation report, also titled “The Next Generation University.”

Among other things, the report recommends:

· A commitment from high-level organizational leadership “to expanding access, particularly for underserved populations, even in times of state budget cuts.”

· A record of “improving student support, persistence, retention and completion, for students overall and for sub-populations.”

· A record of “improving student support, persistence, retention and completion, for students overall and for sub-populations.”

“If we do our job right, they all will graduate,” Becker said.

Becker said that mind shift represents a departure from the norms in academe, where some faculty pride themselves on leading courses that fail students rather than finding strategies to help students succeed.

“The goal here is to keep students from going into academic bankruptcy,” Becker said. “You may have a professor who has been failing half the class year after year. That’s a failed professor.”

Seeking to end such practices, Becker said one thing his college did in anticipation of a recent spring break was to ask faculty members to identify students who were in danger of failing, then invite the students to meet with advisers during spring break to see what they could do to get back on track.

Other presidents who spoke on the panel shared a variety of strategies and changes, from philosophical to practical, that universities should employ in order to improve their graduation rates and help more students obtain their degrees.

Jane Close Conolely, Interim Chancellor at the University of California in Riverside, said her institution has placed a bigger emphasis on having undergraduates engage in research—something often not done until students reach graduate school—as a way to boost persistence.

Students are told from orientation onward to seek out research opportunities with their professors, she said.

“That is repeated over and over to the students,” Conolely said. “And we’re rewarding faculty for engaging in these activities.”

Subsequently, some 67 percent of students at UC Riverside are involved in research associated with some sort of faculty oversight.

“As we’ve come more and more to scale it’s been an interactive process of learning who are they, what do they come with, how can that be a part of the learning experience,” Conoley said.

The presidents touted the merits of peer-to-peer instruction, adaptive learning, learning communities and mentoring. They also stressed the need to rethink the way their institutions operate.

“Part of the key to success for the first-generation students,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, is to do away with what he described as the “nasty social hierarchy of higher education.”

To illustrate his point, he recalled how in the past students and faculty at the main campus at his institution thought themselves better than those at the branch campus—and those at the branch campus thought of themselves as less than—because of differences in admissions criteria.

“If you come in thinking you’ve been granted access to something that has no status, you will be discouraged from success,” Crow said. Accordingly, he said, the university “tore down” the old system and had each campus establish its own intellectual identity.

Social hierarchy and social status is “defeating our purpose,” Crow said. “We have to weed that out of our system.”

John Hitt, president of the University of Central Florida, stressed the role of leadership in bringing about institutional change.

“If you really want to see systemic change work, you have to have continuity of leadership,” HItt said. He explained that that meant people at the presidential and provost levels being willing to take a position on where an institution needs to be and be willing to talk about it with faculty and colleagues.

“You have to make a personal commitment to the kind of change you want to see and then ask yourself what are the rewards and punishments, are they ones that support the attainment of your objectives,” Hitt said. “It’s surprising how much they really don’t.”

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