Tuesday, February 24, 2015

12. There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university. (1)

1. This is a sentence several of us have said to each other from time to time in the Seminary. When talking to the Association of Theological Schools, the emphasis is on the word advantages. "There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university." Here are some of the advantages:
  • We have thus far received rather significant underwriting each year from the broader university, which provides generous scholarships for our students.
  • We have the Information Technologies infrastructure of the broader university, which means we do not have to arrange for a learning platform, set up an IT help desk, hire instructional designers. Indeed, until central expenses were spread across the whole university, we did not initially even pay for these services.
  • We have the Student Services of the adult programs, which includes most of the student advising, registration, record keeping, and so forth.
  • We have the Financial Aid office of the broader university.
  • We have the central financial office of the university to help us with budgeting.
  • We have the marketing services of the adult programs, and our admissions team is plugged into the enrollment services part of the adult programs. 
  • We have the potential to use the satellite campuses of the broader university. Indeed, we have the platform of the broader university from which to market ourselves.
  • We have the alumni of the undergraduate School of Theology and Ministry as potential students to recruit for our degrees.
  • We have the human resources infrastructure to handle the more formal and legal aspects of hiring, benefits, and so forth.
  • We have the Graduate School to guarantee our academic quality.
  • We have the guidance and strategic direction of the upper administration of the university.
There's no question that we simply would not exist if we had not had this platform from which to launch and which continues to sustain our existence.

2. There is, however, another emphasis you can place on this sentence: "There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university." This emphasis is the reminder of all the items above when the infrastructure of the university feels more like it is getting in the way of innovation or even to do things that seem obvious to us.

I'm pretty sure that I was a curse word in some parts of the infrastructure in our first couple of years. Why does the Seminary have to do everything different and cause problems?

For example, one of the first decisions Russ and I made was not to have MDIV textbooks mailed to students from adult services, and we decided to phase out this practice for MA students. On the one hand, this seems like a great service. Why wouldn't you do this when the university already has the service set up? Then students don't even have to think about ordering their books (and of course the authors are guaranteed a royalty, if you know what I mean ;-)

The problem is that the budgeting then locks you in for a certain amount for books for each class of a cohort for the length of their entire program. And you are locked into the stock of any books that have already been purchased for a cohort.

In effect, this dynamic puts you in a straight jacket with regard to the textbooks you use. This works fine in IWU's adult programs because they do not change textbooks as much and do not have a lot of full time professors who re-evaluate their courses every time they teach them. With over 10,000 students, most things in the adult part of IWU (CAPS) have to be automated without much contextualization or variation.

But I was aiming for something in between our CAS undergrad and our CAPS adult programs. We were looking to have something more like 50% full time faculty. And with this many content experts around, you're going to get more variation and innovation in curriculum than you get in CAPS, where the percentage of full-time faculty is much lower.

3. I've also mentioned the occasional tension between the Seminary and those who handle the learning platforms of the university. There is a story you often hear in the guild of instructional design and it certainly used to have a lot of truth to it. It is the idea that faculty do not know anything about pedagogy, that all they want to do is lecture and that they have no sense of differing learning styles or of different pedagogical methods.

Occasionally I am reminded that this story is actually true in many dying universities and seminaries. I have to remind myself that there are still a lot of faculty out there who ignorantly think that online education is second rate or that excellence is some unchanging standard handed down by God to academia in the 1970s. There are still many seminaries where an ignorant faculty are still fighting over whether to teach online. May they rest in peace.

But in the past I have also experienced a kind of condescension from instructional designers (ID), as if no faculty are smart enough or flexible enough to learn new tricks. In fact, I can't imagine that IWU could afford an instructional designer who has the ID savvy of a Luigi Peñaranda or a Safiyah Fosua. John Drury and Colleen Derr have no problems manipulating an online environment, nor do I. I believe that, despite the fact that ID departments do see the blind spots of the typical faculty person, there are often unexamined assumptions to ID culture as well.

There have been times when I've wondered if the Seminary might do just as well to hire its own ID and go its own way with its own learning platform. However, I don't think this is true. Unless we somehow got hold of some spectacular genius who just loved us and was willing to work for far less than the going rate at Google, we would lose on the proposition. So we are stuck with whatever LMS (Learning Management System) arrangement the broader university makes.

4. I am not an expert to know the extent to which certain strictures on our hiring practices are just the way things are in the US right now. For example, both at IWU in the past and at other seminaries, individuals who came and taught for a week were not fully hired by the university. They were simply paid something like a stipend. Nice. Easy.

For years, we simply brought in a guest professor. They taught for a week. We paid them with just one tax form. We brought them in because they were a known quality of excellence.

Similarly, we more or less recruited adjuncts by hand. After all, we are a seminary from a particular confession and with a certain ethos. We started a conversation with someone and, when we were confident in the fit, we asked them to teach a course for us.

In recent years, however, we have been forced to do full searches for adjuncts. And every adjunct has had to submit proof of US citizenship and get a criminal background check. Every applicant has to fill out an online application, and much more. This is the case even if they are only going to teach for one week and then go home. Perhaps this is now the situation for seminaries and universities everywhere, given the regulatory climate.

Suffice it to say, some on our faculty have stopped trying to recruit significant scholars to teach for us out of embarrassment. You can imagine the raised eyebrows a black or Hispanic adjunct might have if asked for a criminal background check or proof of citizenship, especially if we were just bringing them in to teach one course. Is it really that important to do a criminal background check on someone who doesn't live here and is only coming to teach a course for one week?

We were able to get special dispensations when Justo Gonzalez taught for us, but no more. Let's say we wanted to have the General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church teach a course for us. The infrastructure would first have us do an open adjunct search in which she would have to go online and apply (no paper application would be accepted). We would have her verify her citizenship and we would do a criminal background check on her.

There are advantages to being embedded in a broader university.
Previously on Seminary take-aways:

1. There are key moments of opportunity.
2. You need the right people.
3. Good leaders collaborate and navigate.

Year 1: Launch Year
4. Innovation requires some trial and error. (1)
5. Innovation requires some trial and error. (2)
6. Innovation requires some trial and error. (3)
7. New leaders bring new strengths. (1)

Year 2: Growing Pains
8. Administration never ends.
9. New leaders bring new strengths. (2)
10. New leaders bring new strengths. (3)

Year 3: The Year of Maturity
11. Complexity works against sustainability.

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