Thursday, March 26, 2015

Integrating Collegiate Cultures

The last five posts have wandered through Bergquist and Pawlak's 2008 book, Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy. I've expanded their six cultures into four different emphases colleges frequently have and then six variations on those emphases.

Four Key Emphases
1. A research emphasis
Institutions and faculty with a research emphasis see the university primarily as a place were truth is pursued for its own sake. It tends to be a very modernist emphasis that pictures faculty as objective investigators of truth who pursue it by scientific methods. The legitimacy of disciplines that cannot be pursued by such methods are questioned. The assumption is that if you hire excellent enough faculty, they will objectively arrive at more or less the same conclusions if they are given full academic freedom. The origins of this approach are German.

2. A formational emphasis
The origins of this approach are British. The formational approach historically has seen the college as a place where the values of young people are formed for life. This approach tends to be that of the small liberal arts college or the small Christian college. The college exists in loco parentis and continues the formation that started at home in preparation for launch to the real world. The proposal of Steve Lennox for Wesleyan higher education falls into this category in viewing Wesleyan colleges as "sanctifying contexts."

3. A teaching emphasis
With background in the Catholic school, institutions like IWU in the past saw teaching as the primary task of the college. It is not that faculty research was not valued. It was just something some professors did on the side or in the summer. During the contract months, faculty were teachers. They taught a base amount of 24 credit hours a year and the door was wide open for as many overloads as they could handle. You tried to hire "thoroughbreds" who could teach lots of different courses and a lot of them, with little thought for class size.

4. A vocational emphasis
Growing out of the community college, some colleges focus on training students to be able to get jobs once they graduate. This is no doubt the emphasis that most of the public see as the obvious purpose of education. For those parents who are not interested in the formational piece, they likely send their children to college with this goal in mind.

Six Variations
1. A pedagogical culture
An extension of the teaching emphasis can be a managerial focus on course outcomes, course design, and course assessment. Courses come to have a heavy administrative component. In excess, they become highly prescripted and filled with busy work that is a burden to both student and faculty.

2. A developmental culture
Colleges can extend a formational culture to where there is a heavy emphasis on student or faculty development. In excess, a culture can develop where the faculty feels like the university exists to serve them or students are strung along who simply are not college material. In excess, a healthy concern for development can become paternalistic.

3. An advocacy culture
Some colleges have a strong advocacy culture, whether it be for conservative or liberal causes. In conservative circles, these colleges tend to advocate for traditional values or conservative political causes. In other circles they may advocate for people of color, women, or some other people group.

4. A distributive culture
Some colleges have a strong culture of expansion and innovation enabling expansion. It is an impulse to take education to the student rather than expecting the student to come to the university. It is usually accompanied by an online program and may dream of a global reach.

5. A virtual culture
Online programs tend to develop a culture of their own. They are especially susceptible to a pedagogical and developmental flavor.

6. A tangible culture
In reaction to the rise of virtual culture and at times in opposition to it, colleges can develop a tangible culture that puts a primacy on face-to-face education. Alternatively, distinct tangible cultures can develop to maximize the distinct strengths of face-to-face education in competition with online education.
Integrating Collegiate Cultures
So how should these varied cultures fit together at your typical Christian college?

1. I come back to the fundamentals. A college is an educational business. It has potential customers, and it has products. Legitimately, there are different kinds of colleges with different kinds of emphases. So each college needs to decide what its core products and priorities are:
  • vocations
  • formation
  • cutting edge knowledge
For most "customers," jobs are going to sell the most, the hope of good or better employment. For a smaller subset, formation sells. For an elite subset, cutting edge research sells.

If I were to give advice to the typical Christian college, I would advise that they focus on selling careers within a solid formational context.
2. From a Christian perspective, the formational element is the most important, even if it is neither the primary draw nor the primary task. The primary task of an educational institution is surely education by way of teaching.

But a Christian college will, as Steve Lennox has argued, be a "sanctifying context," one in which students and faculty alike grow closer to God and grow in love for their neighbor. It is a good goal for students to grow in virtue while they are there (the pedagogical culture sometimes resists these sorts of intangible goals because they are hard to assess).

And I believe that a good college will subvert its students by subjecting them to the liberal arts, making them better and more enlightened people against their wills. :-) They'll be glad for it if it happens, even though they might not have signed up to become more profound human beings.

3. The mechanisms for teaching and formation will lead to care with regard to pedagogy and development, hopefully without veering into obsession. Advocacy is only as important as the inequity or imbalance of the institution. However, a college that stands for something stands to gain those who stand for those same things.

Good teachers will stay abreast of the research in their fields. Although most professors at the average Christian college should have teaching contracts, it is perfectly reasonable to put a few exceptional ones on a research contract with less teaching.

Tenure is a controversial issue that must be taken into account for purposes of competition for faculty, but it is really the stuff of a research more than a teaching faculty. And it was really designed for a very modernist and non-confessional context. My recommendation is that it be reserved only for the most exceptional of research faculty and that it not be the norm. In the end, it really has no significance whatsoever other than perception.

Faculty whose behavior or research is outside the moral or ideological limits of an institution can still be fired. Faculty on multi-year contracts still cannot be terminated without cause. The notion that you are not accountable for your work or ideas after a certain point is fundamentally irresponsible and seems destined to be done away with over time. It makes little objective sense, but perception is reality too.

4. Colleges with a distributive and a virtual culture are more likely to survive than those that are banking solely on a tangible one. If you expect students to come to your campus, you had better have something distinctive going on there or have a clear niche market. But mistakes can be made in expansion that tank a place too, like investing too much in an expansion that doesn't materialize or not providing sufficient infrastructure for expansion, resulting in implosion.

At least that's the way I see it... :-)

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