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We Can Do Better in the New Reality: Rethinking Faculty Roles

A Q&A with Sally Johnstone

For nearly 50 years, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) has focused its data, analysis, and services on helping states — and their colleges and universities — as they plan effective strategies for the future. Now, in 2018, projections of lower enrollments and tightening or vanishing budgets are causing institutions to seek advice from NCHEMS on planning for a new reality on both the administrative and academic sides of the house. CT asked NCHEMS President Sally M. Johnstone for her high-level view of how institutions can respond to these challenges and leverage the important role faculty have in strategic change.

“This isn't a recession. This is a new reality. The good news is that we have an opportunity to do better — to serve students better.” — Sally Johnstone

Mary Grush: We often hear discussions of "changing faculty roles" — such conversations can take on several different directions in higher education. What are the key ways you've seen this idea of change manifested?

Sally Johnstone: The traditional roles for faculty in our colleges and universities are based in a time when teaching faculty were the primary sources of information for students. Faculty were not there just to interpret their field of study; they were practically the sole source of information itself. We are far beyond that now.

Along with that, we have the influence of "high tech" information delivery. If you consider U.S. students, for example, they are certainly used to watching videos, Googling topics, and electronically sampling bits of information from multiple sources. The more steeped they become in these digital habits, the more critical it is for faculty to take on the role of interpreting information and setting it into a context for students — this is a new, "high touch" role for faculty. We'll come back to faculty and to this important point.

Grush: Are these digital habits being fostered by the education system or by the more pervasive influence of how the world now works?

Johnstone: The reality is that we are in an era when information is conveyed through technology. It's what everyone is used to now; and yes, it's the way the world works.

Grush: Beyond new, high touch roles for faculty, what is changing in the education environment?

Johnstone: If you look carefully at college and university policies, funding, and the ways in which institutions — public institutions in particular — are organized and rewarded for doing things, that was established during a time when there was tremendous growth in college attendance. You can see this growth reported in "Knocking at the College Door", which gives long-range projections of high school graduates by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

Grush: Is there a specific time frame for that period of growth?

Johnstone: It was from the 1980s to about 2006 or so. My colleague, Brian Prescott is the one who pointed out its significance to me and to others at NCHEMS. The education sector codified its faculty bargaining agreements, state policies, how higher education is funded, and a whole host of other activities during that period of tremendous growth. At the time, we were actually trying to figure out how to keep up with the demand for education.

Now, in 2018, we are in a time when enrollment growth in both the traditional-age students and to some extent the adult students has leveled off. Traditional-age student enrollments are expected to be flat or decline over the next decade.

Grush: Are you citing work by WICHE?

Johnstone: Yes, my comments here are based on projections WICHE has done with population demographics and census information. (Again, see WICHE's "Knocking at the College Door".)

When these projections play out, it is really critical that we rethink how and what faculty should be doing to serve students.

Grush: Is the public perception of colleges and universities also changing?

Johnstone: Yes! Linked to the declining enrollments, we are seeing data from many states that show, not only are there declining enrollments, these states are seeing a drop in the public will to keep paying for colleges and universities at the levels they have been supported in the past.

There are very few states that are increasing or even holding on par, their funding for colleges and universities. We have heard over and over, that in most states the burden for the cost of attending college or university has shifted away from the state, and is now focused squarely on the student.

Grush: How are public institutions reacting?

Johnstone: In some states, colleges and universities are being forced to do things very differently. An example is Connecticut, where there is a community college system within the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities (CSCU), with a dozen accredited community colleges. They are literally running out of money.

And because there is public distrust with regard to the quality of the colleges in Connecticut, as a result there is virtually no money to pump back into the community college system. So, the leadership has already begun planning to reduce the number of independently accredited colleges. NCHEMS has consulted with them, to develop the stages of work that will have to be done to make all that consolidation happen without resulting in chaos for students.

More generally, the kinds of changes we are seeing in Connecticut are strategies that systems and states may have to employ going forward. Of course, the models are somewhat different in different settings — but none of them allow for what we think of as the status quo. The changes are far reaching and durable. We are not going back.

Grush: So, is higher education in a large recession? Is there anything positive about this picture?

Johnstone: This isn't a recession. This is a new reality. The good news is that we have an opportunity to do better — to serve students better.

I wouldn't use the word recession here, not because of the negativity it implies, but because it implies there is a recovery expected at some point. That's not going to happen.

The real take home message is that, given the recognition of this new reality, we can rethink strategies and roles — faculty roles in particular — and use the opportunity to create positive change.

Grush: What kinds of change will be productive?

Johnstone: In the best-case scenario, faculty will be challenged to discover and implement ways they can work together collaboratively — again, knowing that there just isn't money for them to keep doing what they have always done.

We know that jobs will be eliminated over time as faculty retire. On many campuses across the country, some departments are already closing. This is why it's important to find the positive side, that of faculty accepting the challenge of beginning to understand what the current state of learning science really is.

Grush: Do you have an example of the kinds of strategies NCHEMS has found to be productive?

Johnstone: Sure. Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) is a good example. NCHEMS worked with this system last year, not only to help them deal with declining populations of students that they typically serve, but also to address shrinking state revenues.

Instead of suggesting that entire colleges and universities consolidate or close, NCHEMS recommended that the system does some consolidation around their administrative structures first. For example, to ask, how many independent offices of financial aid do you need in a state system? You need representatives available for students locally, but you can consolidate what we think of as back office functions like reporting and tracking.

Grush: That's on the administrative side of PASSHE institutions. Did you need to recommend changes for the academic side?

Johnstone: The only way you can keep these colleges and universities open and thriving for their communities is to begin collaboration on the academic side. Therefore in Pennsylvania we did suggest change on the academic side. And that brings us back to our discussion of rethinking faculty roles.

Specifically, when you start to consolidate academic functions, you must use technology to share courseware among institutions. Institutions can collaborate to identify or create these resources. But at each location, you need someone who has sufficient knowledge to help guide students in a field of study. The information is likely to be delivered to students through technology — a "high tech" approach. But to make sense of the field, we will have our "high touch" faculty: Instead of faculty spending their time creating courses, they will serve more as mentors and guides than they have in the past.

Grush: In which "high touch" areas would faculty concentrate their efforts?

Johnstone: In a host of areas: Students need help with motivation; they need help connecting to information they don't know; they need help understanding how to apply their knowledge… just to point out a few. This is where faculty will focus in the new state of learning science. There's going to be very significant change in higher education models as we rethink faculty roles in the teaching and learning process.

Grush: So, within this context of a new reality in higher education, is there an opportunity for truly positive change?

Johnstone: Yes. We can do better, with a combination of very well-produced information delivery — the "high tech"; and individualized attention — the "high touch".

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