Transforming Institutions Takeaways

Rachel Renbarger
Western Michigan University
Rachel Renbarger, Western Michigan University

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published Jun 24, 2021 10:42am

Last week concluded the 2021 Transforming Institutions Conference that marked the 10th year of convening like-minded change leaders. The event was a rousing success; we had over 250 participants from at least 3 continents with over 40 concurrent presentations, 60+ posters, and 4 workshops containing research-based strategies for improving higher education. What did we learn from such an amazing event?

1. Universities may need to change to reflect the current needs of the workforce and the student body.

Our first keynote speaker, Dr. Paul LeBlanc from Southern New Hampshire University, spoke about how universities can provide a more flexible learning model through credentials. He stated, ""How do we continue to engage with our students throughout their lives? ... We try to give our students the right amount of learning at just the right time in just the right way." Credentialing provides students with opportunities to learn skills in smaller amounts of time and provides them with evidence of that learning for their employers. This notion of credentialing was also recommended by Dr. William Tyson. Dr. Tyson said, "The future of undergraduate STEM education must acknowledge that 4 years to get a credential is a privilege that fewer & fewer people have." Many students now are already in the workforce; providing them with credentialing demonstrates the flexibility students need to be successful. This idea began a debate for the second major takeaway of the conference:

2. What is the purpose of higher education?

University faculty and administrators wondered about potential impacts of relying on the workforce to dictate what happens in higher education. Undoubtedly students must leave higher education with the skills needed to gain meaningful employment, but certain skills -- such as those in STEM and technical education -- often take priority over skills from humanities fields, such as thinking creatively or communicating in multiple ways. How much should institutes of higher education listen to the workforce in designing curricula and/or credentials? How can the workforce listen to faculty and administrators about the traditional benefits of a university degree? While no consensus was reached, it sparked lively debate on the priorities of higher education.

3. We need to focus on equity, particularly racial equity.

Within the discussion about the purpose of higher education came the point about focusing on our students. Higher education must change in order to be equitable and meet the needs of all students. Dr. Yves Salomon-Fernandez, president of Greenfield Community College, spoke about how younger generations push for institutions to live the students' values. This includes recognizing racial inequity in and around the campus environment. Students want to enroll and persist at institutions that acknowledge and are working to address racial inequities. Additionally, students and scholars want to work transdisciplinarily, not just multidisciplinary, to solve complex problems such as racist structures from multiple perspectives. Equity and the need to work across academic silos was also echoed in the funding panel which featured voices from the National Science Foundation, Gates Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation. Improving racial equity is a key focus of each of these funders with the increased understanding of how racism exists within all structures of our society.

4. Our community shines with regard to work in the 4-year college student and faculty spaces, and could work toward researching 2-year colleges, transitions between institutions, and workforce experiences.

During our discussion of pathways to and through higher education, our community placed their work along the educational continuum; from pre-K through faculty and administrative life. What we noticed was that many projects focus on experiences within 4-year institutions. Common topics included developing student leaders and researchers, utilizing evidence-based instructional practices, and improving educational equity for marginalized communities (i.e., first-generation, Black & Latinx). Besides focusing on students, project leaders also focused on developing faculty capacity to teach using best practices and create change across their department or institution. Our pathway model looked more sparse around 2-year colleges and the transition points between institutions (such as between high school and college or the time between 2- and 4- year institutions). What do students need as they transition? What works in improving transitional experiences? How do students experience the workforce- are they prepared, stable, fulfilled? While we know our community members can make great change in the 4-year and faculty development spaces, we still have questions about other spots along the higher educational pathway. We need to identify scholars who are doing this work and help to bring them into our community so we can learn from them.

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