From the Director: An Internal Hydraulic of Change

By Don Harward, project director, BTtoP; president emeritus, Bates College; senior fellow, AAC&U

The October 7, 2013, issue of Time magazine featured a cover story on the crises in higher education—“higher education has never been more expensive—or seemingly less demanding.” The claim is strikingly similar to the nearly ubiquitous judgment that the costs are far too high and outstrip perceived value; institutions have failed in having students learn (generally and particularly items of historical or political fact); and higher education is failing in preparing sufficient numbers of future members of the twenty-first-century work force.

The prescribed recommendations usually include:

(1)   Significantly reduce costs—possibly through a three-year rather than a four-year Baccalaureate, and through the use of online courses;

(2)   Significantly strengthen the expectation that students gain more (e.g., higher scores on common examinations) from what is called “general education”—though what this means is not at all clear, and is likely incompatible with recommendation (1); and

(3)   Significantly increase completion rates and improve the training of graduates for jobs in a contemporary economy—also unclear if it confuses training with education, and is likely incompatible with recommendation (2).

These recommendations may be well-intended, but the analysis must go deeper. What is now needed is more basic than toying with the calendar or curriculum or restructuring financial aid to reward vocational training. What the crises call for is significant transformative change—change that leads to the bold reassertion and realization of higher education’s unique, complex mission.

With the placement of additives to a body of water, a “tipping point” is reached and a transformative change occurs—for example, it goes from fresh to salt water. Its new form resembles in many ways the previous condition, but a change has occurred to its core chemistry. It is transformed.

The core chemistry of higher education is transformed if and when the academy and those beyond it understand how a campus’s culture for learning is inextricably linked to multiple and progressive opportunities for engaged learning; the expectation that such engagement should occur for every student; the connection and cultivation of those learning experiences to broad and deep civic understanding and action; and the recognition that those elements of the institution’s commitment to higher learning and to its civic expression are fully bound up in treating students as whole learners—persons whose well-being is an objective of the opportunities and encouragement we as educators provide.

This means a transformation in how faculty see and express their basic responsibilities as educators and how students welcome and adopt the expectation of challenging and demanding involvement in their education. It means replacing institutional structures that artificially segment and restrict parts of a whole with integration and common objectives, and altering financial priorities and reward structures so as to provide the conditions needed to reach a tipping point, to have change occur and persist.

Metaphors of change in higher education

Among the metaphors used to explain properties of transformative change are several that refer to hydrodynamic properties. Each expresses a kernel of importance in understanding change in higher education, but each by itself is inadequate in capturing the dynamic of change. Ripples of change spread from a point of energy—concentric circles of influence across a wide stretch. Change in higher education would be valued were it repeated, like ripples, throughout all of the institutional surfaces. But the image of ripples suggests evenness of influence and that is unlikely in an educational institution. Moreover, ripples of change (as opposed to a devastating tsunami of change) suggest eventual diminution—so the surface returns to being placid or in stasis. Ripples do, however, connote breadth of change and that change can be carried by nudge-like undulations—or in waves. But it remains on the surface.

Gravitational forces generating tidal change do affect deeply—changes occur on multiple levels, vertical as well as horizontal. But the change doesn’t last; reversion to the original condition suggests little or no progress.

The water’s source determines the extent and quality of change. The metaphorical equivalents of springs (the water’s source) are the people and culture of the campus committed to change. They are resourceful—faculty, staff, and students—and it is by their efforts that change occurs. As Parker Palmer argues in Transformative Conversations (2013), “transformation in higher education must come from within—and coming from within will be the result only of a re-commitment to core values of purpose for education and why one is an educator.”

For nearly twelve years BTtoP has been championing transformative change. Each of these hydrodynamic metaphors suggest at least one dimension of such change—transformational change must be broad, affecting the width of the campus culture; it must be deep, affecting the layers of the culture; it must be progressive, altering positively the core chemistry of the campus; and it must spring from inside the institution, from the true resources of the campus—its mission, people, and culture.

We have established that engaged learning is the means by which the objectives of civic engagement and well-being can be greater realized. This essay is intentionally theoretical, but our interest in bringing theory to practice is a constant consideration, and we know it is for you too. If you haven’t had a chance, I would encourage a glimpse at Transforming Undergraduate Education, the major volume BTtoP published with chapters from twenty-four scholars, educational leaders, and practitioners as well as ten case studies of campuses that have been recipients of BTtoP support for examples of practical applications (https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442206748). All royalties are returned to BTtoP to help fund more campus grants.