Administrators Should Be Responsible for Information

In my forthcoming book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at the City University of New York, as well as in my recent piece in The Evolllution, I write about the many reasons that, despite good evidence for change in higher education, change does not occur.  My new book discusses this topic within the context of facilitating credit transfer between colleges.  The Evolllution piece uses the example of math remediation reform.  Although there has been rigorous evidence supporting math remediation reform, any resulting changes, as well as reforms designed to facilitate credit transfer, have been slow.  Why?

As described in both my new book and the Evolllution piece, the usual explanation given is faculty. I give some of the many reasons that the faculty may be slow to adopt change.  But the faculty aren’t the only reason that change doesn’t get made at colleges and universities.  Again in both publications, I discuss the many reasons that administrators also may not support change.  Further, I make the point that, if there is clear evidence for change, and the faculty will not initiate that change, then it is up to the administrators to effect that change.

But before things reach that point, it is first the responsibility of administrators to make sure that everyone, including the faculty, who would be involved in a change, knows about and understands the evidence supporting the change.  If administrators do not themselves have the expertise or the time to understand and explain the relevant evidence, then the administrators should find one or more people who do.

Throughout my academic career I have been repeatedly appalled at the inadequate transmission of information from the administration to the faculty.  This began when I was a new full professor (and an associate dean) and heard my department chair—incorrectly—tell the department’s faculty that they were teaching more students per faculty member than were any of the other departments.  The department’s faculty were then, understandably, loath to make the dean’s requested changes in the department’s teaching output.

Many years later, when I worked in the CUNY system central office, I learned that one of the 24 CUNY college presidents was allowing only his deans and vice presidents to have access to their college’s performance data (compiled by the CUNY central office), encouraging the faculty to think that their college’s retention and graduation rates were higher than they actually were and discouraging those faculty from believing that any change was necessary.  I subsequently instituted a policy making all of these data publicly available.  Then at least when we discussed what did and did not need changing, everyone was basing their arguments on the same evidence.

A few months ago, I attended a conference whose attendees consisted mostly of administrators.  In one session about remediation, a speaker first asked everyone in the small audience to say where they were from.  Two people sitting together said they were both deans in the Florida public college system.  The speaker then said, how interesting, I’ve been wondering what are the results of the recent remediation changes in Florida (2013 legislation has given students, assessed as needing remediation, the choice as to whether to take traditional remedial courses or not).  The two deans immediately said, oh we don’t know, it’s too soon to have any results yet.  However, despite being in New York, I knew that, in the two years prior to the conference, there had been several publications on the results of the change implemented by the Florida system.  So I raised my hand and told everyone some of the results (the percentage of students passing certain college-level gateway courses has gone down, but because more students were now getting to take those courses, more total students are passing those courses).

I don’t know why the two Florida deans, supposedly interested in and/or involved in remediation or they wouldn’t have attended the session in the first place, did not know about these publications. But what I do know is that if deans working in this area don’t know critical information, then it is likely that their faculty won’t know either, and the deans can’t be helpful in transmitting the information.  In the meantime, the Deans’ faculty may be suffering with lowered pass rates, worrying those lower rates will hurt their reputations as teachers and miserable at having to fail more students.  Any encouragement these faculty might have received from knowing that, nevertheless, more students are being enabled to stay in and graduate from college, is not available.

For all of this I hold administrators responsible.  Good choices depend on having good information, and administrators have both the opportunity and the resources, and thus the responsibility, to obtain and distribute good information to all appropriate personnel.  Only with that information will faculty, administrators, and other staff be able to fulfill their obligations to their institutions and to their students.

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