Four wishes for higher education in 2022

Four wishes for higher education in 2022
Photo by Richard Burlton / Unsplash

When my kids and I talk about school, the message I send to them is this: The lessons you learn and the grades are kind of important, but it's a lot more important to learn how to learn things and how to learn any concept quickly, and (as much as possible) without the help of a teacher. Because it's the latter that ends up outliving school.

I hear the same message in my head when I think about higher education, looking back over 2021 (and 2020) and looking ahead to 2022. Coming into the pandemic as an inexperienced department chair, what I knew was mostly irrelevant; the only thing that mattered was being able to learn anything as fast and as independently as possible. This past year as a Presidential Fellow, stepping into the rare air of university-level initiatives and politics, the only thing that really mattered in the end was being able to listen, absorb new ideas, and make sense of it all.

My work in that area is still very much in progress, but I've gotten a strong dose of clarity on how higher education currently is operating and a better picture of what I'd like to see more of, and less of, in this business. These are not the only four things I hope we learn, but they are the ones that are foremost in my mind as 2022 begins.

Less guesswork, more communication

In April 2020, I was interacting with students who had been posting their dissatisfactions with the emergency remote learning that took place after the Big Pivot. I asked them, as the interim Math Department chair, to give me their stories and suggestions for improvement. They gave me an earful, and it was very honest and raw. Almost every student concluded by thanking me for asking --- because I was the first faculty member or administrator that had asked them how things were going.

That raised major red flags with me, because how are we in higher ed supposed to navigate the waves of sea changes happening at the time, and now, without input from students? How can you build anything that lasts without the involvement of the people it affects? Leaving key stakeholders out of the loop usually doesn't end well. You can only make it end well by actually communicating with them, and faculty, and staff, etc. --- authentically, honestly, and with a sincere intention to act on their needs. Anything else, is just guesswork.

Higher education has not distinguished itself by careful attention to its stakeholders and deep involvement of those people in the decisions it makes or the things it builds. I've learned there are a lot of times in higher education where leaders just make guesses, devoid of information from and about the people they affect. There is even a kind of disdain toward building higher education experiences around the expressed needs of students (How could a student possibly have enough knowledge or experience to make meaningful decisions about their education?), and I'm sorry to say faculty are often the worst offenders --- the first group to raise Hell if anybody makes the slightest decision without checking in with them first.

We need a lot less guesswork and a lot more along the lines of agile development in higher ed, where the people affected by the decision are inextricably involved with the making of the decision. And we need it ASAP or we will find ourselves abandoned by the former group, who in my experience are perfectly ready to move on to other models of education that do respect their needs.

Important side comment

If you're in higher education and you are offended by or wary of business-y terms like "stakeholder" and "agile", don't just reject those on sight. There are buzzwords, sure, that have no meaning and do no work other than to produce "buzz". But then there are terms that actually mean something and have a history of doing good work. An uncritical, incurious rejection of terms that businesses use just because businesses use them is not a good look and it doesn't help.

Less antagonism, more trust

Back to the list: One thing about honest two-way communication is that it builds trust. And trust is something I saw in distressingly short supply in higher education in 2021. We need to recover mutual trust across all levels of higher education in 2022, or we might self-destruct.

This is hard to say, because in some universities there is a culture of distrust that makes changing that culture nearly impossible. Faculty, in particular contingent faculty, are someties afraid to say anything remotely critical, even if it's intended in a spirit of positive change, for fear of being smacked down. Faculty are not always the victims; students, too, can have a fear of trusting faculty. There are many stories about students afraid to speak up to abusive or unprofessional professors, because they have a fear of retaliation. That this fear may not be justified doesn't really matter --- the culture matters.

And although many of you will find this absurd, administrators can be victims too. Come on, how is that possible? They hold all the power. Maybe (although often the power of administrators is highly exaggerated). But I've also worked with senior administrators, particularly this year as a Presidential Fellow. At my institution there is no question in my mind that our senior leaders are honest, focused on student success, and embody the kind of two-way communication I just wrote about. I always come away impressed whenever I spend time around them. But there are people out there who ascribe the worst possible motives to every word that's uttered, every decision that's made. Everything is proof that they're out to screw over faculty and kill the university, and replace it all with some Mordor-like institution where everyone not an administrator, is a slave.

When I encounter this, I usually push back gently: What's your concern based on? What happened that makes you feel this way? And most of the time: There's nothing. Nothing has actually happened to engender this radical mistrust. Often the people engaging in this sort of thing have not even talked with the administrators they are accusing, and very often they are not in full possession of the facts, or in full possession of wrong ideas. There's no real reason for this; it's just a generalized mistrust, a meme that's poisoned people's minds.

We have to end the circular firing squad, and start trusting each other, even if it means a unilateral step and we end up getting burned because of it. All of education is predicated on trust. If we lose that --- or worse, throw it away --- then our whole operating system is corrupt.

Less timidity, more risk taking

Maybe one of the saddest things I've seen in higher ed in the last 2-3 years is a profound lack of curiosity. We've become risk-averse somehow, and it's ugly and depressing. In 2022 we need to shake this off.

I don't mean reckless risks where you barge ahead with some initiative or decision that's unencumbered by research or facts. (See my first wish above.) I'm talking about intelligent risks that are stretches, possibly hard work and there's not a near-100% chance of success --- but it's something that stands a chance of helping students or faculty, even in failure.

You can take any non-standard concept in higher education you want as an example: microcredentials, active learning classrooms, or something more basic like implementing active learning university-wide. Even if there's ample evidence that the idea might benefit learners, there's no sure thing. Your microcredential might not attract anybody. Faculty may not want to use active learning classrooms, or not use them to their full potential, and the money is wasted. Faculty might rebel against active learning on some half-hearted "academic freedom" grounds.

One way to respond to these risks is to wait and see what other universities do, or wait until there is incontrovertible evidence that the success probability is very high. We shouldn't be doing this thing unless and until there is evidence that a market exists for it is the line that I hear. Another is to refuse to do anything with them altogether[1].

And sometimes that's the right approach. But when it gets to the point that We won't do this thing because it might fail, then it's no longer prudence or reasonable caution --- it's just timidity and a lack of curiosity. The last thing the world needs right now is timid, uncurious intellectuals. And we can hardly expect to develop students into critically-thinking, lifelong learners if we are ourselves unwilling to take risks that might cause us to have to deal with failure.

Universities in 2022 need to start aiming for that difficult zone of balance where they are fearless but not reckless. And soon.

Less talk, more action

Finally, in 2022 I hope higher education starts listening to David Allen and asking, constantly and on every initiative and in every agenda point in every meeting: What is the next action?

Sometimes I think others believe that the effectiveness of faculty governance is proportional to the amount of words uttered in faculty meetings, and the number of syllables used in each word. We seem to be bent on trying to out-gravitas each other and proceed at the speed of talk, rather than get things done, solve problems, or move forward. I've lost track of the number of times I've had to mute my camera on a Zoom meeting, or look away from the latest survey from another office, and say Would somebody just please make a decision?

I get it; the difficulty of being in higher education during a pandemic is taxing, which leads to ego depletion which leads to decision fatigue. Maybe it's connected to the risk-aversion I just mentioned.

Whatever is the case, all of the other wishes I've listed here depend on ability to communicate honestly and fully with each other, but also to ultimately stop talking and start doing. It's hard after 2020 and then 2021. On the other hand, everyone in higher education is in this business because we are specifically trained to work on hard problems. So in 2022 I hope we learn to love being biased toward action.

  1. The problem with this line of reasoning isn't the idea of wanting evidence that a market exists, or that the idea is a good one; it's that most of the time, the person bringing it up has already made up their mind against the idea and no amount of evidence will ever be enough. I hear it a million times a year about active learning: First it's Show me evidence that active learning is effective, and then when I show the enormous amount of good scientific evidence, the goalposts shift, and the loop never breaks until someone decides to break it. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.