Academic Impactorators

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Good timing: just as the news hits of a rigorous study showing that a large percentage of students learn very little in college comes news of another major development. A fair number of colleges and universities are signing on to a UN initiative called “Academic Impact.” The signers—let’s call them the Impactorators—are committing their institutions to yet another layer of distraction from the work of actually advancing the knowledge and intellectual skills of their students.  

The rigorous new study is Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which my fellow Innovations bloggers Richard Kahlenberg and Richard Vedder have each already commented on. I had a head start with the book, which I received in uncorrected proof. The text is brief—144 pages in the version I read—with a 67-page methodological appendix. Arum and Roksa, I should say at once, are scholars who do not abide anywhere close to the intellectual precincts of the National Association of Scholars. Their project was organized by the Social Science Research Council in partnership with the Pathways to College Network, and was funded by the Lumina Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Teagle Foundation, and an “Access and Equity” award from the Fulbright Program. The first sentence of the book quotes Derek Bok—normally a sure sign that nothing that follows will perturb the complacency of the universe. If you knew that and nothing else about the book, you might well expect yet another exhortation to keep up the good work while making the necessary adjustments for changing times, the need for diversity, & etc., etc., etc.

I wonder just how happy Lumina, Ford, and the others are with the results. What Arum and Roksa have come up with is an astonishing indictment of American higher education. It is not based on any discernible ideology but on empirical data, drawn from numerous applications of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an exam designed to measure liberal learning, such as advances over the four years of a college program in students’ abilities to think critically. The results are that overall, as measured by CLA exams, 45 percent of college students learn next to nothing in their first two years of college, and in four years, 36 percent of students have remained, at least intellectually, pretty much where they began.

One could draw quite a variety of lessons from this. Maybe these numbers indicate that those students who aren’t learning much in college shouldn’t be in college in the first place. Or maybe this means colleges do an exceptionally poor job teaching the things the CLA measures. Or possibly it is a hint that college serves some important social function that has little to do with advancing students’ knowledge and intellectual skills.

In their concluding chapter, Arum and Roksa stick to fairly bland conclusions: “institutions need to develop a culture of learning if undergraduate education is to be improved.” The book’s title, Academically Adrift, refers to the students, not the colleges or their administrations. The students’ failure to “to develop the high-order cognitive skills” associated with a college education, “should be a cause for concern.” The students themselves bear a share of the blame but colleges fail to “prioritize undergraduate learning.” As for the students, they spend too much time on nonacademic activities rather than study, and they gravitate towards easy courses. And the authors worry about the persistence of intellectual inequalities in college among students from different racial and ethnic groups. But Arum and Roksa want no part of the idea that these results amount to something that ought to summon high alarm:

The situation that exists on today’s college campuses in no way qualifies as a crisis, and we have consciously avoided the use of rhetoric here that would point to “a crisis in higher education.”

(Relax Lumina, Ford, and Carnegie. Nothing here after all that the higher ed establishment can’t handle tidily.) The reason that “limited learning” is not a crisis is that “organizational survival is not being threatened.” That strikes me as an odd criterion, but no matter. “Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis because the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes they seek…” In other words, as long as Animal House gets sufficient beer and bongs, as long as parents don’t complain, as long as faculty members get their sabbatical leaves, and so on, we’ll be OK.

Even if the situation is not a crisis in Arum and Roksa’s view, it is far from ideal and they have proposals for making things better. Elementary and secondary schools should do a better job preparing students for “rigorous academic work.” College leaders should commit themselves to student learning as a goal. Dorms should be managed to promote students’ “individual social and academic development,” rather than as “revenue and cost centers.” Colleges should “monitor and enhance the academic requirements of courses.” Courses should be “appropriately demanding,” and require “significant reading, writing, and critical thinking.” Students’ “curricular experiences” need to be “transformed” to make students into active learners, and this involves “collaborative curricular activities,” though they caution against “overemphasis on studying with peers.” Graduate students preparing to teach and faculty members need to master better teaching strategies. Colleges need to do a better job in aligning incentives so that faculty members are rewarded for investing their time in becoming better teachers. And all colleges should embrace “assessment” as a standard way to monitor their success.

I appreciate the tone of moderation that Arum and Roksa strike. They sense accurately enough that higher education as a whole isn’t likely to welcome their findings. The typical response of colleges and universities to criticism that can’t be ignored is to embrace it rhetorically (“We can and will do a better job…”) and then lay in some additional bureaucracy (The Special Assistant for Academic Rigor; the Program for Teaching Excellence; the Collaborative Learning Initiative; etc.) Will their findings be enough to prompt an effort at real reform?

Maybe, but meanwhile the skeptic can feed on that other development, the impactful enunciation by the Impactorators of their commitment to Academic Impact. Back in 2008, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed a meeting of the International Association of University Presidents in the Chilean port Viña del Mar where he announced his plan for “Academic Impact.” It didn’t register with me at the time, but I caught up with it a year later and wrote about it here. Ban Ki-moon offered little detail but called on college and university presidents “to promote and sustain the concept of the Universal Citizen cutting across cultures, religions and backgrounds, promoting the kind of education that can foster the spirit of universality among your students.”

Eventually Academic Impact took the form of ten principles, which colleges and universities are invited to endorse.  They are:

1. A commitment to the principles inherent in the United Nations Charter as values that education seeks to promote and help fulfill;

2. A commitment to human rights, among them freedom of inquiry, opinion, and speech;

3. A commitment to educational opportunity for all people regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity;

4. A commitment to the opportunity for every interested individual to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for the pursuit of higher education;

5. A commitment to building capacity in higher education systems across the world;

6. A commitment to encouraging global citizenship through education;

7. A commitment to advancing peace and conflict resolution through education;

8. A commitment to addressing issues of poverty through education;

9. A commitment to promoting sustainability through education;

10. A commitment to promoting inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and the “unlearning” of intolerance, through education.

Worldwide, Academic Impact has signed up 540 college and university members, 145 of them in the United States. Ban Ki-moon remains its enthusiastic supporter. He launched it formally at a conference in New York on November 18-19, 2010, where J. Michael Adams, president of Fairleigh Dickinson University and president-elect of International association of University Presidents also spoke. President Adams also posted an essay on The Huffington Post a few weeks ago extolling this initiative. Many years of working in higher education have inured me to pretentious academic silliness but once in a while something achieves a level of vapidity so sublime that I am stopped dead in wonder. President Adams commences his piece, “A breath of new hope is blowing across the globe—from Australia to America, from Canada to China, from Africa to Europe.” Needless to say it is a big breath, and a directionally challenged one.

When a college signs up for Academic Impact, it agrees to do something—anything really—to advance at least one of these principles. It is a low-impact commitment in that sense. My NAS colleague Ashley Thorne has been pondering some of the implications, especially the idea that American colleges should be encouraging “global citizenship.”

I am going to come to rest on a simpler point. If Arum and Roksa’s portrait of American higher education—especially higher education below the level of the top tier institutions—is accurate, should our colleges and universities be investing any time at all attempting to loft themselves in President Adams’ “new breath of hope?” Readers may want to dig a little deeper into Academic Impact before answering that question. I’ve provided the links.

It is by no means the case that I regard the ten principles as wholly mistaken. Hooray for human rights, freedom of inquiry, inter-cultural dialogue, and so on. The issue is whether it makes much sense for colleges and universities to take up these grand commitments when they appear to be less than competent to carry out their most basic tasks. We have a system of higher education that has devolved to the point where in four years it cannot even marginally improve the intellectual capital of more than a third of the students who actually stay that long-and many don’t. Engaging in a grand pantomime about altering the course of human history won’t avail against that incompetence. I’m not sure Arum and Roksa’s mild-mannered recommendations will go very far either, but at least they point in a meaningful direction. Students who are now learning next to nothing, I suppose, have nothing to lose if their college president give windy speeches about educational opportunity for all. But I would think that members of boards of trustees ought to consider whether a president who is spending his time on things like Academic Impact is having the kind of impact that we need right now.

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