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OREM, Utah — Of the many things that happen at a university, it seemed among the most mundane: the periodic task of coming up with those “core values” that flash from websites or are splashed on banners hung from campus light poles.
At Utah Valley University, or UVU, the process started smoothly. A committee of faculty and staff agreed with newly inaugurated President Astrid Tuminez that the institution should be about “exceptional care” for students. Another priority: “exceptional results.”
Then Tuminez, a former Microsoft executive, proposed a third core value: “exceptional accountability.” And the conversation skidded to a halt.
“That was where I got the most pushback,” she said. Faculty leaders told her, she recounted, that “accountability” was “a terrible word that is used to bash academia. We cannot have that as our core value.”
Tuminez wants to raise the graduation rate at UVU, where only 33 percent of students seeking a four-year bachelor’s degree earn one within six years. That’s about half the national average and makes the campus 499th out of the 593 public universities and colleges for which graduation rates are available from the U.S. Department of Education.
But many faculty interpret “accountability” as a corporate term and criticize such things as basing budgets on achieving performance goals and allowing student reviews to influence decisions on tenure and promotion — approaches they say are already dumbing down what and how they teach.
“I’ve seen a lot of corporate leaders come to higher ed and think they can run it like a bank. And you can’t. It’s not a bank. It’s not a retail company. There are complexities to it that are different on purpose.”
Dave Kieffer, principal analyst,Tambellini Group
It’s a revealing example of how people inside higher education often bristle at adopting strategies from the private sector, and why colleges and universities continue to be slow to change.
“I’ve seen a lot of corporate leaders come to higher ed and think they can run it like a bank. And you can’t. It’s not a bank. It’s not a retail company. There are complexities to it that are different on purpose,” said Dave Kieffer, principal analyst at the higher education research and advisory firmthe Tambellini Group. “Coming in guns blazing generally does not work very well.”
On the other hand, said Kieffer, faculty need to “look at the modern world and figure out how to adapt to that.”
This clash of cultures is being waged against a backdrop of unprecedented financial and enrollment challenges and pressure to improve low productivity and poor success rates — and at a time when more nonacademics are being appointed college and university presidents.
There are few campuses that better illustrate this clash than UVU.
Charges and countercharges have been flying at this public university that’s the largest in the state, with 43,000 students. Among other controversies, the suicide of a 73-year-old veteran faculty member was blamed by 16 of his colleagues on “completely unsubstantiated” allegations they said were aimed by the administration at “demoralizing and defaming” a professor known for teaching one of the toughest courses on the campus and who the university said graded in a way that was “arbitrary and capricious.” An appeals court in April dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university brought by his widow.
Other faculty complain that the focus on improving graduation rates is giving too much weight to student ratings of instructors, or SRIs — anonymous, Yelp-like reviews — in decisions about granting tenure, promotions and raises. This, and what they perceive as a crackdown on the toughest teachers, they say, coerce them into trying to keep students happy by making courses less demanding and awarding higher grades that aren’t deserved.
“I know grades are inflating. I do it myself. I actually lower my standards,” John Hunt, who teaches history, told Tuminez at a contentious meeting of the faculty senate she attended in October, a video of the meeting shows. As a consequence, he said, “I’ve seen my students’ ability to learn, to write, to comprehend material plummet” — including the many, Hunt pointed out, who are destined to go on to work as history teachers.
Only 33 percent of Utah Valley University students seeking four-year bachelor’s degrees earn one within six years.
UVU administrators discount this, and provided data showing that grades are up a modest two-tenths of a point over the last decade. What they’re pushing faculty to do, Tuminez said, is not make it easier for their students to pass, but to give them more support so they won’t fail. Admission to the university is open to anyone; 26 percent of those who enroll have incomes low enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants and 37 percent are the first in their families to pursue degrees. Students in both groups often need more help than their higher-income counterparts whose parents have experience with college.
The stakes have gotten higher now that Utah legislators are tying millions of dollars in funding for UVU the state’s other public higher education institutions to meeting goals including raising graduation rates and the number of degrees conferred.
That comes as universities and colleges nationwide are confronting not only poor success rates but enrollment declines and other crises and competition from fast-growing online providers such as Utah-based Western Governors University.
Related: How higher education lost its shine
“It’s almost, you are in your world of academia, and you have not looked out to see what else is going on in the world,” Tuminez said of some of her critics on the faculty. “When you see that over 500 colleges have closed in America, I can’t even begin to emphasize how important that is.”
Meanwhile, she said of students, “if you paid in money, if you paid in time, you expect a certain impact for yourself” — namely, a degree or some other useful credential.
But students aren’t customers, faculty shoot back, and faculty are not employees who can be managed; under long-held tradition, they share responsibility for governing the universities and colleges where they work.
“Corporations are different. To them, the customer is the whole thing,” said Masood Amin, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who was turned down for a promotion — in part, he suspects, because he teaches tough subjects, including thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, and got lower-than-average SRIs in some of his courses.
“The students are important for us, but our program [is] also,” Amin said. It “needs to have some rigor. If we were to hand out degrees and grades very easily to students, we would lose our credibility.”
Administrators who treat faculty as employees have it backward, said Scott Abbott, a professor of philosophy and integrated studies.
“Our version of things is the administrators are the employees,” Abbott said. Universities need experts in the disciplines they teach, “and then you hire some people to make sure there’s housing for the students and maybe insurance for the students and whatever else you need, who can get some buildings built for the students and faculty.”
“The tensions we’re feeling right now are because it feels like administrators are trying to run parts of our university that are better left to the faculty.”
Scott Abbott, a professor of philosophy and integrated studies at Utah Valley University.
Those two groups can’t exist without each other, Abbott said. “And the fact that we need each other means that we have to respect each other and respect each other’s competence. The tensions we’re feeling right now are because it feels like administrators are trying to run parts of our university that are better left to the faculty.”
More than one in four university and college faculty nationwide are dissatisfied with their jobs; 70 percent of those have considered a career change, according to a September survey by the course materials provider Cengage, and 29 percent cite what they say is a lack of support from their institutions or a sense of pressure from administrators.
Those administrators increasingly include presidents who did not come up through the traditional faculty ranks. More than 40 percent of presidents now serving never held a tenured or tenure-track position, research at Virginia Commonwealth University has estimated.
Tuminez became president of UVU in 2018. After having run corporate and legal affairs in southeast Asia for Microsoft, she was surprised, at an early university budget meeting, to find department heads and academic chairs lined up to ask for money, but “nobody report[ing] what they did with the money last year or two years ago or three years ago, or how much money they’re sitting on that they haven’t spent.”
That has changed. Among other shifts, nonfaculty staff now also undergo what Tuminez said is the “very corporate practice” of performance reviews on which merit pay increases are determined. “It creates a lot of clear, good conversation and feedback.”
When faculty and staff proposed a symbolic acknowledgment of the Native American tribes that originally lived where the campus is now, she asked why enrollment and graduation rates for Native American students weren’t higher, and directed work to begin to address that. As for graduation rates that weren’t increasing, and dropout rates that didn’t decline, she said, “you have to ask why.”
Tuminez paused. “So that’s what I mean by accountability.”
She cited the Buddhist idea that two seemingly opposite things can coexist — in this case, academic purity and corporate-style accountability.
“If by ‘corporate’ you mean hardworking, results-oriented, accountable about resources,” Tuminez said, “then ‘corporate’ is a great word.”
Many faculty at universities and colleges are open to accountability, said Kieffer. But “I have encountered institutions where there are very knee-jerk reactions to anything the administration wants to do. And they basically say, ‘Leave me alone and let me do my thing.’ ” There are also faculty, he said, “who want to engage in the conversation and figure out how to get it right.”
UVU has an Innovation Academy that’s working to improve student success rates by, among other things, connecting general education courses in subjects such as composition or ethics with real-world projects. One botany class developed signage for a local national park so visitors could identify the plants and animals, for instance. A university analysis shows that this approach has sharply reduced dropout rates.
Students “have to see something tangible” from the classes they’re required to take, said Tammy Clark, UVU’s associate provost for academic innovation.“Especially in these times where higher education is getting a hit for ‘Are you relevant?,’ I think this is our chance to say, ‘Yes, we are.’ ”
Even these efforts to show students how they might use their educations has gone slower than anticipated, however, said Clark, a chemist by training who previously worked in drug development at a pharmaceutical company before moving into higher education — a shift she said “was a little shocking. It was a different culture.”
Some faculty have been reluctant to innovate out of fear it could affect their SRIs, Clark said, and, in turn, their chances at promotion or tenure.
In industry, “you can push the envelope,” but the expectation is that you will “learn from it if you fail. So if something goes wrong, that’s completely fine.” At colleges and universities, “there’s a lot of fear of doing that.”
It’s no wonder, Abbott said. “If I had a new colleague just coming in on the tenure track, and I knew that that person was going to be judged the way people are being judged now by deans and the provost and president, I would say, ‘The most important thing you can do is to get good SRI scores and comments. So teach an easy class and make your students happy.’ ”
He paused, reflective.
“Look how old I am,” said Abbott, who is 73. “So maybe all I’m talking about is my own resistance to change. I worry about that every day.”
On the other side of the campus, Tuminez, too, reflected about why higher education finds it so hard to change. One reason, she said, is because it hasn’t often had to. Since World War II, the number of students had kept growing and tuition revenue kept coming in.
Those days are over, she said, sitting at a conference table in her office, which is dominated by a statue of Saraswati, Hindu goddess of knowledge, wisdom and learning.
“We are operating today in an America where higher education in some quarters, it’s hated, it’s being devalued, it’s being disparaged. And it takes a long time for the human mind to say, ‘Wow, my landscape has completely changed.’ ”
This story about change in higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Additional reporting by Jon Reed. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.
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