Holistic admissions

Increasing diversity in graduate admissions has become regular conversation among graduate deans and graduate school personnel.  The Council of Graduate Schools has include sessions on diversity and inclusion at its Annual Meetings and summer workshops for many years and recently actively promoted holistic admissions through a funded project and publications.  In 2015, Hobsons funded a CGS research project to explore existing practices and strategies for creating a more diverse graduate student population.  The results were shared with the graduate education community through a CGS publication that includes promising practices for holistic admissions and an overview of existing resources.  As graduate dean at Virginia Tech, I was invited as one of the participants to share our holistic admissions process.

Since then, I have also been invited to participate in ETS sponsored breakfast panels for increasing diversity in Graduate School at the 2018 CGS Summer Workshop and 2018 Annual Meeting.  These were focused generally on strategies used by selected Graduate Deans for creating inclusive graduate education and increasing diversity in graduate school and followed the development of the ETS GRE Holistic admissions website. In November 2018,  ETS hosted a webinar entitled “Diversity in Graduate Education: Looking at – and beyond – admissions”.  The panel was moderated by Jamal Eric Watson, Executive Editor of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

At Virginia Tech, we have developed a holistic admissions process that involved a modification of the on-line application to facilitate admission decisions based upon more than quantitative measures including test scores and GPAs (or the university from which they graduated).  Applicants are “more than a number” to us.  We value the following characteristics as success critical attributes and use them as relevant factors in admissions:

  • Community involvement/service
  • Leadership
  • Social, economic, physical, and other barriers overcome
  • Personal/professional ethics
  • Achievement
  • Research and scholarship

While it can be argued that the characteristics are often articulated in the applicant’s statement or letter of application and frequently incorporated into letters of recommendation, VT Graduate School has added sections to the application itself and created the ability to “sort” by these characteristics as well as GPA and test scores.  We added questions to the application and for the reference letter section.  These modification have encouraged academic units to select those additional characteristics of importance for admission and to “sort in” the applicants who demonstrate these within their pool of qualified candidates.

In modifying our application, we considered data provided by our academic departments about the additional criteria that were used in the review of the application materials.  Specifically, we modified the application so that applicants could provide additional educational experience for consideration in admissions including the characteristics/attributes identified above.

We also modified the letter of recommendation form based upon the personal attributes critical to academic success studied by Educational Testing Services in its development of the Personal Potential Index (PPI).  Specifically, reference letter writers are asked to evaluate the applicant on the following attributes: communication skills, ethics and integrity, initiative, innovation and creativity, planning and organization, and teamwork. They are also asked to provide a brief statement about the most compelling reason to admit the candidate.  Although the full letters of recommendation are still to be submitted, the characteristics/attributes can be used to sort-in those with the desired experiences.  The historic context, rationale and process are articulated in a short presentation.

Based upon anecdotal evidence and our initial data collection, our holistic admissions approach allows for the inclusion of a more diverse pool of applicants than use of quantitative criteria primarily.

University mission statements

Some background before discussing mission statements….

Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) is a university-wide initiative offered by the Graduate School at Virginia Tech. Through the implementation of unique programs and opportunities, TGE pushes the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and aims to significantly change how graduate students prepare to become the next generation of scientists, educators, scholars, engineers, artists, and career professionals.  One of these programs is the Future Professoriate graduate certificate.

Every semester for the past 15+ years, I’ve taught a graduate course entitled Preparing the Future Professoriate which is one of the required courses to earn the certificate. The purpose of the class is to provide graduate students the opportunity to learn about universities and especially the roles and responsibilities of faculty members.  Each semester 55+ master’s and doctoral students from our 8 different colleges (e.g., Engineering, Science, Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Business, Architecture and Urban Studies, Natural Resources and Environment, Agriculture and Life Sciences) enroll in the class.

One of the early assignments for the class is to find, share and blog about mission statements from two college or universities, U.S. or international. Over the years, I have found this assignment and the discussion that follows to be important in raising awareness about the various types of colleges and universities around the world and their different and yet sometimes similar mission statements. As a result, I have continued to reflect upon the purposes for mission statements, similarity in the words included in the mission statements, the audiences for mission statements, and changes that have occurred over time.  And in the past few years, I have used digital polling software (e.g. Mentimeter for interactive presentations) to share the results with the class for discussion.

The first question I ask for each to share three to four words that they found in the mission statements.  And the second question was for them to identify the type of institution they selected.  I was curious about the words contained in the mission statements and I wanted to learn how they would characterize the university they selected.

Below I’ve included word clouds from the mission statements as shared by the graduate students in the class for the past three semesters. (Please note that this is not intended as a scientific analysis but more of an observation). As you can see, there are some words like research, community, knowledge, service and more that seem to be found in many of the mission statements. Teaching (learning), diversity (access), and global also appear in many mission statements. None of these words are surprising.  But what is surprising is that the word “student” (students) doesn’t appear as often as one would think.  Student or learner (and teaching/learning) seems to be implied rather than directly mentioned. In the figures below, private universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges were in the mix.  If we were to sort by higher education institution type (e.g.private universities, liberal arts colleges, HBCUs, and community colleges) the key words in the mission statements would reflect more about the specific mission of the institution.

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the word clouds for the mission statements, the second question was about the type of college or university selected by these students.  Two examples of the word clouds are shown below.  As you can see, public research universities were common among the universities selected – not surprising because VT is a public research university and perhaps is the most familiar and of interest to the graduate students.   I found it interesting that “PWI” was used as a popular description for many of the entries but likely this was related to the recent in class conversation about PWI (predominately white institution), HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and MSI (Minority serving institutions) institutions.

 

 

 

In January 2018, I was pleased to read a blog by Julian David Cortes-Sanchez entitled “What do universities want to be? A content analysis of mission and vision statements worldwide”.  Although this isn’t the only analysis completed on mission statements, I found his findings pertinent to the mission statement assignment for my graduate course.  Cortes-Sanchez did an analysis of mission and vision statements and found that the most frequently used terms were research, university, world, knowledge and education. These are very similar to the words identified through the class assignment; not surprisingly.  The terms of global or world seem to be newer addition to mission statements as universities strive for a more global presence.

Although there are some very similar words used in mission statements, close attention to the words used can provide a greater understanding of the unique mission of the institutions of higher education.

 

Effecting change in graduate education

It seems like I’ve been advocating for change in higher education for a long time now.  In some of my presentations dating back 1990s and recent blogs include posts about a ‘futurisktic‘ perspectives, university for the 21st century (Duderstadt, 2001), a call for embracing the ‘conceptual age‘ (Pink, 2005) and more. As a strong advocate for change in higher education, I want to share an example of change for graduate education.

Last week (June 12-14), the VT Graduate School hosted a conference on creating a space and place for graduate education drawing upon the 13+ years of experience gained through the innovative Graduate Life Center (GLC) and the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered by the VT Graduate School.  Graduate education colleagues and student affairs professionals attended the inaugural gathering to participate in the conversations about the “places, spaces, services and collaborations it takes to support the unique needs of graduate students”.

The conference was focused on the “what” and “how” of creating a space and place for graduate education.  In my opening remarks, I focused on the “why” and the historical context that prompted the development of the GLC and the TGE programs.  To begin….the call for change and the confluence of Duderstadt (2001) and Pink (2005).

In his book entitled “A University for the 21st Century, Duderstadt (2001) wrote that if lasting institutional reform is to be achieved, it will require changes in graduate education, with greater emphasis upon the integration of the disciplines and their applications to societal issues.  Daniel Pink (2005) argued in his book “A whole New Mind” that society has moved from the agricultural age to the industrial age to the information age and for the 21st century, the conceptual age.  Specifically, he wrote that “we are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age.”

Although other reports, books and professionals have called for change, Duderstadt and Pink were very influential in my rethinking and re-imagining graduate education and the leadership role that Graduate Schools could play.  Graduate schools and graduate deans have and must accept the responsibility for creating a space and place for graduate education. This can be done physically regardless of the size of the space and can definitely be accomplished conceptually in building and growing academic community(ies).  At their core and among the underlying principles, Graduate Schools and Graduate Deans must be responsive, integrative, interactive, inclusive & innovative. We (graduate deans) have the power to convene and we must be lead the transformation.  The calls for change in graduate education are loud including the most recent document from National Academies of Science, Engineering and Mathematics (NASEM, May 2018) entitled Graduate STEM education for the 21st century.  Although the report is focused on STEM, the recommendations are applicable to graduate education in general.  We (Graduate Schools, Graduate Deans) have responsibility for change, must be strategic and lead the transformation.

 

Obviously there are differing perspectives and views of and from the different parts of the university not unlike the fable of the blind “men” and the elephant.  Although many within the university community might want to see the Graduate School in a more traditional sense and less transformative, leaders needs to see things differently and look for that which is “unobvious” to others.  Times have changed and we have the responsibility to create a new culture for graduate education by developing meaningful and relevant programs. In doing so, I found the following strategies to be useful:

  • programs (e.g., workshops, classes) that provide added value (e.g., career development) to the degree
  • programs and opportunities that compliment not duplicate departmental efforts
  • incentives for participation including graduate certificates and academic credit
  • resources need to be identified within Graduate School and utilized to offer programs and opportunities
  • programs and opportunities should be innovative, dynamic and evolving and especially meaningful and relevant to current and future graduate students
  • strong commitment from the Graduate Dean (e.g., advocate, champion for change)

The consensus study report (NASEM, 2018) indicates that “it would be wise to acknowledge and understand the current and future challenges facing this system (higher education) and take steps now to ensure that it remains vital, adaptable, and relevant for many generations to come. To neglect graduate education, or to ignore threats to its success, puts the economic, social, and cultural well-being of the nation at risk. (p. 19, 2018)

Graduate education needs to change and we can transform graduate education through by understanding cultural change and building a new culture with new traditions and expectations for graduate education for the 21st century.  We don’t need to do this alone; we can develop partnerships and collaborations.  The charge to graduate deans is to take the lead and the challenge to our student affairs colleagues is to join us.  We can create a space and place for graduate education.

Citizen Science: Engaging citizens in research

The 2018 Annual Conference of the European University Association was held in Zurich, Switzerland April 5-6, 2018 using the theme of “engaged and responsible universities shaping Europe”.  Topics included social responsibility, lifelong learning, sustainable Europe, social inclusiveness and diversity, open science, scientific integrity and ethics, and more.  The sessions included lively discussions and live tweeting (#EUA2018Zurich).  It was informative to hear about the EUA perspectives on these topics and to reflect on these same topics as discussed (or not) among higher education leaders in the U.S.  The presentations can be found on the EUA website.

A fascinating presentation on Citizen Science closed the conference and is the focus of my comments here.  In the U.S., we have frequently referred to the social responsibility of the university and public engagement as part of the university mission especially land grant universities.  We have used terms including ‘citizen scholars’ (eg., VT Graduate School Citizen Scholar program), ‘scholar citizens’, ‘scholar activists’ and to some extent citizen science.  The programs and opportunities vary across universities but highlight the connections between the university and society.  Citizen Science in the U.S. seems to be a relatively new entity (first conference in Oregon in 2012), books authored recently (e.g., C. Cooper, Citizen Science: How ordinary people are changing the face of discovery, 2016) and often associated with the environment issues (e.g., Citizen Science Association).

In his introductory comments at the EUA Hot Topic session and overview, Daniel Wyler (University of Zurich) identified Citizen Science as an element of open science and described Citizen Science as able to “enlarge the scope of research in all fields of science and able to enhance public education and the understanding of science”.  He argued that “many scientific and societal issues need citizen science” in areas such as the environment, aging, and energy” and could be helpful in providing the foundation for long-term policy decisions.  He shared guidelines for universities and policy makers and introduced the Citizen Science Center Zurich which is jointed operated by the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. The goal of the Center is to enable “researchers and citizens to create and conduct research collaborations that produce excellent science” in support of the UN 2030 Agenda 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Examples of citizen science in the European context were shared by Kevin Schawinski (ETH Zurich), Sabine Stoll (University of Zurich) and Julia Altenbuchner (University College London).  The three shared distinct examples of science conducted at universities that actively engaged citizens in the research.  As part of the process, citizens could become actively engaged in the design of research projects, data collection and analysis, developing recommendations, and shaping research agendas and public policy.

Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) is one example and can be described as “a situated, bottom-up practice that takes into account local needs, practices and culture and works with broad networks of people to design and build new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world.”  Current projects include: Doing it Together Science (DITOs), Extreme Citizen Science: Analysis and Visualisation (ECSAnVis), WeGovNow, and Challenging RISK (Resilience by Integrating Societal and Technical Knowledge).  Check out these exciting projects and see how citizens are helping with research.  And there’s a free new online course entitled “Introduction to Citizen Science and Scientific Crowdsourcing”.

Another example comes from Kevin Schawinski who engaged citizens in his research on galaxy and black hole astrophysics.  He and his colleagues initiated a project entitled Galaxy Zoo which can be found with Zooniverse.  Zooniverse is the “world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research.”  Zooniverse provides many opportunities for citizens to engage in meaningful research with professors and currently lists 84 very diverse projects on their website.  These range from arts to literature to medicine to space and demonstrate the real projects and publications as a result of Citizen Science. Very impressive.

Universities have a responsibility to society and a Citizen Science approach provides the opportunity to reframe science through ‘people-powered-research’, to challenge our existing paradigm of research, to redefine “expertise”, and to empower genuine public engagement.

VT-shaped individual: graduate student focus

Shortly after his arrival at VT, President Timothy Sands established an initiative entitled Beyond Boundaries and challenged the university to envision the future for Virginia Tech informed by four concepts: VT-shaped discovery, communities of discovery, nexus of discovery, and continuous innovation.  The key messages associated with Beyond Boundaries include the following (adapted from www.beyondboundaries.vt.edu):

  • purpose driven and person centered approach
  • disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary capacities
  • flexible curricular design and research addressing complex needs of communities and society
  • land grant mission of outreach and application of knowledge with commitment to service through “Ut Prosim”
  • inclusive and diverse communities

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 12.14.01 PMIn keeping to the conceptual framework and key messages, the VT shaped student was born. As shown in the figure, the “T” represents the disciplinary depth (3) as well as transdisciplinary knowledge (1).  The “V” represents the informal communal learning (2) and the guided experiential learning (4).  The graphic lends itself nicely to the VT symbol that has come to represent Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

While much of the internal conversation has already focused on the undergraduate student, the concept applies to graduate (and professional) students. Specifically, “the challenges of the future require the capacity to work in interdisciplinary teams, engage in critical and creative thinking, collaborate with diverse people, communicate effectively, and conduct oneself with a deep sense of ethics.”  And indeed these “requirements” are key elements of the Graduate School’s initiative entitled Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) developed in 2003.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 9.41.07 AM

As is shown in the figure and articulated on the website, the transformative graduate education (TGE) initiative “pushes the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and provides the philosophical underpinnings for a truly innovative graduate education experience.”  TGE is framed by four cornerstones (pillars): knowledge, scholarly inquiry, leadership, and social responsibility.  Our efforts and activities are grounded within the fundamental principles of interdisciplinarity, inclusion and diversity, ethics, innovation (technology) and global perspectives.

Beyond the myriad of courses and programs offered, let me Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 10.51.00 AMhighlight a few examples of the ways in which the TGE initiatives contributes to the preparation of the VT-shaped graduate student as described above.

To address the “deep sense of ethics”, all graduate students must demonstrate understanding of academic integrity and satisfy an scholarly integrity and ethics requirement officially recorded on their graduate plan of study.  For more information, see ethical pursuits in academe and ethics requirement.

In order to help graduate students “communicate effectively”, the Graduate School offers a variety of approaches:  two graduate courses – Communication Science (2 cr) and Citizen Scholar Engagement (3 cr) and recognition as a Citizen Scholar.  In addition, the Graduate School also offers a course entitled Inclusion and Diversity in a Global Society (3 cr) and actively promotes an affirming and welcoming graduate community and the Office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI).

The “T” educated individual stresses both disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary breadth and the VT Graduate School has actively engaged in developing initiatives and opportunities to foster interdisciplinary programs and interdisciplinary thinking.  Among these are the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs (IGEPs), the development of the individualized interdisciplinary PhD program (iPhD) and support for the Interdisciplinary Honor Society (IDR) established by VT graduate students.  These are fine opportunities but it is time to extend beyond boundaries even more.

For many years, I have advocated for interdisciplinary thinking and proposed the “pi” metaphor for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary graduate education.  Picture5In this graphic, disciplinary depth in more than one academic area is stressed and strong connections across the disciplines are emphasized depicting transdisciplinarity.  I would argue that expanding beyond the “T” to the Pi (π)-educated can be seen as a valuable approach in the preparation of graduate students to become the adaptive innovators needed for the 21st century workforce.

By adopting this philosophical approach in alignment with the VT Beyond Boundaries initiative, the goal of a VT-shaped graduate student can be realized not only through the opportunities to become Pi (π)-educated but also for graduate students to gain valuable knowledge, skills and abilities through the programs offered via the Graduate School’s Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative.

 

Envisioning a 21st century university

What defines a 21st century university?  How do we envision a vibrant university for (of) the 21st century?  How can we transform traditional universities?

Although these discussions began in the 1990s, focused attention on change for today’s universities is happening now as institutions of higher education find themselves at a metaphorical “fork in the road’. Change has happened in higher education throughout time but the pace of change in society today is far greater than it has ever been – so rapid that it is indeed difficult for universities to keep up let alone anticipate change.

Through my lens as an academic administrator and professor, the university of the 21st century must be adaptive, innovative and agile. As technology continues to evolve and the complexity of societal problems increase, the nature of work (and life) changes and jobs are changing more rapidly than degrees. There seems to be a growing gap between the university curriculum and the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century employment. Thus, one example of significant challenges for the university is to prepare graduates for jobs (work) that don’t yet exist. To meet this challenge, the traditional university curriculum approach must become more inclusive, adaptive and individualized with emphasis upon interdisciplinary and integrative thinking as well as experiential learning with real-world projects.

Currently, Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands has issued a challenge and engaged the university community in a conversation about transformation and changes facing the university entitled “Beyond Boundaries“.  Beyond Boundaries is a “visioning process to support two interrelated goals: advancing Virginia Tech as a global land-grant institution, and strategically addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing landscape of higher education”.  Four thematic areas of inquiry provide the context for change: advancing a global land grant, preparing students for the future world,discovering new funding models, and envisioning the campus of the future. The initiative has been in part framed around the anticipation that “a generation from now:

  • life and work will be more global, mobile, technology mediated, interconnected and less steady/stable
  • students will seek knowledge, expertise, opportunity, flexibility
  • campus will comprise heterogeneous networks and innovation hubs facilitated by technology”  (from Beyond Boundaries presentation March 31, 2016)

In conjunction with this initiative and as other institutions of higher education engage with transformation and envisioning a 21st century university, it will be important to examine existing structures and functions of our universities today.  As described in “An Avalanche in Coming” (2013), some university traditions and practices might need to be “unbundled”.  Examples include how outputs are measured (e.g., research, degrees, learning), how the people (e.g., faculty, staff, students) will be connected to the university (e.g., locations, networks), how curriculum is developed and how teaching/learning is delivered/received. Specifically, it will be important to contemplate questions such as:

  1. What if we rethink knowledge acquisition without or beyond degrees?
  2. What if we rethink access in terms of access to skills not just the university?
  3. What if  we rethink the education of students for the ability and skills to undertake projects rather than for specific jobs?
  4. How do we evaluate interdisciplinary and integrative learning?
  5. How do we implement a funding model that decreases costs and student debt?
  6. How do we envision partnerships to prepare the future generations for the workforce?
  7. How do we achieve authentic globalization and adopt a global perspective?

These are just some of the questions to be asked and topics to be explored.  They are likely to be viewed as somewhat controversial or with skepticism but they will foster lively and informative dialogue about transformation of institutions of higher education (IHEs) into 21st C universities.  The challenges are real and so are the opportunities that follow when IHEs are willing to take some risks.

Continuing this line of thinking more related to my role in graduate education – what will graduate education look like in the future? How can we transform graduate education so that graduate students develop the intellectual and professional skills meaningful for complex problem solving needed for the 21st century workforce?  What is the future of the dissertation?  More on these in an upcoming blog.

 

 

InclusiveVT initiatives: Graduate School updates

InclusiveVT was developed in July 2014 as a framework for Virginia Tech to become a more inclusive and diverse university.  An overview of the effort, recent report and events can be found on the website, the inclusion and diversity blog and through social media (twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more).

As part of the effort, senior leadership was asked to develop three initiatives for implementation starting during the 2014-2015 academic year. As one of those administrative units, the Graduate School had previously developed many programs and opportunities focused on diversity and inclusion including an office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI) and wanted to develop initiatives that would promote pervasive change and actively engage constituency groups across the university in transformative change.

In this post, I will report specifically on the progress made on the Graduate School’s three InclusiveVT initiatives:  holistic admissions, inclusive Graduate Life Center (GLC) and affirming environment for graduate education.

Holistic admissions in graduate education

In preparation for action, Graduate School staff investigated the use of holistic admissions at selected universities in the U.S. to identify promising practices. The next step was to survey departments and programs to determine the admission practices already in use at VT.  After reviewing the results of the surveys and wanting to identify admission criteria beyond the typical GPA, GRE scores (or other standardized test scores) and reputation of the university, we decided to make changes to the Graduate School application and the letters of recommendation process. Based specifically on information provided by our departments and programs we modified the application so that applicants could provide additional educational experience for consideration in admissions: community involvement and/or service; leadership; overcoming social, economic and/or physical barriers; personal and/or professional ethics; recognition of achievements over time; and research and scholarship.

In alignment with the personal attributes critical to academic success studied intensively by Educational Testing Services in its development of the Personal Potential Index (PPI), we modified the letter of recommendation form to include specific questions about the following: communication skills, ethics and integrity, initiative, innovation and creativity, planning and organization, and teamwork. Letter writers are asked to evaluate the applicant on these attributes and then provide a brief statement about the most compelling reason to admit the candidate. Full letters of recommendation are still to be submitted.

The changes in the application and the letter of recommendation form were designed and built in such a fashion that departments/programs can “sort” by the additional educational experiences and personal attributes as well as GPA and other measures departments wish.  Admissions committee are encouraged to use these experiences and attributes systematically in determining qualified candidates and not just “sort” by high GPA and high GREs. Specifically, department are asked to “sort” initially and then revisit the applicant pool to “sort” at least two more times to expand the pool by the addition of those who were rated high on the pertinent additional educational experiences and personal attributes of value for academic success. We have collected data on the demographics of the pool of qualified applicants (admissible or admitted) in the last three years and will compare these with the data to be collected starting for Fall ’16. It is anticipated that these changes will allows for an increase in the size and diversity of the pool of qualified applicants. Beginning in mid Fall’15, we have conducted workshops and information sessions about holistic admissions and I am personally holding college-level meetings to discuss holistic admissions and affirming environment for graduate education.

Inclusive GLC and Affirming Environment for graduate education

These two initiatives are both focused on creating an affirming and welcoming “space and place” for graduate education; the first initiative is focused on the Graduate Life Center (including the Graduate School) and its people, program, place, policies and more and the second is focused more broadly on the broader university departments and programs. Specific activities have included the establishment of a GLC advisory committee to define inclusivity in terms of the physical space, attributes and policies of the Graduate Life Center. Also in the mix is an examination of the GLC promotional materials, evaluation mechanisms, and future programs. Educational programs and workshops have been initiated for GLC and Graduate School employees for understanding unconscious bias and micro-aggressions along with a commitment to the Principles of Community and inclusivity in hiring of new employees and in the annual review process of current employees.

Many efforts are directed toward creating more affirming and welcoming environments for graduate education. Among these are an revised entry survey and an exit survey developed to understand why individuals chose to enroll (or not) at Virginia Tech and to gather information about their experiences at VT upon completion of their degree. These have been helpful in enhancing the graduate experience at VT. We have also conducted “mid” surveys and more recently “climate surveys” to evaluate the climate for graduate education and wherever possible to determine why individuals chose to leave VT. With the goal of retention and provision of pertinent services and programs for our students it is important to understand more about their characteristics, varying attributes and multiple identities. Thus, we developed a post-admissions, pre-enrollment survey so that they can provide additional information about their needs and desires so that we can provide meaningful support services and programs.

Throughout this year and beyond, we will be conducting workshops and information sessions and gathering data about affirming practices and information about the graduate students’ experiences.   We are working with departments/programs to assist faculty and graduate students in dialogue about understanding privilege, unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. In support of these efforts, I have authored a series of blogs on academic bullying, expectations for graduate education, understanding stress and more to share my reflections and offer resources for others to create or enhance affirming environment for graduate education.

The most recent endeavor is to change the rhetoric and reality of graduate school from surviving to thriving. Stay tuned – more to come on Thriving in Graduate School. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Risk taking and higher education: Not an oxymoron

Words like revolution, transformation and risk-taking are not necessarily common in higher education….until recently.  And I’m delighted to see the change.

“Of the iUse of the univnstitutions that had been established in the Western world by 1520, 85 still exist – Catholic Church, the Parliament of the Isle of Man, of Iceland and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and 70 universities. Of these, perhaps the universities have experienced the least change.” (Kerr 2001, p.115 from The Uses of the University originally published in 1982 by Harvard University press).

As indicated above and common knowledge, universities have been slow to change throughout much of history at least through the 20th century.  But the advancements in technology of the 21st century have definitely precipitated change in almost all aspects of the university.  We have seen changes in the teaching and learning mission.  Research and discovery have expanded due to the use of technology as have the ways in which we disseminate scholarship.  Innovation and entrepreneurship have become common in today’s universities.  And of course, administrative processes and communication strategies sometime bear little resemblance to the past.

Although change is occurring, more is needed.  Many books have been written, op-ed pieces published and reports issued about the status of higher education today.  Once such report entitled “An Avalanche is Coming” offered the following:pub-avalanche-130305_10432.693d2106

“Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education as much as it is in the school systems.  Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental” (March 2013, p. 3)

If the “pace of change too slow and nature too incremental”, the leadership for the 21st century universities must be willing to challenge the status quo and take risks.   We must be “futurisktic“.  In that blog (2013), I wrote:

“Being futurisktic is about change.  It is about embracing risk as an integral aspect of      change.  Risk should not be viewed as a negative but risk taking will likely force us out of our comfort zones.  By doing so, it allows us to acknowledge and embrace the meaningfulness and value of change…. Being futurisktic is about pushing ourselves and pushing the limits as is so wonderfully exemplified in the video entitled the future is ours.”

A recent example of pushing oneself and stretching beyond one’s comfort zone is the article about “From safe spaces to brave spaces” by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013).  The discussion of moving from “safe” to “brave” spaces has been especially pertinent to social justice and diversity. Several universities (e.g., UMBC, University of Michigan, Berkeley, UCLA, NYU) have initiated programs, dialogue and issued guidelines.  The metaphor of safe to brave should be embraced by university communities and utilized in considering futurisktic ideas and embracing change and institutional transformation.

I realize that change is difficult for some and especially in higher education where the culture tends to reinforce caution and the status quo.  As stated in “An Avalanche is Coming”, higher education needs transformation and individual leaders who can help lead the way.  “Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth” by Derrick Bell (2002) provides some guidance for these leaders toward this end.  He offers advise for being successful and maintaining a sense of integrity.  His message is simple in that he “urges us to livEthical Ambitione a life of passion, to have the courage to take risks for what we believe in, to rely on our loved ones and out faith for support during hard times, and to have the humility to know when our best intentions go awry” (front cover).

Inclusion as learning community: Initial reflections on the journey

Diversity and multicultural were two of the early terms that were used to describe efforts toward increasing demographic diversity in the corporate world and higher education dating back to the 1980s.  Since then, the terminology has continued to evolve as have the efforts and activities.

Many of the initial efforts were focused on access to higher education by individuals of diverse backgrounds especially individuals of color.  Recruitment became a priority with less attention paid to retention and graduation although these would follow. These early efforts and initiatives were based mostly on compositional diversity.  Studies were done, data collected and analyzed. Recommendations made and strategies put forward which became common practices at colleges and universities around the United States. Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) and associated offices were established and charged to increase diversity, including efforts for faculty, staff and students.

In developing successful retention strategies and degree completion among students of diverse backgrounds, universities were forced to examine the university environment and how the climate (perhaps ‘chilly climate’) influenced not only access but more so retention, and ultimately graduation. As a result, support programs and student success offices evolved. And the language and terminology continued to evolve.

The terms of “inclusion” and “inclusiveness” were made prominent by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) Inclusive Excellence initiative.  Many universities would ultimately adopt this approach and the “inclusion” terminology now leads many offices and initiatives.

Virginia Tech adopted the AACU inclusive excellence approach which guided our most recent diversity strategic plan and led the way to our current initiative.  Since early fall 2014, Virginia Tech has embarked on a journey toward inclusivity through our “InclusiveVT” initiative.  In developing the university-wide initiative, VT President Sands indicated that inclusion comes first and with inclusion diversity will follow. Through InclusiveVT, senior administrators were charged with the responsibility to propose and implement specific initiatives designed to foster inclusivity throughout the university.  These efforts are focused on people, programs, and policies and are identified with the four aspects of inclusive excellence: access and success, campus climate and interior up relations, education and scholarship, and institutional infrastructure. In an attempt to increase communication and university engagement with the initiatives, activities and resources are posted on the website, information shared via twitter (@inclusiveVT) and through our blog entitled diversity dialogue.

As indicated above, there are many activities and efforts underway at Virginia Tech which can move us toward becoming “inclusiveVT”.  But the efforts and conversation must be pushed further.  If we are to become truly inclusive I believe that we must embrace inclusion as a learning community – not necessarily a Learning Community in the more formal sense but a learning community in which we (faculty, staff, students) work together with shared goals and aspirations.  In this learning community we will need to work together and collaboratively.  Not as top down or bottom up but as fellow travelers on this journey.  In this learning community, we can and must learn from each other regardless of one’s position or status.  We must be open to hearing the voices of others who are different from us and sharing openly.  As a community, we will need to understand “white privilege“, micro aggressions, and unconscious bias and engage in efforts to create affirming environments for all.  We should feel empowered to speak and required to listen.  In this learning community, we can and will learn.

The journey has begun.  Please join us and offer your reflections along the way.

 

 

Blogging in graduate education

Blogging has a role in 21st century higher education including graduate education.

Although blogging and blogs have been around for more years, Gardner Campbell (currently Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success at Virginia Commonwealth University) was on the Virginia Tech faculty and passionately advocated for the use of blogs for the undergraduate students in the VT Residential Honor’s College. In August 2011, he wrote that blogging could “catalyze learning” through the framework of “narrate, curate, and share”.  His efforts inspired me as Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education to establish my own blog and to incorporate blogging in Graduate School administrative activities and more importantly as an integral part of the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative. (Note: currently we are also engaged in other types of social media [e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LInkedIn] but the focus here is blogging).

For the past several years, blogging-as-pedagogy2blogging has become an integral part of several graduate courses offered within the Graduate School’s Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative including GRAD 5104 Preparing the Future Professoriate, GRAD 5114 Contemporary Pedagogy (GEDI), GRAD 5214 Diversity and Inclusion in a Global Society and GRAD 5014 Ethics and Scholarly Integrity.  Embracing “blogging as pedagogy” in these courses, graduate students are encouraged to “reflect, read, write and share” with their colleagues on topics related to not only preparing the future professoriate but current issues facing higher education.  Although some expressed initial hesitancy to blog and were new to blogging, most of the graduate students became actively engaged with blogging.  Many commented that they enjoyed learning a new skill and found it valuable.  Indeed, blogging is an important aspect of modern learning.

Beyond its use in graduate courses, blogging was introduced to the faculty and graduate students associated with interdisciplinary graduate education at VT specifically through the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education program (IGEPs).  Each IGEP has created a blog that feeds into the “mother blog” hosted on the website which provides the shared space for cross IGEP discussion.  Another example is the use of blogs with the Global Perspectives Program organized through the VT Graduate School.  The “grandmother blog” for the Global Perspectives program gathers and shares blog posts from several “mother blogs” including GPP Switzerland, GPP Chile, GPP alumni, and from the graduate deans experience.  This provides but one example of how individual blogs can feed into a common space for collective reflection on global perspectives and engage colleagues around the world.

Blogs are but one form of communication in today’s academic world.  In sharing and disseminating our scholarship, we have typically used publications (articles, books, exhibits and more) and presentations. Technology used in our connected world allows for other ways of sharing today.  Blogs use a different voice and often reach different audiences in different ways but represent a valuable tool for scholars and practitioners.  Graduate students as the future faculty and career professionals need to gain these skills as part of their graduate degree and preparation for the 21st century workforce.