"Without an unrelenting focus on quality—on defining and measuring and ensuring the learning outcomes of students—any effort to increase college-completion rates would be a hollow effort indeed." So proclaimed Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation for Education, during the opening plenary of the annual conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, held here last week.
That statement reflected the tone of the entire conference. The nearly 1,900 presidents, provosts, and faculty members who gathered here generally said that they welcome the White House's efforts to increase the proportion of Americans who earn college degrees. But they do not want to see those degrees watered down in the process. If colleges are going to provide high-quality educations to millions of additional students, they said, the institutions will need to develop measures of student learning than can assure parents, employers, and taxpayers that no one's time and money are being wasted.
"Effective assessment is critical to ensure that our colleges and universities are delivering the kinds of educational experiences that we believe we actually provide for students," said Ronald A. Crutcher, president of Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, during the opening plenary. "That data is also vital to addressing the skepticism that society has about the value of a liberal education."
Pronouncements like Mr. Merisotis's and Mr. Crutcher's are more easily expressed than acted upon. The conference was full of laments about the economic crisis facing academe—and also about faculty tenure-and-promotion systems, which many people here viewed as far too heavily weighted toward scholarship and research, at the expense of teaching and learning.
But many speakers insisted that colleges should go ahead and take drastic steps to improve the quality of their instruction, without using rigid faculty-incentive structures or the fiscal crisis as excuses for inaction.
"Successful campuses sometimes improve their student learning despite their faculty-reward structures," said Jill N. Reich, dean of the faculty at Bates College, during a session organized by the association's Bringing Theory to Practice project. "Don't assume that you need to change your tenure-and-promotion process first."
Ashley Finley, the association's director of assessment for learning, offered preliminary data from a faculty survey that she and several colleagues recently conducted. Among her findings: Handing out "teacher of the year" awards may not do much for a college. In Ms. Finley's survey, only 33 percent of the respondents said that the existence of such an award on their campus would motivate them to improve their instruction. And there was no evidence that such awards built faculty members' morale or deepened their commitment to their institutions.
She read a comment from one respondent who wrote that teaching awards "sound good at first ... until people start to feel overlooked, or until it's obvious that the awards are used to make the award givers look good."
By contrast, using the tenure-and-promotion system to reward faculty members for good teaching seems to have much stronger effects on motivation and morale, Ms. Finley's survey found. (She cautioned that the preliminary data are drawn from only five institutions, four of which are private liberal-arts colleges. At least a dozen more institutions are expected to participate in the survey this year.)
Motivating Faculty Members
During a session on Friday that was devoted to "unasked questions" about liberal education, Amy Jessen-Marshall, associate vice president for academic affairs at Otterbein College, speculated about how to change faculty incentive systems.
"What would happen," she asked, "if we fundamentally rethink the definitions of scholarship and scholarly activity, or at least broaden them?" Such a change, she said, could allow colleges to reward faculty members for various types of civic and community engagement, and also for working on interdisciplinary undergraduate-research projects that could increase students' engagement and understanding.
But at the end of that session, Peter Felten, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Elon University, echoed Ms. Reich by warning that faculty members and campus leaders should not wait for some drastic restructuring—like a new model of tenure and promotion—before they try to improve the teaching they offer.
"There's often an assumption that I can change something, but only after someone else or something else changes," Mr. Felten said. "But the future for liberal-arts education looks fairly stark. I would urge each of you who leave here today to ask yourselves, What are you going to do to improve student learning?"
Likewise, several speakers argued that the recession is no reason for colleges to be complacent about the quality of their instruction. "In this time of complete free fall, there are plenty of opportunities to grab," said Ken O'Donnell, associate dean for academic-program planning in the California State University system's office of the chancellor.
Mr. O'Donnell is working with campuses to adopt what he calls "high-impact practices"—including classroom models that involve more-active student learning and less rote lecturing—in introductory courses where students often struggle.
Those reforms do not involve any substantial expense, he said—and they can reap financial dividends if students' dropout rates decline.
"High-impact practices can change students' lives," he said. "Their brains open up. After they become engaged in this way, the hell they'll drop out."