Futuring Paper – A Culture of Academic Excellence

Co-Conveners: Christine Wagner (CAS/Psychology) & David Hochfelder (CAS/History)

Contributors: Mitch Abolafia (Rockefeller College), Ingrid Fisher (School of Business), Eric Hardiman (School of Social Welfare), Justin Pickett (School of Criminal Justice), Prash Rangan (CAS/Biology)

As a university, we strive for a culture of academic excellence. Yet, the concept of academic excellence is difficult to operationally define, and even more difficult to assess, with many intangibles and abstracts. What is clear is that a culture of academic excellence is achieved by the actions of motivated students, motivated faculty, and most importantly, an enriched and dynamic interaction between faculty and students.   In ten years, when people think of UAlbany, will they immediately think of academic excellence? In ten years, will our best students be as successful as those from other institutions? In this report, we identify some of the forces we believe will play a role in efforts to create a culture of academic excellence at UAlbany and offer some ideas for action.

Use of Technology to Achieve Academic Excellence

The use of technology in learning will become increasingly prevalent in the future and pressures to move away from traditional classroom education and toward technology-based instruction will likely increase as public institutions feel the threat of “for profit” institutions that are more flexible in the delivery of education. Although there is no question we will need to incorporate technology into the classroom, our group felt strongly that technology must be used as a supplement, and not a substitute, for excellent teaching and effective learning. We expect that in ten years, the successful universities will be those that continue to recognize that the essence of academic excellence will remain face to face interaction between faculty and students and networking amongst students. These universities will utilize technology to increase, enhance, and enrich personal interaction, not diminish interaction. Furthermore, pressures to move toward technology creates the real threat of using technology badly, thereby diminishing academic excellence, as issues of academic integrity, passive learning, and decreased student attention span come into play.

Ideas for Future Action:

  • Work to maintain face-to-face interaction in education even as technology pushes against it, because nothing can substitute for real-time discussion, group work, and seeing body language and facial expressions. These are and will remain critical skills in the workforce and students who master them will be most successful. Maintain and enhance the incorporation of these skills into our teaching so that this becomes our niche for the future. Since face to face classroom interaction is critical, technology should be used to enhance, rather than replace, this interaction. Technology permits students to continue their interaction with the material and with each other beyond the physical classroom anytime, anywhere. With strategic use of technology in the classroom, interactions can become dynamic and learning can become even more, not less, proactive.
  • Discourage the temptation to use “bells and whistles” technology for the sake of using technology, particularly when it promotes passive learning. Rather, counterbalance this trend by incorporating technology that teaches skills of depth, breadth, patience and criticality as the heart of scholarship.
  • See ideas about faculty training in technology below

Fundamentals of Academic Excellence: Critical Thinking, Motivation and ‘Learning to Learn’

There are fundamental elements to academic excellence that are at risk of becoming severely diluted in education of the future. At the core of academic excellence is the ability of faculty to empower students to think critically, to synthesize and integrate new information in novel ways and to ‘learn to learn’. These skills remain with students long after they have left the university and will become increasingly essential to student success in the future as the amount of available information increases exponentially and is ubiquitously available online. Similarly, motivation plays a critical role in achieving academic excellence. Students and faculty who are motivated to be excellent will naturally create a culture of academic excellence. Thinking about what our university does with highly motivated students suggests that we don’t currently have the infrastructure to support these students adequately, although we praise the Honors College as a step in the right direction
Ideas for Action:

  • Identification of environmental factors that promote a desire for excellence in both faculty and students.
  • Provide avenues for highly motivated students to excel. For example, support of the Honors College, support for research experience, access to and support of internship programs, senior hands-on projects and capstone courses.
  • Maintain and enhance the basic skills of reading, writing, quantitation, statistics and critical thinking throughout education, but particularly in students’ early years.

Academic Excellence in the Face of Enrollment Pressures

With the changing demographics of New York State and a decrease in the number of available college students in the future, the pressures to maintain or increase enrollment will be strong. How will the university compete in this environment and what is the price to academic excellence? How low are we willing to go into the applicant pool and what are the consequences? Enrollment targets can be a force that seems to work against academic excellence in a battle between quality and quantity.

Ideas for Action:

  • It will be essential to strike a balance between admitting and attracting the best applicants with financial pressures for enrollments. If we wish to create a culture of academic excellence in the future, keeping admissions standards high will be more beneficial in the long run than the shorter-term benefits lowering standards to keep enrollment high.
  • However, if lower standards of admission are necessary to meet enrollment needs, it will be essential to increase student support services for basic reading, writing and math skills as well to provide assistance with strategies for studying and note taking. In addition, the university will need to be proactive about making students aware of these services and motivating students to make use of these services.

 The Future of Curriculum and Advisement in Academic Excellence

Ideas for Action:

Interdisciplinary education
: The academic majors we think of today may look very different in ten years. Trends toward a high degree of specialization will continue. Therefore, we must continue to encourage breadth and depth at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For example, incorporating the humanities and a well-rounded education into all majors will always be an asset and a liberal arts component to STEM fields is still critical. There is also likely to be a ‘desegregation’ of the majors with a push toward interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary majors and a trend away from what we think of as traditional majors.  Interdisciplinary thinking is inevitable. We should be proactive in this endeavor and do it, teach it and promote it.

Core competencies
: It is essential that core competencies of writing, math and critical inquiry be mastered in the first two years (and within the first year for transfers). It may become useful to engage different levels of students differently. For example, top students, particularly those aiming for graduate school, may need opportunities in research and internships, whereas students toward the lower end may need supplemental learning opportunities.

Liberal arts experience within a research university
: We discussed the idea of providing an experience resembling that of a four year liberal arts college in the first two years (e.g., faculty whose primary responsibility is teaching; at least some small classes; first year programs; core competency skills incorporated into introductory classes) which then shifts to the benefits of an education at a major research university in the second two years (e.g., specialized courses, career and graduate school advisement, opportunities for engaged learning).

: Quality, personalized advising will become more essential as majors desegregate, interdisciplinary majors become more common, and the job market becomes a more complex place. Advising will be essential, not just for coursework, but for applied learning opportunities and for career planning. We discussed the idea of more advisement specifically geared to individual fields within the Schools and Colleges or even within specific majors for those with large numbers of students. While faculty advisement can work well for students, time devoted to this activity will be taken from research and often faculty are not trained advisors. Therefore, professional advisors would be ideal.

Faculty Development & Academic Excellence

Our group discussed two significant forces that will have an impact on academic excellence in the future. Over the next ten years, knowledge will develop and change at an increasing rate. Teaching excellence will require even greater efforts by faculty to refresh their knowledge outside of their specific research area. Keeping up with an ever growing body of information that becomes even more complex and technical will be a significant challenge. Simultaneously, there will be increasing pressure on faculty to secure external research funding in an ever more competitive funding climate. Research versus teaching has always been and will continue to be a zero sum game. The scales tend to tip in the direction of research rather than teaching and mentoring when the expectations for tenure and promotion strongly favor research. How will we maintain academic excellence when there are too many competing demands? What will be the motivation to be an excellent teacher in ten years?

Ideas for Planning

  • In faculty hiring, ensure that appropriate emphasis is placed on academic excellence and make proactive efforts to hire faculty who are dedicated to and thoughtful about teaching and mentoring, in addition to having strengths in research. In reality, this may be difficult as investment in teaching often competes with available time for research. Therefore, we discussed a hypothetical model in which the university might operate as an academically-strong, four-year liberal arts college within a major research university. Faculty for whom teaching would be the major responsibility would provide instruction for introductory and lower-level courses that provide the breadth of the liberal arts and incorporate the fundamental skills of writing, critical inquiry etc. Faculty for whom research would be the major emphasis would teach upper-level and specialized/applied courses and mentor experiential learning opportunities such as research, internships and community engagement. We were very cognizant of the potential difficulties in the reality of such a model, but felt the idea provided a valuable framework for looking forward.
  • To create a culture of academic excellence it is essential to provide motivation for faculty to be excellent teachers who are fully committed to students and to the learning process. We discussed the need to identify valid ways to assess and evaluate dedication to and excellence of teaching and mentoring and incorporate these into tenure and promotion reviews in a serious way. Conversely, there will need to be more accountability in teaching and mentoring. Poor teaching should be identified and remediated regardless of faculty research status. Further, there is currently no adequate measure of mentoring in the true sense, to ensure that undergraduate and graduate students involved in research or other applied settings are being adequately nurtured, trained and treated appropriately.
  • We identified a need for ongoing faculty development at all faculty ranks. This would include assistance to faculty working to refresh courses as knowledge in the area shifts and grows, providing faculty with adequate time to develop new courses or programs, particularly as traditional majors morph into new interdisciplinary fields. Opportunities for faculty to become revitalized in their teaching will become essential. Faculty often teach the same course for years and feel they cannot justify time away from research demands to revise course content, update the use of technology or teaching style, or revitalize their own enthusiasm for teaching.
  • Establish programs that assist faculty in the thoughtful use of technology in the classroom. Faculty are experts in their field, but often are not skilled in the use of ever-changing technology, nor knowledgeable about how to incorporate specific technologies in the classroom to achieve teaching and learning goals. These programs would need to include not only ITS instruction on what technology is available and how to make it work, but support for creatively thinking about more effective teaching and identifying the proper technology to enhance learning.

Academic Excellence in Graduate Education

We identified several challenges facing graduate education now and over the next ten years, although some of these challenges are not unique to UAlbany. Rather, they reflect changing trends in education nationally.

  • We discussed the ‘bottleneck problem’ of admitting and training more doctoral students than the job market can absorb, making it increasingly difficult for our Ph.D.’s to find work in their field. This is driven, in part, by the necessity of having graduate students working in laboratories to maintain faculty research and competitiveness for funding. There are also enrollment pressures as discussed above.
  • We identified a critical need for ensuring that fundamental skills of writing, quantitation and critical thinking are obtained, even at the graduate level. This will become increasingly important in light of increasing enrollment and shrinking doctoral applicant pools.
  • As the number and size of M.A. programs grows, there will be an increase in the number of applicants with a diverse educational background (e.g., returning to school after being in the workforce) with varying levels of readiness for the classroom and for the rigors of a graduate program. We will need to be thoughtful and careful about admissions into M.A. programs to ensure that academic excellence is maintained despite other pressures that may exist.