• September 4, 2015

71 Presidents Pledge to Improve Their Colleges' Teaching and Learning

71 Presidents Pledge to Improve Their Colleges' Teaching and Learning 1

Westminster College

A professor and student examine stock indexes at Westminster College's Center for Financial Analysis.

Making a public vow is a time-honored way to stick to one's commitments. If you tell your colleagues that you plan to stop smoking, you know that they'll smirk if they spot you lighting up six months later. In August, 40 American billionaires said they would give away at least half of their wealth. They, too, know that they'll be scorned if they fail to deliver.

Now 71 college leaders have made some vows of their own. In a venture known as the Presidents' Alliance for Excellence in Student Learning and Accountability, they have promised to take specific steps to gather more evidence about student learning, to use that evidence to improve instruction, and to give the public more information about the quality of learning on their campuses.

The 71 pledges, officially announced on Friday, are essentially a dare to accreditors, parents, and the news media: Come visit in two years, and if we haven't done these things, you can zing us.

The real purpose of the pledges is to deepen an ethic of professional stewardship and self-regulation among college leaders, says David C. Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, the fledgling organization that has sponsored the project.

"One basic principle of the presidents' alliance is that it's voluntary," says Mr. Paris, who is a professor of government at Hamilton College. "You volunteer. You tell us what you need. We try to put in front of you what we think are the norms that should guide our professional community. And then we all work on them and figure out how to help each other."

'We Will Be Held Accountable'

The founding presidents represent a range of institutions: community colleges, regional and flagship public universities, large private universities, and a for-profit institution (Capella University). But a plurality are liberal-arts colleges, including Juniata, Macalester, Middlebury, Occidental, and Vassar Colleges.

"We want to keep reminding our faculty and our students that we will be held accountable for what we say we will provide," says Anne K. Temte, president of Northland Community and Technical College, in Minnesota. "That's why we were interested in being a member of this alliance."

Michael S. Bassis, president of Westminster College, in Utah, says that "creating a professional community around outcome-based improvements is profoundly important. I think this project will help us at Westminster, and I think it will help higher education in general."

His pledge includes the following: Beginning in 2011, all first-year students at Westminster will be required to create electronic portfolios that reflect their progress in terms of five campuswide learning goals. And the college will expand the number of seniors who take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, so that the test can be used to help measure the strength of each academic major.

Miami Dade College, meanwhile, is promising that, among other things, it will take new steps to link its campuswide learning goals with those of each major. (The English department, for example, recently decided to add a course on literary accounts of genocide, because the college had determined that English majors had few opportunities to "demonstrate knowledge of diverse cultures," which is one of 10 campuswide learning goals.)

"The crucial thing is that all of our learning assessments have been designed and driven by the faculty," says Pamela G. Menke, Miami Dade's associate provost for academic affairs. "The way transformation of learning truly occurs is when faculty members ask the questions, and when they're willing to use what they've found out to make change. Other assessment models might point some things out, but they won't be useful if faculty members don't believe in them."

Daniel J. Bradley, president of Indiana State University, calls the alliance "an attempt to make sure that people outside the academic community understand that those of us who have made academe our career are interested in the same kinds of problems they are. There is a commitment on the part of higher education to continue to improve, and to help our students meet their goals."

How to Compare Colleges?

How reassured will the public feel because of these promises? Some are clear and specific, but others might baffle people unversed in the language of academic administrators. ("Our CUE model provides scaffolding for the collection of artifacts and overall evaluation of e-portfolios," declares Bowling Green State University, in Ohio.)

And although all 71 institutions have promised to make public more information about learning outcomes on their campuses, not all have promised to do so in formats that would easily allow comparisons with other colleges.

Miami Dade, for example, has not adopted nationally benchmarked tests such as the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency. "We respect the institutions that have chosen to use those tests," Ms. Menke says. "But I believe very strongly that institutions should have the flexibility to design what the institutions find to be an effective assessment structure."

Mr. Paris hopes and expects that more institutions will join the alliance. "In the long term, as more people join, I hope that the Web site will provide a resource for the kinds of innovations that seem to be successful," he says. "That process might be difficult. Teaching is an art, not a science. But there is still probably a lot that we can learn from each other."

Mr. Paris's leadership group was created in 2009 with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Teagle Foundation.

In addition to the presidents' alliance, the group plans to create a new certification for colleges with excellent standards in teaching and learning. The idea, Mr. Paris says, was inspired in part by the LEED certifications for environmentally responsible architecture. Eight institutions will soon take part in a pilot study to determine the parameters of the certification.


1. dvacchi - November 05, 2010 at 09:37 am

This is excellent and overdue! What about the other 4,200 institutions of higher education?

2. nlasla - November 05, 2010 at 09:58 am

We encourage all institutions to join. See our website at http://www.newleadershipalliance.org/what_we_do/presidents_alliance/.

3. 22280998 - November 05, 2010 at 11:35 am

A bunch of BS. How many are willing to actually fund teaching and learning centers that will actually help faculty?

4. struwwelpeter - November 05, 2010 at 11:44 am

My university is on the list. If we are any indication of the overall pattern, most of this will be smoke and mirrors. The change underway here includes substantial PR elements, an increase of up to 25% faculty workload with no planned extra pay, dumbing down the disciplinary curriculum to make it more fun and trendy, and gutting the liberal arts. The teaching-learning center will give us lessons in how to teach. No provision is planned for actually helping us teach more effectively. As it effects my department, nothing in the new program is designed to increase or improve learning; effects will be measured in terms of student satisfaction rather than learning outcomes. Faculty had no role in developing the program, but we are stuck with carrying it out.

Good luck, everyone. I hope your experience will be better than ours.

5. archman - November 05, 2010 at 01:05 pm

These initiatives are good for jobs growth. Just think of all the non-faculty administrative hires we'll need to better measure "student success" !! Yay...

Why don't universites just hire some more *instructors* to improve student learning?? Oh right I forget, that's not "innovative".

6. clementj - November 05, 2010 at 02:20 pm

Of course it will be mainly smoke and mirrors. The college presidents don't have a clue as to what constitutes a good test for better learning. If anyone really wants to improve learning consider the ADAPT program at U Nebraska, Lincoln, or the Modeling program at AZ State. There is research on the subject, and ways to train instructors, but due to time and money pressures they will use virtual bandaids.

7. jgregory100 - November 05, 2010 at 04:59 pm

I am retired and thought that I was done with education work. However, I recently gave a seminar to faculty and graduate students at LSU in Baton Rouge on Learning and Teaching. Their assistant vice chancellor co-authored a nice article in American Scientist on learning and teaching. I have mathematically modelled many of the learning processes and wrote a learning simulation program about 15 years ago that served me well the 10 years that I was associate dean for undergraduate studies. I praised the authors who wrote the article and was invited to give the seminar. The seminar included the process for converting from short-term to long-term memory, increased reliability with group study, value of restudy, value of interest and importance in the subject to the student, effects of under and over stimulation, active instead of passive teaching, and indivudual preferences of sensor input for student and the value of multiple-senory communication by the teacher. We also looked at the value of sleep management and aerobic fitness and exercise on mental performance. I have a Web-based sleep model that predicts academic performance and risks for accidents associated with sleep management.

I started out by saying that I thought that I was finished with education work when I retired three years ago to enjoy grandchildren. After retirement, I was approached by one of my former student peer mentors when I was associate dean of engineering and asked to redevelop my learning model. He has added a scheduler for classes and study-management components and and self monitoring components. We are still working to make the Web tool match my core model in the prediction of the next test score. Otherwise, is seems to be working. We have identified four major universities who are willing to test the new process as soon as we have the bugs fixed. The tool is free to use while we are in the beta test mode. Eventually, the user will be ask to pay a fee for the web service. If anyone is interested in looking at the tool, go to FreshmenSuccess.com. I am not listed there, but the founder of this work has provided his contact information. He can communicate or forward your questions to me if needed.

8. a_voice - November 05, 2010 at 06:22 pm

This makes no sense. Why pledge to do what you are supposed to be doing?

9. 22221757 - November 05, 2010 at 10:57 pm

This is a good initiative. Apparently all is well here at West Virginia University and President Clements sees no need to pledge!

10. richardtaborgreene - November 06, 2010 at 01:18 am

In all big organizations one does nearly everything along twin tracks---looking like X and actually doing X. Both have to be done well. So appearing to be doing something is fine if there is a twin track of actual doing.

Teaching and learning are not educating and educative. So colleges that transfer methods and information are a waste of time---books, videos, friends, and the web transfer info far better and faster than any college (MIT included, I might add from personal experience). One goes to college to be educated and JSBrown, while not a favorite author of mine, has it about right in the two books he wrote on this. Harvard's Bok however has it wrong.

National exams are a primary reason China stayed static for 700 years---let us all hope America learns from China and imposes stasis for their next 700 years on America.

Let us by all means listen to the MBAs---they know how to manage, they know how to appear smart, they know how to steal $13 trillion from all our old ladies and then go to governments to make themselve profitable then steal another 700 billion every year via zero interest rates that force old people to NOT live on savings giving that interest to banks instead. Let us all learn about good teaching and learning from MBAs and their wise ways (Harvard derived). Talk about teaching and learning performance---all that theft rewarded by governments not jail---amazing learning powers!!!!

With elites like the US elites, nothing done matters----the place is hopeless, when the best and brightest are THAT evil and rewarded, people deserve their own miserable fates.

11. ellenschrecker - November 07, 2010 at 08:23 am

How about forming a consortium to fight for increased funding for higher education, for more attention to instruction rather than marketing, for a dedication to broader civic education rather than short term job training, for..... It's a long list and the readers of the Chronicle know well what's wrong with higher education.
What I don't understand is why the leaders of most institutions of higher learning and the foundations in the field don't get it. Do they really think that people drop out of college because of what's wrong with their classes and not because they simply can't afford it at that time? Why can't they use their presumably bully pulpits to make a pitch for real educational reform, like putting more full-time, tenure-track faculty members back into the classes so they can offer their students the attention they need.

educating students for civic responsibilities

12. mkroning - November 07, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I am glad to hear this news. As an adult educator at a local college the same vows have been made by our President. I believe we will see a great focus towards improving higher education and this is a great benefit to all nations.

13. lotsoquestions - November 07, 2010 at 03:45 pm

When are the students going to improve their studying and going to class? I don't think it matters how many seminars you make the faculty go to on their own time if the students are still more interested in drinking beer and making powerpoints about their sexual exploits than they are in studying, improving their writing and going to the library. Perhaps the university presidents could all sign a pledge that they're going to remove the climbing walls, aerobics classes and frisbee football teams from their campuses in the interests of furthering student learning. Then, instead of asking the faculty to spoonfeed the students with cartoons, fun memory games and maybe songs with hand motions, they can put the responsibility for learning back on the people who are actually responsible for learning, the students themselves.

14. blauridsen - November 13, 2010 at 01:58 pm

After noticing a touch of skepticism surfacing about feasible results that can be generated from this pledge. In scanning the article, I was alert to the familiar names of two institutions.
I am a proud alumna of Occidental College and in a status of ABD from Capella University, PhD in IT Education. Inspired by collaborative action research, the practitioner side of my research objective is to collect evidence that virtual learning teams achieve peak performance when the mindset of collaboration is enhanced by a coach/facilitator. Being in the IT industry, I support technology for collaborative communication. My path is to become a learning facilitator for synchronous online adult education.

I strongly believe that shifts are empowered by commitments like this pledge. Bravo!

15. jsalmons - November 18, 2010 at 03:55 pm

To 22280998,

As a faculty member at one of the participating schools, Capella University, I can say that yes! The University IS committed to developing and supporting faculty members' quality as instructors. We are behind this effort!

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.