Liberal Education

A Different Take on Excellence

By the time you read this message, a synopsis of AAC&U’s 2008–12 strategic plan will be on its way to your campus. The plan was developed in dialogue with members from across the United States, and richly informed by our learning from the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative. We are grateful to everyone who contributed to the shaping of this vision for AAC&U’s future, and we will work hard with you to achieve the intended goals.

We need to acknowledge at the outset, however, that making progress on the new strategic plan will require far-reaching changes both in our core assumptions about educational excellence, and even more dramatically, in the way institutions and faculty approach the design of students’ educational experiences.

Consider the plan’s title, “Aim High and Make Excellence Inclusive.” At first glance, this may seem only a statement of core values—for higher education and certainly for the AAC&U community. Yet “making excellence inclusive” is a concept that has far-reaching and potentially disruptive implications for every aspect of educational practice. We can no longer assume, for starters, that “excellence” in the student body means primarily what it came to mean in the twentieth century—large applicant pools, a low number of “admits,” and that much-coveted label “highly selective.” Nor can we assume that a high ranking by US News and World Report is the acme of excellence.

“Making excellence inclusive” challenges us to focus instead on what it would take to help all students, including those who start much farther behind, develop and demonstrate cross-disciplinary knowledge, strong intellectual and practical skills, an examined sense of personal and social responsibility, and the ability to integrate and apply learning to complex problems. To wide assent, AAC&U’s centennial LEAP initiative has described these learning outcomes as “essential” because they are needed in every sphere of life.

But you, our members—administrators and faculty alike—tell us that far too many college students are slouching through the curriculum, completing their courses, collecting their credits, but, in fact, underperforming on many of the essential capacities they (and society) need. Employers are similarly critical. And when AAC&U gathered focus groups of students, we found that some very crucial outcomes—global knowledge, science, civic responsibility, ethics, and diversity—are among their lowest priorities for their own learning. (For more details, see www.aacu.org/leap.)

In their discussions, members of the LEAP National Leadership Council compared the strategy for excellence we now have with the strategy we need. Up until now, business participants said, higher education has been “harvesting American talent”—selecting for it in admissions, bringing it along, and providing the credential. But in a global environment already becoming dramatically more competitive, the United States now needs to “develop American talent” on a scale never before attempted.

Whereas excellence in the past has been equated with high selectivity, excellence in the twenty-first century will be determined by high expectations, high support, high hands-on practice, and a very high degree of faculty and staff collaboration to create a much more intentional and goal-oriented educational experience. Excellence in the future will require us, in short, to focus as a community both on “essential outcomes” and on collective practices across the curriculum that help students achieve them.

Recently, a colleague told me that one of the accrediting commissions had considered whether teams should look for evidence of students’ critical thinking and communication skills as part of the accreditation visit. They decided, however, that it would be too “intrusive” to set such a standard. I hope my informant was mistaken, but frankly, the story had the ring of validity. “Non-intrusion” pacts are just as much a part of academic culture as the commitments to excellence and inclusion. But as a value, non-intrusion virtually
ensures an underachieving curriculum.

Most people in higher education certainly do believe in critical thinking and communication, as both “aims” and “outcomes” of college. Yet many of our colleagues are decidedly reluctant to ask an institution or a department or even most students to demonstrate that they are working intentionally and developmentally to achieve these goals.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we want actually to nurture advanced learning, then intrusion is an integral part of the task. Conversely, if we’re willing to settle for harvesting rather than developing students, then we need to recognize that higher educationwill remain, as it is, dramatically tilted toward higher income students who, thanks to their family resources, typically do better on the measures that have come to define “exclusive excellence.”

AAC&U is fiercely opposed, of course, to external efforts to dictate the curriculum. Freedom from external bureaucratic management has been a huge factor in higher education’s success, and that freedom must be maintained.

But the corollary of freedom is responsibility. It is our responsibility to define our core purposes. And there’s no getting around it: some learning outcomes really are essential, not elective, for every campus, every program, and every student.
But once we set these high expectations for ourselves, we have to attend to what happens to students, as they progress, over time. We have to be assertive about our shared expectations, and we have to be intrusive in asking whether students have actually worked on the expected outcomes across the curriculum. Did faculty take responsibility for shared goals? Did courses emphasize them? Did assignments develop them? Did assessments provide formative—and eventually summative—evidence? Did faculty and staff act on that evidence? Did we disaggregate our data? Did students get better? Did we?

With the LEAP initiative—a centerpiece of the new strategic plan—AAC&U has provided a set of “essential learning outcomes” that can serve as a point of departure for defining your own campus goals—goals that should apply to all students, not just some of them. We drew these outcomes from your insights; now we are ready to work with you to put those insights into action.

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