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The Weekly Blab 4.18

The Weekly Blab

Volume 4, Issue 18—July 18, 2010


It’s The Political Season

The best thing about TV for the past few weeks has been being able to watch all the games in the World Cup.  Every four years, soccer fans talk about *this* (whatever the *this* is for the particular time) being the breakthrough that will make Americans love soccer the same way as the rest of the world does.  And it never happens.  Well *this* time, the games were actually all available and a lot of people were talking about them.  So, we’ll see if things have changed.  Personally, I doubt it.  So, congratulations to Spain and condolences to Holland.  It was a good run.  Somebody hand Reichgelt a Kleenex—maybe the fourth time’s the charm.


The worst thing about TV for the past few weeks has been the incessant commercials for the various political candidates.  Sound bite after sound bite, with each candidate trying to outdo the rest about how they single-handedly stopped Obama-care and how all Georgia’s problems are caused by undocumented aliens.  There was an interesting article in the Chronicle this week about how angry people are, subtitled “How Hyperbolic Rhetoric Threatens to Swamp Our Politics.” As usual, the blogged comments illustrate some of that anger. 


The article’s bottom line is that people are afraid, due to loss of jobs, loss of financial resources, and ultimately, their fear that America is losing its place in the world.  In the educational sphere, there have been a spate of articles lately about how we’re now #10 in the world with regard to percentage of young adults with a bachelors degree, and how this bodes ill for the future.  The nation’s governors are gearing up to address this, “We’re facing a generation of students that is projected to have a lower educational attainment than their parents,” says West Virginia’s governor Joe Manchin III (chair of the National Governors Association), who has issued a report entitled Complete to Compete: Common College Completion Metrics.  The governors will be proposing common retention and graduation rate metrics, to (in the words of the executive summary) “in a time of unprecedented fiscal strain…shape funding strategies and pinpoint areas for improvement.”  This report has some good aspects—it clearly recognizes that most students these days are non-traditional.  It recommends collecting data on course completion rates, remediation completion rates, etc., and for these to be disaggregated for various sub-populations (including economic).  It sets a goal of 8.2 million additional college graduates by 2020, which would get the US back to #1 in college completion.  Of course it doesn’t mention where the money will come from for those 8.2 million additional students, but I’m sure that will be fully explained in the follow-up report.


Not to be outdone, the Lumina foundation is setting a goal of getting 60% of American adults to have a college degree by 2025, a goal which would require 23 million more Americans to get degrees than the current pipeline provides. 


Now, far be it from me to say that setting a goal of having 60% of Americans having a college degree would be a bad thing.  If nothing else, it would keep enrollments rising until well after I’ll retire, and guarantee full employment for college faculty for decades.  I do have a few minor questions about funding, capacity, finding the necessary faculty to teach all these folks, what this will mean for teaching quality and so forth, but at least this is a better proposal than one usually gets in the political season.  How we’ll do this in Georgia among calls for cutting the size of state government and eliminating the income tax remains to be seen.


News from RACAA

I mentioned the major points raised by Chancellor Davis at the recent RACAA meeting at our last faculty meeting, but they’re worth repeating here again.  The Chancellor noted that we will be facing three major issues in the coming year.  I’ll put my own comments in [square brackets].


The first is, not surprisingly, funding.  Enrollments have risen much faster than state support.  The result, even though state support has been growing in absolute terms, is that state support per FTE student has been dropping.  The high was $8,234 per student in 2001, and that number has fallen by almost 25% to $6,235 per student today.  The last time that the number was this small was in 1996.  [While this doesn’t include revenue from mandatory fees (the $200 per semester compensates for some of the decline), it also doesn’t take into consideration that costs have increased a bit since 1996.  For SPSU, this corresponds to about $7 million less in state funding relative to the peak, not accounting for inflation.]


The second, a related point, is that all trends indicate that enrollment will continue to rise rapidly within the USG.  We’ve added some 40,000 students within the last three years, and will add more than 100,000 more by 2020.  [If this prediction seems large, remember that if Governor Manchin’s report goal or the Lumina foundation goal is met, the prediction will underestimate growth by a substantial margin.  State funding will likely not keep pace proportionately (there’s really no way that it could), so we will be called upon to offer instruction more efficiently, without a loss of quality.  Doing so will obviously be a huge challenge.]


Finally, he noted that USG policies regarding undocumented students are in compliance with all state and federal laws, which allow for such students to enroll as long as they pay out-of-state rates.  Our priorities as a system will continue to focus on education and inclusion.  If state laws change, we will amend our policies to remain in compliance with them.  [A survey is being taken across the USG regarding number of undocumented students, and the numbers are quite small.  Georgia State, for example, reported 19 undocumented students, all paying out-of-state tuition, of which 7 were from Asia, 5 from North America (Canada and Mexico), 4 from Africa, 2 from Central and South America, and 1 from Europe.  At SPSU, the number was 1 this summer, and none in the fall.


Polytechnic Summit

I just returned from the 2nd Annual Polytechnic Summit that was held at U-Wisconsin Stout, otherwise known as Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University.  I was expecting cool weather, but just after getting on the plane, the guy next to me checked his computer and announced that the temperature was going to be 91, with thunderstorms and tornados expected.  The weather front apparently went through half an hour before we landed (and there were tornados a little further north), because by the time I got my rental car, the temperature had dropped to 77 and the sky was sunny again.


The conference was pleasant, seeing some friends I’d made last year.  It’s amazing how similar the situations we’re all facing are, and how much we all think our universities are unique.  The keynote speaker was quite good—Steve Webster, VP of Research and Technology Commercialization at 3M.  He started by saying that technological innovation has always been the fuel that has gotten America out of previous financial crises, and would no doubt do it again now.  In order to fuel technological innovation, we need graduates who are “Polymaths”, i.e., individuals who have:

  • Depth in one or more technological fields
  • A broad knowledge of the humanities and social sciences
  • Appreciation for other cultures
  • An ability to work in diverse teams, both as leaders and followers
  • The ability to learn

Our job at Universities, he said, was to engage and excite our students, to foster broad interests and knowledge, and to leverage industry and the community to support our work.  While students take our courses, we should try to help them develop the attitude of:  “when I get done with differential equations [or whatever course], I can do amazing things”.  In terms of tapping the community and industry, he suggested such things as taking advantage of company-sponsored programs (3M sponsors some non-tenured faculty in research to help them get their careers going), to tap into graduates and local engineers and scientists as guest lecturers and as student mentors (both live and online), and to develop 10 week internships between sophomore and junior years for students.  His summary conclusions were:

  • Technical innovation will revive the economy
  • Bringing innovation to market requires technical depth and the ability to make connections
  • Polytechnics can educate 21st century polymaths, who will lead the way.

Not much to disagree with there!


There were various breakout sessions offered on several familiar topics (building international relationships to support polytechnic principles, increasing learning for all students, “Writers and Engineers Unite: A Process for Collaborative Development of Communication Pedagogy”, “Aaa..ha! Moments: Experiences and Best Practices in Experiential Teaching and Learning”, A Fully Online IT degree (at USF Polytechnic), etc.  There were some special guests from the French Polytechnic System.


Since it was always the plan to shift the conference among the polytechnics, Lisa and I looked at each other and offered to host the next Polytechnic Summit (in June, 2011) here at SPSU.   If anyone is interested in helping with this effort, let me know.


On the flight back, the person sitting next to me said “I know you!”  When I asked from where, he told me one of our open house sessions, and that his son would likely be coming to SPSU in Systems Engineering.  Small world!  After landing, I saw on the news that the weather prediction for Wisconsin the next day was, once again, thunderstorms and possible tornados.