Let's play "what if?"

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgI came home from a meeting yesterday afternoon which was supposed to be thinking about what our dean calls "blue ocean" ideas for improving the diversity of the population of students, staff and faculty in the College of Engineering. My group was supposed to be focusing on issues that impact women's underrepresentation (or, as one might put it, men's overrepresentation), considering women of all ethnicities and classes.

The thing is, we kept getting hung up on current realities. We can't do this because the faculty won't hear of it. We can't do that because we can't get the data from that entity. We can't do the other thing because it costs too much. So we end up cutting off the brainstorming before we even get started thinking of blue ocean ideas.

If we start thinking about the future using the current conditions, of course we won't be able to envision a different path! We can only see our current path.

So instead, let's play "what if," or its counterpart "Let's pretend" that many of us were such adepts at playing as kids. Forget about how you get there, let's imagine what could be, and then work out a way to get there.

Wanna play? More below the fold.

What if...

  • faculty were expected to include in their job applications a statement about how their pedagogy and content supported the learning of marginalized populations? and that expectation extended into their jobs? and tenure decisions actually took that work into consideration?
  • partnerships were set up between graduate students in education (or engineering education) acting as apprentice faculty and faculty who wanted to reform their curriculum, and the grad students got course credit for helping revise the curriculum, and the faculty member got service or teaching credit for mentoring that graduate student?
  • there was a partner hiring office that found opportunities for employment for the partners and spouses of new faculty? and maybe some of those positions would be in staff positions of the university?
  • we advertised staff positions further out of our community?
  • the university supported a co-op grocery store and restaurant on campus that sold soul food, good Mexican food, daikon radishes and burdock roots, lemongrass, chois and misos galore?
  • the university allowed students from HBCUs, HSIs, and tribal colleges to go on exchange or transfer to our university and that they would continue to pay the tuition of their home institution rather than out-of-state tuition?
  • as soon as a faculty member or staff member found out she was pregnant (or shortly thereafter), a packet would appear out of thin air (or maybe from HR) that clearly outlined all the health benefits, leave benefits, and tenure-clock-related rights that they had?
  • universities provided information about family benefits and cultural support as a matter of routine to faculty candidates?
  • universities built in lactation rooms as a matter of course in their buildings, same as bathrooms? There would be a fridge, comfortable chair, window with a shade, sink, microwave... what else?
  • faculty and staff (and other parents? grad students? undergrads?) were guaranteed space for their kids in on-site daycare?
  • the university made sure there were hair salons nearby to campus who were skilled at managing the hair and hair styles of people of colour?

Okay, that should be enough to get the creativity juices going.... What else could we do? Think blue oceans!

(And if we start getting crabby about other commenters, I'll start deleting comments.)

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How about:
Coordination with au pair and nanny-finding services as well as coordinating nanny-sharing amongst faculty/staff.

Universities scheduling the same spring break as local schools

Supporting faculty who coordinate and staff STEM camps for underrepresented groups (without making snarky comments about how these things don't count for promotion)

Setting realistic expectations for new faculty. Instead 3 promotion levels with tenure at the 5-6 year mark, create 5-6 levels with a 2-3 year trial period for tenure. After jumping through the hoops of a PhD and possibly a post-doc, do we really need to prove ourselves all over again?

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 09 Sep 2008 #permalink

Students (grad students, undergrads) and their families were eligible for decent health insurance at appropriate for their budgets prices.

as soon as a faculty member or staff member found out she was pregnant (or shortly thereafter), a packet would appear out of thin air (or maybe from HR) that clearly outlined all the health benefits, leave benefits, and tenure-clock-related rights that they had?

I would argue that this should happen much much earlier in the game, like during the hiring process. I don't think anyone should ever have to ask, "what's your maternity leave policy?" I would be afraid that if I asked such a thing, people would automatically assume that I was planning to get pregnant, and therefore not hire me/deny me tenure/judge me to be less competent.

Sick child care - absolutely essential

Great ideas above. I like this task. I'd add:

  • Spousal hiring support that extends beyond spouses with a Ph.D.
  • Support for conference childcare (including providing childcare for on-campus conferences).
  • Available and advertised support groups and mentoring programs for women and under-represented groups. With scheduling that accommodated commuter students.
  • On-campus or university subsidized family housing (including families with pets) for students and new faculty members.
  • Financial support for purchase of computers and calculators for students.
  • Oh, and changing tables in restrooms!!! So obnoxious that 90+% of campus bathrooms don't have them.

These might not apply to what you are trying to do since I'm thinking as a grad student but...

*Faculty have to include a statement about their own strengths and weaknesses as a mentor, including how they interacted with students of diverse backgrounds, in their tenure file. And their students filled out their perspective on same. And this information was available to PhD students deciding on a mentor.

*Graduate students need official leave time (we just got a parental leave policy, but still no personal/vacation or sick time- it's all "at the discretion of your advisor")

*Universities footed the bill for all visa fees as a matter of course, and departments set aside a slush fund for short-term loans to graduate students/post-docs (particularly useful for international students waiting for paperwork to come through so they can actually get paid).

Some of the things that you describe are common sense (e.g. clear descriptions of benefits). Some of the things that you describe are basically about making universities incredibly comfortable places that care for a professor's personal needs, ensuring an adequate range of restaurants, grocery stores, hair stylists, daycare, and spousal job assistance. Many large companies offer at least some of these things (Google being a particularly plush example) but this is still a pretty plush list. All of this concern for the restaurants and hair salons available to elite professionals shows a certain class bias. Yes, students would benefit from at least some of these things, but some students who are struggling to find space in classes needed to graduate might wonder if the money spent on providing for the needs of professors could have been better spent on opening more sections of courses.

The spousal hiring thing, at least for spouses in academia, is probably a worthy exception, because academic hiring is unlike most other professions. However, for the rest of it, I think it's better to focus on things that academics do well as academics, rather than trying to provide services and amenities for elite professionals.

So, I like your ideas about pairing faculty who want to improve a course with graduate students who have expertise in pedagogical issues. More exchange students from other institutions is probably a worthwhile idea, and one that again focuses on academics. Improved mentoring is probably a good idea that would benefit students across the board. However, efforts to improve mentoring have to be more than superficial--I don't want to sit through some mandatory meeting with vague generalities that insult my intelligence. Specific, concrete, proven strategies are things that I would love to hear. Brownbags with people trying out these approaches, so we can compare notes, would be great. But a mandatory seminar with vague, non-specific, and high-minded generalities will be ignored: I'll just bring my laptop and work.

Also, be careful about requiring standard statements about commitments to fostering diversity: Yes, it's a noble idea, but unless there's meat behind it everybody figures out how to say what they need to say on the paperwork and then they move on. Look at academic job ads: Every American university includes a statement that "Women and minorities are especially encouraged to apply." European job ads don't. I don't know that American science faculty are all that much more diverse than European science faculty. Including mandatory statements of high ideals sounds nice, but actions mean far more than mandatory noble statements.

Thanks to the folks who are thinking of blue ocean ideas to add to the list.

Thanks Alex for your comments also, but I'm looking for brainstorming ideas, rather than criticizing ideas that have already come up. And I'll leave my response to your comments for later, in hopes we can get back to brainstorming.

Keep those ideas coming!

How about frequent, efficient transport for faculty/staff/students within the university's spatially distant facilities? As in, shuttle from University campus to hospital to off-campus labs? And more than once an hour, too!

(For those of us who work off-campus, getting on-campus of a 1 hour meeting should not take 3 hours out of the workday.)

By JustaTech (not verified) on 09 Sep 2008 #permalink

OK, so ideas:

At most universities, the staff has a large low-income and minority contingent among the janitorial, maintenance, and food service workers. However, increasingly they are hired through contracting organizations rather than hired directly as university employees. As a result, they don't qualify for a lot of the tuition and admissions benefits afforded to faculty and other staff. If you want to expand outreach and recruitment among under-represented groups, and work with groups who already have ties to the campus, extending tuition and admissions benefits to contract staff in the same manner as other long-serving staff would be a way to go.

On a related note, every university has at least some sort of program (generally a well-photographed program) where students and faculty do outreach in schools with large under-represented populations. Bringing the children of staff (including contract staff) to campus for after-school programs would give these students more direct exposure to the university environment and improve outreach efforts, while also making the work-life balance a bit easier for hard-working university employees who make less money than faculty but still need childcare.

This may not apply as much at residential campuses, but I teach at a large state university where a lot of students have jobs (including many students from under-represented groups). Offering more sections of bottleneck courses, including evening sections, would improve our graduation rates and get a lot more under-represented minorities into the STEM workforce. However, in tight budget years, classes are hard to get. Also, improving the advanced teaching labs and senior project facilities, so that students get more advanced training, would make our (disproportionately minority) students more competitive in the STEM workforce.

So the bread and butter stuff of academia (classes and labs) can be just as important to STEM diversity if you're failing to serve your students.

What about a university which strongly encurages male faculty members to take at least half of the responsibility for their home and children, shouldn't that release some pressure on the female faculty members who already have to do this?

Ok, crazy idea here. What if we abolished tenure clocks. Not tenure entirely, just the idea that it should take X years to reach Y $, papers, etc. Instead, new faculty would be given shorter contracts and they'd be able to adjust where on the teaching-research continuum they wanted to be for the next 1-2 year period. If you've got a big grant and have some cool papers that are going to come out, slide yourself towards the research end of the spectrum for a year or two. When times are lean (or your kid is a toddler) move over to a teaching-oriented position description. And here's the key - moving towards teaching for a year or two should not prevent you from later moving back towards research-intensive status. If universities want to hang on to some semblance of tenure - just set a quantifiable standard (X papers in Y journals or whatever) and when a faculty member has made it to that standard, they get tenure.

Say, as long as we're dreaming here, I say we do away with some stuff that's really unnecessary, too. First, let's do away with the specific rules about general ed. When I went to UC Berkeley, we had a neat system (which lasted about 3 years before it bit the dust). Take x number of credit hours outside your major field. Period. Fantabulous! I actually graduated on time! I'd also say let's make every college and university set the same entrance requirements so those high school kids aren't jumping through hoops constantly and then finding out, hey, I took X for this school, but they won't take me because they're too full, but now school Y will take me but they won't let me transfer that course, so I gotta take essentially the same material all over again but with some other label! Ooh, I hated that stuff! It took me 5 years just to get to Berkeley in the first place.
Then it should be a hard and fast rule that counselors gotta counsel! I don't know how many times I went for advice on what courses I was supposed to take and never did find anyone who even knew what was in the ding-dang-dong catalog and counselors and department heads and professors all had different takes on it. I failed to graduate on time with my masters because of just such a miscommunication. Cost me plenty of bucks to get around that one and a few more years of courses to repeat.
I also think remedial courses are important -- that's one way you increase representation of poorly represented groups around here. They lack the credits to get in, but they have the smarts, if you give 'em half a chance to show it, I found when I was teaching 'em. So let's give 'em a chance. Give 'em the courses they should've had to start out with, then they can back up and then go forward. So what if it takes some of us 7 years to get the BA? We get there eventually!

What if introduction to engineering courses did not require a certain mathematics co-requisite?

What if all students were expected to work a job in essential building services?

What if construction projects on campuses functioned as real-world laboratories?

What if it were possible for STEM students to minor in humanities and humanities students to minor in STEM?

What if scholarship opportunities could be renewed annually provided academic achievement instead of automatically expiring after 4 years?

I thought of some more....

What if introductory science classes were taught on a seminar model taken from freshman composition?

What if all students were required to study abroad (foreign or domestic)?

What if "alternative spring breaks" became the normative spring breaks for students?

What if non-traditional employers had a substantive portion of a job fair?

What if teacher training programs became an integrated BA/MA or BS/MS program?

What if new dorms followed accessibility standards of the ADA throughout the entire building (as opposed to only being in select rooms or floors)?

Spousal hiring support that extends beyond spouses with a Ph.D.

Yes yes yes yes yes. It is important, because academic jobs require entire-family relocating much more commonly than most other jobs. And it could be done without costing the university hardly any money at all - just let the spouses use the career services support that the university already has. The number of spouses needing the service would be a tiny percentage compared to the number of students that career services already works with.

Here's a what if:

What if disadvantaged and non-traditional students were not required to work more than full time in order to pay their living expenses and their share of the cost of their education? If that was the case with me I would have gotten that masters degree instead of deciding it was not financially feasible.

What if the culture of "we know you are people with lives outside of school" permeated most four year institutions (beyond just "oh we accomodate student athletes by providing special tutoring")?

What if, when schools are successfully sued because they are underpaying women there was an effective educational campaign acompanying the salary adjustments?

What if professors did not ask inappropriate questions on interviews (the illegal ones to propsective faculty, obviously, but also things like "what do you think about female underrepresentation in science?" to prospective grad students)? What if they instead volunteered their department demographics and success measures broken down by race and gender? What if those numbers were actually something to be proud of?

Not so much a proposal as a thought experiment:

What if universities got rid of pretty much every service and amenity except classes, labs, and libraries, and reduced tuition? Would this lower tuition expand access to the economically disadvantaged (perhaps reducing the loan debt and work hours for some students), or would the lack of support and services reduce access for the economically disadvantaged? Would this departure from an immersive residential model started for the sons of the European elite in an earlier era work better or worse in a more diverse modern society?

I'm not convinced of an answer either way, but it's worth thinking about when one contemplates adding or expanding so many non-classroom services in a university.

Other ideas:

What if responsibility for a course was not a solo task for one quarter, but rather a team task for several terms? Biology does this to some extent in the introductory courses. Having, say, a few experts in the particular subfield of the course, a visually inclined person who enjoys working with digital media (I'm simply not a visual person, so making graphics and animations is painful for me), and an expert on pedagogy techniques working together for a few sessions would lead to a better course than one person taking short-term responsibility for a course on top of responsibility for other courses and a research group. One person in that group could be a new professor or a graduate student, so the less experienced learn gradually rather than sinking or swimming in a new course (while the students suffer the consequences of this person's training).

What if all public universities up to the first BA/BS (or further?) was free, as a continuation from high school?

And what if it was paid for/supplemented by a federal/state lottery or somesuch? (We have a system a bit like that in Florida).

What if Universities bought textbooks as pdf's, simply paying the publishers a discounted price per head of student enrolled in the appropriate classes per semester? Cheaper, easier to update, etc..

Alex said:

What if universities got rid of pretty much every service and amenity except classes, labs, and libraries, and reduced tuition? Would this lower tuition expand access to the economically disadvantaged (perhaps reducing the loan debt and work hours for some students), or would the lack of support and services reduce access for the economically disadvantaged? Would this departure from an immersive residential model started for the sons of the European elite in an earlier era work better or worse in a more diverse modern society?

I think what you're describing here is pretty much what we've got in Sweden. Swedish universities are forbidden by law to charge students for their education. The universities provide teaching, not eating and sleeping. There are usually various councellors and advisors and organisations hanging around that can help you find somewhere to live, etc, but there are no dorms. All swedish students are eligible for the same subsidy+loan from the state, regardless of how much their parents earn. Although we have a problem right now that this subsidy and loan hasn't followed inflation rates so it's much too low, it's supposed to be able to cover all your needs, including renting an apartment. So, all in all, swedish uni students are left to fend for themselves to a much greater degree (we're viewed as grown-ups rather than young adults by society), and the flip-side is that you don't have to dish out a load of money to even enter uni. It's not perfect, but Sweden does have a very high percentage of university-educated people!

Sorry about hijacking the thread here - just wanted to point out that some what-if-scenarios might already be in use somewhere, which leaves the possibility of evaluating and improving on them.

What if ...

- 'engineer' was a female term.

- we replaced 'he' in every engineering textbook with 'she'?

- it were perfectly normal for students to analyze the flow of fluids through diapers and menstrual pads as examples in advanced fluid dynamics classes?

- we re-branded engineering: a new name, a new identity, a new culture. A profession that is inclusive, respected, sustainable, a leader at working with others to address human problems.

- engineering school symbols were pink and suggested people, male and female, solving problems in order to help others, and not, say, white males or rigid tools or Lady Godiva or songs glorifying excessive drinking, or ..... No really -- what if?

- we truly believed that a person could be a feminist, have no interest in excessive drinking, find baseball and football unbelievably boring, wear makeup and earrings and twirly skirts AND be a fantastically good engineer.

- students who can actually do engineering, and not just get good grades in engineering, were recognized and made visible. (I'm thinking about Tonso's 2007 work here)

By Friday'sRant (not verified) on 12 Sep 2008 #permalink