EIU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Blair Lord outlined some goals for the future of Eastern Illinois University at the Faculty Luncheon on Wednesday, Aug. 31, in the Grand Ballroom. Following are his remarks:
I, too, want to welcome you back (or for those new to Eastern this term, just a simple welcome). We have had a very smooth start of the year, and it is due in significant measure to you, so thank you.
One of the things I got to do this summer was attend a meeting for provosts sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (known affectionately as AASCU). There were more than 60 provosts in a single room, which I’m sure is a very scary thought for most of you! Anyway, at this meeting, we heard a preliminary (and still unpublished) report from Peter Ewell (a well-known analyst of higher education) regarding a study of 12 institutions, each of which has an excellent record of success in retaining and graduating their students. The study is funded by the Education Trust and AASCU and seeks to discover what factors can explain their success. The hope, of course, is to find things that can be transferred to other institutions to help them be similarly successful.
Not surprisingly (although perhaps unfortunately), the preliminary findings suggest that there is no “silver bullet” which can make all schools equally successful. What they are finding, however, resonates with what we do so well here at Eastern. Specifically, they have found that while there is a large variety of specific strategies used, there is an overarching shared culture focused on ensuring student success. Looking more closely at this culture, they are identifying some common themes:
• The successful institutions all have a commitment to high expectations for/of their students. They stress that students must take active responsibility for their own success, but these schools also exhibit a pervasive belief that ALL of the students they admit have the potential to graduate, while at the same time ALL students must be held to the same high expectations.
• The successful institutions also are committed to providing a sound scaffolding of academic and personal support services. While students are expected to take responsibility for their success, they are provided the tools and support they need to be successful.
• The successful institutions have high expectations for faculty and staff to support student learning. The success of their students is seen as everyone’s responsibility. The culture of high expectations is a culture of mutual expectations.
• The successful institutions are able to engender in their students a real sense of belonging, a sense of inclusiveness in the academic community.
• They have a truly shared belief and conduct system focused on student success.
Last month, I had the opportunity to speak to the Senate Education Committee hearing on graduation and retention in Chicago, and I shared this study with them and asserted that it is a pretty solid description of the Eastern culture. We are committed to the success of our students. As Dr. Kory said last night, Eastern’s faculty feels most successful when our students are successful. I also will share with you that we came very close to meeting the selection criteria for inclusion in this study.
You also know that last year, our review by the NCA yielded a similar description of Eastern. The chair of the visiting team commented on how we had fostered a true sense of community among our students, faculty and staff. This was one element leading to their conclusion that we are a truly excellent regional comprehensive institution.
So, what now? The president has challenged us to engage in a collective conversation about institutional mission. Hopefully, we will conclude that a significant aspect of our mission is this overarching culture of student success. While we are having this conversation, of course, I want to offer another challenge. Let me contemplate, let us contemplate how we can take the next step – how we can go from being an excellent comprehensive university to being the BEST comprehensive university (at least in Illinois – although, I think we could mount a credible argument that we already have attained this goal). As the fine educators that you are, of course, I am sure a few of you are thinking this is fine, but we need some more definition to this goal -- this target -- to help.
As a provost who had the whole summer to contemplate these sorts of things, it may not surprise you that I have a couple of ideas to offer. I have talked about these with a number of folks, and I have tinkered with them as a result, but I will not hide behind faceless advisors and blame them for these ideas. They are mostly mine, so if they strike you as cockamamie, I am the one to blame. It also is my hope that these may serve us well as we contemplate future directions for our units.
Let me offer, then, that Eastern Illinois University…
• Become a showcase for teaching and learning at a regional comprehensive university with an emphasis on relationship-driven education.
We are pretty clear that we are an institution that places a particular emphasis on our instructional mission. This does not exclude or minimize the importance of scholarly engagement or service, but we justifiably point to the quality of the instruction we provide. To help spread good ideas among us and to see that good ideas from elsewhere are shared, we now have a Faculty Development initiative ably led by Dr. Mildred Pearson and aided by Dr. Weber. The process of teaching in and of itself is an intellectually engaging and challenging activity that can be stimulated by the sharing of good ideas. It is my aspiration, however, that we will hear faculty at a sibling institution say to a colleague, we need to find out what they are doing at Eastern that we can emulate.
And what was this about “relationship-driven education”? At least during the time I have been with you, we have emphasized repeatedly the close and supportive relationships that students develop with their faculty mentors – you! Moreover, it is not just this relationship that is a hallmark of the educational experience we offer. Students also learn from their class peers, from graduate students with whom they interact in a variety of ways, and with others at EIU. Our high level of residency promotes this further by offering opportunities to combine the curricular with the co-curricular. This is a real difference between an Eastern education and one elsewhere. It is an element of our distinctiveness worthy of intentional emphasis.
• Have the most active and highly regarded student research/student scholarship program of any Illinois public comprehensive university.
This really follows from the focus on relationships. It is from these relationships that opportunities for engagement in scholarly activities follow. Our different colleges already do a great deal to involve students, and it takes different forms among the colleges as is appropriate. In some instances, we involve students in labs. In other cases, they work in the field. Hands-on internship opportunities dominate in still others. Our on-going examination of service-learning opportunities represents yet another form of engagement. A couple of years ago at this luncheon, I spent the better part of 15 minutes enumerating the ways we engage our students on campus and off. With this new target, I am seeking to raise the bar even higher. Not only should we engage our students, but the rest of the state should know about this!
• Evaluate all academic programs with an eye to having each degree program be identified as the “first choice” program for students considering that major at an Illinois public comprehensive university.
We all know that in most cases, we do not and will not compete directly with elite institutions for our students. However, for those students who are looking to further their education at a public comprehensive university, we should consider how to have them perceive our degree programs in whatever it is that they are interested as their first choice. This concept applies to graduate and undergraduate programs alike. We do not need to accept that we will take only those students who cannot get into one of our peer state institutions. Who are our students, for what are they looking, and how do we challenge and inspire them to seek us out over our competitors. If we get an accurate measure of this, we should be able to choose our students in ways that we can only dream of doing right now. Eastern is a great institution, and determining how to meet our students’ desires is NOT code for lowering our expectations or standards. That is not what our students – the students we really want to have on this campus – desire. We can have very high expectations and still be seen as the place to go if one is to major in – fill in the blank here!
Let me expand on this with a few more examples:
• Become known as the university of choice for Honors College/Programming among the state’s public comprehensive universities.
We have a great tradition with our Honors programming, and the fine work of Dr. Irwin this year in recruiting a new honors class suggests that many students see our Honors initiatives as something special. Still, we know that for many prospective honors students a couple of our other sibling institutions’ honors programs catch their eye. Honors students enrich Eastern in numerous ways, and I know you often find them a particular delight to have in your classes. I think we are well on the way to having our peers envy our Honors College and honors programming because of its reputation in the eyes of students and their parents.
• Increase the portion of students participating in Study Abroad programs with the long-term goal being to have the highest rate of student participation in these programs among the state’s public comprehensive universities.
Some of you may be thinking that I have become a one-trick pony on this topic. I went to your college faculty meetings last year and pounded this drum pretty hard. Some of you also know that my own daughter – a college student in the northeast – spent a semester living and studying abroad last spring. I even went and visited her for a couple of days. She is home now and a changed person. We now have new leadership in our study abroad office, Wendy Williamson from Western Michigan University, who has extensive experience managing study abroad programs. She is challenging her dean, Bob Augustine, almost daily with new ideas to advance our study abroad initiatives. She also is challenging some of our administrative practices to make it easier for students to participate. The University of Wisconsin at La Crosse has one of the highest participation rates in the country. They are not that different from Eastern, and I am not trying to attain their level. Certainly, however, we can aspire to do better than our state peers.
• Have the Doudna Fine Arts Center become known within the region in a fashion similar to that of the Krannert Center up the road a piece.
When folks talk about the Krannert Center, few of us require much additional explanation because its programmatic essence is well-known throughout the region. A $48 million facility project here at Eastern is a colossal investment by the state and by our students. We should not, can not, and will not try to replicate what goes on in Champaign, but we need to find appropriate initiatives that will have a similarly significant impact on campus and in our region. It cannot be simply a nice building for three departments. Certainly, it will be that and the departments deserve it, but we must find ways to make it much more than this. Dean Johnson and the future occupants of the building are already in the contemplation stage on this task. Ultimately, we need wide-ranging conversations to realize fully the promise this investment holds for us.
Most certainly, these are not the only ideas (hopefully, they are decent ones) on which we can work, but working on these sorts of grand targets gets me really excited. Moreover, in spite of our continuing budget challenges, I believe that our situation here at Eastern is such that we are in a very strong position to undertake this move to the next level of accomplishment – a perfect storm so to speak. The next time the Education Trust and AASCU wants to study an elite group of high performing institutions, I believe Eastern should be at the top of the list. Together, I know we can reach this next level. We are going to have a great year!