Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Five Problems That SIU Can't Fix

  1. The students aren't as good coming out of high school as they would like.
  2. Funding is down to all public universities.
  3. Every student has a car, so the train isn't as important.
  4. SIU doesn't have the top physicics, chemistry, english, etc. department in the state.
  5. You can't change the past, so deal with the mess you inherited.

1. -
I hope it is clear to everyone by now that SIU students are not as prepared to be college students as students of the past. They have less skills in math, science, note taking, study habits, and reading than students of just 20 years ago. They do know more about Google, video games, cable channels, trying to study while doing IM, playing music, watching TV, surfing the net all at the same time then the old timers.

These changes in ability to learn what the college offers is a large problem. SIU should stop complaining about it and figure out how to address it.

2. -
Americans have decided to stop funding public universities at the almost 100% level of the past. Bummer.

A question might be why haven't the business people of Southern Illinois gone to Springfield and banged their fists on the table about this? The answer is the lack of accountability from the universities make it very hard to support them in this way.

3. -
If every student from Chicago has a car, then they don't ride the train to Carbondale. If you are driving, it is a lot cheaper to drive from Northern or Western.

4. -
SIU isn't U of I, and isn't going to have the top research in any major field unless someone drops a bomb on our State's land grant university. Get over it. SIU has lots of great people and does great things, but will never have the resources to play with the big boys.

It does have the resources to be the best undergraduate education provider in Illinois though.

5. -
SIU has been poorly managed since Morris got sick in the last 1960's. There hasn't been much building, there is lots of deferred maintenance to buildings, the staff has been poorly managed to the point they unionized. But, this is in the past.

Go work with what you have, there is plenty of talent, buildings and money to build something better. To do well an administrator will have to do the right things.


bill stevens said...

Point-by-point comments:

1. Figuring out how to address poor preparedness for college work is not hard. The work and research have been done. What is needed is for universities to reach out to school districts and help them with their curricula and teacher competence.

Google "Math and Science Partnerships" or contact me at wstevens@siu.edu for a ppt on this. Also google SENCER for another starting point on grasping the issues. Peter, I'll send you the PowerPoint if you like and you can link to it for download.

Universities also need to look within concerning teacher competence. As I understand it, a high school chemistry student has very little chance of being taught chemistry by a college graduate who majored in chemistry.

The only way for universities to fix what they do and how they do it is to build real faculty commitment to this mission into the universities' reward systems.

2. Related to #1. Americans do not support public universities because they no longer believe in the public good at all, not because of lack of accountability. If support were there, accountability could be demanded thereafter.

But the country, though soured on the Bushies' Mideastern misadventures, is still stuck on the pure short-term selfishness that has characterized Republicanism since Reagan.

Maybe one percent of the public understands that China and India are pouring fortunes into public education and that the USA will become the sneaker-sewing nation of the future if today's taxpayers do not step up to the plate. Few politicians seem inclined to urge the country to sacrifice by supporting education for the sake of their children and grandchildren.

3. I don't think having a car is the deciding issue unless you're using educational financial aid to establish a Carbondale branch of your gang's drug distribution franchise. What is more important is that the students often feel unimportant to the faculty because of #4.

4. You're completely correct here. I have argued for years that it is precisely SIUC's research infrastructure that can put it on top of Eastern and Western in terms of student service.

But, trying to ascend to top 75 in research prestige? No. What we are doing research-wise is respectable and can become moreso, but I do not see us surpassing UIUC, UIC, Northwestern, or University of Chicago. Maybe we can knock off one of them, but at best we will be the fourth-best research university in Illinois.

5. I have published my thoughts on the post-Morris era before and can resurrect the half-page essay the Southern Illinoisan printed in 2002 if you like.

I still adhere to my thesis that our problem is a lack of clarity about SIUC's mission. Glenn Poshard sounds a lot like 1950's Morris in his public utterances and I hope he means it.

Morris didn't foresee that by being an advocate for educating underprepared Southern Illinoisans, and also creating a research university, that he was setting the stage for two university cultures to be at odds with one another. And Provost Frank Horton declared research to be the winner when he altered the promotion and tenure criteria in the 70's.

I think Poshard sees it all clearly enough to point to the horizon and say, "This way."

Peter in Carbondale said...

Always great to hear from you.

SIU or any university going above and beyond, reaching into the high schools and help? When was the last time you saw that happen? When we go on and talk about common good and why funding to universities is being cut here is a great example of what isn't happening. Universities have to be the place this kind of thinking happens, but when is someone going to do the hard work to implement it?

The common good arguments are interesting. I agree it isn't what it used to be, that blind trust people will do right without real oversight and supervision doesn't work well. People are willing to give money if the ROI looks good. It requires a marketing story and a clear path to good results. SIU does nothing to make this easy. Go to the grocery store at 2:30 and count the university people shopping, you don't think the business people of Southern Illinois are stupid do you? How about starting with a 40 hour work week for more than 50% of the employees of SIU?

I know that you are under estimating the power of the car as a status symbol with todays 17 yo freshmen. If they didn't have cars they would graduate in 4 years instead of 6. 75% of incoming freshmen have cars that are less than 4 years old. You have to work lots of hours to pay for that car and it has a great effect. The rest of your points I can see, but rethink this car thing. It is key.

I had high hopes that Poshard was going to be the next Morris. I heard him give one speech and clearly he is just a politician. It feels good when you hear him speak, but I'm pretty convinced that he is about image and not results. Time will tell, but this Southern Way phase 1 plan makes me think he is blowing it.

In the talk I heard Poshard give he spent 1/3 of it talking about recruiting minority students, not students, minority students. Do you know what that is about? I'm sure there is a political angle, but I don't know what it is.

Anonymous said...

"But the country, though soured on the Bushies' Mideastern misadventures, is still stuck on the pure short-term selfishness that has characterized Republicanism since Reagan."

Two words: non sequitur.

Anonymous said...

Bill wrote: "Figuring out how to address poor preparedness for college work is not hard." Bull. “What is needed is for universities to reach out to school districts and help them with their curricula and teacher competence.” Granted, many universities do much better than we do, but there is not a simple solution. Further, there are many programs SIUC faculty members are involved in to work with the area high schools.

Here are some of the reasons why this issue more complex then Bill indicates.

(1) Many of our students do not come from Southern Illinois. Are we to set up programs with high schools in Chicago? Decatur? East St Louis? Peoria?

(2) Many of our students transfer in from Community Colleges. They are among our weakest. We do some work with the CCs, but there is very little department-to-department contact. So, we can and should do better here. But, again there are CCs all over the state.

(3) Some of our students are older people who have been in the workforce, the military or have been homemakers. Working with the high schools, while laudable, won’t affect their preparedness.

(4) Just how do you set up a workshop to get high school physics teachers who do not have much knowledge of physics up to speed? We do have programs to do this. They can help some, but only so much. Working with area high schools and middle and elementary schools is important and is being done. We could and should do more, but there is no quick and easy solution. And Bill, setting up and running these programs involves a lot of hard work. Would you like to volunteer? Talk to Kathy Paricak-Spector or Mary Wright. (You should know that many originations are working hard to dumb down the schools. It is not like there is no opposition.)

When I came here ten years ago to work in the Math Dept I realized after a couple of months that there are a few things that needed to be changed if we were to serve our students well: (a) systematic placement testing for math; (b) enforcement of prerequisites; (c) ending the policy of only counting the most recent grade when a student repeats a course; and (d) reasonable admission requirements.

(a) The Math Dept has limited placement testing. We are working to improve this. It is hard work Bill.
(b) We have made no progress here. The new Student Information System that is being installed may help. That reminds me, I need to set up a meeting with the SIS people on just this point. More work!
(c) Actually this came into effect just as I got here. This extremely destructive policy has been reversed. It used to be that students did not even care if they failed a course because they figured they’d ace it next time. When I discussed poor performance with students they’d sometimes say: “But this is just my first pass through this course”! One girl told me she was not “into academics” and planned to take every math course twice. She was a math major! The fact that such a policy was ever in place says volumes about the faculty culture here (it was approved by the Faculty Senate).
(d) A small bit of progress has been made here. WVW pushed for this. But, we are still deliberating recruiting students who are very unlikely to succeed. This makes no sense. We are just taking their money and then it is harder to help those students who are borderline. (Money, $1 million/year, is being taken from the departments for a diversity grant program. We had to cut back the number of tutors. I learned this when my trig students complained that they could get ant help at the tutor sessions. I am not against diversity. But, helping students does more for diversity than feeding bureaucrats.) Further improvement on this front seems dim under Poshard. He means well, but as Peter says he’s a politician first.

Peter in Carbondale said...

I think both these big comments have merit.

Poshard did talk about returning the university do the kinds of service for the community that it had in the Morris days. He hasn't had the job for long, hopefully he will take action soon. It could be in the next faculty contract, someone ask Marvin. I assume/hope we are going to be seeing some of Poshard's own people in key positions soon. At least that is how a football team works, new GM and then he brings in his own people.

Changing a society is hard. I guess Bill's glass could be half full and the reply that the glass is half empty. I once was on a discussion panel with Mike Lawrence and the retired business AG guy (who's name escapes me, moved in NM with the new wife a few years back) taking about business development in Southern Illinois (if you are wondering, I'm more fun on a panel than Mike is). I called for the unleashing of the SIU community to help do business and community development. I called for SIU to give the professors job credit for service when they helped their community. Mike Lawrence told me that Wendler couldn't wave a magic wand and do this, he would have to get approval and jump through hoops. As I remember I might have said something unkind at this point? Sorry Mike, I don't care about hoops, just actions. Anyway right after the panel there was a free lunch (they gave me a nice Oak pen and pencil set too) and Wendler was there, so I went to ask him about getting this going. He gave me the most stupid answer that the faculity union controls this sort of management and he could do nothing about it, I should go talk to the union. If you want to really impress a businessman when you are the leader of a university, this is your response. I assumed at the time that Uncle Walt wouldn't accept input from someone outside his inner circle, and I think that has proven to be correct.

So service is needed, Wendler has been approached (and ignored it) and Poshard is talking about it. I think this makes me have more hope about Poshard's possible success.

Anonymous said...

Dealing with the anonymous comments about repeating courses...

Acutally Wendler had to twist arms to get things done.

Secondly, the Unions are a pain here. Personally I wish they'd all be flushed down the toilet. Reward people by the job they do instead of this collective bargaining hogwash. If the unions vanished today SIU would be a happier, better place.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I wonder what people will think about SIU's direction and priorities once they hear Poshard's inauguration speech.I heard a broadcast on WSIU-FM at 7PM Thursday. I'm told the whole thing will be on WSIU-TV starting at 1:00PM Sunday.

Glenn sounded like a glass-half-full type of guy, talked about the importance of SIU producing quality math and science teachers so as to improve the preparation of our incoming students.

Peter - can you move this up to the top of your blog by posting your reactions to GP's speech after you've heard it?