Changing the Conversation About Productivity

Strategies for Engaging Faculty and Institutional Leaders

A Report by Public Agenda for the Lumina Foundation's Higher Education Productivity Initiative (2010)

This report builds on and extends Public Agenda's ongoing research on the attitudes of various stakeholder groups toward higher education reform.[1] Here we explore the purpose and promise of more effective engagement of those stakeholders who—at first blush, at least—appear to express the deepest resistance to the productivity agenda: faculty. The report's driving questions are, what does it take to bridge the most pervasive divides in perception between productivity advocates and faculty, and what can be accomplished through deeper, more strategic engagement?[2]

In the course of exploring strategies to engage faculty as important partners in the pursuit of greater productivity, we have found it necessary to expand the scope of our inquiry somewhat to include institutional leaders more broadly. Because effective leadership is critical for driving and sustaining change efforts, it is important that faculty engagement be viewed as a critical component of a larger institutional engagement effort that also includes college presidents, senior administrators, trustees, chancellors and the like.

Faculty, and sometimes college leadership as well, have often been viewed by reformers as tangential to the development and enactment of productivity policies. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that these “frontline” stakeholders in higher education are, in fact, critical to the success of any productivity agenda. There is growing awareness among many productivity advocates that engaging such key stakeholders in strategic ways at each step in the policy process—from development to implementation to sustainability—is key to generating the sense of shared purpose necessary for long-term success. Still, many questions remain about how best to engage those stakeholders who are typically most resistant to productivity agendas.

The insights and strategies summarized in this report are drawn from three focus groups with faculty at both two-year and four-year institutions and roughly 25 in-depth, one-on-one interviews conducted with college presidents, higher education researchers, representatives of collective bargaining associations, disciplinary associations, accrediting bodies, professional development organizations serving faculty, and representatives from a wide range of higher education consortia. [3]

Regardless of the type of stakeholder interviewed, the questions we asked revolved around the same themes: Can faculty be more effectively engaged around the productivity agenda? Should they be? If so, what would more effective engagement of faculty look like, and what is to be gained? When conducting focus groups with faculty at both two-year and four-year institutions, we explored alternative approaches to framing the productivity agenda, different strategies for opening up constructive dialogue with faculty about productivity and different avenues for faculty participation in the agenda in order to identify the conditions under which faculty were able to move past their more predictable negative reactions and begin to view themselves as co-owners of this difficult work.

As a result of these conversations, we believe that faculty can and must be engaged more effectively in the productivity agenda for lasting gains to be made. Most important, our findings suggest that more effective engagement is indeed possible and that the current economic and educational climate is conducive to the development of several particularly promising strategies. This is not to say that the job of bridging the gaps between faculty and more natural allies of the productivity agenda will be simple or easy, but evidence suggests that establishing a shared sense of purpose and a constructive working relationship with faculty is both necessary and possible.

[1] See, for example, the following Public Agenda reports: Squeeze Play (2009, 2010); Campus Commons (2009); and The Iron Triangle (2008).

[2] The Lumina Foundation for Education’s Productivity Initiative centers on their "big goal" to increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025. To achieve Goal 2025, Lumina and their partners/stakeholders are focusing on three policy priorities: (1) increase and reward completion; (2) generate and reinvest savings; and (3) educate and train in affordable ways.

[3] While three new faculty focus groups were conducted in 2010 for this memo (in Minneapolis, MN, Austin, TX, and Phoenix, AZ), we also drew on the set of faculty focus groups conducted in 2009 for our Campus Commons report. Also, to encourage candor, we guaranteed individual interviewees that we would not directly attribute quotes to individuals in the report. Instead, we provide generalized attributions by stakeholder type and provide a complete list of interviewees at the end of the report.

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Changing the Conversation About Productivity

Strategies for Engaging Faculty and Institutional Leaders

Media Type: PDF

This report builds on and extends Public Agenda's ongoing research on the attitudes of various stakeholder groups toward higher education reform. (2010)


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