Higher education is a lot better at calling for reform than it is at enacting reform. And the calls are always top-down. Higher education organizations hold meetings and issue reports, arguing that the needed changes in culture follow from “best practices,” which are usually a pastiche of things (one from here, one from there).
This model is a nice hypothesis: tell the faculty to change practices to things that have been effective and you will fix the problems. You have done your job from up in the high tower.
A big investment of funds often follows, and all the big players run after it like kids pursuing the ice cream truck on a summer’s day, promising the moon if you just give me my well-deserved piece of the pie.
Money gets spent. Meetings are held. Proposals are made. And the reasons begin to percolate for why change is just so hard to do. Compromise proposals are made, a few intrepid adopters agree to do some stuff, and then the money runs out.
Rinse and repeat.
And it is happening again, right now, for graduate education.
I was a speaker at a symposium for Graduate Education Reform held at Tianjin University (Tianjin, CHINA) over the 2018 Thanksgiving weekend.
In my usual sermonizing way, I rejected the practices-lead-to-culture model, and suggested that the decision to change culture needs to come first. Then, it is obvious which practices need to change and how. Then, the culture changes some more, and course corrections can be made. Until you have optimized the changes through these iterations and you reach The New Normal.
And this costs nothing.
My three-part model for a functional culture is:
(A) everyone needs to agree to agree; it probably does not matter what you agree on, just that a group can meet and agree on anything important, in a public setting
(B) everyone needs to agree to act, in private, to the public agreement; this is the moral action component – if you agree to something in public and then turn around and just act against this anyhow, then that is an immoral decision within the context of the agreement
(C) everyone needs to be an open and transparent adherent to the cultural identity that has been agreed upon; with an agreement in place, the next members who are brought in (faculty, students) need to know what they are getting into, and that it is not a bait and switch falsehood (the corollary to this one is that in the first generation, there will be members of the community who do not agree and work against the change – the system needs to be sturdy enough to have some of these people, and patient enough to see them move on)
There are other things to say, such as what to agree to in graduate education and what sorts of practices follow, but these are what I propose are the pre-conditions for a change that can stick.
These days, if I am asked to come into a department and consult about education, I ask one question: can you sit down, as a department, and come to an agreement about anything important about an ideal an a practice related to the topic of interest? If yes, then I am happy to work with you; if no, then I really cannot help.
Ever since I figured this out, I have not been too active with these kinds of gigs.