Missing from MSU’s Plan: the Pursuit of Academic Excellence

Thursday, February 7, 2013

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We at MSU seem to be forgetting something: protecting academic quality is different than pursuing it.

MSU has set some ambitious goals, hoping to increasing enrollment by more than 15 percent over eight years. This target has made some of MSU’s tenured faculty anxious that the university might not be adequately equipped to keep pace with such growth and “maintain the quality of an MSU education.”

In a public letter responding to that concern, President Cruzado remarked only that “the protection of our academic quality is crucially essential” as MSU continues to grow in size.

Revisiting MSU’s strategic plan, I found similar references to “maintaining quality” — when it was mentioned at all. Why just maintain? Unlike its commitments to enrollment growth and graduation rates, MSU’s aspirations for academic excellence are not nearly so bold or ambitious.

All universities, especially those informed by land-grant values, must balance limited resources to educate students, increase access, invest in research and conduct outreach. That mission is commendable, but it’s also a tall order requiring careful planning and tough decision-making.

Upon arrival at MSU, Cruzado seemed eager to take on that challenge. “Since their inception, teaching was the primary focus of land-grant institutions and access was their defining trait,” she said in her 2010 inaugural address. “To this day and every day, we are called to demonstrate that access and excellence are not two mutually exclusive terms.”

Tracking educational quality is a complex task, so its sideline role in the strategic plan makes a certain amount of sense. Excellence doesn’t fit into neat metrics like access or “student success” might. But, reading through the plan again, I noticed something else remarkable: only once in the 24-page document was reference made to challenging students.

That is a bit troubling to me. In our discussions of access, efficiency and growth, MSU seems to be neglecting the fact that higher education should be hard. As a student, I expect the university’s leaders to challenge us to learn and grow. I want an education that pushes me to my limits and compels me to go even further. I want a university that seeks to challenge my mind, my assumptions, my character, and my work ethic. I want to feel like my educational undertaking was supported but not guaranteed. I want a degree I can feel proud of because I earned it and because it helped me grow.

MSU’s plan requires administration and faculty to search for ways to push more students through the system as efficiently as possible. At the same time, the university ought to encourage students to embrace the immense challenge that is a program of higher education and provide a community of scholars and advisers to assist their endeavor.

Such calls for excellence are not elitist or exclusive. MSU is right to embrace the land-grant mission of creating a community where anyone, from any background is urged to tread the mountains of the mind — if up for a challenge.

Of course, motivation for rigorous learning must come from students, not Montana Hall. But the vision set by MSU’s leaders does have real import. Our university’s stated values attract particular students, shape the campus’ educational culture and guide decision-making. A university seeking to raise academic excellence will allocate resources differently than a university content to maintain current levels.

I have no doubt that MSU’s administration and faculty share this value. However, our university needs to start talking about excellence again, especially as it considers the changes necessitated by continued expansion. The question of excellence underlies the stakes of each element in MSU’s plan — from research, to classrooms, to faculty hires, to engagement and outreach — yet it is strangely absent from our discourse.

Students may not always get what they came for when first entering a university, because higher education is not simply a product offered for student consumption. Top universities don’t say, “Our academics are good enough.” They say, “Let’s get better.”

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  • Tiffany Kocan

    Nice job, Derek!