Coming Into Focus: A New Vision for Public Higher Education in Massachusetts

This past September as thousands of college students moved into their dorms, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story about UMass Amherst. The theme of that story was familiar to anyone who has worked in public higher education in Massachusetts: The university community has high aspirations, but those hopes and plans have been consistently thwarted by public apathy and governmental neglect. Quoting a former Bay State governor, the Globe evoked a deeply rooted doubt in the body politic as to whether Massachusetts needs excellence in public higher education. After all, we have Harvard and MIT, not to mention a distinguished additional array of private colleges and universities. Who needs a first-class public research university? Our teaching-oriented state universities and community colleges didn’t even rate a mention.
A second Globe story written by veteran higher education reporter Jon Marcus echoed some of these same themes in a piece that ran Oct. 31. It too focused attention on the “second-class treatment” Massachusetts’ 29 public universities and colleges have been getting from the state.

Some in our public higher education community were understandably outraged that the Globe, in both instances, neglected our many outstanding achievements. But frustration should not blind anyone to the painful truths these stories contain about public perception. Many in Massachusetts do doubt the importance as well as the quality of public higher education in our state. Many do believe, deep down, that Massachusetts has done well enough for many years based on the excellence of its private institutions and that those institutions will enable us to flourish in the future.

A reality check is in order, so here’s a memo to Massachusetts.

The world has changed. What may have been true historically is no longer true. In our state’s quintessential knowledge economy, new jobs are in fields that require a college education. Population growth is stagnant; domestic in-migration is non-existent. Bright young professionals trained in our private universities often leave the state after graduation. The college-educated workers, executives and entrepreneurs of the future will come from the public-sector institutions that now educate two-thirds of the high school graduates who attend college within the state. These institutions do a terrific job, but they can’t sustain quality and affordability forever while enrollments grow and support stagnates.

So wake up, Massachusetts. This is the 21st century.

Sincerely, Richard M. Freeland, Commissioner of Higher Education.

Anyone who works on economic development will tell you that Massachusetts can’t compete with other states on housing costs or labor costs or health care costs, or on the quality of transportation systems, efficiency of permitting processes, or the level of taxation. In all these comparisons, the Commonwealth can’t hope to be much better than average. Where we can and must compete is in the education of our citizenry, the quality of our workforce and the strength of our research enterprise. Our job is to connect the dots: If you want the nation’s best-educated citizenry and workforce, you need to invest in public higher education. You can’t have one without the other.

Yet Massachusetts has never supported a system of public higher education at levels consistent with the goal of national leadership. Although Gov. Deval Patrick attempted to restore years of cuts to higher education budgets, state support is currently no better than average among the states. In FY09, the Commonwealth ranks 26th in the nation in funding per FTE.

The Vision thing

In the end, Massachusetts will have the system of public higher education that the people of the Commonwealth demand. My goal as commissioner is to make sure that as demand for access increases, demand for quality increases along with it. In pursuit of this goal, I have invested much of my time in an initiative called the Vision Project, a call for aspiration, accountability and unity in public higher education. The message of the Vision Project to the faculty and staff of our public colleges and universities is that, to borrow the current cliché, we need to be the change we want to see.

This effort has been a long time in the making. Throughout last year, discussions involving the Board of Higher Education, the presidents of the state universities and community colleges, and the leadership of UMass examined how we can most effectively respond to limited support at a time when our importance to the state is greater than ever. The Vision Project arose from the perception that we need a new approach to advancing our cause, that years of complaints by many in the system have not produced significant increases in state investment. We began with a brief Vision Statement that was produced, vetted, critiqued and tweaked during months of discussion:

We will produce the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation.
We will lead the nation in research that drives economic development.

This statement expresses something that thoughtful civic leaders truly believe, that the primary assets of Massachusetts in the fierce competition among states for talent, investment and jobs are the educational levels of our workforce and our capacity for innovation rooted in university-based research.

The Vision Statement has provided us with the basis for a “public agenda” for public higher education in Massachusetts. We asked ourselves the question: If the Vision statement defines what the state most needs us to accomplish, what must be true for us to claim that we are doing that job? This question led us to formulate the key outcomes that constitute the functional heart of the Vision Project: seven explicit, measurable goals to which we will aspire as a system.

Five of the goals focus on our educational programs: We will send more of our high school graduates on to college than any other state. We will graduate students from our public campuses at higher rates than our peer institutions in other states. We will develop authentic assessments of learning to demonstrate that our students are achieving high levels of intellectual competence in comparison with students elsewhere. We will align our programs with the workforce needs of the state. And we will eliminate disparities among ethnic, racial and economic subpopulations with respect to all these educational outcomes. The two research goals, reflecting the work of UMass, are also very straightforward: We will be a national leader in research related to economic development and in economic activity derived from that research.

With the seven key outcomes defined, we turned to measurement and agreed upon a set of metrics that will be used to compare Massachusetts with other states in the areas where we seek national leadership. We will continue to refine these metrics as the Vision Project develops.

The Vision Project was endorsed by the Board of Higher Education last May. With that vote the focus shifted from designing the project to implementing it. In the coming months, we will learn whether broad agreement on overall objectives translates into rock-hard support for a focused effort, for transparency and for accountability. We have promised the public that we will share not only our good news and best scores but also our challenges and areas in need of improvement. I attach a sense of urgency to this work. As several speakers at a recent Vision Project launch conference made clear, the days when public institutions can say to government, “Give us your money and leave us alone” are long gone. We must be willing to be accountable.

Our immediate focus is on organizing the work of the Department of Higher Education, in collaboration with our 29 public campuses, to work toward national leadership in each of the seven key outcomes identified by the Vision Project. In two of these areas—student learning outcomes assessment and graduation rates—task forces are already at work developing systemwide strategies and policies. In the other areas, efforts are still taking shape. Our goal, by the end of the current academic year, is to have clear strategies at the system level to advance our work on each of the key outcomes.

A final element of the Vision Project is the annual report, a compilation of data on our standing in comparison with other states and our progress toward national leadership. Data will be reported by segment, not by individual institution, to keep the focus on the overall achievements of the system. This is where we have an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to accountability. The message of the annual report to the public will be: You know you need public higher education to achieve certain objectives. We are focused on this mission. In some areas we are already national leaders. In other areas we have work to do. But we are doing that work and on the whole, we are a much stronger educational enterprise than many of you think we are. We are about aspiration and excellence. We deserve your support, and we need it to accomplish what we must on behalf of the Commonwealth.

The ultimate goal of the Vision Project is to change public perceptions and attitudes. Many of my colleagues in higher education, however, have reason to be skeptical about change. This state has seen multiple attempts to restructure the system and embark on reforms. Often those who set the goals provide little support for reaching them. Campuses are urged to achieve more, with more students and with less money. It is tempting to be resigned in the face of entrenched patterns.

I view such cynicism as a luxury we cannot afford. I define my work as an education leader in a political context. Max Weber once observed that “Politics is the slow boring of hard boards.” To make change, one needs to identify goals that are important to the body politic even if most people don’t yet understand them, and then to pursue those goals relentlessly, doing one’s job well in the present while working toward a breakthrough moment when the public consciousness is altered, when the political dynamics shift, and when real change becomes possible.

I believe that such a breakthrough moment is on the horizon for Massachusetts. For years education policy discussions have focused on K-12 reform. The result of the Commonwealth’s substantial investment in elementary, middle and high schools is that we can now boast of the highest NAEP scores in the nation. But what is this reform effort for, if not to prepare students for college? Our students need us to do that slow boring; the state needs our institutions to be first-rate. The goal of the Vision Project is to pursue excellence now with the resources available to us while advancing an enhanced appreciation of the importance of our work and positioning ourselves to take advantage of the possibility of change when the moment comes.

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