New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Teagle Foundation Prez Judith Shapiro

In April 2013, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
Past installments of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing: Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; and Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college; American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about the efforts ACE is making to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world; AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on liberal education; Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses; Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), on the growing challenges facing higher education governance; Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based labor market analytics firm, on the inextricable link between higher education and the economic well-being of New England; Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Judith S. Eaton on self-regulation; and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities President Muriel Howard, on the challenges and opportunities facing public higher education.

In this installment, DiSalvio interviews Judith Shapiro, president of the Teagle Foundation and president emerita of Barnard College.

The context

Foundations have historically been significant contributors to the progress of American colleges and universities. Private philanthropic foundations were the driving force behind a number of changes in higher education including the development of empirically based social science research, the transformations in medical education, and the fostering of new interdisciplinary fields.

Supporting innovations that the government has historically been unwilling to pursue, foundations have long been seen as providing financial support for needed reform. Some have observed that the approach for many higher education philanthropic organizations to grantmaking has changed. Rather than foundations announcing their interests and opening the doors for institutions to propose activities consistent with the interests and agenda, a new type of philanthropy has emerged.

The emergence of “advocacy philanthropy” has begun to change the higher education landscape. Authors Cassie Hall and Scott L. Thomas in “Advocacy Philanthropy and the Public Policy Agenda: The Role of Modern Foundations in American Higher Education” note that the increasing presence of advocacy philanthropy has resulted in foundations using strategies to “influence government action, policy, and legislation.” They observe that this a departure “from the established norms in higher education philanthropy, norms that generally created a distance between foundation activity and politics.”

Concurrent with the rise of advocacy philanthropy is the appearance of the “mega-foundation.” These mega-foundations represent an explosion in the net worth and annual giving potential of the private philanthropic sector.

Independent foundations (those founded by an individual, family or group of individuals and operated by the donor, donor’s family or independent board) made up 90% of all U.S. foundations in 2011 and had total assets of $540 billion and total giving of $33 billion, according to the Foundation Center.

It is clear that foundations are approaching philanthropy differently by shifting from being grantmaking organizations to being leadership organizations attempting to wield their financial power to influence public policy and act as catalysts for change. With foundations’ growing influence over policymaking and consolidation changing the center of gravity, discomfort in academe may be intensifying, with some higher education leadership asserting that they themselves are in the best position to come up with solutions to higher education shortcomings.

Shapiro sees a broad mandate in her current role to lead efforts in “advancing the well-being and general good of mankind throughout the world” by focusing on “institutions of higher learning and research.” Shapiro brings her insights and perspectives on the intersection of private philanthropy and higher education and shares her thoughts on the nature of strategic philanthropy, how foundations can be catalysts for change and how foundations are influencing and shaping the future direction of higher education.

The interview

DiSalvio: Some have observed that much of the private philanthropic foundation world has been re-conceptualized, with many learned foundations turning to “strategic” or “advocacy” philanthropy. Would you agree with that “venture capital investing” characterization of foundations today?

Shapiro: I would say that philanthropy can be strategic in different ways. If you’re a large foundation and particularly one that works with policy, at the government level for example, you can be strategic in the sense of leveraging a truly significant amount of change, providing, of course, that the problem is well-defined and the strategy is well-chosen.

For the Teagle Foundation, which is relatively modest in its resources, I like to use the notion of David compared to Goliath. When what you have is a slingshot, financially speaking, you have to be careful where you aim. At Teagle, for example, we have aimed at assessment. We did so in a relatively sophisticated and thoughtful way. Not for any external ranking system necessarily, but for seeing how assessment would improve teaching. Assessment should be of the faculty, by the faculty and for the faculty so that the results of assessment can feed into the improvement of teaching. We were also strategic in focusing on methods of teaching and on pedagogy, in order to find those “high-impact practices” that result in the best outcomes in terms of what students are actually learning.

We are thinking strategically in a number of other areas as well. One area we are currently focusing on is hybrid learning—that is, ways in which online resources and opportunities can be combined with the strengths of face-to-face teaching in order to have the best learning outcomes.

We are also currently devoting special attention to curricular coherence. How can the curriculum—which need not be the same from institution to institution—be shaped in such a way that students have a sense of how they are progressing through their education?

We choose to strategically align ourselves with those institutions that seem to be working in the most promising ways and we encourage them to learn from one another. While the Teagle Foundation frequently funds groups of institutions, including small working groups, we also place an emphasis on dissemination of information to a wider audience. We urge our grantees to share their experiences with others in such a way that others can learn from them.

In terms of learning, we think of ourselves as a knowledge-based foundation. We want to work collegially with our grantees and learn from them both about what has worked well and why it has worked well and also what might not have worked well and why.

In regard to the “venture capital investing” characterization of foundations, I might say that it is a good thing to have venture capital funneling much-needed capital resources into higher education. I would only say that some venture capitalists are relatively young and may have made their money relatively quickly. This may result for some—and I emphasize some, not all—in a certain arrogance or narcissism. I think that, taking this together with the cultural tendency to value individuals over institutions and innovation over a sense of historical practice, it could result in short-term solutions that do not have deep, desirable, long-term effects.

DiSalvio: A number of new private philanthropic foundations with mega-resources have emerged over the past two decades, and have brought us into the era of the mega-foundation. These new foundations often take a strategic philanthropy approach. How deeply are these mega-foundations influencing higher education?

Shapiro: In terms of the scope of mega-foundations today, I quote Michael McPherson, the president of the Spencer Foundation as describing the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as the only foundation visible from space. The issue here, of course, is that these so-called mega-foundations have enormous resources they can call upon in areas of need they wish to support. For the Gates and Lumina foundations, I think it’s a good thing that they are supporting higher education initiatives. It is also good to see that they have responded to criticisms that they focus on things easy to measure such as graduation rates rather than on the quality of educational experience. It’s an encouraging sign that these two foundations have been working with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, an important force for strengthening liberal education. I should mention that the Teagle Foundation has co-sponsored a project with Lumina and with the National Institution of Learning Outcomes and Assessments in looking at how assessment can be best used to improve teaching.

On a related point, you are probably familiar with the competency-based /prior-learning movement in higher education today. I think there, especially, it is important to recognize that acquiring the knowledge that the various dimensions of a liberal education offer—let’s say critical thinking, for example—isn’t something cheap and easy that one can earn like a merit badge. Thus, it is important not to assume that a true proficiency has been earned in such an area without an appropriate form of assessment. I also hope that the mega-foundations can find ways to work together with their grantees, to learn from their grantees, rather than telling them what to do. In general, I think it’s important for foundations to see themselves as a philanthropic community and to find the right ways to work together.

DiSalvio: The core mission at Teagle as a “catalyst for change” has been carried out with a series of grants around your Faculty Work and Student Learning in the 21st Century initiative. How does this initiative intersect with the themes, challenges and critical issues facing higher education today?

Shapiro: The consistent purpose of the foundation has been to improve student learning, which means strengthening teaching. This means that faculty are the key. It is certainly self-defeating, as sometimes happens, to speak of faculty as an obstacle. It’s not as if politicians, administrators and for that matter, foundation executives, are about to replace faculty in the classroom—whether that be in the physical classroom or the virtual classroom. And while some faculty members might be seen as set in their ways, we might all be accused of that at times.

At the foundation, we seek ways to encourage faculty members to think of themselves as a community of teachers—in the same way they think of themselves as community scholars. In fact, our April convening/listening session was entitled “Community of Scholars, Community of Teachers.” The purpose of this session: to encourage faculty members to learn from one another on how to be better teachers—the same way they benefit from learning about one another’s research and scholarly work. In that way, they can work together to strengthen their skills, to find the best ways to serve students of diverse backgrounds, to exchange ideas about the curriculum and to connect the academic sides of disciplines with practical matters involving the wider world, including workforce issues.

DiSalvio: You have said that the great questions about “meaning” and “learning” in higher education today have been set aside in the curriculum and in the disciplines. What has been the result of this neglect of these great questions in higher education

Shapiro: In the past, there was general agreement about what an educated person needed to know. This, however, has not been the case for a long while. Perhaps it is the quantum leaps we have taken in our knowledge and information and the move towards “competencies”–that is, what general abilities should college students acquire—that have blurred the questions about meaning and learning. But we cannot ignore the question of content.

Students should encounter challenging subject matter and there should be some agreement on required materials, even though these will not always be the same from institution to institution.

We as educators have a responsibility to choose content that feeds the mind. Thus, for example if we care about “global education,” we would presumably decide that such an education should include, for example, knowledge about Confucius and/or the Qu’ran. If students knew something of the history of Islam, they might be less likely to think of Muslims as members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

There’s a very interesting volume by Columbia University professor and East Asian Studies expert William Theodore de Bary. In his book The Great Civilized Conversation: Education for a World Community, he talks about the great traditions of education in different civilizations. It seems to me that exposing students to intellectually enriching and challenging materials from more than one civilization is important. It is also important, particularly for a college student who has a real thirst for thinking about the big questions, to think about where their lives are going and about moral and ethical issues. These inquiries should not be limited to only those students in so-called elite liberal arts colleges. The foundation has, in fact, awarded grants to a group of community colleges that are looking into how these big questions might be incorporated into the curriculum, particularly as they relate to responsible citizenship.

DiSalvio: In an age where there are far more questions than answers about the future of higher education, which trends and practices do you see as holding the most promise and which should higher education academic leaders be looking toward?

Shapiro: First of all, it is important to recognize that not all institutions of higher education have the same mission. At the same time, whatever difference in mission there may be among institutions, those differences should not be built upon a caste system where students get channeled into different kinds of institutions based on their socioeconomic backgrounds.

Secondly, I think there is a tendency in the U.S. to look to higher education to solve problems that do not necessarily begin in higher education. For instance, the problem of inequality is related to the distribution of wealth and income in our society and that problem will not be solved by higher education. Rather, that problem can only be addressed by doing something about the growing gap in wealth and income in our society.

Of the many trends and practices that should be on our radar, I believe we should look at how we can combine the advantages of new learning technologies and online possibilities with the distinctive advantages of the residential, face-to-face teaching and learning experience. We should be exploring which online teaching strategies result in high-quality learning and see how they can enrich the residential college experience while addressing the issue of cost.

We should continue to keep our ears to the ground with regard to the assessment movement and continue to heed the needs and challenges higher education faculty face. I see most faculty as caring deeply and sincerely about their own effectiveness as teacher, but needing to be more open to how they might strengthen that aspect of their vocation.

Declining resources force us to consider questions of cost-effectiveness. However, I don’t think the issue is trying “to do more with less”—which I think is a fatuous way of framing the goal. I think it’s a question of “if we do less, is there a way of doing it as well or even better?”

We also need to understand that the views of the myriad constituencies in higher education—students, faculty, parents, employers, politicians—are often out of alignment. It is in part, up to higher education leadership to demonstrate through word and action how the interests of all can be aligned.


For a comprehensive view of philanthropy’s role in higher education in the past and in the future, Shapiro recommends Funding the Future: Philanthropy’s Influence on American Higher Education by Alison Bernstein.







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