Friday, May 2, 2014

Vision 2022

Try it as I might, I actually find myself with no significant objections to the Vision 2022: The Future of Cal Poly presented today by President Armstrong. I did not attend the presentation (team meetings all day), but I did read the bullet points (pdf).

While the vision is not without scale, what  strikes me is how gentle and not really controversial it really is.

Point 1. Vibrant residential campus, balance enrollment, students in dorms, demolish building 52.

From a pedagogical point of view, I am somewhat agnostic about where students live. But as a resident of the town where student rentals create a truly nutty residential housing market, I am extremely supportive of housing a significantly larger proportion of the student body on campus. Anything that shrinks the student rental market and the number of houses that are being sold with the explicit idea that students will live in them, makes housing market in SLO less outrageous and more meaningful: fixer uppers have to be sold at fixer-upper prices, not at "I can charge HOW MUCH per month for it?" prices.

Early this year, we heard a distinct growth number - "let's get 25 thousand students on campus". I am pleased and surprised that this particular line item now reads "balance enrollment growth with the ability to maintain excellence and completion as the standards", which is inoffensive to the extreme. Also, too, absolutely the right sentiment, given (a) a significantly higher students-per-faculty ratio now than in 2007 when I joined Cal Poly, and (b) the intent on having faculty do more "scholarly activities".

Finally, the specific idea of doing away with the remnants of the Spider building.... Well, if we can build a building with a similar footprint but the height of the new COSAM building, we'd be getting four times the space. We need space. Classroom space. Lab space. Faculty space. Research space... commons space. Pub. Pub. Pub.

Point 2. Enhance student success. Moar graduation rates. No moar achievement gaps.

I do not know where the specific numbers come from. One the face of it, of course, we want to improve graduation rates. On the other hand, we need to recognize that in science and engineering, the disciplines aren't getting smaller - they are getting larger. If architecture can be a 5-year degree, why shouldn't Computer Science - which over the past 30 years became much more complex not be a five-year degree.

Also, too - stop counting 4+1 (sorry, BMS) students towards 4-year graduation rates. Might look like a drop in a bucket, but it will add a few percentage points to that 40% number.

Point 3. Teacher-scholar good. More money for faculty/staff, more housing, more research time, more undergrad research...

All good things. Basically, the fact that "we need to pay our faculty more" and "we need to make certain our faculty can buy a house in town" are recognized side by side with "let's improve student graduation rates" is an important achievement of whoever from our faculty was working on this document.

Research may be controversial with a lot of people on campus, but I cannot object to it, because, first and foremost, the only way to do research on this campus is with students, and quite literally almost nothing is better for students in terms of learning opportunities than participating in research. The fact that we cannot easily pull off $5-million projects that require 20 Ph.D. students and seven post docs to run (not a disparagement - I have nothing against being able to run such a project, but I am being realistic about what will and will not work at Cal Poly), actually makes it easier to engage in one-on-one research with individual students, and lowers the entry barrier for research. Which surprisingly means that our B.S. and M.S. students are in position to actually see more research than their counterparts in Ph.D.-granting schools (albeit, of course - significantly less than actual Ph.D. students) - for as long as the faculty has the time and the desire to engage in research projects. To date, research on campus is essentially a grassroots affair. I am still in favor a keeping it that way, but actually making appropriate adjustments to our teaching loads and department staffing levels to accommodate scholarship can do more to improve four and five year graduation rates than just about any other action.

It is simple! Hire more people! Pay them well! Acknowledge their real workload (20-30% scholarly activities, rather than the 80% teaching - 20% service load, and btw,  what do you do for your professional development to get tenure?)  Reap results (a.k.a.:Profit). There isn't even a "?" anywhere in this scheme.

Requires money, of course. But this is the right way to invest this money.

Point 4. Create rich culture of diversity...

This may actually be even harder to fulfill than the graduation rate pledge. As I perceive it, the core reason why, e.g., women are underrepresented in engineering and some science disciplines is because places like high school robotics clubs - which are basically the incubators for future engineers, computer scientists, etc. boast the 30:2 ratios of men to women. One of the biggest revelations from reading NCWIT applications a few years back for me was the fact that applications (from female high school students for an award for achievements in a computing-related activities) came not from "members of the Robotics club" but from students with extremely diverse, non-science related interests, largely centered around artistic talents (photography, performance, etc.), which were enhanced by the use of computers.  So, there is opportunity, but still, Computer Science (and perhaps engineering in general) is the most attractive discipline primarily for people who understand what it means to solve computational problems, and who want to do it (or who want to build things).

Point 5. We will get a lot of money from people!

Sure! Let's do it.  Most of the ways of doing are rather benign, except perhaps for the "enhancing the cal poly brand in athletics".  One of the biggest advantages of Cal Poly is that our athletics is significantly more "student-athelete" than, say, at places like University of Michigan, or Duke, or (the places I know reasonably well) Alabama and Kentucky. The fact that we have one of the most rabid followings for a college soccer team, and somehow have fielded a stellar baseball team this year still completely baffles me. But one of the things Cal Poly got absolutely right is this:  our alumni donors like us for the academic programs that helped them make their millions, NOT for the successes or failures of our football or basketball teams.

Let's not try changing this.

Point 6.  transparency, collaboration, synergy, .... + make SLO town like us again.

 If point 3 came directly from the mouths of the faculty, then phrases like "include strategies, tactics, objectives and metrics to ensure alignment and connection with other entities on campus", "incorporate shared leadership model and philosophy", "leverage synergies and create opportunities through greater interaction"  clearly came from some Dilbert-inspired nightmare and were written by corporate consultants.

Most of this will simply turn into standard committee work, so it's basically a wash. The two actually discernible and meaningful thoughts here are: let's do more stuff across colleges and let's make nice with the city.

Neither of the ideas is objectionable. "More stuff across colleges" is what I do on an everyday basis anyway. Dealing with the town - well, for a city that is called the "happiest place in the US", it is surprisingly populated by a lot of seriously disgruntled people, who view Cal Poly as a nuisance  without recognizing that the reason they can have good things in this town is because Cal Poly students spend their money downtown.

And this just about completes the vision. If the promise to improve athletics is the one thing that brings the highest level of objections in me, then, hey, it's actually not a bad document.... Now, let's get working on that part 3.

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