January 23, 2019
Welcome back and best wishes for the new calendar year! For me, the start of a new semester seems like a good time to refresh our thinking on things around us. To some that might sound like a platitude, but I could not be more sincere. I have been reflecting on what “excellence” entails in our vision for “access to excellence,” which I have defined as “an institution accessible to large populations of students, while a powerhouse for new ideas and new paradigms for research and learning that change the world.”
In this blog, I would like to invite us to delve deeper into what we mean by excellence, going beyond the conventional wisdom and examining the underlying assumptions we make about what constitutes quality in higher education.
“Excellence” can be a deceptively simple term. While typically synonymous with high achievement, it tends to be ubiquitous in academic discourse and we may not bother to elucidate. Consider that until the mid-20th century, the institution of higher education has largely been tailored to serve a privileged few. Deep-rooted societal perception has been that a quality education is linked directly to how selective, and therefore prestigious, an institution is. When we think of an excellent institution, it may conjure an image of a world-renowned faculty member giving inspiring lectures to a small group of students (in a room with dark wood panels). While that’s a perfectly valid exemplar, and many of our faculty are world-renowned, that image emanates from presuppositions of quality that may no longer be relevant. It certainly is not a model that is accessible to most students. Is this the academic excellence we subconsciously are trying to reproduce? Before you respond, perhaps this deserves further examination.
Since coming to Mason, I have been most impressed with our students. Their previous training may or may not reflect their talent, and many come to Mason with significant life experience. Some are non-traditional students and many are first generation. Most importantly, thanks to the diversity of our campus, upon arrival they benefit from being challenged to entertain perspectives different from their own. Most are highly motivated and purposeful in shaping their future.
Preconceived notions of selectivity and academic quality may not work for them. In a way, this is a gift to us as a university. I think we can all agree that diversity and inclusion are a vital part of Mason’s educational excellence. But beyond that, how do we explore new paradigms for learning and chart new territory? This aspiration, too, is central to who we are.
If our students have different life experiences and learn differently, how can we leverage that and reach them in ways that are equally—if not more—valuable than the traditional “sage on the stage” model? In addition to traditional scholastic activities, meaningful learning happens outside the classroom and in social settings, some of which—like Mason Impact— are designed to engage our students with experiences that help them find purpose and meaning in their learning. This may include well-organized forms of civic participation and global engagement such as studying abroad, including scholarly discovery or entrepreneurial ventures. Done well, meaningful engagement can translate into academic rigor and enlightened insights. And changed lives.
I have no doubt that we can offer wide-ranging opportunities for scholarship and discovery while maintaining academic rigor, and achieve outcomes that are potentially better than, or complimentary to, listening to an inspiring faculty lecturer.
As we embark upon this semester, what elements constitute our definition of a high quality, meaningful academic experience? Importantly, do they resonate not only with us, but with our students? Will these ways enhance their experience of the world, and encourage and enable them to build a better one?
As always, I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts, and to learning from you.