January 23, 2019

Rethinking Academic Excellence

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.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Academic Excellence

  • This is very insightful! In fact, it leads one to think about or rethink the concept of merit altogether and who determines merit. As the demographics in the United States continues to shift and the demand for finite resources grows, developing a shared idea of excellence and merit will become more and more important.

  • [Anonymous post] This was fabulous! I think it gets to the heart of what Mason is and should be—a resource for everyone. I am constantly reminding people that most people just need one door to open for them to unlock their potential. As I prepare for my daughter to graduate high school this year and we wade through the ocean of college applications and financial aid forms, even in-state tuition seems daunting at this point. Knowing that there are people far less fortunate than me for whom college isn’t accessible because of the cost of higher education is maddening, because an educated society benefits everyone.

    I hope we continue to strive to be accessible to all. Our students more than prove that when given the chance they will equal, if not succeed their peers from other institutions.

  • While I appreciate the focus on accessibility and agree that evaluating the excellence of an institution of higher learning based on how many applicants that institution rejects is woefully misguided, I dispute your premise that an inspiring lecture given to a small class “certainly is not a model that is accessible to most students.” Small class sizes are generally conducive to discussions, not lectures. They allow students to deeply engage material through their own questions because the professor has time to foster, consider, and respond to each student’s inquiries. I dispute your apparent assumption that our students are not capable of sustained personal engagement with the kinds of topics that research scholars pursue. My own experience with Mason students coming from a variety of fields indicates that they relish the chance to think deeply about such “elitist” topics as the nature of reality, the place of humanity within it, the possibilities of knowledge, and the ethics of engaging with others. We sell our students short if we fail to provide intimate, inspiring dialogue. I also dispute that this kind of education is a luxury or a mere supplement that is ultimately irrelevant to preparing a student for a financially successful future. In a narrow sense, there is now a significant amount of literature, including calls from tech CEOs, about how Humanities education fosters skills that give workers an edge in the information economy. Are we going to cede this kind of education to small private schools? In a larger sense, I think that each of our students deserves the chance to ask who they are, who they want to be, and what all of this means for how they should treat others. If we really want to talk about excellence and accessibility, we should be encouraging all of our students to take small classes guided by inspiring, world-renowned professors, and ensuring that we have adequate course offerings available.

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