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April 2, 2012

Communications and Vision

Busy

Good academics—those with a consciousness of the cultural and social functions of their jobs—recognize that what they do today has, or should have, implications for the future. Those implications are what justify the existence of the academy: If higher education doesn't serve to transmit the lessons of the past to the current generation, or to somehow prepare the current generation for life ahead, what justification is there for higher education? Educators care about their students: we place the needs of students above personal desires. I might prefer to spend my time working on a great book that I think would be popular, influential, and (incidentally) make me rich and famous...but papers need to be graded and returned on Monday, and those lecture notes need to be studied so that I don't flop on Tuesday. In the real lives of most academics, the demands for urgent attention nearly always outweigh the needs for equal attention to important but less urgent business, so what may matter most in the long run nearly always gets put off for later.

The same is true for academic departments. Faculty need to work together to impart a total education, each course expanding on what came before or preparing for what comes next as the progressive richness of a curriculum unfolds. Reflection and exchange are needed, guided by a deliberate refreshening of questions such as what is important and how can we together best impart the knowledge and wisdom that our students will need and in turn transmit to the next generation. But rather than engage in such deep dialog, departments focus on administrative demands for reports, assessments, or responses. That colleges and entire universities fall to the same dynamic is no surprise. Pressure of the urgent prevents the nation's colleges and universities from attending to the important, and the major challenges of the 21st century yield to the inertia of 20th century curricula and ways of doing business.

Closer to here and now, the arrival of April puts advising, paperwork for graduation, finals and grading, and ceremonies on the front burner, followed immediately by mass exodus (because nearly all faculty are on 9-month appointments). And essential institutional focus on the future? Can we get back to that in the fall? Seriously? Anyone? Hello...?

The Communication Studies Department has no formal strategic plan and no planning process to the best of my knowledge. Two years ago, the Department approved a mission statement; I'm not sure of the circumstances or why we did it. I asked why didn't we also write a vision statement and undertake strategic planning? This idea was dismissed with a bit of scorn and essentially no discussion. No vision statement. No strategic plan. "Nothing to see here. Move along, please."

Harrington School Strategic Planning

The Harrington School of Communication and Media has recently engaged The Parthenon Group of Boston to conduct a strategic planning exercise (see Public Sector/Non-Profit Education Center of Excellence web site). The Strategic Plan, to be completed by late May, will outline vision and mission, including economic, social, cultural, and political goals. A "ten-minute" online survey from the Group was distributed to faculty and staff last week, asking questions about attitudes toward existing programs, students, and faculty, including a request to answer "What is your vision of the Harrington School?" It is not clear when or whether faculty or staff will be asked for additional input.

The Plan will include analysis of structures to align the organizational design with goals and mission, and an analysis of capacity, strengths, and weaknesses, and "ability to execute an agenda." Structural planning covers "planning, monitoring, and implementation roles within the institution," "mechanism to ensure responsibility, accountability and coordination across the institution," planning for "continued improvement in building organizational capacity," and "tracking and rewarding performance, and building an effective system."

The Plan will also cover "non-academic educational levers." These include "student recruitment and success," "programmatic offerings (curriculum and program: academic and non-academic offerings)," "instructional delivery (7 items)," "research and thought leadership (funding, relevancy of topic areas, faculty mix, and inter-connectivity with URI)," "operations (finance, information technology, facilities), and "development (alumni, fund raising)." The role of "innovation (technology)" on all levers is also indicated.

Why We Need Vision Statements and Strategic Plans

Plans are meant to advance toward goals, the goals presented as a vision. Reorganization and restructuring, and even the tweaking of "levers" is premature until an organization determines vision. Normally, vision grows from perceived strengths or from needs not being met by the organization as currently construed. Because the goals of the Harrington School potentially affect all members of all involved departments in extremely important ways, with considerable additional implications University-wide, a deeply engaging consensus process is needed, with maximal involvement of faculty and teaching staff in the processes of developing goals and the processes to reach them, as crafted in planning documents.

Communication Studies brings several strengths to the planning process. Certainly, the teaching commitment of the Department is huge, both to teach large numbers of majors and for university-wide service courses . Much of that teaching is by talented and hard-working adjunct faculty, lecturers, and graduate instructors. In my six years with the Department, I've developed enormous and deep respect for the quality scholarship of my colleagues at all ranks. I am surrounded by highly intelligent and very dedicated people.

Being a large teaching department creates a sense of false security. It also creates a work environment in which there isn't a lot of energy left over at the end of the day. When colleagues engage in technical, developmental, or assessment service on behalf of the University community—as many of my colleagues do—I am at a loss as to how they find the time and energy to do so. My colleagues work hard, and I am proud to be among them.

Hard work and intelligence are tremendous virtues, but they cannot guarantee organizational or individual success. Roger Geiger's outstanding Research and Relevant Knowledge (2004) makes it clear that a careful assessment of natural strengths and a strong administrative dedication toward setting and reaching goals is vital to the success of upward-bound academic institutions and programs. The Department has a tradition of focus on gender and multicultural communications, although this has not been clearly written down anywhere that I am aware of. Such interests and strengths need to be incorporated, after careful reflection, into a deeply engrained planning process—a process that includes continual renewal and reflection on the Plan.

Should the Department undertake a serious effort to develop future plans, I would advocate an exploration of opportunities in the communication of science. I believe that the greatest threat to the future of the United States, and most likely the entire world, stems from the great breakdown in contemporary society's ability to move vital awareness from the science discourse communities into the public sphere. That is, science fails to communicate what it knows about climate change; planetary limits of mineral, biotic, and energy resources; population; and human behavior, such that the economy and politics are poorly informed and incompetent to cope with disasters which lie in the decades immediately ahead of us. Because such a discussion is vital to the State and its future, it needs to be incorporated into the Harrington School planning process.

The rest of the University also needs to pay attention to the marriage of communication and science. Oceanography and environment, engineers and artists: pay attention! At the very least, the articulation and careful conveyance of a clear understanding of what you do to the public is vital for future public support. There are reasons why RI is among the worst in the nation in state per capita support for URI. Failure to communicate (failure to recognize the need and develop the ability to communicate) is among our greatest institutional failures. We are also failing our students by maintaining an isolation of science and art from communication. The result is short-term tragedy for the almost privatized University, and long term tragedy for the society belonging to our graduates.

I would also advocate a strong bench-marking study to clarify leading edge institutions and the foci and practices that define leading edge. I believe that the successful project of building a biotechnology building on campus owed its success to a detailed and inciteful benchmark study which I conducted in 2001. Without such supporting data for Harrington School initiatives, there can be no clarity to a case for program uniqueness or importance, and no hope to develop the modern physical plant and new construction necessary to meet what I trust are long-term goals of the Harrington School.

(For a highly contemporary example of the breakdown of science communication and its terrible national consequences, see Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010, Gordon Gauchat, American Sociological Review 77(2) 167–187, April 2012. In the United States of America in 2012, the conservative half of the nation is moving strongly toward disavowal of anything coming from the science community: this is a sure recipe for ultimate social disaster.)

Attaining the Vital Vision

Tragedy, of course, is when virtue leads to one's undoing. Here, faculty work to serve students, and have no time for vision. Departments work to satisfy Deans, Provosts, Presidents, and the Board, and have no time for vision. Donors can promote external visions, but until goals are derived from and made common among those who work in the institution, the institution cannot advance: this was the meaning of "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." At URI, we all work hard, respond to authority and to opportunities and external agendas; we also need to achieve clarity in our visions of the future.

The Harrington School has potential to inspire faculty and teaching staff, articulating and attracting all to whatever new vision emerges from a meaningful, inclusive, consensus-building process. Academic culture is deeply entrenched at URI: the curriculum (and research) are the province of the faculty and planners must respect this. The planning process needs to be carefully paced and targeted such that it can engage faculty and teaching staff; moving too fast or failing to sincerely involve faculty and staff in the effort runs a severe risk of disenfranchisement, disengagement, and failure to build a supportive and enthusiastic community. Upon the strength of that community hangs the fate of the endeavor. Given the importance of advancing Harrington School missions as a well-integrated part of the University, successful outcomes are in everyone's best interest.


References

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