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What Can Be Learned from Studying a University?


Steven J. Diner


Most presidents and chancellors of American colleges and universities acknowledge the importance of preparing future higher education leaders. We mentor faculty and staff members in formal and informal ways, and send people to numerous professional development programs and conferences. For the last 45 years, the premier leadership program has been the ACE Fellows Program, through which a select group of aspiring leaders participates in a complex tapestry of leadership learning experiences, including an internship with the head of a higher education institution.
But what if an entire university, not just the president or chancellor, had the opportunity to educate a class of Fellows? This is the experiment the ACE Fellows Program undertook in the last two years with my institution, Rutgers University-Newark. It proved valuable not only to the Floows but also to me and my university.
Face to Face with Diversity
In support of the placement learning experience, Fellows meet as a class in three week-long, intensive educational programs. The curriculum has long included an extensive case study exercise in strategic and financial planning for a hypothetical institution facing significant challenges. In November 2008, Sharon A. McDade, who had recently assumed leadership of the program, decided that a real-world case study would be exceptionally valuable in helping Fellows reflect on what they had been learning in their placements, apply leadership best practices, and receive feedback on leading and working in teams. In particular, she sought to focus on leadership, change, and diversity in the context of an institution with significant diversity, a culture in which diversity is embedded as a mission imperative, and that might provide best practices that the Fellows could use now and in the future. She asked if I would be willing to have the class of 2008–09 study my institution in conjunction with its Midyear Retreat, focusing on leadership and change for diversity in American higher education.
Located in downtown Newark, New Jersey, Rutgers–Newark is a 12,000-student institution with schools of arts and sciences, business, law, nursing, public affairs and administration, and criminal justice. We define ourselves as an urban university, deeply engaged with our surrounding community, and offering extraordinary learning opportunities, given the unique racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of our student body. The campus has been ranked first in racial/ethnic diversity among “national universities” by U.S. News and World Report for all 13 years that the magazine has compiled diversity rankings.

Although the U.S. News rankings are based on the proportion of African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and whites among undergraduates, Rutgers–Newark also is diverse in ways that the magazine does not measure. Twelve percent of our first-year students are Hindu, and 10 percent are Muslim. Thirty-seven percent come from homes in which English is not the first language. I commonly tell people that if they want to see what America will look like in 50 years, they should come to Rutgers–Newark today, where there are no minorities because there are no majorities.

Sharon and I designed what we agreed would be a pilot case study for the Fellows Program Midyear Retreat in January 2009. The Fellows were divided into five groups, and each group was asked to select one of nine possible nontraditional or new populations of students and study their representation and experience at Rutgers–Newark. The Fellows groups chose immigrant students; students with physical, emotional, and/or learning disabilities; adult learners; returning veterans; and students with religious orientations other than Judeo- Christian. We created a special Blackboard site for the case study, which included extensive documents and institutional data about our institution, and of course the Fellows had access to the Rutgers–Newark web site. The Fellows were charged with examining these materials in light of each group’s selected student population and to provide recommendations for how the university might improve its welcome and services to these students.

I joined the Fellows at the Midyear Retreat, along with a Rutgers–Newark faculty member who answered questions and provided additional information about the campus. Toward the end of the seminar, each group presented its report in an open session. I provided some general reactions to the entire group and then met with each team individually to discuss their respective presentations and recommendations. I also returned to the Fellows’ Closing Retreat in June and updated them on what we had done or were in the process of doing as a result of their reports and recommendations five months earlier.

Some of the Fellows’ recommendations were useful and we have acted upon them. The suggestions regarding veteran students proved especially valuable because at the time of the seminar, we had just begun an initiative to improve our support for veterans. The recommendations on adult learners also proved helpful because we were considering undertaking a comprehensive assessment of University College, a longstanding entity on campus established to serve working adults at a time when such students attended part time and at night. As a result of the report on students with disabilities, who until then had not been one of our priorities, we took a fresh look at the services we provide to this population and made several improvements. The report on religious affiliations stimulated two faculty members to evaluate our course offerings on religion and encourage greater attention to religious subjects in several academic departments. The report on immigrant students recommended a center for the study of immigration, which has now been established.

Although some of the recommendations were unrealistic, vague, or suggested initiatives we already had undertaken, it is important for future leaders to learn about the complexities of an institution, to recognize that not every approach to an issue is appropriate for every institution, and to learn how leaders consider recommendations from external sources. This kind of learning experience is possible only when one studies a real institution, not a hypothetical one.
Digging More Deeply into Leadership
Given the nature of the assignment, the presentations were focused almost entirely on student affairs and services, with only limited attention to teaching, learning, and research. Although I appreciated these recommendations on student services, Sharon and I were eager for the Fellows to expand and deepen their focus on leadership for diversity in a real-life institution, so I suggested that the next iteration of the case focus on Rutgers–Newark’s core academic mission.

As we began to plan a more extensive case study for the class of 2009–10, Sharon and I agreed that the Fellows would spend the last day of their week-long opening seminar in August on campus. Our goal was for the Fellows to get a feel for the campus, meet students and faculty, and discuss diversity issues with institution leaders. Sharon and I devised a plan for the class to study the role of the institution’s diversity and its urban engagement in particular academic units, with the active involvement of each unit’s leaders and with access to a larger array of institutional documents, particularly those related to each unit. We thus divided the Fellows into eight groups, with two focused on the College of Arts and Sciences (our largest college) and one each on business, law, criminal justice, nursing, public administration, and the library. During their visit to campus, the class met with the respective deans of each of these units or the library director, which enabled them to connect with key people in these units as they worked on their projects in the four months prior to the Midyear seminar.
As a result of this approach, this year’s Rutgers– Newark case study provided a deeper and fuller learning experience. The Fellows gained insight into the schools and colleges they studied from the deans and other senior staff members. One group conducted focus group discussions with faculty. Like real academic leaders, they had to engage with disciplines and professions remote from their own backgrounds, grapple with real-life institutional constraints, and ascertain ways to advance change agendas in the context of unit and institutional culture. Their presentations have been shared with the deans, as well as with the senior staff of the chancellor’s office. As with the previous year’s Fellows, this class valued the experience of studying a real institution and getting feedback on their assessment of the institution and the value of their recommendations.

Not unexpectedly, given the design of the case study as a learning environment, some recommendations were again vague or unrealistic. Several groups fell back upon the all-too-familiar “let’s appoint a committee” approach, which can be an excuse for not doing anything, or the “let’s create a center” approach, which can offload diversity initiatives instead of keeping them central to the academic leadership imperative. But overall, I found the recommendations valuable, and will use them to improve our institution in important ways.

The most valuable suggestions were repeated in several different groups, and they were not radical new ideas. The recommendations were ones of which I had been generally aware but that had not been high on my action agenda. The Fellows’ reports increased my consciousness and persuaded me to move aggressively on several different matters.

Nearly every group pointed out that although we assert that diversity uniquely prepares our students to function in a global society, we have little systematic research on the effect of our diversity on learning outcomes. In an open-ended question on our graduating student survey, a significant number of our graduating seniors wrote about campus diversity as one of the most positive features of their college experience, but we have done little systematic research beyond this. The Fellows argued—correctly— that Rutgers–Newark should be a national leader in research on how student learning is shaped by racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and by deliberate faculty efforts to capitalize on that diversity in the classroom. They also suggested that we might explore whether this unique demographic diversity shapes the evolution of faculty research agendas in relevant disciplines. They recommended that we more aggressively develop global partnerships with universities and other institutions abroad, and that several of the professional schools pay more attention to incorporating immigration and ethnicity into their curricula.

The Fellows made similar suggestions regarding our commitment to urban engagement in teaching and research. One group proposed an external advisory board to strengthen our focus on community engagement, and another recommended that we institute a set of one-credit first-year seminars on issues connected to Newark.

Nearly every group noted that our web site does not adequately convey our commitment to diversity and community engagement as integral to our academic mission. Just a few days before the Fellows delivered their reports, my cabinet had discussed plans for a major overhaul of our web site, so these suggestions were particularly timely.
A Two-Way Learning Street
Some colleagues expressed surprise that I was willing to open my institution to the intensive scrutiny of ACE Fellows. Wasn’t I afraid that they would be critical of Rutgers–Newark? I felt confident that my institution had unique and valuable things to teach the Fellows about diversity and community engagement. But no institution is perfect, and every university should strive to be better. I was also eager to learn from the Fellows, just as they were learning from us.
Having pioneered the learning exercise with Rutgers–Newark, the ACE Fellows Program will study a different institution next year. I believe these case studies of real institutions will continue to enhance the education of future leaders. By showing our willingness to be scrutinized, we set a good example for the Fellows and for all of American higher education.
​Steven J. Diner is chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark, and was an ACE Fellow (1983–84) and Nominator (2010–11).