Navigating the Bounty of Higher Education

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Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment.   And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.

If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.

With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.

Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.

These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.

Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.

But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.

The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive.  And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.

Dr. Bakuza and the Power of Education

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Just yesterday my friend Fortidas Bakuza became Dr. Bakuza, and Tanzania will never be the same.

When I first met Fortidas back in 2009 we visited his office in Dar Es Salaam. A professor from our university had made the connection through a mutual colleague, and despite being strangers we were warmly received. He passionately shared the many challenges facing the Tanzanian education system and his hopes to strengthen and prioritize early childhood education. When we said our goodbyes we spoke of future opportunities to connect and promised to be in touch.

Flash forward five years, and to our celebratory dinner congratulating Fortidas on his monumental accomplishments. Not only did he complete his Doctorate and Master’s degrees in record time, he did so with a dedication, insistence on quality, and a gentle thoughtfulness that has impressed his professors, colleagues, and all with whom he’s interacted while in Buffalo.

As I reflect on the excitement and pride that I feel for Fortidas and his family, I can’t help contrasting it with my own PhD and my graduation that I never bothered attending. It’s not that I didn’t value my education, on the contrary, it is the core of who I am and what I offer. But unlike Fortidas, mine didn’t require direct sacrifice or hardship. Learning was what I loved to do, and my degree felt highly personal and not requiring any public celebration or ceremony.

But Fortidas’s education is something much different. He left his wife and young children, and his home, for three long years, working tirelessly to complete his degrees. His dissertation was not simply an exercise, but instead an offering to his country and its education system to help inform change, progress, and a path forward toward actualizing and leveraging the talent of their youth.

I know there are many other international students who make their way to Western colleges and universities, seeking knowledge, degrees, and better lives for themselves and their families. But as costs become even more prohibitive and obstacles for scholarships and support more daunting, these opportunities and their beneficiaries will continue to dwindle.

If we are serious about supporting community development and progress throughout the world- which I hope desperately that we are- we must continue to bring the benefits of education to those who seek to maximize its reach. And while intensive on-site programs, such as Fortidas’s course of study, offer extensive advantages and opportunities for students from developing regions, they are neither sustainable nor scalable in the largest sense.

Luckily, the burgeoning world of technology and distance education offer unending possibilities for students and communities to learn, share, and innovate while at the same time addressing the specific contextual challenges and opportunities that frame our realities. As Western university communities that enjoy bountiful resources, expertise, and capacity we stand to partner and offer support in new and important ways.
But as we have learned through BTEP (Buffalo Tanzania Education Project), these opportunities are based largely on our willingness to connect and form meaningful relationships built on mutual respect and understanding.

And as my friend Fortidas prepares to return home to his family and the new opportunities that await him, I can’t help feeling as though his departure is actually just the beginning of the next stage of our collaboration and friendship.  And I feel blessed to be part of something so much bigger than any one of us.

How to Get Higher Ed to the Table for Meaningful Education Reform

As cautious and thoughtful higher education professionals it makes sense to show programmatic restraint.  Rather than committing precious resources to new initiatives that may or may not be successful, of course we should prioritize the stewardship of existing commitments over fleeting dalliances.

But here’s the problem- if we allow ourselves to be guided only by the voice of caution and restraint, we will never reach the necessary threshold to pull the trigger on partnerships and initiatives that are critical to our communities and the continued viability of our social systems.

As someone who has tried to work higher education partnerships- mostly education related- from a number of angles both inside and out, I understand the inherent challenges.  Universities, by definition, have a strong need for thoughtfulness, control, and clarity.  We are strategic entities that value research and solid decision making in all we do.  In many ways this is why we have so much to offer- we know how to do things the right way and how to be successful by design.  To universities, systems level issues embedded in community complexities are about as ill-defined as problems get.  They are messy, mired in politics, and promise little in the way of guaranteed successes and wins.

Having had the opportunity to work with and for the Buffalo School District for one short but fascinating year (half of my salary was reimbursed to UB for half of my time while serving as a liaison for higher education partnerships), I can hardly blame the University for their reticence.  In the highly polarized context surrounding our Prek-12 education system, the most well intentioned activities can become suspect within a circus-like atmosphere that spotlights blame and vilification.

To be clear, Higher Education has its own dysfunctions, but ours are much more subtle and accessible only to those who can decipher the intricacies.  To the Prek-12 world, however, we often come across as aloof, out of touch, and unwilling to take part in solutions to problems that we clearly have a hand in.  This reluctance can be maddening for community leaders who simply can’t imagine why faculty and leadership wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to partner when the work is so obviously critical and the opportunities so great.  And to their credit, I have seen an enduring determination to bring Higher Education to the table regardless of past failures and shortcomings.  I can only imagine that this tenacity is rooted in a deep understanding of the potential benefits of partnering and also the necessity of marrying the two systems.

Hopefully, readers already accept both the importance of Higher Education’s role in education reform, and the cultural chasm between these two very distinct worlds.  If so then logically it follows that in order to leverage and ensure the benefits of collaboration given these inherent differences, we must address Higher Education’s understandable reluctance to “get in bed” with such a risky partner.

I assure you that I’ve given this problem a great deal of consideration.  I have studied the issue of educational partnerships through a number of roles and reporting relationships, working for the President, Vice President for External Affairs, Dean of Education, Provost, and now through the lens of Experiential Learning within Undergraduate Education.  And the more that I see the more I know that to make PreK-16 partnerships both meaningful and sustainable, we need to mitigate the risks for Higher Education and allow them to do what they do best, while not expecting them to wander too far from their core.  Simply put, we cannot expect Higher Education to relinquish their need for caution, good decision making, and success- since doing so would put them at risk while diminishing the integrity of what they have to offer in the first place.

I am convinced that the only way to realize the potential and need for partnerships is to create safe spaces for Higher Education to participate in the development and implementation of models in ways that align with their core needs and goals.  In other words, their involvement needs to be around innovation, research, and engagement and the environment needs to allow for fidelity of implementation, scrutiny of data, and continued reflection and capacity building.  Risk has to be mitigated through carefully framed expectations, research questions and hypotheses, with the freedom and flexibility to follow the data and do what is needed to make the initiatives successful.

To those who will point out that these conditions are completely unrealistic within the constraints of the current system and that higher education shouldn’t have the luxury of opting out, I feel their frustration.  But I would also point out that we in Higher Education are as slippery as we are cautious- it is very difficult to force us to a table that isn’t appropriately set.  I can tell you that continued efforts to strong-arm, shame, or incentivize us into collaboration will only result in continued frustration and disappointment.

But please do not give up, for the riches that await us- and our children- are well worth the effort.  Clearly, the brokering of partnerships between PreK-12 and Higher Education calls for a deep understanding of the systems and cultures at play along with their respective needs and priorities. But perhaps more importantly, it calls for the creation of opportunities and spaces to do things the right way, to relax some of the constraints and conditions that contribute to the inherent complexities of the situation, and to allow Higher Education to do what it does well.

To echo the conclusions of many of my past posts, we need facilitators, designers, and architects who understand the strengths and constraints of all relevant systems and can create spaces and models to leverage the best they have to offer.  And above all we need a shared vision that is strong enough to keep us on track, working towards a common goal that will elevate all of our work and prevent our natural tendency to withdraw from the relationship when things get uncomfortable.

In summary, I concede that we in Higher Education may have commitment issues, but that does not mean that we can’t be good partners.  Perhaps like any good relationship we could all benefit from clarifying our expectations and needs upfront.  Once we’re clear and comfortable with our abilities to be ourselves while respecting and supporting one another, we can finally start to enjoy the riches of a long and fruitful relationship.