The Ecology of Higher Education and Fresno Pacific

The Ecology of Higher Education and Fresno Pacific

Trends over the last twenty years have changed our academic environment and the population of students we serve.  This is sometimes referred to as the new “ecology” of higher education. These trends have increased in speed and extent. It is not uncommon to hear one of us say that we have experienced more change in the higher education landscape in the last five years than in the previous twenty or more combined. We have both adapted to and resisted these trends as part of our mission as a Christian University, and as consistent with the ideals of the FPU Idea. We have always balanced both our mission with our market. We have found a way through it all with other sister institutions across the state and country. Let me offer my summary of these trends and something about how FPU has embraced them, adapted, and/or resisted:

  • We have seen consistently growing expectations at all levels, including traditional undergraduate students that the academic value of a university education is measured by completion of degrees that offer entry into or movement within professions. What was once considered primarily a feature of adult education (e.g. Degree Completion and Graduate) has move to the traditional undergraduate populations. This is true of first generation students, whom we enroll now in greater proportions than previously, and of second and third generation students. It is also true within Christian higher education nationally. Where offered programs do not meet students’ expectations for professional entry or growth, they enroll elsewhere. And often the better prepared and focused student, the student with greater options, the ones who might in earlier decades have sought a more general “liberal education,” enrolls elsewhere. We have experienced and adapted to this trend in the expectations of students.
  • Students have gradually taken on the character of customers at the application/enrollment stage of their association with a university, and also when they are in contact with university service offices, or in their academic work. We hear about it when they feel that an academic program is not leading them to their goal, or when an office seems not to serve them as expected, or a professor does not return assignments when expected. In extreme forms this attitude among the public and students seeks courses on demand, and designer or streamlined majors. We continue to adapt to this trend. We have pursued customer service, and have developed policies on how we serve our students.
  •  In California particularly and also in other states as well, student populations have become more ethnically diverse, with greater proportions of first generation students. This has brought to FPU a new population of bright, energetic and intelligent students. Hispanic students especially have become a central population within all degree levels. They bring with them particular expectations and needs for support that must be met for their success. This is true at all levels of our degree programs. We have increasingly learned to meet these needs, and we will continue to gain greater facility in addressing them. FPU began active recruitment of an ethnically diverse student body more than 20 years ago. We are now among the top 10 Hispanic Serving universities in the country for graduation success.
  • Christian higher education has gained in professionalism and stature among American higher education in general. This trend ranges from more competitive athletics, to a greater proportion of professors with terminal degrees, to distinctively Christian institutions developing both professional and research doctorates, to more developed student/spiritual development programs, and more specialized facilities. Professors are expected to engage more consistently in recognized forms of scholarship, and to participate in the extension and application of knowledge. FPU embraced early some aspects of this professionalism with its highly developed School of Education, with multiple credentials and master’s degrees with a clear and distinctive Christian character. The anti-intellectualism sometimes characteristic of evangelical higher education has unfortunately persisted in some quarters, and continues to shape the public perception that Christian institutions might not be academically credible. Increasingly Christian Higher education is done and demanded in a multi- or inter-denominational setting. Single denominations are often perceived as narrow and restrictive. We have seen our student body and the demands placed on us shaped by these trends.  We have embraced them in our development. Christians through the ages have been some of the deepest and most respected thinkers of their ages. It’s more than time that the depth of the Christian intellectual tradition, and the contribution of Christian faith to all fields of scholarship be renewed and recognized.
  • Colleges have become universities with multiple schools, for the arts, sciences and professions, with multiple delivery systems and types of programs. With our Degree Completion programs, Regional Centers, and online courses and majors, we have participated actively in this trend. We moved in this direction earlier than most with Continuing Education and Professional Development courses and workshops. These provide multiple revenue streams. And the multiple types of programs and delivery systems have allowed us to extend our mission to other populations than our traditional graduate and undergraduate populations. We have adopted this extended mission.
  • The professorate is changing, marked by specialization or the “disaggregation” of responsibility. A “subject matter expert” creates courses; some primarily research; others primarily teach. Professors follow alternative career paths with increased program management responsibilities. Universities set by policy a lower proportion of tenured positions than in the past, or discontinue tenure systems. In traditional programs whether graduate or undergraduate mentoring now often takes place through faculty-student research, professional mentoring, and increased use of internships. Administrators and professors are now required to verify that their academic programs produce students prepared for professions and with demonstrated capabilities through standardized, institutionalized assessment systems. Some of these trends are difficult to accept, and require kinds of effort and energy that we might not want to expend.  We have taken on the best of these trends—those that help us be better at what we do–and with other institutions resist some of them. Some of them we resist at great expense, perhaps expense we cannot bear. We will see what the future offers and requires of us.
  • These changes require re-articulation and new understanding of how we construct our majors and programs, how we accomplish our mission, and how we include or blend the best of the liberal arts and Biblical tradition with professional programs. While the public noise about higher education touts vocational outcomes, surveys and reports of the success of liberal arts graduates continue to show greater accomplishment than those trained merely technically or professionally. However, even liberal arts colleges prominently include professional degrees in their curriculums. Our task is to understand, articulate and adapt to this environment while pursuing our mission and the superior form of education we have practiced. Our task is to take the best of what we have been, and ensure that students receive a deeper education while meeting their professional expectations.
  • Because of the demands of the changing educational environment (or ecology), universities increasingly partner with other organizations, including other universities, international agencies, service providers, systems providers, and even academic content providers. WASC (or WSCUC) is developing a policy on what may be “outsourced”—I served on a small committee just his month working to finalize this policy. Universities now cooperate through electronic transmission of student records, in academic programs and in co-curricular opportunities. This trend has increased in intensity as the need for economies of scale, and technical expertise has become more and more evident. It is often no longer possible to create our own system or program. The rate of change and expectations for professional service continue to push us to partner with service providers and other institutions which offer what we need or cannot provide ourselves. We have been slow to adapt and adjust and will have to look carefully at our own capacity and expertise, and engage in partnerships where it is advantageous.
  • Especially in recent years regulatory and reporting demands have increased, much of it tied to institutional eligibility for federal and state financial aid. This is sometimes pushed through accrediting agencies and sometimes directly by state and federal bureaus. Regulatory requirements are widely expected to continue to increase in level of demand and cost, with federal agencies creating their own alternative accrediting procedures and requirements. We have suffered through this ongoing trend, and will continue to develop, comply, and adapt as needed.  We have entered a phase of our history where we are invited to assist in shaping the developing culture of higher education state and nationwide.

When an environment or ecology is characterized by rapid change and new expectations it may appear as daunting, even threatening, and as something to be avoided and resisted.  However, for all of its history Fresno Pacific has adapted to the changing environment and developed new programs and schools that have allowed it to grow and continue to serve our region, communities and churches: Education credentials, MAs, and Continuing Education in the 70s; “Broadening the Base” in the 80s; Degree Completion in the early 90s; growing diversity and becoming a University from the 90s on; regional centers, online programs, BS degrees, and MS and MBAs, more research and other scholarly engagement, and more competitive athletics in the 2000s. We have moved from being an expansive Liberal Arts College to a developing, competitive medium sized Regional University, with sphere of service through multiple centers or campuses, and with our foundation or core in the liberal arts, offering education in the arts, sciences and professions, with multiple degree programs and at multiple degree levels. We are a full and complex organization. All of this experience, the expertise we have gained, the knowledge of our faculty and staff, and our programmatic resources provide us with strength for continued development. We have consistently adapted to this changing environment while remaining rooted in our faith, a long tradition of liberal education and history of service. We will continue to do so with our mission and the aspirations of the FPU Idea guiding us, with commitment to excellence in Christian Higher education, and with faithfulness, wisdom, passion, and creativity.

Educated State
Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis

Tagged: Academic Administration

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