Change is in the Air


As I write this, we are in the month of August, and there is a clear feeling of change in the air. On a national level, there is a growing intensity surrounding the upcoming presidential campaign, even though the actual election is over a year away, and a common theme among the candidates for the presidency is one of change. Much closer to home, our System has a new (interim) Chancellor, and I am writing an article for the first time as President of the Academic Senate. The Academic Senate is also embarking on new endeavors, among them the Basic Skills Initiative, articulation efforts with high schools in career and technical education under SB70, and a course identification project (C-ID).

Overall, I think that a degree of change is healthy for all organizations.

Organizations need new challenges to stay vital. Organizations that cannot change may not be responsive to the changing needs of its members and circumstances.

Fortunately, the Academic Senate is an organization that does change. It does so in a thoughtful and measured way, in a way that permits broad discussion and input. In this article I want to focus on how the Academic Senate has changed in how it views and in its approach towards student learning outcomes (SLO).

I was recently forwarded an email from a faculty member wondering what the Academic Senate was currently doing to "combat the SLO juggernaut." The email included reference to the numerous resolutions opposing the imposition of student learning outcomes and to vociferous Rostrum articles penned by the Executive Committee. Not surprisingly, to judge by our published documents, one could infer that the Academic Senate is still firmly dedicated to opposition to student learning outcomes in all its manifestations.

During the time surrounding the adoption of the 2002 Accreditation Standards by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), the Academic Senate's efforts were focused on resisting the implementation of the new standards and the imposition of SLOs. SLOs had already been implemented by the other regional accrediting bodies, many beginning in the early 1990s, and anecdotal evidence suggested that SLOs consumed a significant amount of resources without demonstrable improvements in student learning or success. The Academic Senate opposed the new standards and asked for evidence, such as that asked for with SLOs, to show that SLOs were worth the time and money.

This resistance was codified in numerous resolutions, ten in 2001 and 17 in 2002, and strongly-worded articles. The Academic Senate was fiercely critical of the ACCJC, and relations between the two groups became cool. As a result, when the ACCJC needed partners to develop training for colleges in working with the concept of SLOs, it turned to another community college organization, the Research and Planning Group (RP Group). Early feedback on the trainings indicated that the vast majority of SLO coordinators on campuses were administrators. In addition, participants in the trainings cited a lack of clarity on what SLOs were and how they should be measured, and these observations reinforced the Academic Senate's position that SLOs should simply be opposed in the hopes that they would go away.

Today, five years later, the Academic Senate continues to be concerned with the time and resources needed to assess and document SLOs and the fact that not only is work on SLOs an unfunded mandate but adds to the work that faculty already do and in some cases pulls faculty away from their work as teachers in order to focus on SLOs. This was most recently expressed in Resolution 2.02 S07 concerning the new SLO Annual Report format and the data required for its completion. However, in the last five years, several factors have caused the Academic Senate to change its stance on SLOs in significant ways.

First, it became clear after a few years that the ACCJC was firmly enforcing the need for colleges to assess SLOs in the accreditation process. In spite of the Academic Senate's opposition to the standards, the Academic Senate also strongly asserted the primacy of faculty in developing SLOs as an academic and professional matter (see Resolution F04 2.01). As a result, most colleges shifted responsibility for SLOs from an administrator to a faculty member, and today 90% of all SLO Coordinators are faculty. Clearly, the Academic Senate needed to take a role in supporting faculty SLO Coordinators to supplement the work of the RP Group (see Resolution F06 2.02), and in January of this year, the Academic Senate offered its first Accreditation Institute, followed by regional meetings for SLO Coordinators, and then followed by the first SLO Institute this past July. While the Academic Senate continues to have questions about SLOs, it is convinced that its involvement in supporting SLO coordinators and community college faculty in this endeavor is vital in order to make the best of the SLO process; and, in fact, there is a growing body of data to show that the SLO process is resulting in better alignment of curriculum and programs, better critical thinking by students, and a much needed look at some of our pedagogical techniques and content.

Second, over the last five years, the federal movement towards the standardization of higher education and accrediting processes has only grown stronger, culminating in the Spelling's Commission report last fall and percolating even now in the discussions of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (see the article on Preserving Higher Education elsewhere in this issue). Not only are faculty firmly opposed to such standardization, but we have found an unexpected ally in the effort to oppose this federal movement in our regional accrediting bodies. The ACCJC has reaffirmed its support for regional peer review-driven accreditation, and it has promoted from the inception of the 2002 Standards the concept that SLOs are the best way to subvert national efforts at standardization. Only in hindsight is the Academic Senate now able to see that the ACCJC's agreement to adopt SLOs was a pre-emptive action to forestall accreditation on a federal level. With this new understanding, relations between the ACCJC and the Academic Senate have improved. Representatives from the ACCJC participated in both the Accreditation and Student Learning Outcomes Institutes.

I shared this historical perspective with the attendees of the Student Learning Outcomes Institute this past July, and now I share it with you.

The Academic Senate has strong principles, but it is not an organization where its tenets are fixed for all eternity.

Rather, it is an organization responsive to the needs and concerns of the faculty of the California community colleges, and as such regularly revisits its positions and resultant activities. Although uttered over 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus is quoted as saying (albeit not in English), "Nothing endures but change." The coming year will undoubtedly bring changes to our nation, the California Community College System, and our lives as educators. I welcome you to join me to engage in these challenges and opportunities together.