Michael Bassis

President Emeritus, Westminster College, Salt Lake City
Served from 2002-2012

Creative and Reflective Capacities Reflection

The Need for New Models

The essay I’ve included as my creativity ARTIFACT describes the process I and some colleagues engaged in to create a new educational program design, one that is competency based, low residency, and built exclusively around projects instead of classes.

The essay begins by describing why higher education needs new models such as this one. It describes two problems with our colleges and universities that have become increasingly visible and problematical. The first is that the cost of attending college is rising so fast that it threatens to make a college education financially out of reach of too many people. Higher education explain this cost problem by noting that delivering a quality college experience requires highly skilled labor, multiple campus facilities and sophisticated equipment, all of which are expensive. Many people, including myself, are questioning the assumption that cost and quality go hand in hand. But, I suspect, even today’s college costs wouldn’t seem so out of line if we were producing graduates who are well equipped to succeed in our rapidly changing world. But there is mounting concern that too few college students are learning the skills and attributes necessary to assure their own personal and professional success and to meet the needs of our society.

That simple and stark evaluation of the failure of higher education is supported by a variety of scholarly articles and a good deal of research. This evaluation is shared, as well, by business and community leaders who hire many of today’s college graduates. They point out that while graduates may be well versed in their major field of study, they don’t have the more general skills and attributes that transcend academic fields and that would enable them to really contribute to, and succeed in, today’s working world.

“Too few college students are learning the skills and attributes necessary to assure their own personal and professional success and to meet the needs of our society”
More than a decade ago, the Business-Higher Education forum identified a set of cross-functional skills and attributes graduates need if they are to be important contributors in almost any occupation. More recently, a variety of organizations, ranging from foundations to higher education associations, have listed various educational outcomes that are closely calibrated with the challenges of a complex and volatile world.

Essential Skills and Attributes

The planning process

Using that information and their own judgment as educators, the Westminster faculty developed, as part of our larger strategic planning effort, a list of college-wide learning goals—skills and attributes that Westminster believes are critical to one’s ability to be successful in our rapidly changing world. Our goals are not identical to those developed by others. They reflect our values and our beliefs. They are, in essence, a creative and reflective statement of who we are and what we want to accomplish.

We were not content, however, with just a general statement of our goals.  We also spent a lot of time defining—with specificity—what those goals entailed. We went even further by identifying precisely where these learning goals were being addressed in the curriculum and co-curriculum. And finally, as you are now seeing, we developed a mechanism, the eportfolio, where students could demonstrate, through examples of their own work, that they had achieved each learning goal.

Creating a New Educational Design

The essay goes on describe how, driven to find a way to lower the cost of a college education while, at the same time, ensuring that students would graduate fully prepared to succeed, we set out to create a new and radically different program design. We crafted the design over a two year period, during which the provost and I spent countless hours in intense conversation with one of our most thoughtful and creative faculty members. We concluded that grafting elements of the learning paradigm onto programs designed within the context of the teaching model would not be the most effective way to proceed. So we spent time carefully working through the way a new program could be structured to maximize the value of the learning paradigm. We recruited interested faculty members and brought them into the process.

"I’m enormously proud of the program design that emerged from this highly collaborative process for it has demonstrated that it is possible to increase the level of student learning while lowering the cost of delivery."

Shanghai, China

Since the Changing the Equation essay was published, the MBA version of the program has been up and running and is proving to be as successful as we had hoped. We are even using it to structure the joint MBA degree program we are doing in partnership with a university based in Shanghai, China. As I write this, faculty in our communications department are in the final stages of using the design for a new graduate program they are creating. And faculty in our public health program are eager to follow this same path.

We will continue to test new designs, new approaches, and new ideas and refine the ones we already have in place. There are no “off the shelf” solutions to the problem of students learning.  We know that our approach has to be consistent with the ethos of our institution; it has to be responsive to the kind of students we enroll and we very much want to continue to keep thinking of ways to improve the quality of what we do while controlling costs. That is an on-going process, one which demands continued renewal and redesign. We can’t be content with what we have—we must always be looking for ways to improve.  

Here again, my competitive nature is evident. I want Westminster to be first to market with a number of project-based, limited residency degree programs. I want us to take the lead in promoting the value of this new learning design, not following the pack.

The Westminster faculty has defined creativity as follows: Creative thinking includes combining or synthesizing existing ideas, images, or expertise in original ways and the ability to think, react, and work in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of innovation, divergent thinking, and risk taking. All of these acts of creativity include acknowledging and pressing beyond current practices in the field and making those activities public. Working to create our competency and project based low residency design was an exhilarating experience for me and, I think, for other members of the design team. I believe that’s because the work required all of us to use every ounce of our creativity.
Click HERE to access the interactive rubric and evaluate my work.

Michael Bassis, President Westminster College, Utah
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