Go Bold! AASCU challenges its members to rethink the student experience.

“Go bold or go home!” Not your typical closing statement at a higher education conference, but George Mehaffy is not your typical leader and today’s state institutions aren’t facing typical challenges.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) Academic Affairs Summer Meeting was held in Portland, Oregon last week. The theme for the meeting was “Re-Designing the First Year of College for Student Success” and it marks the beginning of a three-year project to do just that.

To the dismay and confusion of many, the meeting opened with a keynote from Ryan Craig, founding Managing Director of University Ventures and author of College Distrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. While his talk contained fascinating information and a good synopsis of his recent book, it left the audience feeling unsettled and a touch defensive. Throughout the conference, participants could be overheard asking, “whose idea was it to have that guy do the opening keynote?”

True to form, Mehaffy openly took full responsibility. In his closing remarks, he said, “If you’re wondering who’s to blame for that [opening keynote], it’s me. I wanted him to make you angry, to wake you up.”

Craig’s talk was quickly followed by a second keynote from John Gardner, President of the Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. Gardner was the spoon full of sugar to Craig’s bitter medicine but he too challenged the audience to admit that the first year of college is “badly broken.”

The title of Gardner’s speech was “Re-Imagining the First Year,” perhaps emphasizing that more than a re-design is in order.

Later in the event, InsideTrack hosted a roundtable discussion featuring several of their professional coaches, who work with students around the country. The theme was, “what your students aren’t telling you” and the session offered attendees the chance to ask the coaches questions about students’ perceptions of their educational experience. The standing-room-only crowd of presidents, provosts and student affairs officers couldn’t get enough. At the end of the session, participants lined up to ask if the coaches would be willing to speak further with them and their teams.

Throughout the conference, there was much discussion about the usual culprits – backwards faculty incentives, data issues, scarce resources, and under-prepared or disengaged students. However, Mehaffy and others encouraged attendees to think beyond the standard fare. “Millions in venture capital funding is being poured into these [innovations] to ensure your demise,” he said. Based on the lively discussion at the event’s close, many attendees were ready to step up to the challenge.

When was the last time you saw conference attendees stay late on the last day – on a Saturday, with a beer festival taking place across the street – engaged in lively discussion on student success? That’s the level of engagement and commitment AASCU members showed in response to Mehaffy’s call.

I personally applaud George for his bold approach. As I see it, anything that generates conversation on more student-centered approaches to improving outcomes is a good thing, even if it ruffles some feathers. I hope that spark I saw ignited last week burns bright as CAO’s take it back to their campuses.

“We know what works,” said Mehaffy, “now it’s all about execution.”

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