Graduation Day

My daughter is graduating from college in a few days, with high honors. She did it in 4 years! And, she has a full-time job that starts four days after graduation!!

We were driving around the shoreline last weekend and talking about her college experience. She noted that important parts of her education in her major field of study were not current with the times. The department chair is a traditionalist who emphasizes numerous courses of a similar type to develop a particular capability and is unaware or does not care that the field is changing from manual processing to digital processing.

My daughter said there were too many courses in manual processing and not enough courses in digital processing. She would have preferred to get more value for her time and our money by taking courses in digital processing – which is the type of processing she will do in her new job, as well as most other graduates. She gave this feedback to her professors.

I asked her about her teachers. She had a great teacher in her final semester; the best one in all four years. I asked her, “What made this one teacher stand out? Why was she so great?” My daughter said:

  • “Fucking not an asshole!!”
  • “She’s is talented in what she teaches.” (Can do expertly what she teaches)
  • “Everything makes sense!”
  • “She’s laid back; logical.”
  • “She gives one-on-one attention.”
  • “Pleasant, down to earth.”

Notice that these comments pertain to respect, or lack thereof, for the student.

How many students do you think share similar perspectives about courses, in whatever the major field of study happens to be, and teachers? I am certain the number is great, which should serve as a catalyst for faculty to make many improvements in both curriculum and course delivery.

Need My Help?

If you want Lean management to truly take hold in your college or university, you are going to have to get faculty involved. Experience has shown time and again that highly educated people doing work on the front lines push back hard on change. Faculty are united in pushing back on what they perceive to be “corporatization” of the university or the adoption of management fads to academic work that they see as not subject to managerialism.

Who better to help convince your faculty to support Lean management and participate in process improvement than me, someone with 15 years of experience with lean in higher education and the author of scholarly works about Lean in higher education?

University faculty also dislike university funds spent on expensive consultants who duplicate internal expertise, do little actual work, and provide little or no value. I am not a consultant; I am a teacher as the graphic below shows:


If you need my help to gain faculty support for Lean and participation in improvement activities, I make the following offer to you. I will come to your campus and spend a few days with your faculty to teach them about Lean management and how it applies to academic work in higher education. The terms are as follows:

  • Fee of $1500 per day for a minimum of two and maximum of three working days in any six month period, paid for by the university president (personal check), the college or university’s foundation, private donors, or a combination of the three.
  • Reimbursement of domestic coach air travel, lodging (simple accommodations), and ground transportation (but not meals) by the above funding sources (not university funds).
  • At least one dinner meeting with the president, provost, chief financial officer, and vice president of human resources (president pays out of pocket; b.good, Noodles & Co., KFC, or Burger King is OK with me).
  • Commitment to return a large portion of the cost savings generated from process improvement to academic departments (especially the arts and humanities) and to students in the form of lower tuition prices.
  • List of area companies practicing Lean where students, faculty, staff, and administrators can go to participate in shop and office floor kaizen and experience hands-on learning.

I am happy to help any college or university whose top leaders are committed to learning and practicing Lean management.

Finding Great Teachers After Graduation

It should be obvious that the purpose of higher education is not an instrument of the state or of private enterprise to prepare students for employment. That is a beneficial outcome for students, employers, and society. And, of course, teaching can be greatly improved to better prepare students for work and for life. I have talked much about this in this blog.

I have not talked as much about the fundamental purpose of a university, which is free and open inquiry in search of the truth; an activity pursued by faculty and students, and hopefully staff as well. It is difficult to succinctly describe how important this purpose is in relation to the advancement of all aspects of humanity. It is so important that one hopes that free and open inquiry in search of the truth goes beyond the confines of the university and penetrates deeply into the workplace and into one’s life.

This purpose of a university generates valuable outcomes such as knowledge of a discipline, critical thinking, reading and numerical literacy, communication skills, intellectual curiosity, and so on. Yet, while we try to improve students capabilities in these and other areas, our efforts are often undone almost step for step by external influencers.

In 15 years of teaching, I remain surprised and dismayed at the lack of critical inquiry that I have seen from students. Most of my students are working professionals, and it seems that the time spent between completing their undergraduate degree and beginning their graduate studies has allowed their critical thinking skills to atrophy, perhaps even damaging them severely. What is the culprit? The workplace, which includes influential managers at all levels as well as peers.

Having worked in industry for 15 years prior to academia, I know well how a supervisor, mid-level manager, or executive can instantly shut down an inquiring mind. I also see more of that than I would like to see in university leadership, who is quick to blame others for problems, make excuses to deflect criticism, or make a questioner look stupid or uninformed to maintain control and reduce dissent. The hypocrisy is obvious. Unfortunately, we have many more role models for bad thinking than we have role models for good thinking.

I try to help my students retain the desire and motivation for critical inquiry by using visual controls. Students create visual controls to remind them of key things they learned in class and are committed to apply. I also give students in each course I teach a visual control that I create for them to use. These visual controls have been successful at helping students remember and apply what they learned in my courses. Many students post the visual control in their cubicle at work and often get asked about it by other workers to whom they explain certain features of this visual control, thereby maintaining a connection to me and the course years later.  (Here are two visual controls that you can use in support of your Lean teaching efforts).

pensI also give to students (at my expense) a pen at the end of the course to further remind them of me, my teachings, and to apply what they learned. The first generation pen is shown at the bottom and says: “Don’t forget the stuff I taught you.” This too has been a big hit with students, and they often get asked about the pen by their colleagues. I think it helps achieve the desired outcome.

A second generation pen is now available – in three colors! The new message is: Use your education. Put it into practice.” These words challenge students more broadly in their education than just my courses. I want to see students doing the best job they can, throughout their lives, of applying what they learned from as many courses as possible: knowledge of a discipline, critical thinking, reading and numerical literacy, communication skills, intellectual curiosity, and so on.

But, I don’t want them to do that because I think everything learned in university is good or beneficial. Students will never know the quality of their education if they do not put it to use. By putting what they learn into use, they will find that some of the learnings work and some don’t. Some learnings work under all circumstances, some work under few or narrow circumstances, and some don’t work at all. By doing this, they will learn where they need more daily practice, additional formal education, or perhaps focused training obtained just-in-time to do a particular task.

To the extent that higher ed exists to prepare students for employment, I wish that educators would take a greater interest in Lean management because organizations that practice Lean well carry forward our teachings into the real world. In particular, knowledge of a discipline, critical thinking, reading and numerical literacy, communication skills, intellectual curiosity, and teamwork. Progressive management is an elegant solution to the fundamental problems that all organizations face. Solving one problem simultaneously solves multiple other problems. Lean management is consistent in nearly every way with what we teach our students.

Lean management is unique in that it requires managers to have the same discipline to good human relations and processes improvement that musicians have to music and performance – yet while creatively experimenting with new and better methods every day. Great Lean leaders are great teachers whom we should welcome as our most capable successors, in the never ending processing of education.

In contrast, there is much to dislike about conventional management (what most faculty experience!) because, for example, one solution to a problem always generates multiple other problems. Another thing to dislike is the large variability in its practice by managers at different levels. It seems the majority of our students, the product of our labors, are cast into an intellectual desert, performing tasks assigned by their workplace supervisor with comparatively little opportunity to generate new ideas, create, and innovate. Leaders skilled in conventional management are terrible teachers and therefore our least capable successors. Managers who lack interest in critical inquiry influence their subordinates to do exactly the same.

Lean management, done right, carries forward the essential outcomes of higher education and does so far more faithfully than conventional management. Lean management is good for our students both within higher education and outside of it.

2015 Lean In Higher Ed Conference

The University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) will host the 2015 Lean HE Hub Conference from from 9-11 September. The theme of this year’s conference is Driving Lean Change in Higher Education.

Conference organizers are inviting contributions for poster presentations, workshops, discussions or presentations on all areas of practical application of Lean in Higher Education. Presentation Submission/Proposal Deadline: May 1st, 2015.

For more information go to The full conference schedule will be available on the website on 15 May.

This will be another great conference in our shared efforts to introduce Lean management to higher education to improve academic and administrative processes. I hope you will attend!

How To Get Started With Lean In Higher Ed

How should higher education (HE) institutions get started with Lean management? Should they follow the tried-and-true path used by for-profit manufacturing and service businesses, or should they create their own new path? Is the rationale for doing the latter sound and also capable of generating improvements in the areas that HE needs it most and at a rate necessary to address strategic challenges?

The vast majority of Lean transformations in industry begin with industrial engineering-based kaizen in the core value-creating processes of a business – the work that matters most to customers. They, after all, must be the first stakeholder that benefits from improvement, while others will follow if kaizen is practiced correctly. Typically, a Lean transformation kicks off with 4 kaizens in operations and one or two kaizens in supporting processes, which the sensei (kaizen teacher) facilitates simultaneously (usually over a 5-day period). Future multi-day kaizens follow a similar pattern.

In industry, kaizen participants learn the goal (flow), the method, the way to think, and practical actions to take. They are encouraged to apply what they learned on a daily basis – daily kaizen – to contribute to rapid improvement in processes. Application of the learning remains focused on improving processes that affect customers – changes that customers can actually see or feel – as well as processes that customers do not see but which are nevertheless important to improve organizational effectiveness.

However, in higher education, the application of Lean principles and practices always begins with non-value-added but necessary administrative work, not core value-creating academic processes such as teaching. If higher education had carefully studied and learned from manufacturing and other service businesses, they would begin with academic processes: teaching, curriculum change process, academic advising, new course development, academic program development, and so on. Perhaps some in higher education did carefully study manufacturing and other service businesses and judged that approach to be unworkable because faculty were resistant to change, would not participate in kaizen, or would not welcome thoughtful scrutiny of their work.

It turns out, faculty are no different than anyone else. Kaizen can be uncomfortable at first, followed by the realization that nearly everyone has: My work can be significantly improved for customers and made much less burdensome on me. Once people realize that kaizen is fun and its outcome is not zero-sum (win-lose), most accept it and say things such as:

  • “I was assigned to this kaizen team. I didn’t think much of it. I am amazed by what I learned.”
  • “I would have never believed that could be done if I did not see it with my own eyes.”
  • “I’m floored by what we accomplished!”
  • “This is the fun part of my job.”
  • “I want to do this every day.”
  • “I finally see hope.”

The different path taken by higher education is significant. After all, the value proposition in higher education for students and payers is teaching and the resultant learning that can be applied to work and to life. Beginning process improvement with non-value-added but necessary administrative work – which typically continues as the sole focus for many years – is not an acceptable response given the many known problems with teaching and their strong effect on reducing student engagement and learning.

So, how does one begin to engage faculty? First, show faculty the need for improvement. Share data with them, such as the data that I have generated: What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, The Value of Higher Education, and Higher Education Quality. If your faculty does not like my data, then ask them to quickly replicate these surveys at your college or university. I’d be surprised if the results were markedly different. In addition, it would help to find a faculty member who can explain Lean management and kaizen to your faculty (call on me if you like). Peer-to-peer conversations are often very helpful in overcoming barriers and gaining interest and enthusiasm for kaizen.

Rather than forming a committee to correct teaching problems, go straight to kaizen (not kaizen “event”). The administration (and union) will have to change what counts for faculty’s service contribution. Kaizen must count towards service contribution and be weighted more heavily in faculty evaluations than committee work (with the exception of a few very important committees such as those related to undergraduate and graduate curriculum). The learning from kaizen should also be applied to improve committee work processes.

College and universities currently engaged in Lean should re-assess their priorities for process improvement and put greater focus on improving core value-creating processes. Those seeking to transition from conventional management to Lean management should not start out (or remain focused) in areas where improvement will be largely inconsequential from students’ and payers’ perspectives. They should start in the parts of the university that matter most to students and payers (and employers), so that improvement will be noticed by them which will, in turn, help the university grow and prosper, and assure employment for all – even tenured faculty. The kaizens should be a combination of academic and administrative processes, in a ratio if approximately 4:1.

Finally, please remember that there is no Lean without industrial engineering-based kaizen. Many universities have adopted only simple improvement methods that are the least upsetting to people such as suggestion systems or quality control circles. These are necessary but not sufficient, and the pace of improvement will be slowed by a factor of 100 or more. Do you have 10 years to do a few months worth of improvement?

Nor should universities blindly require everyone to do value stream maps or A3 reports without first understanding what these tools are, who should use them, and under what conditions they are used. Efforts to create value stream maps typically cause large delays in making improvements, while A3 reports, useful for problem-solving and improving critical thinking skills among managers, also delay making improvements. Neither value stream maps nor A3 reports are needed to make major improvements. So, don’t get hung up on them. Do kaizen instead.

Political vs. Merit-Based Change

A recent article in The Economist, “The World is Going to University” (28 March 2015), said:

“More generally, universities should be able to show that they have taught their students to think critically.”

That is what each professor does (or think they do), one student at a time, when they give assignments and evaluate homework and test results. I have previously mentioned that teaching critical thinking can be greatly improved through the use of structured problem-solving processes. In addition to the Scientific Method, but there are useful derivatives such as A3 reports, root cause analysis, Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, and kaizen that most faculty can use as well.

But, what if universities were able to concretely show that students’ critical thinking skills improved dramatically from between their first and last semester? While that result would blunt criticism, would it have any real-world impact? After all, we find that the real world in which our students graduate into often does not actually want or appreciate good critical thinking skills. Critical thinking skills will languish unused wherever workers are unable to speak truth to their bosses.

The people who seek to reform higher education often ask questions such as: “How much are we spending and how many degrees are we getting?” That is evidence of a failure to think critically about cause-and-effect (think of a fishbone diagram and the many causes that contribute to an effect such as low graduation rates). Is that lack of critical thinking our failure as teachers? Perhaps so, but it is also a failure of the student to apply what they learned in school. (K-16, plus graduate school).

Another question higher education reformers like to ask is: “Why does funding for students always increase? Where is the economy of scale?” Well-educated higher education reformers should know how to do research and find out the domains where “economies of scale” apply and where they don’t. That would change the conversation to considerably for both educational reformers, higher education administrators, and faculty.

Educational reformers also like to apply economic incentives to achieve desired outcomes, while largely (or completely) ignoring likely negative or unintended consequences. Giving public colleges and universities funds based upon academic outcomes (graduation rates) is demonstrative of extremely poor critical thinking skills. Likewise, student loans or funding of academic departments tied to the job market presupposes that employers will readily hire graduates. This is another example of poor critical thinking for which there is an empirical evidence. We have seen in recent times that corporations flush with cash prefer not to hire new employees, which are a cost to the business, and instead prefer to satisfy the interests of shareholders. Many also correlate student success with getting a job upon graduation, wherein employment is subject to the whims of profit-seeking employers. Are laid-off employees reflective of student failure, perhaps for which educational institutions should be held accountable?

So what can be done?

Another recent article, “The Real Value of Higher Education,” by Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina System, presents a poor defense of higher education. In it, he says:

“There is far less talk about academic quality and excellence and more about operational efficiency.”

Why is that? It’s because university leadership thinks academic quality and excellence is fine as-is, despite evidence that it is not (1, 2), thus leaving operational efficiency as the only avenue to improve university finances.

“How can our institutions of higher education operate more efficiently without sacrificing the quality of education we offer?”

Many an educated person has been stumped by this basic problem. The quality-efficiency trade-off exists in conventional management, but it does not exist in Lean management. Therefore, adopt Lean management to improve both educational quality and operating performance (as well as other parameters).

“…but at what point will efficiency begin to erode the excellence of the educational opportunities we offer?”

At no point, if you practice Lean management correctly. First of all, educational opportunities that universities offer are not as excellent as university leaders think they are. There is enormous room for improving teaching and educational excellence. But first, university presidents have to recognize the decline in public funding for higher education, competition for enrollment, etc., means that the market has changed from sellers’ to buyers.’ Simply put, public universities cannot continue to be led and managed as if it is a sellers’ market when the actual market they face is a buyers’ market. Only then can they control their own destiny.

In addition, it is my hope that public university administrators will wise up and focus their fundraising efforts on businesses in their state that have received big tax breaks and low- and no-costs loans from the state. Spend less time in the State house and follow the money.

Change will happen whether one likes it or not. It can be thrust upon us by political processes motivated by interests that are different than to create an educated society in support of our democracy. Or, we can change in ways that are merit-based and improve our role in creating an educated society. If we cannot improve ourselves, others will try to do it for us.

Faculty, however, are sure to be an obstacle. So we have to ask questions such as: “What is the relationship between academic freedom – freedom of inquiry (within one’s area of specialization) without fear of reprisal – and more effective utilization of resources?” Answer: None. So, faculty, please don’t even bring it up.

We must ask: “What is the role of shared governance?” Rather then reacting to administrators who are, in turn, reacting to political processes (and whose actions faculty will resist because political processes are not merit-based), faculty can take the lead on shared governance by improving academic processes and pressure university leaders to improve administrative processes via Lean management.

Competition (buyers’ market) not only makes change inevitable; it makes change a requirement. This, in turn, requires an ability of administrators and faculty to reduce the time from when the need for change is recognized to when it is acted upon. Defending against change is not a moral duty among academics, it is a moral failing.

Today’s students want two things: an educational experience that is better than what their parents had and at prices their parents paid (inflation adjusted or less). Faculty can give that to students by proactively making changes based on the merit of our ideas, rather than being forced to accept change based on illogical political ideas from others.

Another article in The Economist, “America: A Flagging Model” (28 March 2015), said:

“The country that has given the world so many ideas about how to run higher education could do with some new ones itself.”

Indeed. Click here and here for lots of great new ideas from America.

Politics and Public Universities

Public higher education is being pulled in to the illogical world of politics in ways that it has not experienced before. The article, “2016 Ambitions Seen in Walker’s Push for University Cuts in Wisconsin” (The New York Times, 16 February 2015), expresses the problem that  higher education administrators must address:

“But to his critics, Mr. Walker, in both his proposed cuts and in the discussion that arose over the Wisconsin Idea, is trying to capitalize on a view that is popular among many conservatives: that state universities have become elite bastions of liberal academics that do not prepare students for work and are a burden on taxpayers.”

Assuming the view expressed above is accurate, higher education administrators appear unprepared to defend state universities, let alone advance its interests on behalf of students and America.

Elite Bastions of Liberal Academics

“Elite bastions of liberal academics” and similar phrases are ad hominem attacks that fail to address any actual problem – other than learning leads to enlightened human beings, which can create a problem for politicians whose rhetoric is laced with illogical thinking. Continued operation on the level of a perceived problem will cause harm to many through delays, faulty decisions, and misplaced actions.

No institution or its product is perfect. Every institution and the processes that create its products can be improved. Higher education’s failure to continuously improve administrative and academic processes, and do so in highly visible ways, leaves it vulnerable to continued criticism – whether real or imagined.

Does Not Prepare Students for Work

Higher education’s hiring policy that favors career academics over candidates who are academically qualified and who also have real-world work experience assures that students are ill prepared for work. The failure to achieve a balance in subject matter knowledge, life experiences, and teaching skills has greatly contributed to this negative view of higher education.

In addition, faculty have systematically failed to connect subject matter to the real world, while administrators have not pushed faculty to help make that happen and leaving both remiss in the execution of a basic duty.

A Burden on Taxpayers

The contribution by taxpayers to public higher education is at historic lows and may go even lower. The middle class, whose incomes have been stagnant for decades, has had to contend with tuition increases much higher than the rate of inflation due to reduced taxpayer support for public higher education. The costs of higher education is clearly a much bigger burden on the working class (student and family debt) than it is on taxpayers.

Let’s also recognize that the reductions in funding for public education (K-12 and higher ed) are invariably re-distributed to corporations in the form tax breaks and other types of subsidies – typically with no restrictions for the recipient and no guarantees for the state. Tax breaks are the real (debt) burden on taxpayers (see “Tax-Subsidy Programs Fuel Budget Deficits,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 February 2015), not higher education.


This Higher education results in many benefits to society that are difficult to see or quantify, inclusive of academic departments that do not obviously connect to economic growth and jobs. This lack of clarity does not help higher education administrators in their efforts to inform the public of the numerous positive externalities and spillover effects that higher education creates – and which greatly outweigh real or perceived negatives. The fact that these benefits do not appear on an Excel spreadsheet does not mean they don’t exist.

Public higher education is being absorbed into a political process and forced to quickly change in thoughtless ways to meet challenging financial targets due to budget cuts. Instead, they can control their own destiny by improving administrative and academic processes via kaizen. But, to do that, faculty and administrators would have to recognize that not everything that comes from industry is crap to be ignored. Instead, Lean management could help save higher education just as it has saved other organizations.

Third Lean Higher Ed Conference

I will be speaking at the Third International Conference on Lean Six Sigma for Higher Education at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 8-9 June 2015. This is going to be a great conference with lots of great speakers. Learn from their experiences and share your own by submitting a paper and by attending the conference.

The title and description of my keynote talk is:

“Application of Lean to Teaching” Lean principles and practices have been applied to higher education in recent years, but almost exclusively to improve administrative processes. This talk will describe how Lean has been applied to improve an academic process, teaching, over a 15 year period. Benefits for students include more focused course content, clearer expectations, unambiguous learning outcomes, greater ability to focus on learning, and more timely feedback. Benefits for professors include better course design and organization, fewer teaching errors, improved student engagement, focused assignments, and simplified grading. Student evaluation data show that professors can achieve a 0.5 to 1.5 point increase in student evaluation scores for overall excellence of course and instructor using the Lean teaching pedagogy.

The title and description of my workshop is:

“Lean Leadership for Higher Education” Problem-solving in higher education cannot be met using traditional approaches that drive people apart and do not lead to improvements demanded by students and other stakeholders. Lean management is a better approach to improving administrative and academic processes and which offers the unique opportunity to do good without doing harm. This talk will present how university leaders should begin a Lean transformation and identify specific errors to avoid to help assure broad-based buy-in for change. The importance of kaizen as the principal means for improving processes will also discussed.

We can have a great dialog together with professors from around the world. And we’ll surely have a great time visiting beautiful Edinburgh. I hope to see you there!

What You Should Get Out of College

We often base our work on assumptions that seem reasonable, only to find out later that those assumptions are not shared by those whom we serve. That major mis-communication affects the how people perceive the quality, effectiveness, and utility of the service that they receive.

When it comes to higher education, do students share professional educators’ assumptions about what students should get out of college – which is essentially the fundamental purpose of higher education? Apparently not. If professors think the outcome of an undergraduate education is X, while students think it is Y, then one would expect students (and payers) to be dissatisfied. Broadly speaking, this seems to be the situation we find ourselves in today.

In early December 2014, I e-mailed the note below to my university president, provost, and dean:

What You Should Get Out of College“A few weeks ago I gave my undergraduate students a copy of the attached file, ‘What You Should Get Out of College,’ and reviewed it with them in detail. I want to share with you their reaction to it (edited for clarity) and provide some comments and a few recommendations:

‘I’ve never seen it broken down like this before.’

‘It explains why I spend 4 years taking classes, so many of which I’ll never use.’

‘We don’t care about gen ed courses and we don’t retain information from them, other than to pass, when real world application is non-existent. And they don’t connect to that document.’

‘A lot of teachers have us do busy work, rather than making these things come alive.’

‘It helps to explain why I’m here.’

‘Students cheat because the system values grades and numbers versus actual learning and retaining the information.’

‘It tells us why we are taking the courses we take.’

‘It provides the theory behind the actions [courses taken].’

‘I don’t feel valued… I feel taken advantage of. I’m a customer, and I want more relevant courses.’

‘It seems like all we’re here for is to get a piece of paper so we can get a job. [What You Should Get Out of College] helps me understand what I’m supposed to get out of college.’

‘It’s a good way to self-reflect on your studies.’

‘Courses should have more relevancy and focus on learning [rather than grades].’

‘Too many courses focus on success, while life is mostly failures – which is what we’ll actually see. Teachers should focus more on failure and what we can do about it to prepare us for the real world.’

This was eye-opening to me. The assumption that students comprehend the purpose of a university education the same as we do appears to be flawed – and thus an improvement opportunity.

My personal view is that there should be a university-wide effort to help undergraduate students understand what they should get out of their college experience, because this is fundamental to the university’s reason for existence –and which strongly connects to ensuring a successful first year, improving graduation rates, developing skills to achieve life and career goals, and so on.

I recommend sending ‘What You Should Get Out of College’ to undergraduate students upon admission, signed by the senior academic leadership team: president, provost, and appropriate dean. It should also be reinforced by the senior academic leadership team to all students, both undergraduate and graduate, via personalized e-mail, annually or at the start of each semester.

In addition, faculty can incorporate the attached document into their teaching and show how the material links to each of the 9 items listed. That is what I intend to do starting next semester. University-wide student course evaluations could be centered the 9 items listed in ‘What You Should Get Out of College.’

Overall, students had negative views of general education courses. They perceive them as busy work, lacking relevancy, and disconnected from the real world. The attached document can help change those perceptions, but ultimately the professors teaching gen ed courses, as well as in-major courses, can improve their focus on real-world relevancy and learning.

This view of gen ed courses connects to the 9th item on the list, ‘Intellectual Curiosity,’ which was seen by students as not being attained. ‘Busy work’ courses, teaching centered on testing and ‘the numbers,’ and lack of real-world relevancy has the effect of reducing students’ intellectual curiosity rather than cultivating them for lifelong intellectual growth. That should never be the outcome of higher education.”

The response from the president was:

“I will discuss this with the Provost when he returns from China. Thank you for taking the time and creating the process to provide some very thought provoking feedback.”

I did not hear anything more from the president or provost (or dean) for three months. At my prompting a few days ago (5 March), the provost replied with a bureaucratic response that essentially said, “We’re already doing that.” But, of course, that is not actually the case.

In my view, the bureaucratic response and absence of any action provide additional evidence that the interests of higher education administrators is with matters other than students, teaching, and learning. It also illustrates a general lack of interest in continuous improvement in higher education, which is surely to its detriment.

Update 11 March:

My reply to the provost suggesting “sending ‘What You Should Get Out of College’ to undergraduate students upon admission, signed by the senior academic leadership team: president, provost, and appropriate dean. It should also be reinforced by the senior academic leadership team to all students, both undergraduate and graduate, via personalized e-mail, annually or at the start of each semester” generated this response:

“That sounds like a reasonable suggestion to consider. You’re right: your intentions must not have been clear. We can discuss when I return to campus next week.”

To which I replied:

“My intentions were clear. The suggestion in my e-mail below was contained in the original e-mail, word for word. I think it’s more of a ‘just do it’ than it is a ‘let’s discuss it.'”

Why Skills Matter

Not long ago, employers were happy to hire undergraduates who were simply well educated. Employers would then train new hires in the specific skills needed for the job through training courses, on-the-job-training, coaching, and so on.

Over the years, employers increasingly want to hire new graduates who already possess the skills needed for the job – often very specific skills. Why the change? It is due in part to companies, especially large employers, not wanting to pay for additional classroom training or even on-the-job training. The money saved is put to other uses, often directed towards satisfying the interests of shareholders. So be it. If that is the new reality, then higher education has to make some adjustments.

Many organizations have arisen in recent years to teach people skills that they did not obtain in college or university. They fill a gap between what higher education does and what employers want. Higher education will not, and should not displace such organizations. But, higher education can do more to give students opportunities to develop skills that employers want as part of their coursework.

A few things that immediately come to mind for undergraduate education is:

  • Structured problem-solving using methods such as PDCA cycle, root cause analysis, A3 reports, and the like.
  • Use of Excel spreadsheets.
  • Short written communication.
  • Methods for improving quality (in any activity).
  • Methods for continuously improving processes.

Can you think of others?

Opportunities to develop these skills should extend to all courses – from general education courses to those in the major and others that support it. Repetitive application over students’ 4-year experience will greatly improve their capabilities and enable them to add valuable skills to their resume in addition to knowledge of various subjects.

Faculty will need to make a strong effort to connect these skill-developing exercises to the the real world and throughout major areas of study if not the entire curriculum.

The above five items transcend what industry wants. They will be helpful for students who pursue graduate school, self-employment, business start-up, or other productive avenue after graduation. In short, higher education can do more to develop specific skills in students that will benefit them throughout their lives while still achieving its primary mission to educate people though well-rounded studies.

I hope that industry will soon expand internal training programs for new hires. But until then, we can do more.