Education and Satisfaction

Are education and student satisfaction antithetical, as is argued in this article written by Prof. Joanna Williams in Times Higher Education (16 October 2014)? The premise is that resources are expended on facilities and services to ensure student satisfaction erodes the authority and importance of academic work and subject matter knowledge.

Of course, there is some truth in the article. However, as readers of this blog know well, the quality of teaching and value of higher education can be greatly improved, while the prevalence of teaching errors means that only a small percent of professors are truly good at what they do.

This passage in the article caught my eye:

“Speak to students, and many say they resent being treated as customers. They do not want people to think they ‘bought’ their degree. Their desire to reject the label of ‘customer’ reflects a desire to work hard and learn.”

In my experience, students do think of themselves as customers and expect better administrative and academic services for the tuition and fees that they pay. Though, I have not yet come across students in public higher education who have expressed a concern of the appearance that their degree has been bought.

I understand the frustration expressed in the article, which has more to do with the diversion of resources from academics for facilities and services. In my own university, academic advising performed by full-time staff advisors is seen as critical for helping students chose their major area of study, financial aid, course scheduling, progression through their program of study, and graduation. Perhaps so. With the exception of choosing a major and financial aid, the staff function is duplicates the academic advising that professors conduct twice a year with undergraduate students in their department.

advising_jobs1So, while department chairs and faculty are unsuccessful in obtaining new faculty lines for programs that are growing or that have many students, and which are aligned with the priorities and interests of the State and of employers, the administration budgets over $9,000,000 to more than double the number of full-time advising staff as shown in the image to the right (click here for source p.84; red boxes are mine).

This request to hire an additional 54 people, 15 of which would be located at my campus (at a cost of $969,994), has a far better chance at being funded than just one additional revenue-generating faculty line in my department to support our undergraduate manufacturing management and graduate technology management programs.

This is the kind of management decision that drive faculty nuts.

Of course, there is no effort to understand and improve the advising processes performed by staff and faculty, as Lean thinkers would do. That will surely lead to a doubling in student advising capacity for both staff and faculty, while greatly improving quality and significantly reducing the time to takes to advise students. That would save $9,000,000, thereby reducing the cost of higher education. Or, much of the $9,000,000 could be used to fund revenue-generating faculty lines for programs that are growing or that have many students, and which are aligned with the priorities and interests of the State and of employers.

Education and student satisfaction are antithetical to faculty who don’t know Lean. For those that do, education and student satisfaction must go together for the good of all. To argue otherwise will cause delays in improvement and worsen higher education’s many problems.

Enrollment Goals and Tuition Revenue

A recent article in The Chronicle for High EducationGoals for Enrollment and Tuition Revenue Elude Many Colleges” (13 October 2014, subscription required), gives interesting insights on the simplistic and unimaginative actions taken by colleges and universities when enrollment goals and tuition revenue are not met.

che_imageThe graphic to the right is from the article (click to enlarge). The actions taken are (approximately in order of the number of institutions taking said actions):

  • Improve enrollment-management operations
  • Start new programs to attract students
  • Put more resources into marketing
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs
  • Reduce campus services or operations
  • Raise discount rates

The survey limited responses to these seven items. Perhaps people are doing other things as well, but these are likely to be the focus areas. Let’s deconstruct these and compare it to how a Lean organization would deal with the challenge of meeting enrollment (sales) and tuition (revenue) goals.

Conventional Thinking and Action: The general approach to meeting enrollment and tuition goals is results-focused, i.e. do whatever you can to solve today’s problem, worry about tomorrow’s problems later.

  • Improve enrollment-management operations means to hire people (spend money) and improve a few key processes in an ad-hoc manner.
  • Start new programs to attract students means to make informed guesses as to at what students and industry wants.
  • Put more resources into marketing means to hire people and spend money.
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs means to throw away past investments because they do not deliver a financial return at the present time.
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs means to reduce costs by getting rid of people.
  • Reduce campus services or operations means to reduce costs by reducing or outsourcing campus services or operations.
  • Raise discount rates means to spend money.

Lean Thinking and Action: The general approach to meeting enrollment and tuition goals is process and results-focused. People would use of structured problem-solving processes (i.e. the scientific method) and kaizen (“spend ideas, not money”), to improve the results for today and establish a foundation for continuous improvement in order to respond effectively to tomorrow’s problems.

  • Improve enrollment-management operations means to improve processes and re-focus or re-deploy people.
  • Start new programs to attract students means to carefully identify new areas of study based on quantitative and qualitative data, involving students, payers, and employers.
  • Put more resources into marketing means to improve processes and re-focus or re-deploy people.
  • Eliminate low-enrollment academic programs means to understand the causes of low enrollment and improve the the academic programs prior to combining or eliminating them; involve key stakeholders in the process.
  • Layoffs, early retirements, or furloughs are the last resort, and signifies that senior administrators (president and provost) have failed and must resign.
  • Reduce campus services or operations means to identify services and operations seen as valuable by students, payers, and employers and improve them.
  • Raise discount rates means means to improve the value proposition for students, payers, and employers before resorting to discounts (and perhaps even raise prices if the perception of value is great).

I hope that this example effectively illustrates the difference between conventional management and Lean management, and how Lean is much better suited for dealing with the kinds of common problems that educational institutions face.

Stasis In Teaching

An important thing that professors can improve upon is to overcome the perception, or reality, that teaching is static. By that I mean, courses that remain largely unchanged from one semester to another, in their content, assignments, evaluations, pedagogy, and other elements.

Lean principles and practices applied to teaching mean that courses undergo change both during and between semesters – usually a combination of many small changes and a few large, significant changes – all designed to result in improvements to student learning outcomes and their view of quality and value.

At the start of each semester, I inform my students of the specific changes I made to the course based on the prior semester’s student feedback and other improvement that felt were necessary to make. The basic message that I want to get across is that my courses are not evolved. They are never static and never done, but are constantly evolving and improving.

My fear is that courses perceived by administrators, students, and others as unchanging over time are at risk of becoming commodities and transformed into MOOCs or the like. Courses ranging from English literature to chemistry to statistics and fluid mechanics are at risk. Yet, they can easily be transformed from static to dynamic courses via Lean teaching.

It is my hope that professors will see the risk as I do and embrace Lean teaching. The biggest challenge will be to embrace the spirit and meaning of continuous improvement and overcome the deep-rooted desire to create a course and be done with it.


Class Participation

Here is an article worth reading from Times Higher Education (25 September), “No place for introverts in the academy?” The author, Bruce Macfarlane, criticizes those who demand that students be actively engaged in class and who award points for class participation:

“…university students are no longer allowed to be shy. ‘Active learning’ has become a modern mantra. Students must ask questions, express opinions, lead oral presentations and participate enthusiastically in community projects. To collaborate is sacrosanct. Passivity, on the other hand, is considered the enemy of learning. They must be vocal, expressive and assertive. The extrovert ideal… is all the rage.”

As a student, I too was shy and non-participative. I liked to learn by listening and observing others (and through hands on work of making or breaking things in labs). Now, as a professor, I try to elicit student participation with varying degrees of success. One thing I did long ago was to eliminate grading associated with class participation.

My rationale for this, explained in The Lean Professor, is as follows:

“I do not award points for class participation because I do not want to penalize introverted students who prefer to learn by listening, observing, and doing the assignments. Of course, I appreciate extroverted students who like to learn, in part, by engaging in classroom discussion. Introverts appreciate that as well.”

As professors, we have to respect student’s individuality and learning preferences.

I often receive feedback from students in end-of-semester anonymous surveys asking for greater class participation. But I have come to understand this feedback to mean:

 I think more people should contribute to the class discussion. Other people should speak up. I can learn from that. Maybe I’ll add something to the conversation if I feel like it.

Translation: Class participation is not my job; it’s other student’s job. To address this feedback, I now require students in all of my courses to submit discussion questions each week. They fill out a google docs form with one, two, or three discussion questions and press the “Submit” button. The discussion questions are collected in a spreadsheet which I print out and bring to class. The benefit is that questions get asked that would not normally get asked. The drawback is that discussion questions often fail to generate discussion due to a lack of class participation!

MacFarlane makes an important point worth reflecting on:

“The virtues of being shy are, in fact, well suited to many of the central values of higher education. These include not being overconfident about making knowledge claims and thinking ideas through before speaking.”

My view is that one should not lose sight of the goal, which is for students to learn the material and understand how to apply in the real world post-course and post-graduation. Class participation is great when it happens, but it is not the goal in teaching.

Students, however, do need to recognize that most workplaces value extroversion, which can put introverts at a career-long disadvantage. So, introverts have a decision to make: Should I learn how to be extroverted when conditions demand that I be, or should I be who I am under all conditions. You then have to live with your decisions. Likewise, extroverts ought to reflect on how being overconfident and speaking before thinking can damage their careers.

Graduating Defective Products

A philosophical question often prevents the start of process improvement activities in universities: Are students students? Are students customers? Are students clients? What are students?

Here is how I have long looked at it: I consider students to be my direct customers; parents, spouses, and payers, to be intermediate customers, and employers and society to be end-use customers. This is not a perfect classification, but it works sufficiently well to do two important things:

  • Focus my continuous improvement efforts
  • Assure my improvements result in outcomes that benefit these parties

I was recently communicating with an educator who considered students to be the product of educational systems. This is an interesting characterization because learning progresses over long periods of time both in school and outside of school, post-graduation. If I think of students as our product, then I am forced to recognize that 100 percent of our graduates are defective products – even those students with perfect GPAs. Why? Because because they do not know everything they were taught (nor do we as professors) and they likely suffer from overconfidence or arrogance as a result of achieving good scores or even perfect scores (professors can suffer from this as well). But, the product is good enough, in most cases, to go on to the next step and “go live.”

The software industry is famous for creating defective products that must be fixed after they have been released – often for decades – much to customers’ displeasure. Higher education is, in many ways, similar to that. Our “software” is an electrochemicaly-operated human being that we “code” through classroom teaching, homework assignments, projects, etc., consistent with the purpose of a college or university:

  • Impart knowledge to student’s in their areas of interest
  • Teach students how to think (imperfectly, but presumably better than before university)
  • Start a career (or proceed to graduate school)
  • Develop one’s self while in school and thereafter

The problem is that unlike a software company, we cannot easily provide knowledge (software) updates and “patches” to fix incorrect, flawed, and illogical thinking post-graduation. And this is why I have an aversion to attending graduation ceremonies (including my own).

Graduation ceremonies celebrate the turning out of many people who are overconfident in what they know and what they can do, most of whom will largely abandon self-study (reading and writing), research, critical thinking, and reflection post-graduation – though there are abundant opportunities to do those things in the workplace.

They will make many significant mistakes that affect self and others because they did not think as they had been taught to do by their teachers, from elementary school through college. They got out into the “real word” and do things differently because that is the way their new role models – their new teachers, called “bosses” – do things.

Unlike software updates automatically delivered via the Internet to your computer, universities and professors have no means to automatically update graduates’ knowledge or to identify and correct bad thinking and bad practice. So what can be done?

In addition to the usual happy-happy alumni magazine mailed to graduates to stoke fundraising, we could add value to their post-graduation work and life experience by continuing to educate them. One means would be to communicate examples of good and bad critical thinking in categories represented by each school or discipline. Such examples would come from real-world sources that our former students can relate to.

Maybe then I’d feel better about graduation ceremonies.

Is Teaching A Profession?

In a recent interview, “Teacher tenure has little to do with student achievement, economist says,” Washington Post reporter Max Ehrenfreund asked the following question of Jesse Rothstein, former Obama administration economist:

Eherenfreund: “Everyone agrees that the goal should be to make teaching a respected profession, a profession that talented and able people want to enter. So far, I’ve heard you say that there’s not a lot of evidence suggesting ways that that could be accomplished effectively. Is there one policy that we haven’t discussed?”

Rothstein: “We could double teachers’ salaries. I’m not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn’t even enter the conversation tells you something about what’s wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it’s just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions. They’re looking for easy answers, not hard answers.”

Higher pay reflects poor comprehension of the fundamental nature of the problem and a poor, albeit likely necessary, part of the overall solution to the problem.

A hallmark of professionalism is a lack of errors. People who make a lot of errors are not considered to be “professional.” Unfortunately, teachers make a lot of errors, as do business leaders. In addition, people who provide a service, teaching, must comprehend what students want. Likewise, managers must understand what employees want, often don’t and, as a result, marginalize their interests to a great degree. On these grounds, it is difficult to characterize either teaching or management as a profession.

The good news is that the errors that teachers (and managers) make are easy to identify, and, If necessary, their root causes can be determined. This paves the way for identifying practical countermeasures to prevent errors from recurring. Teaching becomes a profession when this becomes part of one’s daily routine.

Better Than Shared Governanace

Faculty and faculty labor unions (AAUP) have a loud voice when it comes to shared governance: it’s importance, the good it has done, threats to shared governance such as the rising use of adjuncts and corporate management style, and so on. They argue for stasis of a concept that has evolved over time and continues to evolve, whether one likes it or not.

The main arguments for faculty influence in institutional decision-making include:

  • Assure that the future purpose of higher education remains at it has been in the past
  • To safeguard academic values and sound decision-making in academic matters
  • To assure academic rigor and the quality of higher education
  • To perpetuate the mission and benefits of liberal arts education
  • To maintain global preeminence of American universities

Conversely, erosion of shared governance de-professionalizes faculty and puts American higher education at risk of decline and the loss of its globally preeminent position.

Yet, the preeminence of American universities is due to numerous factors, shared governance being just one. Professionalization corresponds with work in which few errors are made. As teaching is the primary role of faculty, we know that most faculty make many recurring teaching errors. Quality in teaching and teaching materials is not as high as it appears to be. Global preeminence will not continue if the preferred solution to change is one practice that seems to have served varied interests well in the past.

The typical arguments used to defend of shared governance represent the failure of shared governance. Its advocates fail to recognize changes in public and private attitudes about higher education, global competition, resource constraints, new teaching pedagogies and technologies, and the power struggles that ensue.

I believe shared governance has extended its each far beyond where it does the most good. The Lean thinker would ask: “Is shared governance necessary for everything, or for some things?” In We Can Do It!, I wrote that of the 30 or more committees on a typical university campus, faculty need to be involved in only a handful: particularly those related to the product – curriculum and graduate studies – and the people – promotion and tenure – and forego much of the rest. Let the administrators earn their high salaries. They can tap individual faculty for guidance as-needed.

In most cases, faculty have experienced amateur-levels of leadership in senior administration. By amateur, I mean leaders who make lots of fundamental errors in how they lead. If leadership were professional, with far fewer errors, then faculty would have greater confidence in their leaders’ decision-making. Yet, even the best decision-makers make bad decisions.

The whole point behind shared governance is to improve institutional decision-making. Shared governance is an antidote to poor (often centralized) senior management decision-making. But, there are other ways to do that. One such way is called kaizen, whose intent is to improve processes at the local level. As with any method, kaizen must be practiced correctly (see kaizen principles here), which includes the establishment of a “no-blame” environment by senior leaders.

Higher education leaders who want to continuously improve their leadership skills and capabilities to strengthen professionalism and who lead kaizen can take a university to better places than can be achieved by shared governance.

The Value Of Higher Education

At the start of this semester (Fall 2014), I asked my students (n = 97) in my courses (one undergraduate and 3 graduate) the following questions:

  • What do you value in a degree program?
  • What do you value in a course?

These are students in a school of engineering, science, and technology studying various technical and technology management disciplines (though I think the results are likely to be representative of students in other schools as well). Here are the key findings and practical implications for administrators and faculty (click on images to view details).


  • sv_survey1Students value professors with real-world work experience.
  • Students like it when: Degree program and courses have a real-world (practical) focus; professors are responsive to student’s needs; professors focus on student learning and comprehension.
  • Students don’t like: To be confused; needlessly struggle; have their time wasted; unresponsive professors; courses that lack real-world relevancy; degree programs that don’t connect to the real world.


  • On average, faculty are less responsive to students than faculty think they are.
  • Hire faculty with practical, real-world work experience or demonstrated ability to connect subject matter to real-world.

Compare this what graduate students had to say…


  • sv_survey2Students value professors with real-world work experience.
  • Students like it when: Degree program and courses have a real-world (practical) focus and job-related application; current information, professors are responsive to student’s needs.
  • Students don’t like: To have their time wasted; unresponsive professors; courses that lack real-world relevancy; degree programs that don’t connect to the real world.


  • Hire faculty with practical, real-world work experience or demonstrated ability to connect subject matter to real-world.
  • Courses and degree programs be current, with relevance and practical application made clear.

The findings are very closely aligned. The thing that stands out the most is how university hiring processes favor candidates with deep theoretical knowledge, which is misaligned with the background and capabilities that students want – and likely payers, parents/spouses, and employers want as well. This great mismatch imperils student success.

University hiring processes should be revised to give preference to academically qualified candidates with both theoretical knowledge and deep practical knowledge. Not only would this better satisfy student’s needs, it can become a great source of competitive advantage to the school (and likely the institution overall), resulting in increased enrollment and improved retention and graduation rates.

Put another way, failure to seek academically qualified candidates with both theoretical knowledge and deep practical knowledge could cause significant budget and prestige problems for academic programs and the school, as well as the institution.

I do not view these results as a reflection of the times we live in. Almost anyone with a undergraduate or graduate degree, age 21 or age 100, will tell you that their best professors were those who had years of professional work experience in the field and therefore deep practical knowledge. Not surprisingly, the pay offered to such candidates should be higher since they possess greater skills and capabilities compared to candidates with only theoretical knowledge. I think it would be wise for universities to return to their roots, where qualified faculty were understood to be those who possessed both theoretical knowledge and deep practical knowledge.

Finally, contrast my results of students’ view of the value of degree programs and courses with what university leadership, along with their consultant (Boston Consulting Group), thinks the value proposition of higher education is (click here for source):








Notice any difference? The gap between how leaders view the value proposition and how students view the value proposition is large. And, this large gap is likely to remain large well into the future, which spells trouble.

Taming The Faculty

Faculty, in their interactions with top administrators, can be unruly, confrontational, and plain-speaking at times – especially those with tenure (which, we all know, is not a license to say whatever you want, misbehave, or be rude or disrespectful). Administrators dislike these behaviors, which is understandable. Deep down, they would probably rather get rid of problem faculty than understand the root cause of their discontent. This is not understandable.

If leaders do not bother to understand what troubles workers (or students), then leaders must contend with the same problems again and again. That is a poor use of leaders’ time. Eventually, they will ignore faculty to the extent that they can and focus on other things that they have some control over. A valuable resource, one that is fundamental to the functioning of the institution, is under-utilized.

Faculty are right to speak truth to power and to advocate for students. But, are faculty difficult for no reason or because of personality defects? Or, is it simply a reasoned response to legitimate explicit and implicit concerns? In my experience, it is the latter. Faculty can be difficult because:

  • They care about teaching students.
  • They feel overburdened by administrative work (and adding new tasks while taking none away).
  • They dislike it when leaders say one thing that aligns with their interest (“students come first”) and then do another (cuts to instructional support).
  • They dislike time-consuming committee work results in recommendations that leaders often ignore.
  • And they dislike it when shared governance proves to be more fiction than reality.

Faculty are trained to be critical thinkers, not obedient conformists (nor diplomats), so leaders who expect to go unchallenged or be fully supported are not realistic. Instead, leaders should view critical commentary as teamwork and dissent as a practical counterbalance to authority and an opportunity for all to learn and improve.

The bulk of faculty discontent seems to be caused by poor leadership (leaders who make many basic errors) and poor strategic and tactical management of the institution. Faculty discontent is the response that one would expect from amateur, rather than professional, quality leadership.

In my own case, I see leaders who follow the herd, yet who take credit for having accomplished great things, and who largely ignore innovators in pedagogy and management practice. So, I can be difficult at times, but it is not just so for its own sake or because I have tenure. It is grounded in a specific purpose: To improve higher education.

I’m sure many of you are difficult at times for similar reasons. And, like any other person who is low in the hierarchy, we become unhappy and frustrated when we see problems that our leaders do not see or which they choose to ignore. The one problem that bothers me the most is the assumption that the overall quality of teaching is high, and that the quality of teaching has no relation to enrollments, retention, or graduation rates. University leaders would not be the first leaders to be out of touch with the details of the business.

Having worked in organizations led by amateur and professional quality leaders, I can assure you the latter type of leader would tame the faculty and make far better use of it as a resource to improve the institution’s processes for the benefit of students and payers. Amateur leaders are out of touch with the details of the business (e.g. quality of teaching, etc.), professional leaders are not.

Further, I would rather have professional quality leaders – people who make few errors and who break free of the herd – so that I don’t have to spend so much time on committee work related to shared governance. Instead, I want to focus on continuous improvement work that benefits students and payers. That’s what I should be doing, in addition to teaching and research.

Spotting Great Teachers

This recent article from The Wall Street Journal, “Four Ways to Spot a Great Teacher,” underwhelms. The author cites the following elements of “superb teaching” among K-12 teachers:

  • Have active intellectual lives outside their classrooms
  • Believe intelligence is achievable, not inborn
  • Are data-driven
  • Ask great questions

In my view, superb teaching (K-12 and beyond) is more broadly defined and includes (not in order of importance):

  • Subject matter knowledge
  • Knowledge that surrounds the subject matter (to make connections)
  • Ability to explain relevance in different contexts
  • Continuous improvement of course content and delivery
  • Respects students
  • Enthusiasm for subject and for teaching
  • Guides conversations to interesting places (by asking questions)
  • Fair but rigorous evaluations
  • Adjusts to changing times (short-term and long-term)
  • Makes few teaching errors

This describes the best K-12 teachers that I had.