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COMING INTO FOCUS:
The Vision Project Academic Conference
Close to 250 campus representatives, including the majority of college presidents and University of Massachusetts provosts, attended Coming into Focus: The Vision Project Academic Conference on September 30, 2010, at the Courtyard Marriott in Marlborough. The goal of the conference was to engage campus administrators and faculty in critical dialogue about the goals of the Vision Project and its implementation. The conference was designed as a launch event following months of discussions with college presidents and the affirmative vote by the Board of Higher Education in May to adopt the Vision Project as a new public agenda for higher education.
Campus delegates gathered for a morning plenary, followed by afternoon breakout sessions. Both elements of the conference were intended to build their understanding of the Vision Project’s core outcomes. These include specific plans to measure achievement and progress in five key areas: college participation, graduation rates, learning outcomes and assessment, degree alignment with workforce need, and elimination of achievement gaps.
The morning plenary was divided into two parts. Commissioner Richard Freeland delivered a keynote address followed by a panel discussion on the merits of the Vision Project from the perspective of campus leaders. After a break, the focus turned to the Vision Project as seen by a group of external stakeholders. David Shulenburger, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities, delivered a presentation entitled "The Vision for Massachusetts as a National Leader in Public Higher Education.” He was followed by a second panel comprised of business, labor and non-profit leadership.
In the afternoon, delegates attended one of five working sessions:
- Setting State Goals to Improve Graduation and Student Success Rates
- Student Learning Outcomes Assessment in an Era of Accountability
- Quantifying Achievement: Identifying Practical Markers of Success
- Resetting the Benchmark: Amplifying Workforce Education Outcomes Through Regional and Statewide Collaboration
- College Participation: Where does Massachusetts stand now? Where do we appear to be headed in the future?
In his morning keynote address, Commissioner Freeland spoke of the “painful truths” contained in a recent Boston Globe story on UMass Amherst, specifically that “many in this state doubt the importance as well as the quality of public higher education.” He went on to tell delegates that “the world has changed” and the need for a highly skilled workforce to staff the knowledge-based economy depends now more than ever upon a strong public system.
Freeland identified the Vision Project’s core attributes as "aspiration, accountability, and unity in public higher education.” He shared the Vision Project’s foundational statement: We will produce the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation. We will lead the nation in research that drives economic development. Freeland reviewed the project’s specific goals and metrics, as well as the plans to produce an annual report on Massachusetts’ standing and progress compared with other states. He affirmed plans to report data by segment, not by institution. He asked for conferees’ help in communicating the goals of the Vision Project across the campuses and, in closing, shared his belief that “a breakthrough moment when the public consciousness is altered” about public higher education could soon be upon us.
In the first panel discussion following the Commissioner’s remarks, Paul Raverta, President of Berkshire Community College; Timothy Flanagan, President of Framingham State University; and Jack Wilson, President of the University of Massachusetts shared their thoughts about the current status of public higher education and the promise of the Vision Project to build a new level of respect for the work of the campuses. Each speaker focused on the achievements of their segment, with Jack Wilson touting the University’s record $489.1 million spending in grants-financed research in fiscal 2009.
The second half of the morning plenary featured a presentation by David Shulenburger, Vice President for Academic Affairs for the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities. His presentation, “The Vision for Massachusetts as a National Leader in Public Higher Education,” included survey data revealing the prevalent public attitude that “colleges could spend a lot less and still maintain a high quality of education.”
Following David Shulenburger’s presentation, conferees heard from Paul Reville, Secretary of Education, and three external stakeholders: Alan Macdonald, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable; Robert Haynes, President of the AFL-CIO; and Mary Jo Meisner, Vice President for Communications, Community Relations and Public Affairs for the Boston Foundation. Each talked about the Vision Project’s relevance for the business, labor and non-profit sectors, as well as its promising implications for the state’s knowledge-based economy.
Afternoon Working Sessions
The five working sessions allowed conference delegates to engage with the leaders of the Vision Project working groups on plans, still in formation, to achieve progress on Vision Project goals. Each session featured a good deal of frank discussion on issues such as how to assess learning or measure community college graduation rates. Some delegates expressed concern about the prospect of DHE-imposed mandates and received reassurance from campus leaders about the Commissioner’s commitment to a collaborative process.
Commissioner Freeland has asked college presidents to circulate the Phase One Report of the Working Group on Student Learning Outcomes to faculty and staff on their campuses as widely as they see fit. Presidents have been asked to organize campus-wide discussions of the report in order to inform themselves of reactions to the group’s recommendations. The Commissioner will make a decision about how to proceed with the recommendations by the end of the year.
The working groups will continue to meet on the key Vision Project outcomes, their process greatly informed by the feedback received at the conference.
For more information on the Vision Project, including the Phase One Report of the Working Group on Student Learning Outcomes, please visit the Vision Project website.