Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass provost discusses campus quality in light of new survey results

By Chelsie Field

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Chris Shores/Collegian

University administrators across the country are well aware of the fiscal and academic challenges facing American colleges. According to a recent survey, however, officials often view their own schools through rose-colored lenses.

In the 2011-2012 Inside Higher Ed survey of Chief Academic Officers (CAOs), it was found that the majority of top school officials rate their own institutions more favorably than higher education institutions in general.

University of Massachusetts Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs James V. Staros commented on the survey in an interview with the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. Staros said that while UMass has faced budgetary challenges common to many universities, it has done better than most in maintaining academic standards, citing funding allocated from the 2009 federal stimulus package and continued efforts to improve the rigor of academic programs on campus.

Conducted by Inside Higher Ed’s senior research consultant Kenneth C. Green, along with two cofounders of Inside High Ed, Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman, the online survey received anonymous responses from over a thousand provosts or equivalently rated officials from American colleges and universities.

Among other key findings of the survey, it was found that although serious concerns were expressed over the academic rigor, quality and health challenges higher education in general faces, ultimately “their own campuses are exempt” from these shared beliefs.

These findings also held strong for administrators’ views on the effects of budget cuts in recent years on campuses nationwide, with over two-thirds of the respondents reporting that, despite widespread cuts, the academic health of their campuses had improved since fall 2008.

Jaschik, cofounder of Inside Higher Ed and a leading voice on higher education issues, described this disconnect as similar to a Lake Wobegon effect – a term for the human tendency to claim to be above average despite what the reality may be.

“We see the gap quite often,” said Jaschik in a Feb. 15 Web seminar. “We know the reality, but we still root for the home team.”

Academic rigor, quality and health are relevant to all higher education institutions and it is up to the CAOs of these institutions to uphold these foundations. UMass’ own provost, Staros, had much to say on the survey results and how UMass was faring in the broader field of higher education.

Staros has served as provost & senior vice chancellor for academic affairs on campus since 2009 and also teaches biochemistry and molecular biology, according to the UMass website. He realized how unfamiliar his position is to the student body, saying “I think Provost is one of the most invisible parts of the upper administration – to the students. But you know, that’s not a bad thing. There are [other positions] that affect the lives of day to day students more.”

Invisible or not, Staros holds one of the top positions on campus and is much in tune with the overall academic quality, health and rigor at UMass. Though he does not recall taking this particular survey by Inside Higher Ed, saying he gets many requests for surveys and only answers a few each year, Staros is familiar with these results and how UMass stands in comparison, especially on the topics of budget cuts and academic quality.

“We’re doing better than a lot of other places,” Staros said about the possibility of a disconnect between ratings and reality. “My analysis of that kind of disconnect, in many cases, is provosts are looking out over the national landscape and they’re seeing other systems and other institutions that are much harder hit than they are.”

The survey found that 8.7 percent of provosts surveyed see academic health on their campus as having been hurt by budget cuts over the past three years, though only 21.6 percent say they can make more cuts without hurting quality.

UMass fared better than most during the budget cuts of the past three years, Staros said, with help of money allocated to the University by Gov. Deval Patrick from the Recovery Act of 2009.

“It gave us a bridge so that we could plan and so we could put changes into effect that were less disruptive than in other states,” Staros said.

Staros did not ignore the number of compromises, including larger class sizes, that UMass has had to make in order to adapt to what he described as a nearly $60 million decrease in the state appropriations over the past three years.

“Are we having to compromise on some things? Of course,” he said, though he discussed recovery strategies from these cuts for future campus improvement, including increasing out-of-state enrollment and improving retention rates.

To accomplish these goals, Staros stressed improving the academic rigor and quality of programs at UMass. Among higher education officials nation-wide, the survey found that “while CAOs report that their campus is maintaining high standards, almost three-fourths agree that academic rigor issues ‘pose real problems elsewhere in higher education.’” Just one in six provosts said they believed academic rigor had fallen at their own institution.

Technology as part of the classroom experience is one of the strategies Staros mentioned as part of plans to improve the academic experience at UMass. Improve the quality and rigor of the academic programs, he said, and students will stay and thrive.

“Students who grew up connected [to digital technology] learn differently than students who up in the time that I did … What we need to do to keep our teaching effective is to stay up with it and listen to the younger faculty coming in,” Staros said, “We’re trying to make a richer type of education that’s more effective.”

Chelsie Field can be reached at [email protected]

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