Change is never easy

Hamid Shirvani, Chancellor, North Dakota University System, Bismarck

Change is never easy as it forces us to leave our comfort zone, but in today’s world, change is a requirement for success. Without it, there is no incentive to innovate, no new technology, and no recognition of shifting customer demands. If organizations don’t actively manage change, decisions are delayed, deadlines are missed, roles and responsibilities get lost in the confusion, and frustration and stagnation set in.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The best preparation for change comes through a life-long commitment to education and sharpening our knowledge. Then we can apply it to problem-solving, thinking, attitude change, motivation, and transferring knowledge to new situations. Recently, this has been accomplished not by passive learning but by moving to active learning approaches or problem-based methods of teaching and learning, where teachers become coaches and classrooms become labs for real-world problems.

In 2006, Derek Bok, president emeritus at Harvard University, wrote a book titled Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Bok explains that colleges and universities are sometimes reluctant to make major changes in their educational programs – not because they’re indifferent to students’ welfare; nor because they’re dysfunctional. Rather, they’ve grown complacent, ignoring research concerning the most effective teaching methods, and become unwilling to examine unfamiliar practices that serve their purposes better.

North Dakota is blessed with 11 colleges and universities whose students, faculty and staff have enviable records of accomplishments:

76 percent of North Dakota high school graduates enroll in NDUS institutions

74 percent of students who start at a two-year institution and transfer to a four-year institution successfully graduate

North Dakota ranks 4th nationally in bachelor’s degrees awarded per capita

North Dakota ranks 5th nationally in total degrees awarded per capita

We are also blessed with wealth few can match. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, we lead the nation in personal income growth, amounting in 2012 to 12.4 percent, 3.5 times the national average. Unlike other states struggling with massive debt, we are in the enviable position of having the opportunity and the means to invest in a better future. Yet with all this wealth potential, including higher investments in education per student than our neighboring states, North Dakota high school students require significantly higher levels of remedial/developmental coursework to make them competitive for college work, and they continue to lag behind the national average in retention and graduation rates.

For example, Iowa achieves a 69.4 percent six-year graduation rate at its four-year institutions, compared to a 48.1 percent in North Dakota. Yet, their state educational appropriation per full-time student equivalent is $4,390, while North Dakota’s is $6,938, and their tuition and fees are lower. In addition, Iowa’s ACT composite scores are 22.1, compared to 20.7 in our state. We have been examining why this is so, and have a plan to address it.

My proposition for transforming our educational system is quite simple. It consists of five goals, each within our ability to realize in the foreseeable future. These goals will lift the quality of our teaching and learning, infuse a greater sense of shared responsibility for the learning enterprise, and put us on a path of efficient, continuous improvement.

1. Commit ourselves to improving retention and graduation rates by a minimum of 10 percent;

2. Partner with K-12 in a new North Dakota High School to College Feedback System to reduce the amount of remedial/development coursework required of our graduating seniors;

3. Provide opportunities for all of our students-both undergraduate and graduate-to work with high-quality research faculty, resulting in inventions, patents, incubation, production, and employment;

4. Involve every undergraduate student in learning the practical applications of their studies by offering, as part of their degree requirements, an internship directly related to his or her major; and

5. Make our two-year colleges exemplary change agents for economic and workforce training.

Granted, not everything in education can be measured empirically. However, resourceful faculty and academic administrators can and do instill creativity, bring clarity to issues, improve critical thinking skills, and teach students to learn by testing ideas in real world situations.

George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” We can and must change our minds about educating our students. The true test of leadership is in finding a path that commits the whole enterprise to goals that raise each and all to higher levels of excellence. The Governor and the Legislature showed leadership in their support of higher education funding this session, and we are very grateful. Over the past 10 months, I have learned a lot about North Dakota culture that will enter into my plans. Most significantly, I have learned the importance of creating a collective sense of ownership as we transform our higher education landscape. That is my commitment to our students and the state of North Dakota and you can hold me to it.