Building Sustainable Student Programs

As I continue to prepare for my transition from UPenn to BU (I will be the Managing Director of BU’s Arts Initiative – I will post more about this later), I have been thinking about what it means to develop programs that are sustainable – not environmentally sustainable, but programs that have a functional life beyond my time at the institution.  The last thing I want is for programs that I believe (and I hope students believe) are successful and relevant or that have proven (through assessment) to be to be successful and relevant be placed on the chopping block because “that was Ty’s program”.  After some time searching the web, I couldn’t come up with anything useful to use as a guide.  So I will posit a few ideas and hope that some of you comment.  Of course, I am in particular, wondering about sustaining student arts programs, though I expect the basics would be the same for any student program.  Here are characteristics that I think would indicate the ability for programs to be sustained over the years, particularly through staff transitions.

Strong student commitment or involvement.  I think the two are different.  You can have a few student who are deeply committed to a program that they can effectively manage or help to manage.  If that kind of investment repeats itself annually, the program should be easy to maintain, even in a staff transition.  Or you can have a great many students who are involved in a basic program that takes little effort for staff to maintain.  To me, this indicates a broad level of interest, enough to support a simple program with low commitments.  We have both kinds of programs.  I would hope both kinds survive the transition.

Clear goals aligned with the university mission.  After spending nearly two years in our division working through the process of formally assessing our programs, I am more keenly aware of how those programs do or do not fit the institutional mission, or at least the current institutional priorities.  Those that clearly do, even if they take more staff time to maintain, should be worth the effort to sustain, during a transition.  If the goals are clear, even temporary professional staff could support such a program during a staff transition.

Low to mid level staff management needs.  If a program is too reliant upon things that you as a staff person must do to manage it, it may not be sustainable, particularly through a staff transition.  I wonder if it is even something that should be sustained.  I am still trying to figure out if we have programs that fit that description.  I think we do, and I feel badly that they may not survive.

Institutional support.  I guess this goes with the mission thing, but it seems to me that programs that operate in a vacuum, particularly the administrative vacuum, are less likely survive a staff transition.  This, of course, then means that as staff we should render due diligence in engaging our superiors in the work we do.  If they don’t know about it, how can they support it?  There is a great deal to be said for having a champion or two within the institutions top leadership. Institutional support could also come in the form of colleagues, regular collaborators and partners who may, during a transition, be able to take on more work to see a valuable program through.

Finally, I will say that though I believe it is important to create programs that are sustainable, I also firmly believe that it is important to know when it is okay to heavily adapt or even kill a program.  Student needs and interests change, so should our programming in response to those needs and interests.  What do you think?


Creativity and Failure

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a top level academic officer who asked me “how do we infuse creativity into the undergraduate curriculum?”  I was a tad embarrassed that I wasn’t more articulate in my response.  So I went back to  Steven J. Tepper, who in 2004 published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that people in my field are still talking about.  Tepper’s The Creative Campus: Who’s No. 1? calls for a campus “creativity index”, an index that “ranks colleges by the extent to which they foster creativity.”  Tepper defines creativity as “those activities that involve the application intellectual energies to the production of new ways of solving problems (as in science and mathematics) or of expressing ideas (as in art).” He continues, “Creativity is not simply about self expression.  It is about producing something new (or combining olde elements in new ways) to advance a particular field or add to the storehouse of knowledge.”  Tepper goes on to posit that there are several “structural conditions for creativity” including: collaboration, diversity – cross-cultural exchange, interdisciplinary exchange, time and resources, and an environment that tolerates – even encourages failure.  That last one is where my recent conversation stalled.  How do we create an environment in undergraduate education that encourages failure?  Students come to our campuses to succeed.  They work hard and set goals for success, not failure.  I find this idea particularly challenging at an elite university.  We are all invested success of our students.  Their success is a reflection of our success.  We are frequently reminded of this, if not subtly from top level administration, often bluntly from parents.  It is my – and my colleagues – job to ensure student success.  I even have a friend and colleague at another university whose title is Director of Student Success.  One need only look around to know that the culture and expectation of success permeates society as well as our university.

What would it look like to encourage failure?  Certainly we have to rethink, or reposition the idea of grades.  What would it look like to evaluate a student’s process, not their product?  Would they accept that as sufficient learning? What do courses look like that have no end result in mind, no correct answer, no finite result, but instead encourage and celebrate discovery and the exchange of ideas even if we find they don’t “work”?  I know those courses exist, though they seem to be the exception rather than the norm, particularly in undergraduate education.

Encouraging failure, or redefining success in education means examining our philosophy of education.  In Democracy and Education, 1916, Philosopher John Dewey get’s to the heart of an educational system that might just create an atmosphere that allows for failure by focusing on the educative process of communication.  We learn by exchanging ideas and perspectives unique to us and our individual experience within a community.  Dewey says,  “Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience….The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. The formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. Except in dealing with commonplaces and catch phrases one has to assimilate, imaginatively, something of another’s experience in order to tell him intelligently of one’s own experience. All communication is like art. It may be fairly said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power.” Democracy in Education, 1916.

I have an answer now for the question, “How do we infuse creativity into the undergraduate curriculum?”  We change the whole thing!  We can do that, right?

The Psychology Behind Why Creative People Cluster – Richard Florida

Here is an interesting new piece from Richard Florida.

I’ve long noted how openness to new people and ideas can power innovation and economic growth. “The Open City,” a new study by Cambridge University psychologist Jason Rentfrow, offers new insight on this issue.

A large body of literature shows that highly creative people – artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and the like – are highly likely to be open to new experiences. An earlier study by Rentfrow and his colleague Sam Gosling of the University of Texas, titled “The New Geography of Personality,” tracked the five major personality types across states. They found open-to-experience people were more likely to “attempt to escape the ennui experienced in small-town environments by relocating to metropolitan areas where their interests in cultures and needs for social contact and stimulation are more easily met.”   MORE



Justifying Arts Programs on Campus

Last month I had the pleasure of joining some fantastic colleagues from across the country at the University of Michigan for the annual meeting of Arts Administrators in Higher Education (AAHE).  I am proud to be a member of this organization and am constantly impressed at the creative ways in which my colleagues accomplish their goals.  Most of our jobs are very different.  The thing that unifies us is a core mission of engaging  students in the arts.  Most of us are under resourced, including staff, finances, and facilities.  Because of that, we frequently find ourselves brainstorming ways to justify or bolster support for our programs.  In fact, at most meetings we include a session with a “top administrator” usually with the stated or unstated goal of finding out what convinces them to invest resources and to what extent they value the arts.  We want to learn their language to be able to effectively frame our argument, and we generally learn a great deal; though I would posit that we are learning more about that particular administrator than we are about how to “justify” our own programs.  Lately, I have found that I can better serve my programs by improving my ability to articulate our own particular story and value at Penn.

One thing that a number of AAHE members have in common is a recent or renewed focus on assessment.  That focus offers us a unique opportunity gather data that tells our story, from our perspective.  In developing an effective assessment tool, we have to construct clear goals, objectives and learning outcomes for our programs.  I have found it particularly useful to be able to articulate what specifically our programs offer Penn students in relation to the mission of the University. I have grown to greatly appreciate the clarity.  Here are the goals of my program – University Life Arts Initiatives – “Our programs offer creative outlets, leadership opportunities, career training and social activity through workshops, performances and service opportunities that allow students to experience, create, and manage the arts.”  Going through this process of clarifying goals and learning outcomes (along with having a few years under my belt) has revealed a few other things that I have found useful in this ongoing dialogue of defending or lobbying for arts programs.  Some might seem obvious, but here you go.

  • There is a demand for our programs  –  Whether we formally provide resources or not, our students will create.  They will dance, sing, draw, act, write and sculpt, and they will find ways to do it.  They will organize and plan and find resources.  They will do this because their artistic life is important to them, regardless of their career plans.  It behooves us to work to support that creative and entrepreneurial spirit when possible.
  • Students are our best advocates – Frequently student voices are more readily heard than those of us lower to mid-level administrators (a sometimes harsh reality).  Student government leaders, class presidents and student coalition leaders have regular meetings with Presidents and Provosts.  Working with students interested in the arts to develop reasonable, clear talking points that they can share with other student leaders has been very effective.
  • We have partners everywhere – We all know that collaborative programs aren’t always the easiest to manage, but when faculty and fellow staff (housing, alumni relations, student affairs, advising, admissions and more) recognize how our programs fit the educational mission of the university and add value to their programs, they are more than willing to advocate and defend.
  • Bullet Train – There is a great deal of talk these days about creativity (Google it), particularly in the realm of education.  Don’t we all want to produce creative thinkers?  And while there are many ways to foster creativity, to quote one of those colleagues from AAHE, Debra Mexicotte (she may be quoting someone else) “The arts are a bullet train to creativity.”

Thankfully, other people are recognizing the value of arts programs on campus.  In the last several months the Mellon Foundation has granted millions of dollars to a variety of universities (MIT, UNC, UMICH to name a few) to research, enhance and expand the role of the arts on their campuses, particularly across the curriculum.  I hope to not find myself feeling again, like I must “justify” arts programs at Penn.  I would much rather be well positioned to participate in the kind of big picture thinking that the Mellon Foundation is supporting.

Validation, Sort of…

Finally, some validation! At 43, I can rest assured that my career choice is legitimate, at least in financial measures. Let me clarify, not my financial measures, but the financial measures of our collective nonprofit arts community. You see, recently Americans for the Arts published Arts & Economic Prosperity IV a “national study of the nonprofit arts and culture industry’s impact on the economy”. The study, a regular feature in my Facebook feed and emails for the last several days, is based on 2010 data (the latest available) that found “nationally our industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity–$61.1 billion by the nation’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations in addition to $74.1 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. This economic activity supports 4.1 million full-time jobs. Our industry also generates $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state and federal governments each year–a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations.” Thank goodness people finally understand my contribution to society! Phew.

If I sound a little snarky, I apologize. First, let me acknowledge Americans for the Arts is a fantastic organization. We need them to do this work, and we need these numbers. But I think we need more. I worry that we aren’t properly framing our argument. Perhaps it is the fact that because I work in education, I have the opportunity, almost daily, to see the college students I work with build leadership skills, think more creatively, build empathy and grow in their experience and understanding of the world through our programs. Shouldn’t we also, just as boldly be making the case for those personal and social benefits of participation (making and/or consuming) in the arts? I know that economics is the language that government officials speak. But shouldn’t we also assume that they, their loved ones and family members are likely also to be arts and culture participants? Let’s make sure voters and officials alike know that participation in the arts develops leadership, empathy, self-confidence, a sense of belonging and more. Children who participate in the arts show improved academic achievement, win more awards, are more likely to perform community service, and show improved spacial reasoning, conditional reasoning and creative thinking. In short, participation in the arts at any age develops more confident, engaged, creative and self-aware citizens. Together, the economic impact partnered with the personal and social impact of the arts seem to me to be a more significant argument. I am certainly not the first, or only one to make this case. Thankfully, in 2012 we have more data on both sides of the argument to back up what, for decades, perhaps centuries, many have known. The arts make us better people.

We should be supporting artists AND developing advocates!

As national and state support for arts and culture regularly faces heated political battles and often cuts, is the opposite happening on our campuses?

A couple of weeks ago the University of Chicago announced the preview opening of the more than $35 million Logan Center for the Arts, a multidisciplinary arts center, the vision for which began in 2001 with the report The Future of the Arts at the University of Chicago, and is further articulated in the 2010 Report of the Provost’s Working Group in Arts and Disciplines.

This week Harvard University will present Arts First – a multi-day festival of student performances and artwork.  Added to this year’s activities is an event entitled “Breaking Boundaries: Creativity and the Harvard Curriculum” which will “showcase interdisciplinary coursework, performances and General Education courses”.  This enhanced program and more come from the recommendations made by Harvard’s 2008 report of the Task Force on the Arts.

Not as recent, but just as significant, in 2006 Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University announced the receipt of a $101 million gift from 1955 alum Peter B. Lewis to support launching a new era for the arts at Princeton.  President Tilghman unveiled an ambitious initiative that included plans for substantially increased support for creative and performing arts and the establishment of an “arts neighborhood” on campus.  At the core of that initiative is the Lewis Center for the Arts, “an academic center…designed to put the creative and performing arts at the heart of the Princeton experience”.

It seems that elite universities are finally coming around, recognizing  the relevance of arts and culture both as an academic pursuit and as a means to support creativity and expression.

All of this bodes well for continued support for arts and culture on college and university campuses.  And that should be celebrated, but, along with providing great creative, learning, leadership and community building opportunities for our students, we need to be training them to be effective advocates as well.  April 16 and 17, was National Arts Advocacy Day in Washington DC, an annual event coordinated by Americans for the Arts that this year boasted more than 500 arts advocates from 40 states advocating for pro-arts legislation on Capital Hill.  Our students should know Americans for the Arts, and should be capable of articulating the importance of arts and culture in our communities.  As an arts administrator on a major university campus, I am ashamed that I haven’t been prioritizing my own attendance at Arts Advocacy Day and taking students.  I can assure you that will change!

Kudos to the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts

On Monday, March 26 the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts was previewed at the University of Chicago, giving the university and local communities an opportunity to explore the facility.  The Logan Center is an “11-story, 184,000-square-foot building as an elegant ‘mixing bowl for the arts,’ in which artists and scholars of many disciplines will work and perform, creating new possibilities for spontaneous collaboration. The building houses classrooms, studios, rehearsal rooms, and exhibition and performance spaces. These innovative facilities will be home to academic and extracurricular programs in cinema and media studies, creative writing, music, theater and performance studies, and the visual arts.” (University of Chicago, release 2012).  If you work in the arts in higher education, or are simply passionate about the arts you will recognize what a tremendous accomplishment this is for the University of Chicago and the surrounding community.  The vision for the Logan Center is inspired and lofty, and if realized will represent one of the most thoughtful and deliberate plans I have seen for integrating the arts into fabric of a university.

In 2001 the University of Chicago published the “Future of the Arts Report” which in their words “described a University culture in which the arts suffered chronic neglect.”  Since then the University developed and “Arts Clarity Statement” in 2007 and in 2010 published the “Report of the Provost’s Working Group on Arts and Disciplines.”  This last report details their approach to the challenge of encouraging and supporting scholarly engagement with the arts, and I want to offer some specific kudos on a few things from that report.

Kudos for acknowledging the value of co-curricular and student-run programs.  Early on the report notes that the University of Chicago has four broad categories of entities that are “active in creation, performance and exhibition.”  Co-curricular and student run programs is in that list.  The report also notes that a 2008 survey found that nearly half of their 4,500 students participated in over 75 student arts organizations, and that many of the academic and presenting programs the university have developed out of student activity.

Kudos for making a clear statement.  This directly from the report. “In order to foster the sort of vital exchange that marks work in the arts at Chicago, it is imperative that the University maintain and extend its commitment to recognizing the arts as an integral part of the research mission and curriculum of the University and its culture of inquiry. To that end, it must simultaneously support the University’s arts entities and encourage work that engages substantively with the arts from within scholarly disciplines.”  And there are many more quote worthy references to supporting the arts and engagement in the arts in their report.

Kudos for noting the “real or perceived lack of institutional support” for the arts, and the frequent “disparity between principled support for the arts on the one hand, and programming initiatives and budgetary allocations on the other.”

Kudos for going the distance and exploring a key root challenge in scholarly engagement in the arts – institutional culture.  “…entrenched disciplinary norms, modes of evaluation, and demands on time are major obstacles both to faculty involvement in the arts, and to arts participation in academic culture.”

Kudos for clear and practical suggestions for moving forward.  “…the University needs structures that will provide incentives for grassroots, ‘bottom-up’ initiatives.” The recommendation comes from benchmarking and exploring their own most successful models.  The Chicago Art Lab is designed to be a program “to catalyze fruitful collaboration between scholars and arts practitioners” modeled after their successful Mellon exhibition program at the Smart Museum, which is “a program of short-term projects at the intersection of scholarship and arts practice, involving students, and issuing in both a publication and a public program (exhibition, performance, etc.).”

I have one more shout out to offer, not from the working groups report, but from the recent public announcement of the preview period.  Kudos for stating upfront the commitment to work with the cultural institutions of Chicago – “The center will work collaboratively with the University’s new Arts and Public Life Initiative to build partnerships with civic and cultural institutions citywide.”  No institution or resource like the Logan Center should exist on a major university campus without thoughtful and exciting collaborations with the community.  Here’s hoping that is exactly what happens.