Monday, September 19, 2005

If Donors Gave for other than Buildings, What Would They Fund?

We are going through a comprehensive strategic planning effort on my campus that is supposed to be all encompassing. The guidelines for that process are publicly available and I’ve seen some other documents aimed at the Undergraduate Experience working group that sharpens up the questions somewhat, for that specific setting. However, the framing is still quite broad and it is possible that it will generate a fairly general response that consequently will have little importance in the future.

And, because of the nature of the beast (we are a big university and involving a representative cross section means that a lot of people are involved in the discussion) there is a tendency to compartmentalize the thing – the undergraduate groups looks at that and doesn’t look at other pieces, like what will attract donor contributions.

I believe that the single biggest thing we’d like to promote at the undergraduate level is enhanced interactions with the faculty and that we can do better in that regard than we have been doing, but the issue needs to be looked at a little differently.

The traditional expected pipeline between students and faculty is through regular classroom instruction. A student who fares well in that setting may then ask the professor to do an independent study, working on some project of their mutual determination. In some instances the independent study step is reached without the prior regular class experience. Likewise, in some cases the student may end up working in the faculty member’s lab, perhaps being paid on the faculty member’s grant, and that can follow a good regular classroom experience but need not emerge from that.

The reality, however, is that supporting a student doing an independent study is typically an extra burden on the faculty member. The paper that is produced usually can’t be leveraged for other faculty activities. After all, the student is getting course credit for the activity so the primary end has to be the student’s learning. But that introduces an important asymmetry in that typically a faculty member gets no teaching credit for supporting undergraduates in independent study.

Does that mean there isn’t meaningful work that a faculty member might have a student do, if there were funds to pay the student? Of course, it means no such thing. Many faculty members have lots of interesting work in which they could meaningfully employ undergraduate students. Supporting their course sites is just one possible example. But these type of activities typically are not grant funded and so the faculty members don’t have the cash to pay students to do this type of work. Moreover, funding undergraduates to help faculty in their own work has not historically been part of business model on campus. As the bulk of funds are “tied down” into other areas it is hard if not impossible for an individual faculty member to generate funds for this purpose, no matter how worthy the project.

Suppose an appeal was made to donors to give donations to the university in support of undergraduate students. The historical approach here has been on using such donations to fund scholarships, either need based or merit. But now suppose we take up the idea that we want to use this money to encourage more meaningful interactions between students and faculty and using reasoning like above, we’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to do that is create a pool of funds through which faculty can hire students to work for them.

For example, there might be a program where undergraduate students are awarded say $1500 per semester as long as some authorized faculty member (and I would extend this to adjunct instructors because they likely have some very interesting work of this sort) signifies that the student is doing the work for her. The faculty member would have full say in what the work would be. And if the faculty member had a student in mind to do the work, she would be able to select that student as long as the student is willing. The program might serve as a brokering service for faculty and students who don’t know each other in advance of doing the work. And possibly the program would provide some complementary training in areas where it appears faculty needs are similar and where there is some skill on campus already to provide the training.

Before we turn to the question of whether donors would give money for a program like this, let’s envision that the program is entirely of the “opt in” kind. There is no requirement for faculty to hire students in this way and no requirement for students to work for faculty in the program. (This contrasts with the Inward Looking Service Learning plan I described that can be found in the August archive of this Blog, starting on the 9th.) Then we might suggest that at their discretion participants in the program, students and faculty alike, use some of the current online communication tools – blogs and wikis – to manage the work in these projects and to provide some reflection on it. In other words, rather than having some formal reporting requirement that most people won’t want to complete (it will be delivered after the work is done and the funding has been spent) lets encourage open communication during the project and perhaps have it serve the additional purpose that it lends visibility to the program and helps to enlist other donors to support the activity.

In case this is not obvious, I’m suggesting to borrow quite heavily from those folks who are pushing the ePortfolio mantle but do not in the regular classroom environment, which is heavily regulated (FERPA) and which may not match the instructor’s goals and, instead, use it in this work environment where the alternative to the current communication tools is almost certainly email and instant messaging and so the main difference is whether the communication is made overt to others. At this point, where such a program is only being hinted at – the campus has not yet embraced it and started to plan for it – it would seem that public communication about the work would be an attractive feature.

Finally, let’s turn to whether donors would give money for this, flipping the question around, whether a program like this could be packaged in a sexy way where it could attract a funding base that the university hasn’t yet already tapped. Not being a millionaire myself, I can’t comment on this from personal experience. But I would think the promotion of direct student-faculty interaction would be a huge seller. Sure there would have to be some early successes to get the ball rolling on this sort of program. And so maybe we cultivate this in a careful way at the beginning. But doesn’t it seem like something all of us could agree on? And wouldn’t it be good if the academic side of the house gave the fund raising people something they could really market?

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