From the President's Desk
Access, Excellence, and Beyond
For over a year now, the California State University has been engaged in a strategic planning exercise titled Access to Excellence. This effort was directed by the CSU Board of Trustees in July 2006, to succeed Cornerstones, the system’s first strategic plan, which was adopted 10 years earlier. Although Cornerstones achieved noteworthy success in the areas of student outreach, academic preparation, assessment of student learning, retention and graduation rates, and academic technology, any strategic plan needs refreshing, especially as the contexts change within which it operates. An environmental scan of the contexts affecting public higher education in California reveals several pressing challenges that have grown since Cornerstones: threats to affordable access and quality through budget cuts, rising costs, and fee increases; the need to invest in the CSU’s faculty and staff in the face of generational turnover and compensation shortcomings; rapid population growth, especially among segments for whom higher education has not been an established experience; and growing demand for higher education to be more accountable for its expenditure of the state’s dollars.
This final context connects to a national movement led by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to assess the effectiveness of higher education in delivering on its promise and fulfilling its goals. For the CSU and other institutions across the country, this has spurred an effort called the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA). As the name suggests, this is a voluntary effort to support regular public accountability for student learning attainment and results. In conjunction with regional accreditation agencies like the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the VSA aims to head off federal intervention, even as it acknowledges legitimate concerns about institutional performance.
The relationship between Access to Excellence and the VSA principally focuses on the work that the CSU declares is most important for it to accomplish and the assumption that this purpose is shared by its stakeholders and supporters, none more important than the governor and the state legislature because of their control of the system’s resources. There are problems, however, with both aspects of this equation. First, has the CSU clearly and effectively defined what is most important for it to accomplish? And, second, is the CSU’s sense of what it has set about to accomplish aligned with what its stakeholders and supporters want?
Although still in draft form, Access to Excellence, I believe, falls short of either having a compelling vision or defining a common agenda for its partners. Both deficiencies, however, can be addressed through the same argument. That argument recognizes that access to a high quality public higher education is one thing. But access to a high quality of life—both for individuals and the larger society—as a result of higher education is quite another.
We can extol the many benefits of enrolling deserving students in excellent academic programs and what that opportunity means for their personal growth and development. However, we are long past the era (if there ever was such) when that argument and its corollary—support us because we are intrinsically deserving—were enough. We are now in an era that calls for building our case around serving the greater public good and being willing to be held accountable for the consequences of the work of our faculty and staff and the achievements of our graduates to that end.
Education is as fundamental to the needs of our nation today as waterways were in the early 19th century, railroads after the Civil War, and federal highways in the 20th century. But more than providing the foundation for the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st century, our institutions of higher education foster democratic engagement, encourage altruism and community service, promote environmental stewardship, enable a healthier population, build a more sustainable future, and solve problems. This is a mission that should not be part of the discretionary portion of any state budget. But, sad to say, it is in California’s budget as in most states in our country.
We’re not going to change that budgetary reality overnight. But we are not without powerful arguments to influence the shape of state budgets. Part of that approach requires that we self-define expectations for our performance aimed at raising the hopes and improving the living conditions for the citizens of our state. Concurrently, we should not shrink from pressing the case aggressively and confidently that we need public resources and advocates to do so.
Through its faculty and staff, and in its physical assets, the CSU has enormous strengths that it brings both to the task of educating Californians and to the table of providing public service. For in providing access to its people and programs, the CSU also promotes a vision for the future of California. We tie our performance to the clarity of that vision and the prospects of its attainment. We invite our friends in Sacramento to tie their credibility as public servants to an institution that can, and will, deliver.
—Paul J. Zingg, President