Although the budget crunch has dominated recent headlines, the UA is too large and complex an institution to boil down to a single issue. In the second part of a two-part series, Robert Shelton sat down with news editor Tim McDonnell to touch on a few other issues affecting the campus.
Q: I'd like to ask you about technology in the classroom. In recent semesters we've seen an increase in usage of Web-based resources like D2L, especially in lower-tier courses. Given that these technologies are still relatively in their infancy, how can you assure students that the education that they're receiving is of the same quality as they would be receiving in more traditional settings?
A: The bottom line on all of this, in terms of quality of education, depends on the individual. It's about whether the individual standing in front of the class has designed quality web-based lectures, or graphics, or videos. It's also about how available that person is and how committed that person is to the educational process. For example, we're going to have lectures in Centennial Hall. There was a little brouhaha about that. When I was in college the most popular class was human sexuality and it was held in the auditorium with 800 people. The lectures were brilliant and the way the group was broken up into discussion sections worked. There are some people that you can put in front of a class of 1,000 and they will mesmerize you. Some people you can put in front of a class of 10 and they're a disaster. You have to make sure you get folks sorted out.
Some people can do brilliant work teaching graduate classes and they aren't as good at introductory classes and the other way around. What I would like to see is our faculty, and they're very engaged in our administration infrastructure, push more towards these options for students. Students embrace it rapidly. Students seemingly have no problem absorbing 20 things at once. You've got to gear it to the audience, and I know we can do even more. How convenient would it be for a student if you can't make a class, for example if you sleep late, or you've double-booked like Hermione Granger, to be able to get the lectures online. It's not the same, but at least you have a backup. There's so much more we can do with this high-tech online option.
Q: Last year you explained to the Faculty Senate the need for the UA to produce more bachelor's degrees, and this year we have a record number of incoming freshman. How do you balance this need with the budget challenges we've been discussing?
A: That's a question I ask myself all the time. We've taken a modest growth rate practice. This (freshman) class will probably be 200-300 people larger than last year's freshman class. The reason the total number is up even more than that is good news: we're retaining students. Not as many are leaving. So then the real key question is, ‘How do you, with a constrained budget, make sure they're getting the education they need?' There are a lot of components to that. One is, maybe the class size has to grow a bit. That works for some lectures, it doesn't work as well for Spanish 1. But where it works, you can. The second thing is expanding the time use of the physical (campus). People love to have class between 10 and 2. If we can expand the use of the physical (campus), that could introduce some efficiencies as well.
Finally, we've been doing in some areas what many universities have been doing across the country. Instead of filling faculty positions with tenure-track faculty, we're filling some with instructors who will teach more per dollar than tenure-track faculty. Is that bad? Well, it depends on the quality of the teaching. And it depends on whether students, having great lecturers, can get in front of tenure-track faculty and rationalize how they're creating new knowledge and being dynamic. So it's all of the above. But again, a modest growth rate is very important in all this. I don't want it to jump up enormously and I don't want it flat.
The other part of this equation, which we ignore to our peril, is K-12 (education). I think a few decades ago universities realized how dependent they are on K-12. If you don't send us great students from local schools it doesn't matter what you do, those kids aren't going to persist. Working with K-12, working with Pima, more outreach, more helping them get prepared, more incentivizing. A lot of students take classes at Pima, and Pima is a fabulous partner. They are a jewel that we have in this community. So it helps students at the UA and I think it provides inspiration for Pima students to come over and get that bachelor's degree.
Q: What would you like to see from ASUA this year?
A: I think the student leadership here has been outstanding. I worked with Erin (Hertzog), I worked with Tommy (Bruce) and I've been working with Chris (Nagata). They've got a big constituency and some people are interested in them and some people don't care. What I would like them to do, as far as possible, is to help me get the message across about the resources necessary to ensure that a UA degree remains a powerful, positive degree. And to get engaged in discussions on what it takes to have a great public research university.
People don't realize how amazing this place is. I mean, we're in the top 25 in the nation for funds that come in. We're a member of the AAU (Association of American Universities), which is the most elite 62 universities, public and private, in North America. All of that gives your degree stature. And so, together, let's talk about how we ensure that stature is maintained and grows, and what the balance of resources are needed to do that. Not that I ever expect students to say ‘Yeah, double my tuition.' It's not that, it's to help get the word out to understand to more about the complexities in supporting a great university like this.