What I learned about the new consulting project

People invited to meet with Art & Science for first campus visit – not all could make it

I and other faculty members of SPOC (formerly SLRP) met with the consulting group from the Art and Science group (website here: https://www.artsci.com ) yesterday. I learned about this initiative along with the rest of you in the last week, so it’s come on quickly. Because of that, I thought I’d take some time to report on the process as I’ve observed it so far.

It looks like we (SPOC faculty members) are going to serve as part of their on-campus steering committee. The one-hour meeting stretched to two and a half with people coming and going as schedules demanded, so we covered a lot of ground.

My understanding of the service they provide is that it comes in several steps:

  1. collect information from the community (focusing significantly on faculty) about strengths the college has and initiatives or focus areas it could adopt in the future
  2. interview students in two main groups – admitted students who didn’t decide on Guilford, and students who expressed an interest but did not apply
  3. from the interviews, build a statistical model of how students would view our potential focus areas or initiatives
  4. for each of our focus areas or initiatives, give us a sense of whether (and how much) those would drive students from these pools of students (who are interested but did not come) to decide to come to Guilford

The methodology is statistically complex, and seemed like a reasonable approach, although they didn’t get into complex details, nor is this kind of surveying my area of expertise. The potential students they talk with are paid to participate in an interview of about half an hour. This interview is not just an interest survey. Instead, it presents hypothetical institutions with different sets of parameters to choose between, and students express their choices for these hypothetical colleges.  Guilford is not named as the sponsor of the research during the interview.

Their plan is to do the community research work very soon, over the next couple of weeks, and then come up with possible initiatives or focus areas to include in the survey, which they’ll share with us (SPOC faculty) and with the rest of the community for commentary.  Then, they’ll do the research part over the rest of spring term in two phases and come up with results (based on what they call a simulated decision model) hopefully by Fall 2016.

One concern I had with this work, one that I expressed to the consultants, is that I don’t think the faculty would be happy changing who we were or what we do based on statistical modeling, however accurate or complex.  One of the consultants then pointed out that often this kind of work takes one of two approaches. I’m paraphrasing, but this mostly what he said: One approach is to just be who we are, and hope that is attractive enough to students. This often leads to losing money. The other extreme is to try to figure out what students want and become that, which leads to losing your soul.

I think we’ve followed both of those strategies half-heartedly, and neither has gotten us where we need to be, and we may have managed to lose both money and maybe parts of our soul at various points along the line. One thing the consultants stressed was that they would not test ideas for new initiatives or emphases that we were not already prepared and willing to do, that didn’t come from who we are. So I would expect that the kinds of areas they’ll model will be areas we already emphasize to differing degrees, or areas we’ve already discussed emphasizing in the future. Examples might be experiential learning, social justice, an international focus and study abroad, problem solving, interdisciplinary learning, practical liberal arts, community engagement, student research and creative opportunities, social activism, athletics engagement, and others. The idea will be to figure out which of those things we kind of already do and kind of already emphasize would be best to focus on in the future, with the goal of enticing students who are interested in Guilford but haven’t been coming here to choose us.

I asked if our cost of attendance would be included as a factor in the modeling, because that’s been an area of particular concern to me recently looking at our budgets and enrollments. The consultants said that it was one of the areas they often include in this work, and we could include it if we didn’t choose too many other topics in the survey. Jane indicated in our monthly meeting today that she would like to have that topic included in the survey too.

After meeting with us, some of the consultants toured campus, and they met with a number of faculty. I came out of our discussion optimistic about what we might learn from the process. I’ve listened to many, many faculty and administrators describe new ideas and then say, “that’s what students want,” or “that will help us in recruiting,” without much basis other than optimism or anecdote to support those assertions. I’ve made those statements myself. This project should provide an independent and hopefully more accurate picture of which of the directions we are willing to go will bring us more quickly to being the thriving institution we all want Guilford to be.

Of course, I know that we’ve had a lot of consultants on campus in recent years. One colleague today said, “How can we keep hiring consultants when we can’t even put staples in my copier?” I think we all want to be a college that changes lives rather than a college that hires consultants, but they’re not necessarily unrelated. We’ve committed to this project, so it’s happening, and so far, there has been a strong push to get faculty into the discussions, which I think is very positive. Please take advantage of these opportunities. Having faculty play an active role will help ensure that we get the most out of this project than we can, and also that the directions it suggests we might most profitably explore are ones that come naturally from our values, interests, and community.


One Comment

  1. I appreciate Dave’s detailed information about this project and his optimism as it gets underway. I know Dave noted that not everyone listed was able to make it, but I still want to say that I was not able to attend the session with the consultants even though my name is on the list. And even if I had been able to attend, I would have been conflicted given my longstanding ambivalence about the consultant culture in academia. But that train left the station a long time ago, so I’ll remain hopeful that this group is the one that truly helps us move forward.