Assessing an Institution's Heart and Soul
IN THE AGE OF INCREASED PUBLIC accountability, rankings and ratings are rapidly becoming the primary factor used to determine the quality of a college or university. Unfortunately, the adage "You can't judge a book by its cover" applies when attempting to analyze and give meaning to such rankings and ratings. These rankings and ratings do not capture the heart and soul of an institution. The term "value-added" begins to approximate the heart and soul of an institution, but it still falls short in understanding the quintessential dimension of a college or university.
Of course, multiple factors contribute to a college or university's perception and performance. Thus, this critique is not meant to detract from any college or university highly ranked or rated. However, much in the same way that psychologists have expanded the definition of "gifted" to include categories beyond the intellectual (e.g., musical, artistic, kinesthetic), it is also necessary to expand college rankings and ratings beyond numerical equations and calculations.
We do little to service the transformative and the everlasting.
As we consider expanded categories for rankings and ratings, it is important to examine the transformational dimension of an institution. Essentially, the question becomes, "What role does a college or university play in the development, metamorphosis, and cultivation and attainment of an individual's hopes, aspirations, and dreams?" Indeed, the major question in assessing the heart and soul of an institution may be the degree to which a college can increase the likelihood of human transformation. Can we truly turn water into wine?
Rankings and ratings currently favor institutions that take the best and the brightest and simply "polish" them, versus institutions that take average or disenfranchised students and revitalize their hopes and dreams into attainable objectives and goals. This "polished approach" to education is effective but extremely limited. It offers little to a generation that appears to be lost in a diet of sex, materialism, and self-indulgence in a misguided quest to become effective human beings. What this approach also does is gradually and subtly minimize the social uplift responsibility and community service mission of a college or university in favor of the social cultivation of the favored and the elite.
Despite the global technological revolution, it remains a glaring inadequacy of the society-at-large and education institutions specifically that little progress has been made in the development of the human fiber. Although we can more efficiently service the temporal and the transitory, we do little to service the transformative and the everlasting. Divorce rates soar, violent solutions seem to characterize the response to all social conflict, and the notion of being "my brother's or sister's keeper" is viewed as trite. No wonder we are observing a loss of civility in society and a meltdown in attempts to attain peace of mind, happiness, and contentment.
Narrative accounts of the higher education experience, the highlight of which is self-reported (like informal assessment in psychology), give valuable and interpretive understanding to the ability of an institution to empower an individual to attain his or her aspirations and dreams. Where would our country be-indeed, where would any oppressed people be-if the human soul had not aspired to attain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
Isn't the growth in one's ability to learn how to learn, and to demonstrate intellectual prowess, the ultimate goal of an educational experience that produces confident and independent individuals? Certainly, skill acquisition is critical to the production of this type of individual, but also central to skill development is confidence ("I can master this") as a guiding principle of personal and professional development beyond the collegiate environment.
Until we can evaluate the transformational dimension of a student's collegiate experience, we are limited in our ability to rank or rate an institution's effectiveness. Moreover, the sense of belonging experienced in an environment where students make their aspirations and dreams come true has an immeasurable impact on their development and on the pursuit of their ambitions.
Adib A. Shakir is executive assistant to President Carolyn W. Meyers at Norfolk State University (Va.).