Jun 27th, 2005 @ 7:48 am | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
Last week, I discussed whether higher education is in decline, and the answer for me is "It depends on your definition and focus, but the positive trends at Valley City State University far outweigh any negatives."

Furthermore, I believe that there is a much more important question: Is higher education improving?

No matter how good anything may be (even pecan cluster blizzards), it can always be better (removing calories would be good). I will never forget a speaker I heard years ago who said, "If I can't get excited about the wonderful things around me and the prospect of making them better, just put me in a corner and water me once a week."

If someone believes that higher education is declining and provides a long list of evidence, I am depressed, unpersuaded, and immobile. I feel bad, I look for ways to refute the bad and extol the good, and I have no idea what to do in response to the decline.

However, if we all are vigilant for ways to make things better with whatever we are engaged in, we will be constantly making ourselves and our customers happy. To me, it's a no-brainer. Don't even think about decline; focus on improving.

An important disclaimer to that approach is to leave the action steps in the hands of the actors. Do what you can do to improve the results of what you do. When it is "the other guy" who needs to improve, give constructive feedback, but do not tell him what to do.

I mention that disclaimer specifically for the benefit of bosses and policy makers. If a boss tells an assistant, "we need more accurate figures in these reports," the response will be much more effective than if the boss spells out every step of how to be more accurate without having been asked for help.

Federal policy makers went much farther down the "here is how to do it" lane when they passed the No Child Left Behind act. They did not say just, "We expect you to ensure that every child succeeds." They set up a system that is changing the very nature of education to be more driven by indicators, resumes, and test scores. I have yet to hear an educator say that these changes are improving K-12 education.

On the other hand, most state legislatures, including North Dakota , have established measures of institutional accountability to ensure effectiveness and efficiency. Legislators are saying, "We need to be sure that these indicators are positive and improving." We believe in that. In fact, Valley City State University voluntarily published many of the same measures in its annual report to investors for five years before the first state report came out.

In the best case, policies and leaders are like good teachers. They hold up the possibilities and encourage, guide, and support others in reaching those possibilities. They know that the future belongs to builders, not blasters.