Making the impossible possible: Fredonia Provost Terry Brown on her quest to make public higher education affordable again

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Terry Brown has spent her life in school — thirteen schools to be exact.

Born in Alaska to a United States Army defense contract auditor, Brown spent her childhood in transition. She’s now lived in Southern California, Connecticut, Virginia, Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and for two years which she considers the most formative of her life, Bangkok, Thailand.

In that span, she went to four elementary schools, two high schools, three universities, and it is now in her third role as a university administrator at Fredonia. As Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Brown oversees everything that happens in Fredonia’s classrooms. 

And she’s gravely concerned, because those classrooms are becoming very difficult to afford.

Public universities, like Fredonia, were supposed to be accessible to families that couldn’t otherwise afford college. But thirty years of declining state support has shifted the burden of payment to students and families through hikes in tuition and fees. Today, the state of New York contributes just twelve percent of SUNY’s operating budget.

Public universities now must find creative ways to keep their schools accessible, much like their private counterparts. However, Brown can’t see a long-term solution that doesn’t involve states returning to their commitment of funding higher education.

Our conversation, which took place outside of the Starbucks on Fredonia’s campus, is divided into two parts: Making public higher education affordable again, and The future of the college classroom.

Taken together, given the seeming impossibility of our circumstances, Brown gives us hope that a possible solution does exist.

Ryan Maloney: What do you spend your time thinking about these days?

Terry Brown: Here’s the thing — I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it weren’t for high-quality, affordable, public higher education.

RM: I probably wouldn’t be here either.

Brown: Right. This experiment in democracy, entrusting the people to make the choice about who leads us, depends on making sure that those people entrusted with that vote are fully informed.  Our democracy, our liberties, everything depends on a strong, thriving public education system, from pre-school to post-graduate.  I absolutely believe in that. And I can see that over the last 25-30 years the public has lost an appetite for funding higher education. That’s what I spend my time thinking about. Legislatures, Democratic and Republican, have not been willing to continue funding state universities at the levels of the past. As that has happened, we’ve shifted the burden of the costs to the families and students with increases in tuition. So you can look over the last 20 years and see how tuition at public universities has risen more than a lot of other things people pay for. And that is directly a result of the disinvestment of states in public education. Our costs remain the same, and we’ve reached a point of crisis where things cannot continue the way they have been. They must change. People are beginning to refuse to attend four-year, residential public universities. They’re staying home. They’re commuting. They’re hearing that it’s not worth it. There’s a lot of finger-pointing, and it has become an important issue for politicians to talk about.

RM: And when you’re listening to them talk about it, what are you thinking?

Brown: I think they’re looking for political solutions without talking to people who are in the middle of it. Their solutions are presented in a way to get people to vote for them. If you say, “free college,” everybody’s going to want that. When I asked students last spring who were supporting Bernie Sanders, they said, “Who can argue with free college?” It becomes a slogan. I know where Bernie Sanders is coming from on that. And I know why it has become necessary to say that we are pricing the poor and the middle class out of higher education. And that is not good for any of us. I know where they’re coming from, but I don’t believe that we can have a solution that doesn’t include states returning to their commitment to support universities — having a pride in their universities.

RM: So New York having pride in SUNY?

Brown: Yes! The state of New York feeling a pride in its state system. But that doesn’t go just one way. Leaders of higher ed., and all of us who are faculty and staff in higher ed., we have a responsibility to be accountable to show that what they’ve invested in is working. That students are learning what we say that they need to learn, and that it’s having a positive impact in their lives and in their communities. We have to be able to explain why one in four of our students do not return in a year.

RM: At Fredonia?

Brown: Yes. We’re at about a 78% retention rate from first year Fall to Fall. Some of those students are going to other colleges. Some of them are just giving up. We have to be able to say why that’s the case. We need to have more students completing in four years. That’s on us. We have to be able to show that we’re doing our part. We can’t just moan and whine that the state isn’t investing in us — I have no tolerance for excuses. For me, leadership is about accountability and ownership. I believe that’s what the Chancellor was trying to do last year with what she called SUNY Excels, to say to the legislature that we will commit to being more successful at helping students complete their four-year degrees in four years and two-year degrees in two years. To help them manage their debt. In exchange, she asked for them to invest in us, and they didn’t come forward. They didn’t do it.

RM: Why not?

Brown: I don’t know why, that’s political. That’s what I’m talking about — that appetite for public education. We have to ask those legislators why they weren’t willing to invest in the funding of SUNY, so we no longer have to raise fees on students. So you asked what I spend my time thinking about. What I spend my time thinking about, is how do we make the impossible, possible? And it’s got to be possible for us. With the declining state funding that we’re dealing with we cannot keep shifting this burden to the students, because we will serve fewer, and fewer, and fewer. This is contributing to the income inequality that people are beginning to look at. Bernie Sanders made it explicit in his campaign, and it’s what Donald Trump is feeding into in his own way. People know that this was not the American dream. I don’t have kids but I can see my nieces and nephews, and what it takes for my sisters to make sure that they even have what we had. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. So that is what I spend my time thinking about. I believe that there are things that we can do that are within our sphere of influence as educators; things on this campus that I can do as Provost, to keep this experience as affordable as possible.

RM: Can you go specifically into what the things are that you can control?

Brown: What we can control is making sure that you are getting the best education possible. We can hold one another accountable — that includes the leaders on campus, and the faculty and staff — that we are doing our best by you. That we know who you are, as a student body and as individuals. And we know what that means in terms of your learning. That we adapt our teaching to meet the needs and the realities of the students we’re teaching. That’s within our control.

RM: And that’s a big deal.

Brown: That is a big deal. That we’re looking at how we can use technology to enhance and augment learning. That’s within our control. That we’re having conversations with colleagues about what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching. Something that’s in our control is when we offer classes.

RM: Like what time of day?

Brown: What times in what rooms, to make sure we’re offering classes in line with students’ needs. That’s within our control. When we look and we see we have courses with long waiting lists, that we’re looking at how we adjust that. We can be better at engineering the course schedule to meet the needs of student demand. We can now use data analytics to predict what courses these students will need next fall and next spring. We know who they are. We know what their majors are, their minors are, we know what classes they’ve taken. We’re using those analytics to help build the class schedule, instead of rolling over the schedule from last year and making adjustments. That is something we control. The course scheduling is a huge change. When we go to that student-centered schedule we will see that the time it takes a student to graduate will decrease. That time is money, and that’s bringing down the cost to the student.

RM: How do you think about the quality of teaching in the college classroom?

Brown: So there are three fundamental values of the academy. One is academic freedom. Another is shared governance. And the third is peer-review. It was an implicit bargain we had made with the government. We said, let us as institutions of higher education police ourselves. We will be accountable to ourselves, we will have accrediting agencies that aren’t federal. Agencies that are peers of ours. A team of about five people come in from institutions all over the country, and they review us.

RM: I didn’t know that.

Brown: That was one of the deals we made, and that’s being challenged right now. People think that we haven’t been good enough at holding ourselves accountable.

RM: When you say people, do you mean the general public?

Brown: I would say the general public, and I would say legislators.

RM: Who are funding the state system.

Brown: Yes. Now, the federal government invests more in higher ed than states do. That only happened a few years ago. How is the federal government doing it? Through financial aid. States fund the operating budget, and the federal government provides the federal financial aid. And so the federal government is now spending more, so they want more control now. I think that’s very, very dangerous.

RM: In terms of how you operate?

Brown: Yes, the way we operate. I’ll give you some examples. The federal government is telling us that if we want to continue to have funding we have to celebrate Constitution Day on September 17th. I’m not opposed to it, but what other days might they tell us to celebrate? What if they dictate something that goes against our values? According to the federal government, we have to list the textbooks of each class. Now you start to get into academic freedom, and faculty are concerned about having the federal government tell them about what goes on in their syllabus. It becomes very uneasy.

RM: It seems like you’re a martial artist trying to maneuver in the middle of everything.

Brown: That’s how it feels.

RM: So what do you do?

Brown: You focus on what you can control. You have to constantly be doing this, finding the things you can control. Most importantly, I can make sure that as the chief academic officer I am able to demonstrate to the public that we are ready to be held accountable for delivering the highest quality education to the citizens of the state of New York. I have to be able to show that we’re doing everything that we can to see it remains affordable. When I have to engage the campus in this conversation about reducing costs, I believe we can do that and maintain our quality. But it means making difficult choices. We may not be able to offer numerous degree programs. We may have to become more focused in the degree programs that we’re offering, but preserving the quality.

RM: I came into graduate school as an interdisciplinary studies major because I wanted to combine exercise science, psychology, and biology together to create my own degree. I thought this was a wonderful idea, until my adviser told me I had to take biostatistics. I thought, “no, I don’t want to take biostatistics.” It wasn’t until after I took it that I realized I wouldn’t have been able to understand my field without it. I needed that class. I needed more guidance than I ever thought. So there’s this two-sided tension between, “I want more choice,” but I also need guidance.

Brown: Oh my gosh, you just hit it. If you look at the trajectory of consumerism over the last fifty years, and look at the value placed on choice . . . I know it sounds absurd to say it, but there’s an idea that students want more and more choice, and that students are consumers, and we should give them the kind of choice that they would get in the pickle aisle of the grocery store. That has had an influence on our curriculum.

RM: Here?

Brown: Fredonia, yes, but across the United States. Universities over the last thirty years have only added programs and rarely removed programs. The curriculum has gotten more complex. If you read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, you see that there’s a diminishing return on choice. There is such a thing as students, at age 18, having too much choice. And so what we have are majors, sub-majors, tracts, and sub-tracts. I know all these things were added for good reasons by the faculty, believing that students want more choice, that it would even be a recruitment tool. But now it’s become too costly to maintain all those degree programs, and minors, and tracts within minors. There was a benefit in some regard in allowing students to find their way through this jungle of options, but the faculty really do know better. Your adviser told you you needed biostatistics, and he knew better than you. There are some classes I never would have taken unless someone told me I had to. And I’m so glad someone told me to.

RM: I was just reading an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that American University brought in a consultant from Wegmans to see how they could improve the student experience.

Brown: Yes, yes.

RM: Which seems great, but at the same time…

Brown: How far do you go with that?

RM: And I imagine you’re dealing with that question all the time.

Brown: It’s not a mystery why a student chooses a university and why they stay. One of the top reasons is the academic program and the academic experience. They stay because they feel they belong. They stay because they feel someone knows them and cares about them. That’s not a mystery. We also know why they leave. Some of the reasons they leave are within our control, and some are not. I will be content when I feel we have addressed every one of those reasons that are within our control.

RM: Which I imagine will take a long time.

Brown: It’s going to take a long time. But I hear the remarkable things that our faculty are doing within their departments to answer this question about why our students are leaving. And what they’re doing to intervene. It could be that a student doesn’t need to be here, but they shouldn’t just leave because nobody helped them, or they didn’t get the right help.

RM: Let me shift gears a little bit. In terms of technology, it’s going to change a lot of things in education. If you were to look forward fifty or a hundred years, what might we be looking at?

Brown: [long pause] You know, I have to say that in fifty to one hundred years, if we’re on the same course, this planet won’t be the same planet. The impact that we will have had on the environment and our natural resources will change everything. If you had asked me on a shorter trajectory, say five years, I could talk about higher ed, but when we get out fifty to one hundred years, we’re talking about our existence. We have to be talking about this. The issue of the human impact on the environment should be center in our curriculum. We’re going to be teaching people strategies for survival. It’s very difficult for me to imagine what it is in fifty years.

RM: You just changed the conversation on me there. I was expecting you to talk about how technology is going to change higher ed. How do you make the environment central to a curriculum?

Brown: Here’s a book you — Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama. He’s in information scientist at the University of Michigan, and his argument is that technology reinforces and amplifies inequalities that are already in place in a society. If we don’t address both income inequality and the environment, and trajectories continue as they’re planned, technology will only make it worse.

RM: Can you give me an example?

Brown: Well, one thing with technology is that we’re constantly throwing it away. It’s not sustainable. There is an environmental impact of technology that we don’t talk about. We only talk about how liberating technology can be for people. I see positive ways that technology can augment learning, but there are ways in which technology is also a huge distraction. I think we have to help students manage cognitive overload. How do we practice concentration? There’s so many distractions now. I don’t think technology will liberate us unless we address the big issues around us.

RM: And you’ve said that there’s hope. What are you hopeful about?

Brown: When I was a kid in the 1970’s I was a little environmentalist. It was the first Earth Day and I heard about one of these huge lakes called Lake Erie. I heard that it was filthy and unswimmable. It broke my heart at 11-years-old. In 1970 they said it would take 100 years to clean it up, but it didn’t. Just last week I was swimming in it! To me, this is hope. The ozone layer has been repaired to a certain degree because of our work. The gap between the rich and poor has gotten worse over the last few decades, but that’s not a long time. Republicans and Democrats agree that that is a problem we have to address. There’s enough wealth in the United States to go around. We can address the issue of college affordability, that’s within our control. I’m not despairing in that regard, but I have to do work as a citizen.

RM: I love the way that you took that and connected everything.

Brown: Here’s the other hope that I have. I have hope for my relationship with you, and her [points] and him [points] and them [points]. This is also in my sphere of control, to treat you with kindness and respect and compassion.

RM: And you don’t have to be a Provost to do that.

Brown: No! No! You don’t have to have a title for that.

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