Reflecting on Cathy N. Davidson

By: Christopher Gu
Reading Group Participant
Director of Academic and Financial Operations

In the first part of the ReImagine HigherEd Speaker Series, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Cathy N. Davidson, author of The New Education, speak to a packed house in Bepler Commons last Tuesday. Davidson, the Founding Director of The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center, spoke about how crucial it is to revolutionize the current higher education model, which is simply not sustainable with rapid technological and generational shifts. This is the focal point of the work that both the ReImagine HigherEd Reading Group and the Incubator Group are doing this semester.

Davidson divided her presentation into three parts: Inheritance, Disruption, and Restructuring. The current model of higher education still bears many of the ideas that Charles Eliot, Harvard’s longest serving president in the late 19th Century, outlined in his own manifesto, the original The New Education. This rise of higher education coincided with the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. Many of the ideas, such as the A-F grading system, majors and minors, credit hours, and multiple-choice examinations were all born out of this era. We have essentially inherited these rituals, without making much advancement over a century later.

With the rising cost of college, the heavy burden of student debt, and increasing technological advances, it is imperative to disrupt the traditional model of higher education in order to make college more accessible and relevant. We have talked in the ReImagine HigherEd Reading Group about how a college education needs to prepare students for careers that may not even exist yet!

Davidson talks about how equality must be at the core of the new structures that we design. She challenges us to think about restructuring the academic reward system. What if research, teaching, and service were all weighted equally? For students, how can we structure the curriculum for more active learning and participation? Davidson, who has spearheaded interdisciplinary programs at both Duke University and CUNY, believes that the STEM subjects and the liberal arts can go hand-in-hand in the classroom. Learning does not have to be limited to the singular subject matter; in real life, problems cut across multiple disciplines and students need to be able to think critically and holistically.

Having just finished reading Cathy N. Davidson’s book and after seeing her presentation, I could not agree more with the urgency of which this work of reimagining and restructuring needs to be done. In The New Education, Davidson spotlights the work that specific colleges are doing to advance higher education and I look forward to the work that our own ReImagine groups will be producing in the coming months to share with the rest of the Fordham community.

The Brainstorming Phase

By: Anne Fernald, Ph.D.
Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Special Advisor to the Provost for Faculty Development

The Incubator Group of the ReImagining Higher Education Grant meets every week. We are 25 people–undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and community members: a very diverse group, united in our enthusiasm for making change. 

For our first few weeks, we have been getting to know each other through a series of brainstorming exercises. Every week, we begin with a reading: taking turns, participants bring in a short text that inspires their thinking and we listen and doodle in our composition notebooks. This helps us leave our day behind and enter the space ready to think creatively together.

At our first brainstorming session, following an activity that the Provost led with the Deans earlier this year, we divided into four groups and brainstormed daunting problems likely to be facing higher education, New York City, our county, and our world in the coming decade. We talked about climate change, college accessibility, and the role of the liberal arts in a changing workplace among many other issues. These were daunting problems indeed! 

But they became the fodder for the following week’s activity where we played a kind of grant proposal SNAP!–where we randomly matched daunting problems with modes for solving them. The top twenty daunting problems on one deck of cards and twenty different modes universities have for addressing problems on the other (for example, research project, conference, performance, or podcast). Some combinations were ridiculous–others surprisingly apt. After a few rounds at random, each group came up with four promising approaches to solving four daunting problems. That led us to a list of twenty-one (21!–one group is made up of overachievers!). 

Then, we took the top ten of these the following week and dove a bit more deeply into the process of beginning to develop a project, dividing into groups and taking ten minutes to develop an approach and then traveling around, listening, learning, and refining our approaches.

Amidst all this collective work, we have also been mindful to take time each week to reflect and discuss what our individual goals are: why are we each here? What do we hope to learn and contribute? As we head into our next phase, where we will divide into five teams and work together on five new grant proposals for transformative change in higher education, we hope that this groundwork of goal-setting, team-building, and brainstorming will have been good preparation.

Dissecting the Daunting Issues

By: Melanie Knuts
Incubator Participant
Adjunct Professor, Graduate School of Social Service

During our first Incubator meeting, I remember we were asked to “forget what we think we know.” Learning that the Incubator’s most daunting issues are Climate Control and Health, well, for me, this was a moment of “forgetting what I think I know.” I loved it!

Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City (first published in 2013) is a tour de force in neuroscience, psychology, economics, sociology, urban planning and architecture. In certain ways, this book defies description. And after my first reading of it, I felt (and continue to feel) it deserves to be a “bible” of sorts.

Searching for a passage that might be read at the beginning of our meeting, I rediscovered that while an easy read in many ways, Happy City is richly dense in a far-reaching range of knowledge, wisdom, analysis and specific current global solutions to our Incubator’s two “daunting issues.” Over the course of ten years and traversing back and forth between a dozen or so cities, Charles Montgomery methodically uncovers layers of what gives people their finest satisfactions in health and well-being—and the cities, with their specific designs, that foster these human experiences.

As an introduction to this work, I refer you to his examples in Bogota (pp. 230-239) where Montgomery makes this point: “These bollards show that the pedestrians are as important as people with cars. We are creating equality; we are creating respect for human dignity. We’re telling people, ‘You are important–not because you’re rich, but because you are human.’ If people are treated as special, as sacred, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society. So every detail in a city must reflect that human beings are sacred. Every detail!” (pp. 236)

Tying it back to the Incubator, I understand that our “directive” is to uncover and understand the “daunting issues” that we face collectively—both in Higher Education and the wider global community. Once uncovered, our “mission” is to percolate and propose innovations that creatively address these issues within the Fordham community. Books like Happy City, and an assortment of resources and experiences that we can share together, offer ingenious existing solutions that can provide us with guideposts along the way of our adventure.

“Daunting issues” are just that, daunting because they may initially feel overwhelming, inspire fear and anticipatory discouragement. There is comfort, though, in knowing that we are together in a common endeavor. There is comfort in knowing that “two heads are better than one.” And, for me, there is great comfort in knowing that other wonderful people, compassionate thinkers who include their hearts in the choices they discern and the solutions they create-are traveling this path ahead of and alongside of us. I offer Happy City as one introduction to such people.

An Invitation Into A Community

By: Kendra Dunbar
Assistant Director for Equity and Inclusion
Office of the Chief Diversity Officer

How was this institution built? Who did the building? Who does it serve?  What is its purpose? What are the goals? Who else might it serve if values were re-centered in all of its praxis or policies? What is our praxis? What could our praxis be? How would that change who we are, how we function, or what impact we could have?  

For over 20 years I have been walking alongside communities, institutions, organizations, and government and NGO leadership inviting them to reconsider what is and engage what could be. In whatever form the context or country I am working requires human rights, social justice, reconciliation, equity, and/or participatory processes have been at the center of my work. Imagination, creativity, and the messiness of idea construction across sectors, job functions, departments, interests, and personal identities are primary resources and tools in that creation of another way.  

I was drawn to this project because it is an invitation into a community – a community of thinkers and builders that want to ask the questions, exchange ideas, iterate concepts, policy, and praxis, and take the risk to propose new ways of being as a university community. Many of the ideas, proposals, and suggestions that surface in our time together will not lead directly to a change in policy or praxis; however opening ourselves to the creative engagement of all of the ideas, questions, proposals, and suggestions are needed in effective and equitable institutional growth. And that prospect excites me.

Inspired and Driven

By: Roxana Callejo Garcia
Associate VP, Strategic Planning and Innovation
Fordham IT

Why I’ve chosen to give my time and energy to this exciting experiment named “Reimage Higher Ed at Fordham.”

First and foremost, it’s because of the people leading the effort, Eva Badowska and Anne Fernald; two women I have come to hold in very high esteem. They are welcoming, collaborative, honest and open and most importantly, lots of fun to be around! It is my privilege and honor to work beside them. “Who” I work with is as important to me as what I work on.

Virtually all believe that education lifts us up to be our best selves at home and in our communities, yet how education is delivered can stand in the way for many who struggle to learn in traditional settings. Here’s where I want to make a difference. Maria Montessori and St Ignatius of Loyola both understood that the student should be at the center of education. Believing that each student possesses unique talents that simply need to be coaxed into existence by skilled and loving guides. These guides or teachers, facilitate the student’s emergence into an adult who understands themselves and the world around them.  This is where I fell hopelessly in love with education and became passionate about affecting change. I have not had an outlet for this passion, until now. 

Like our Reading and Incubator group participants, I’m thrilled that my deep interests intersect directly with the focus of this initiative. Once again, it is my privilege and honor to work beside so many people who are all driven to understand the challenges in front of us and to begin to hack away at opportunities for real and impactful change!

It’s Okay To Get Messy

By: Anne Fernald, Ph.D.
Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Special Advisor to the Provost for Faculty Development

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher. Nor can I remember a time when I didn’t watch teachers and leaders, wondering why they asked us to do this activity, not that one, why they seated us in a circle rather than rows. Figuring out the reason behind the lesson has assuaged my boredom in many a dull class. It’s also fired me up about talking with teachers about how to make education better.

When I was five, my mom took me down to the little art school at the end of the block for Saturday art classes. I got to wear my Osh Kosh overalls and it was ok to get messy. My teacher, Miss Cook, was beautiful, with a long red ponytail. When there was an exhibition at the end of the semester for all the students—my little school was also a very small art college—the children’s art hung in the front room of the gallery. My dinosaur was on the wall, but it was upside down! Miss Cook just smiled and said, “That’s ok honey. It’s so beautiful, it looks just as good this way.” And even though part of me knew that was a fib, I could feel her kindness down to my soul.

This project combines that fire for making teaching better, messiness, and kindness in ways that portend so much joy, so much promise for the right kind of change, how could I not throw myself into it?

Why ReImagine?

By: Eva Badowska, Ph.D.
Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Associate VP, Arts and Sciences

For me, it’s really simple: I started this initiative on reimagining higher education because I believe that higher education transforms lives. It had transformed mine. Higher education gave me freedom (of thought and self-determination), perhaps even freedom of country and belonging. And it gave me fulfillment, as I can devote my life’s work to what is meaningful to me. So, for me, it’s not about change for the sake of change or for the sake of fashion (innovation is fashionable). It is about figuring out what big transformations or small adjustments we need to make so that we can responsively and responsibly serve future generations of students in the context of a fluid, dynamic world of knowledge and work. It’s about making sure that our institutions continue to provide the opportunity of that same freedom and fulfillment to the next generation.

As an immigrant and someone who has lived her entire adult life in an adopted language, I don’t find it particularly difficult to accept that institutional and cultural structures should evolve, even quite radically. If anything, I get impatient when they irrationally fail to adjust to changing circumstances. My favorite sentence is: “I have a dream” (Martin Luther King, Jr.). As an academic dean, I often find myself being called upon to “lead change,” and I equally as often find myself failing (for each success you hear about, you can be sure I failed ten times behind the scenes). I am, therefore, very interested in how change can happen in a complex institution such as “the university.” The university as an institution has a venerable history. As an institution, the university is built to support the highest motives, including the advancement of humanity and the betterment of society. But as any institution, it tends to be slow-moving and bureaucratically entrenched. If my failures have taught me anything, it is that change cannot happen by fiat or by charisma or by pleading, and certainly not by imposition; lasting change typically grows out gradually from a movement that involves the entire community and many small acts. This is what this initiative is about: it is an effort to create a community of change-makers who share the same ethical commitment to the value of education in today’s world. It is nothing more and nothing less than that.