New Jersey Commission on Higher Education

Mid-Year Report to the Commission on Higher Education
Dr. James E. Sulton, Jr., Executive Director
December 17, 1999

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Last May I came to New Jersey to become Executive Director of the Commission on Higher Education. During these intervening months I have made a conscientious effort to familiarize myself with the state and its higher education community. Getting acquainted with the members and staff of the Commission, meeting college presidents and visiting their campuses, and introducing myself to legislators and other state leaders have been enlightening and exhilarating.

Through these encounters, as well as my own observations, I have learned a tremendous amount about New Jersey and its higher education system, and I develop a deeper understanding each day. Seven months into my tenure, I view New Jersey higher education from the more informed vantage point of someone who is no longer an outsider, but nevertheless sees the system with fresh eyes. I respectfully seize this opportunity to offer my observations about New Jersey higher education and its future.

My arrival in New Jersey five years after the restructuring of higher education was a propitious moment to step in as executive director of the Commission. New Jersey has a clearly conceived vision for higher education and a strategic plan to accomplish it. I come to the state with my own experiences, strengths, and perspectives, and I aim to provide capable leadership that will help this state achieve its goals for higher education.

For me, students are the heart of the higher education enterprise and decisions at all levels of the system should consider their needs. Higher education has many goals and missions, all of which are important. But, I strongly believe that colleges and universities have a primary responsibility to prepare individuals for fulfilling careers, moral citizenship, and lifelong learning experiences.

Certainly, addressing student needs is nothing novel for the Garden State. The range and quality of academic programs and student services offered by New Jersey colleges and universities are impressive. And both institutions and policy makers demonstrate a continuous commitment to improvements that benefit students.

For example, New Jersey began making tremendous strides in educational technology well before my arrival, establishing the advanced telecommunications infrastructure essential for on-campus teaching, learning, and research as well as high-quality distance learning programs.

Since restructuring, the state has also heightened its focus on higher education accountability, establishing a framework of institutional and systemwide reports as well as a performance funding initiative that provides valuable information and spurs improved efficiency. In future years, as the availability and quality of data improve, the Commission will look more closely at learning outcomes and will work with public institutions to enhance their annual reports with additional data and benchmarks. The Commission also is committed to continuous refinement of the state's performance funding indicators so that they can help guide institutions and the state along the path to excellence.

New Jersey has recently made great progress in another critical area, collaboration and coordination between PreK-12 and higher education. The Commission and the State Board of Education fully acknowledge the importance of working together on the many issues that affect students at all levels of the education system, and the two boards share a real commitment to doing so. The joint summit held earlier this month, Transitions from High School to College, exemplifies their extraordinary dedication to the important cause of building a truly seamless state educational delivery network.

While there are many important issues for us to address collaboratively, I believe that teacher quality will be the most critical. Over the next decade, our colleges and universities must increase their focus on teacher education as they prepare the next generation of educators for the substantial challenges ahead. In many ways, these new teachers will shape the very future of our society. The abilities and attitudes they nurture in their students will provide the foundation for future learning, careers, and citizenship. Ensuring that tomorrow's teachers are equipped with the skills and subject knowledge they need to support student success must be a top priority for the Commission.

The higher education community must build on its progress in technology, accountability, collaboration, and other areas by focusing on student needs and issues that directly affect the student learning experience.

One such area has to be student transfer and articulation, perhaps the boldest expression of a genuinely learner-centered approach to higher education. While many of the 6,400 New Jersey students who transferred from a two-year institution to a four-year college or university last year did so without missing a beat, some experienced vexing frustrations as they learned that hard-earned community college credits would not count toward a baccalaureate degree.

Establishing a learner-oriented statewide transfer process is extremely difficult given the multifaceted needs of students as well as the myriad curricular distinctions among various programs and majors. While faculty members, administrators, and college presidents are working hard to address this complicated and longstanding problem, New Jersey remains some distance away from achieving true articulation between two- and four-year institutions. Other states have managed to tackle this tough issue, and New Jersey should follow their lead.

The Presidents' Council recently established an ad hoc task force on transfer issues, and two-year and four-year institutions are collaborating to establish general education and individual disciplinary agreements to facilitate the transition experience for students. These efforts are important, and the Commission will assist in every possible way.

In addition, Rutgers University is piloting an electronic transfer system, known as ARTSYS, which has been used with great success in Maryland. It allows community college students to go online to evaluate their transcripts or determine course equivalencies and their prospects for transfer to the state university. Ultimately, we hope that statewide implementation of the ARTSYS system will enable students to determine automatically which community college courses will transfer into their intended majors at any senior institution. A pricetag of roughly $1 million to get ARTSYS up and running and about half that to maintain the system annually seems a bargain compared with the ongoing cost that lost credits and repeated courses impose on students, parents, institutions, and the state.

In addition to aggressively seeking state funding for ARTSYS, the Commission will also support improved transfer and articulation by holding institutions and the system accountable for ensuring that students can move smoothly through the system. This year's systemwide accountability report takes a look at the number of transfer students and how they perform. I hope that down the road, we will find ways to measure New Jersey's success in creating an effective, student-focused transfer and articulation system.

Another critical issue that requires a more student-centered approach is campus diversity. The issue of affirmative action has become a national flash point, with a growing number of states undergoing major policy transformations as a result of contentious litigation or polarizing initiatives. Thankfully, that debate has not materialized in New Jersey, although certainly this issue has not been ignored.

Unlike systems struggling to recruit minority students in the absence of affirmative action mandates, New Jersey higher education has a reasonably diverse enrollment. The profile for faculty, however, is less encouraging, with black and Hispanic faculty members together accounting for less than 10 percent of the full-time professorial ranks at New Jersey institutions. Given its demographic profile and supportive climate, New Jersey has a unique opportunity to demonstrate national leadership on the issue of campus diversity. Early on, the Commission stated that "…individual and institutional diversity are strengths of the state's higher education system." Governing boards and institutions must capitalize on those strengths through conscious efforts to weave diversity and multiculturalism into the fabric that unites each campus community.

A growing body of research demonstrates that a diverse campus community benefits all students - minority and non-minority alike. Students have a richer learning experience and leave college better prepared to live and work in racially and ethnically integrated communities. If students' experience during the formative college years can break longstanding patterns of racial segregation and separation, is there not a moral imperative to make each campus a place where different backgrounds, experiences and values enrich the community rather than divide it?

I recognize that there are no simple or "one-size-fits all" solutions that will meet the needs of New Jersey institutions or students. Making diversity a strength is a tough leadership challenge for college and university presidents and their governing boards. As they establish their own clear goals for diversity, I suggest that every institution that has not already done so engage the campus community in developing a comprehensive diversity plan.

While active recruitment of underrepresented students, faculty, and staff is essential, such plans must reach further to foster an academic and social environment that nurtures a diverse campus community. Meaningful plans must address campus climate and intergroup relations, new approaches to curriculum and teaching, and mechanisms to hold campus leaders accountable for progress toward institutional goals.

In addressing these needs, institutions may be guided by homegrown efforts such as EOF programs that provide a valuable seedbed for educational innovations, and athletic and student government organizations that successfully bring together diverse groups for a common purpose. They might also look beyond our state at models for successful freshman-year seminars or transition programs as well as initiatives focused specifically on improving intergroup relations.

While creating a climate that supports diversity is clearly an institutional responsibility, the Commission's role falls somewhere between cheerleader and hall monitor. Along with the New Jersey chapter of the National Conference on Community Justice, the Commission is cosponsoring a statewide forum on diversity in higher education in March. As Executive Director, I will remain active on the national front, as I was before coming to New Jersey, and I plan to host a State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) symposium on diversity issues next year.

The past seven months have offered more challenges and rewards than I ever expected when I took this job. Most notable is the opportunity to work with a Commission that does not duck difficult issues. Its members are both able and willing to fulfill their leadership role in New Jersey's higher education community. They have shown their commitment to working with the Presidents' Council and institutional governing boards, as well as with other state agencies, to move New Jersey higher education further along the path to excellence.

My one frustration is that the many strengths of New Jersey higher education remain such a well-kept secret. The quality of teaching and academic programs, ground-breaking research, and a commitment to workforce training make our colleges and universities one of the state's most valuable resources. Yet the system is weighed down by an image of mediocrity that it does not deserve.

New Jersey higher education has plenty to brag about. For example:

I do not understand why New Jersey's own perceptions of its higher education system are so far out of sync with the accolades bestowed by organizations that measure our institutions against national competitors. Clearly, the higher education community has to work harder to spread the word about its strengths and vital contributions to society. To this end, the Commission has made it a priority to develop strategies that will raise the system's profile and increase public awareness about higher education - both the opportunities it offers and its fundamental importance to the state and its citizens.

Closely related to that effort is the Commission's proposed excellence initiative, which will enable selected colleges and universities to build on strong programs in areas related to targeted state priorities. Enhancing excellence within institutions will not only bring New Jersey higher education into the upper echelon, it will also improve the student learning experience and fuel the state's continued economic growth.

Clearly, the next century holds many challenges for New Jersey higher education. I look forward to a long and productive working relationship with the Commission and the rest of the higher education community as we address the needs of students, continue along the path toward excellence, and garner the national and statewide recognition that our outstanding higher education system deserves.

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