WALF 2018

provost-dan-howardI attended my last meeting of the Western Academic Leadership Forum (WALF), which was held in Vancouver, Washington, last week. WALF brings together chief academic officers from across the western United States to discuss the wide range of issues and challenges confronting higher education in our region.

We touched on many topics during the two and a half days of the meeting; four that resonated with me were stereotype threat, health and wellness, student evaluations, and artificial intelligence.

Dr. Claude Steele, who has done seminal work on stereotype threat, kicked off the conference with a masterful description of stereotype threat and its impact on academic performance. In short, his work and the work of many others demonstrates that stereotypes about race and gender impose pressures that can have a negative influence on performance in the classroom. Removing this pressure requires thoughtful and purposeful trust-building on the part of faculty and administrators. I encourage everyone with an interest in this topic to read Dr. Steele’s engaging book, “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do”.

Dr. Sona Andrews, the Provost Emerita of Portland State University, led a discussion about health and wellness that focused on survey data gathered from 25 western universities and colleges. The results of the survey were sobering. Mental health problems, food insecurity, and homelessness are all on the rise on our campuses. Effectively dealing with these challenges will require a concerted effort from every part of the university, including faculty, who must become more aware of the services available to students and more willing to make referrals when students show signs of distress.

The importance of moving away from student evaluations as the sole or dominant form of evaluating the effectiveness of teaching was one of the messages in the talk by Physicist and Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman. The evidence for gender and race bias in student evaluations is now so strong that it is incumbent on the academic community to de-emphasize this mode of evaluation and develop more meaningful peer- and self-evaluations, and evaluations based on the assessment of learning.

Finally, the potential for artificial intelligence to disrupt and improve higher education was highlighted by Terry Jones, the founder of Travelocity and Kayak. It is becoming clear that all institutions of higher education will have to include artificial intelligence, and its applications, in their strategic planning.

I left Vancouver thankful for the opportunity to see old friends one last time and with the deep conviction that despite all the challenges that confront higher education, NMSU is well positioned to meet those challenges.

With all best wishes,

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