Highlights from AAC&U’s Annual 2016 Meeting

The American Association of Colleges & Universities hosted its annual meeting last week in Washington, D.C. Despite looming forecasts of a major snowstorm, the weeklong event drew large crowds and sparked some interesting conversations about raising learning outcomes among students from low-income backgrounds.

The conference’s theme—how higher education can improve equity and inclusiveness—was palpable at many of the event’s plenary sessions, outside in the hallways, and in major speeches. The idea that effective instruction is a key factor in support of student success was emphasized periodically throughout Thursday’s events.

A few highlights from the conference are presented here. For additional coverage, be sure to follow Julie Kane, who documented each day through stories compiled on the Storify website (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

Freeman A. Hrabowski, longtime president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, delivered the keynote speech at Thursday’s opening plenary titled “Making Excellence Inclusive: What It Means—and How We Can.”

One line from Dr. Hrabowski’s speech about the relationship between students and educators stirred the audience: “Teachers touch eternity through their students,” he said, and drew prolonged applause.

The opening plenary also saw AAC&U award its Frederic W. Ness Book Award to Wesleyen University president Michael Roth for his book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. The award is meant to recognize the book that has contributed most this year to higher education’s understanding of liberal learning.

Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College (City University of New York), was among four college presidents who sat on a lively panel titled “The Equity Imperative in Practice.” Joining her were California State University—Fullerton’s Mildred García, University of Richmond’s Ronald A. Crutcher, and Brit Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland.

Dr. Mellow said that presidents should show greater leadership in supporting faculty to become stronger classroom instructors.

“We are teaching a very different generation of students,” she said. “And we have always been pretty bad, as colleges, at helping faculty teach well.”

“If we’re really going to do what we want to do, if we’re really going to have our students feel like, ‘My life changed—I imagined a bigger role for myself,’ we’ve got to be paying more attention to the professional development of faculty,” she added. “And my sense is faculty want all this.”

AAC&U also devoted a concurrent session to the issue of promoting evidence-based faculty development as a means for increasing student learning and outcomes. John Zubizarreta, a professor and director of faculty development at Columbia College (South Carolina) wrote an excellent recap of the session, which featured top voices in faculty development: Mary Deane Sorcinelli, of Mount Holyoke College, Ann E. Austin of the National Science Foundation and Michigan State University, and Mary Huber of the Bay View Alliance and the Carnegie Foundation. The panelists “practiced what they preached by engaging the audience in interactive, shared work that made the room buzz with spirited conversation.”

One key lesson emerged from the session, Dr. Zubizarreta writes.

“We have to work from the power of evidence. We have to extend our change efforts to reach into all corners of our institutions and promote change among all teachers. We have to listen to feedback from colleagues and students. We have to provide incentives and rewards for teachers to improve and incorporate evidence-based practices in their instruction. The session ended with an inspiring call for change, for better and more research on the connection between good teaching and deep learning. It was definitely a highlight of the day.”

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