The time has come to write a new chapter for Teachers College – first, because our nation and our world need our knowledge, expertise, and graduates more urgently than ever before; and second, because we face many challenges as an institution, and we must summon the courage to make difficult choices in order to take full advantage of all of our great strengths and flourish well into the future. 

These are unquestionably troubling times – not a period of “we,” as it should be, but rather one of “us and them.” Worldwide, we are confronted by the worsening threat of climate change; by growing intolerance and the “othering” of fellow human beings; by the rise of repressive regimes and the resulting brutal conflicts that have created the largest refugee population since World War II. 

In this country, the gap is widening between haves and have-nots; our schools have undergone a de facto re-segregation along race and class lines, creating a two-tiered system that both reflects and reinforces societal inequities. We are also faced, seemingly every day, by widespread gun violence; by the growing mean-spiritedness of our political and civic dialogue, and by the spread of hatred. We are alarmed by the sharp rise in the number of crimes motivated by bias against people of color and religious minorities.

At the same time, American higher education is facing its own special challenges. We are seeing unprecedented skepticism about our value and purpose. Celebrated as society’s most powerful engine for upward social mobility, higher education in reality bestows much of its riches on the rich, while investing the least in institutions that students of color and low-income backgrounds are most likely to attend. A substantial portion of the country sees higher education as lacking intellectual diversity, while soaring student debt is falling most heavily on those students least able to pay it off. Many critics and citizens are asking: Is college really worth it? Do public institutions deserve the funding they receive? Do private colleges and universities earn the ever-increasing tuition that they charge?

We cannot just wish away the challenges facing higher education. Nor will the threats to our democracy, our health and well-being, and the future of the planet go away unless we all step up.

Teachers College is poised to do its part. We have the tools to help address all of these problems. Indeed, it must be our mission to do that, and we will.

But in working to advance this mission, Teacher College (and education schools in general), are confronted by strong headwinds that make our efforts that much more difficult.

We are often seen as part of the problem rather than leaders in finding solutions – the gatekeepers of an education system that is lagging behind those of other countries; that is failing to close the achievement gap; that is reinforcing the mediocrity it should be combating.

Much of that criticism is erroneous and unfair. Nonetheless, the perception creates an environment in which we must operate.

We face tough economic challenges as well. As teachers and others in the social services and helping professions endure low pay and harsher working conditions, TC, like many education and professional schools, has experienced a decline in applications in some of our programs. For a tuition-dependent institution, these pressures compel us to reexamine our business model. We must ask: Is it prudent to charge ever-increasing tuition to prepare students for teaching and social service occupations? Is it sustainable?

It is my passionate belief that the strategy for addressing our institutional and economic challenges and the strategy for increasing our effectiveness in reaching our societal goals are one and the same. By building a stronger and more effective Teachers College, we will strengthen our ability to help build a stronger and more equitable society – and by truly marshaling our resources to achieve our broader social goals, we will become a stronger and more effective and sustainable institution.

What are the specific elements of that common strategy?

My experience over the previous years in the field of community colleges informs much of my thinking. Moreover, I think that a graduate school at one of the foremost universities in the world has a great deal to learn from the experience of community colleges.  

Over the past 15 years, thousands of community college faculty, administrators, and staff have been working hard to improve student outcomes – a movement often referred to as the completion agenda. While many individual reforms and experiments in remediation, counseling, financial aid, and funding systems produced limited successes, we were not seeing significant improvements in overall institutional performance.

It dawned on us: Our focus was too narrow. The problem was not just remedial education, or student advising, or financial aid, or funding incentives. It was all of those features put together, exposing flaws in the overall structure and organization of the colleges.  It wasn’t that there were no effective reforms or that staff were not skilled and committed, but rather that the organization of most colleges did not allow those resources to be mobilized effectively. Nor did it facilitate collaboration across academic departments or between faculty and student-services staff.

We referred to the colleges that had this type of dispersed organization as cafeteria colleges: There were a lot of resources but individual students, faculty, and advisors had to take the initiative to find their own pathways through complex environments and to use and mobilize the available resources effectively.

In order to make significant improvement in college and indeed in the sector’s overall performance, the colleges needed to implement comprehensive institutional strategies.

In community colleges, as we perceived the limitations of the cafeteria college, we looked for alternatives and developed, along with others, the Guided Pathways model. This comprehensive model redesigns academic programs and provides services to support students from application to graduation to employment. It is designed to promote communication and collaboration across and among academic and administrative departments.  It provides a framework that colleges can adapt to their own circumstances.  More than 250 colleges are implementing Guided Pathways, and while it’s still early days, the early adopters are seeing significant improvements in first- and second-year student outcomes.

In addition to implications about the importance of comprehensive reform, we can also draw lessons from the process we used to develop guided pathways.  I want to emphasize three points:

First, Guided Pathways is not something we dreamed up on our own. Rather, we formed working partnerships with policy makers, fellow reformers and researchers and, most important, practitioners at community colleges – presidents and deans, but also faculty members, guidance counselors and students themselves. We came to understand their concerns and the realities they dealt with every day, and learned some of the imaginative solutions that they were developing. We reflected back to them what they told us in a framework that pulled all the elements together, in ways they could use.

Second point: We also realized that we needed many perspectives and methodologies to address these issues. So we turned to our colleagues in other departments at TC and we became a multidisciplinary center.

Third:  We became a learning community where all of us – students, faculty, researchers, and staff – were both learners and teachers. We learned not only about the substance of the work, but also about how to develop projects, how to interact with funders and practitioners, how to work together. In short, the CCRC experience demonstrated “the power of we.” 

What can we at TC learn from this experience? Like the cafeteria colleges, we have many areas of excellence. But like the cafeteria colleges, we, too, are not optimally organized to take full advantage of the potential comprehensiveness of the excellence and diversity of our programs. Our structure can be confusing, which inhibits and often discourages collaborations across fields and disciplines. While we can potentially be a highly effective organization that encourages brilliant people to pool their ideas and efforts to achieve common aims, we more often resemble a loose federation of excellent – but separate – approaches. And we squander opportunities to develop comprehensive solutions to deep problems.

We face similar barriers in our administrative structures. We have many excellent administrative staff and resources, but those resources are often dispersed among different offices and are difficult to use, sometimes leading to confusion, duplication, and unproductive effort.

I think that we can do better.

How can we more effectively mobilize the assets, resources and services that we already have?

I am proposing – dare I say it – a guided pathways model for TC, and I want to emphasize five areas.

First, we must make sure that our student pathways are well designed and supported.  We must pay attention to the movement of students all the way from recruitment, through programs and internships and practica, to career services and placement. Many of us are already working on these so there is much to build on. And our student pathways must extend beyond graduation so that we both continue to support our alumni and to draw on their experience and expertise. We have made great progress to deepen our relationships with passionate and accomplished alumni, and I am excited to build on that, too.

Second, we need to develop our many small programs so that they work in concert and are synchronized and conducted with reference to one another. That way, our programs will be more effective and easier to manage, making the College a place that our students and funders can better understand, navigate, and support. This will also help assure the excellence and viability of our programs and strengthen the recruitment and continuous professional development of our faculty.

Third, we need to strengthen our administrative structures (including our support for funded research), in order to ensure that our excellent staff and resources are effectively mobilized, and that students and professors can focus on the activities that they came here to carry out – their studies, teaching, and research.

Fourth, we should choose a small number of fundamental areas where there’s great potential for translating productive multi-disciplinary collaboration and partnerships with practitioners into solutions to deep problems such as the growing racial, ethnic, and income gaps in education opportunity and outcomes; the disparities in the physical and emotional health of students, families and communities; and the decline in citizenship education and civic participation. These are only a few of the many possibilities.

Fifth, I want to underscore the imperative of continuing to work closely with practitioners. Teachers College already has deep involvement in our own local community and, in general, our faculty already have extensive relationships with practitioners. Let’s make those relationships even more effective and rewarding by working together.

Over the next several months, I will be initiating communitywide conversations about how we might make progress on all of these areas.

But to accomplish all of this on a wide scale, each of us must think beyond our own programs and interests, and work to promote the intellectual vitality and social well-being of the entire TC community and enterprise. And we must also revisit an ideal that we don’t always fulfill: a respect for equity, diversity and a commitment to collegiality in the truest, fullest sense. We must do a better job of listening to and respecting everyone, both inside and outside the institution, not just in spite of our differences but because of those differences.

None of this will be easy. We will have to make some choices about what matters most, and where to focus our energies.

We will have to confront our differences and have difficult conversations.

But imagine what could happen if we succeed in our mission.

Teachers College would be fully focused and fully mobilized.

We would be the place where our many disciplines, programs and viewpoints have greater impact by finding common purpose.

This can be our moment.

Despite the challenges we face, the College is financially strong and academically rich. We have the reputation, the history, and the talent to achieve our goals – but it starts with choosing to be “we.”

I think that if we can truly come together as one community, we as an institution can use our skills and resources to help build pathways to success for every child, for every adult.

That is our mission. Let’s accomplish our mission.  And let’s do that – and flourish – together.