Late one afternoon in the spring of 1997, a group of seven or eight undergraduates shared their thoughts about their fellow Shippensburg students with a group of faculty and administrators. The conversation was the second in a series of three on the topic, Who Are Our Students? to which faculty, administrators and students campus-wide were invited. Every class was represented, although most of the students who participated were graduating seniors. All were active in student governance and other campus organizations. The following are excerpts from the dialogue that took place, moderated by Dr. Roger Serr, Dean of Students.
What is striking about this conversation is that, in an informal and subjective way, it reflects with remarkable accuracy what more than a dozen institutional research reports, pages of evaluation data and hours of meetings throughout the campus community as part of the self-study, have uncovered about Shippensburg University students and the quality of education they receive.
On the one hand, the conversation illustrates the students' good nature, unaffectedness, sociability and ambition. Their belief that they have grown intellectually and personally is confirmed in the thoughtfulness and self-assurance of their discussion. Their suggestions for improving the academic program are relevant and specific: a mix of General Education and major courses, varying teaching methods, course integration, mentoring, networking, and the like. On the other hand, student focus is clearly more on the social rather than the academic, they value career goals over lifelong learning, and they are less than enthusiastic about investing the necessary time and effort to develop the more enduring qualities of a forward-looking education, which this university views as its primary mission.
Similarly, institutional assessment data show that although Shippensburg students come to the university adequately prepared to learn, as gauged by conventional measures of college preparedness, they often arrive without much interest or experience in thinking deeply about complex issues or problems. The data also show that while the campus community is justified in taking considerable pride in its students' learning and development over the course of their college education, there are additional ways in which students' desire and ability to learn and think can be enhanced. The most important of these can be found among the students' own suggestions, namely, the kinds of learning experiences or strategies that are identified and addressed in the self-study.
By all measures Shippensburg University has abundant strengths, the most important of which is providing students a quality education. Faculty, administration and staff are united in their commitment to the institution and to its students. The self-study process has offered a valuable opportunity to evaluate and reflect on the success of its mission, as well as to collaborate on highlighting issues and problems that need to be addressed.
The conduct of the study has been inclusive, involving many members of the campus community and representing all areas and levels of the organization. Numerous conversations and campus-wide forums, some of which inspired intense but always civil debate, brought a general consensus among those participating about the conclusions of the report. As should be expected for any major undertaking of this kind on a campus this size, some of the different views that emerged were unreconciled in the self-study process. Attempts were made to incorporate the most important of these into recommendations for future review and eventual action. While some recommendations are more important than others for enhancing the overall effectiveness of the university, none surpass the importance the university gives to those that relate to the character and quality of the student-faculty relationship.
The self-study, based on the Selected Topics model of the Middle States Association's Designs for Excellence, begins with an overview of the university, including a current mission and goals statement. It continues with a profile of students and faculty and a summary of key developments that have taken place at the university in relation to institutional goals in the past five to ten years.
The second section examines four topics selected because of their importance to future developments in the university over the next five to ten years. The analysis of each topic, based largely on the results of assessment and other sources of data, concludes with a set of recommendations for enhancing the university's effectiveness in carrying out its mission. The final section summarizes the recommendations and presents several goal revisions based on the major findings of the self-study. These are intended to guide institutional planning and assessment for the next several years.