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2024 Survey of Provosts Reveals Interesting Insights on How Campuses are Dealing with AI, Diversity, Free Speech and Financial Challenges

Inside Higher Ed, together with Hanover Research, recently released its annual Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, providing insight into the priorities of and challenges facing higher education institutions. With 331 provosts fully or partially completing surveys (a 13% response rate), the survey covered a wide range of topics including artificial intelligence, diversity, equity, and inclusion, campus speech, the future of academic programs, and more. While the comprehensive key findings and data tables can be found in the report, below is a highlight of several major areas.

Artificial Intelligence: Artificial intelligence continues to be an evolving focus at many institutions. 92% of provosts responded that faculty and staff members asked for additional training related to the developments in generative AI. Seventy-eight percent (78%) have offered training in response to faculty concerns or questions about generative AI within the last 18 months and an additional 20% have planned training. For students, only 14% of provosts said that their institution has reviewed the curriculum to ensure that it will prepare students for AI in the workplace, though 73% plan to do so. The use and future of AI is far from settled. Although 47% of provosts are moderately concerned, 20% very concerned, and 6% extremely concerned about the risk generative AI poses to academic integrity, only 20% of institutions have published a policy or policies governing the use of AI, including in teaching and research. An additional 63% have a policy under development. However, in contrast to those concerns, 40% of provosts are moderately enthusiastic, 32% very enthusiastic, and 11% extremely enthusiastic for AI’s potential to boost their institution’s capabilities. Several institutions are using AI for virtual chat assistants and chatbots, research and data analysis, Learning Management Systems, predictive analytics to predict student performance and trends, and in other capacities. This is an area where we can expect rapid developments in the coming months.

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The Power of Discomfort

I begin this writing with a painful admission, especially as a higher education professional. I was raised in a community that made racists feel comfortable to share their beliefs. Thankfully, my parents were not among them—I never once heard my mother or father judge someone by their skin color or nationality—but other community members, and sadly even other family members, regularly made comments about the propensity of entire races for laziness or theft or ignorance. Raised in the rural midwest, I had limited opportunity early on to let experience conquer stereotypes. I knew, though, the labels did not describe the admittedly few non-white students who attended my elementary school. When I felt uncomfortable hearing these comments and would ask my parents why even some family members talked this way, I was told, “That’s just who they are. We can’t change them, but we love them anyway.”

I did love my family deeply. I loved them with all of their flaws as I hoped they loved me with mine, but as I furthered my education, more discomfort would follow. I would feel it when we studied historical events such as slavery, Apartheid, and the Holocaust, and I realized the horrors that humanity was capable of. I would feel it when we studied more recent injustices such as new redlining, racial profiling, and hate crimes, and I had to acknowledge that humanity hadn’t fixed itself and not everyone wanted it to.

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Does General Education Meet the Needs of Today’s Students

In my long academic administration career, I was rarely warned against treading into an area of potential conflict.  But several times at different institutions, my “boss” indicated that General Education was not an area I could profitably address because it could be political dynamite.  I heeded the advice and held my tongue.  But as I watch my grandchildren prepare to go to college and I read the degree requirements of their prospective institutions, I am as perplexed as ever about the beloved Gen Ed requirements.  The unrest is even more acute today as the additional “hot potato” of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has been added to the requirements at some universities. Are the concepts enshrined in Gen Ed so profound that everyone needs to understand them?   In our “What do I need to get a job?” era, should Gen Ed still be required?  In addition, does the current methodology of teaching these ideas through required courses or courses in required disciplines meet the outcome our students need?
 
At the beginning of my own days as a university student I was given a list of the university’s Gen Ed requirements.  The list named the courses to be taken to meet those requirements and a number of credits in each area that was needed.  And the advising was very essentially non-existent.  (I suspect this is the experience of most current provosts.) There was no rationale for the  specific courses and no indication how choosing any specific course would help me develop as a biology major.  There was no discussion about my career goals and, importantly, how choosing an inappropriate course might delay graduation because major program requirements might require a different course from the long list.  I am sure that advising is better today that it was in 1966, but as an interested grandparent, I cannot see that the student experience has changed much.  At best I am seeing a list of university core requirements and a list of specific program major requirements listed separately, but not the context that might explain why they were chosen, which courses aid achievement of desired careers, and which are safe backups, in case I chose to change my major from biology to business or vice versa.
 
I think the conundrum occurs because requirements are chosen without a specific career in mind.  In most cases the Gen Ed requirements were decided on by the university under direction of the faculty and with the consent of the administration.  The goal was, I believe, to give students insight into the breadth of universal knowledge as understood by the institution’s faculty, to make sure university graduates have a taste for different areas of possible interest and, perhaps, to bring students up to some minimal level of knowledge so that employers knew what to expect from university graduates.
 
The diversity of institutions and the diversity of faculty within their institutions means that the student experience has huge variation.  For example, at a university that stresses engineering, the requirements might include quantitative reasoning while at a liberal arts university they might include courses on intercultural perspectives.  I interpret this as meaning that general education is not something that can be generalized.  Professional accreditation requirements might also skew the choices a student might have .  In addition, more than one state appears to set requirements.  In Arkansas, Appendix C, Section 1 of the Division of Higher Education’s Procedures for Establishing Programs sets some requirements.  In Missouri, Statute 170.011 requires some knowledge of Missouri be included in the academic program.  In some states, such as Michigan, the requirements for state institutions to be able to accept transfer students means Gen Ed has been somewhat standardized through the Michigan Transfer Agreement.  Recent proposed legislative bills in Florida suggest the exclusion of some gender and diversity topics from Gen Ed will be made mandatory.  These decisions external to the university impede the individual institutions from making their degree requirements unique. 
 
But what happens to the student who does not follow the “traditional” path of tertiary education by attending a single institution for four to six years?  Does a student path that starts in a community college, where generality is more generally the rule, mean that the student who transfers is really at a disadvantage in acquiring the engineering or the history degree? The challenge of transferability may impact students so that for a student intent on a technical degree, the community college history course that discusses the social impacts of war to the exclusion of the technological aspects may not be accepted as part of the program at the school into which the student transfers.
 
What are the other unintended consequences of Gen Ed?  Does it impact student retention or graduation?  How many students have been put off by the mathematics requirement or the social sciences requirement?  At some institutions it is suggested that Gen Ed requirements be completed in the first two years (especially if the goal is transfer).  But a future engineer wants to do some engineering!  Many engineering programs now make sure there is a freshman engineering course, which may delay the taking of a Gen Ed course until much later in the student’s life at the institution.  Is so much emphasis on the “general” impacting the efforts toward “education” that the student decides to leave college and take a job that will never develop into a career?  Should the inability to pass a laboratory science course mean that the world loses a wonderfully creative graphic artist?
 
With all these questions, I think that now is the time to have a national conversation, perhaps hosted by ACAO or ACE, on the entire question of general education.  Perhaps Gen Ed should be eliminated as antiquated.  Perhaps graduation requirements should all be individualized.  Or perhaps providing a rationale for why all students of any age should have a general education will help us substantiate the need for higher education for all.
Michael A. Gealt is Professor Emeritus and former Executive Vice President / Provost at Central Michigan University where he served for six years prior to his retirement in 2020.  He previously served as Dean of Engineering, Mathematics and Science (and briefly Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs) at Purdue University Calumet (now Northwest) and as Dean of the College of Science at University of Arkansas at Little Rock.