The Colgate Scene
May 1999
Table of contents
Patti Gumport '80
Influencing the course of higher education

by James Leach
[IMAGE] "I know it sounds corny," said Patti Gumport '80, "but when I think back to the small philosophy and religion classes with Marilyn Thie or Jerry Balmuth, I remember the love of learning, the play of ideas, and I think these are valuable educational legacies that must be preserved."

     As executive director of the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement (NCPI) at Stanford University, Gumport oversees a $12.5 million research project to help higher education reconcile complex, often competing, demands that increasingly stress cost containment, accountability and affordable access. Her position gives her a national forum from which to urge society not to lose sight of the importance of "educational legacies" even as higher education institutions adapt to market demands and consumer choices.

     A year ago, Change magazine and the American Council on Education identified Gumport, an associate professor in Stanford's Graduate School of Education, as one of 40 "Young Leaders of the Academy" -- "emerging leaders who may substantially influence the direction of American higher education." In a brief statement for the magazine, Gumport wrote of her concern for "preserving the long-term public interest in higher education." She wondered "whether these institutions will be able to provide affordable access to quality academic programs," and "whether our universities will continue to foster an environment in which faculty will be supported to work on knowledge creation alongside their teaching activities."

     With a powerful team that includes approximately 60 researchers in higher education from across the country, NCPI has set out under Gumport's direction to help colleges and universities "adapt to and even thrive amidst the fast-changing environment of postsecondary education." Headquartered at Stanford, NCPI subcontracts to higher education research centers at University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan.

     At least once a year, Gumport convenes researchers from the three universities to compare their findings and look for what she calls "cross-cutting themes: How are colleges and universities responding to market forces and accountability demands? How are they measuring quality and learning outcomes?" She also reaches out to a larger educational audience through her writing in publications and speeches to national and inter-national organizations.

     Last fall, for example, she told a conference of the Scandinavian Consortium for Organizations Research "that universities are at risk for the reckless application of organizational imperatives, particularly those growing out of strategic management literatures." She invited the group "to consider with me the possibility that a 19th-century idea of a university may have something to offer contemporary higher education researchers as well as scholars of organizations, as we deliberate over what to restructure and what to preserve."

     In an article for DÆDALUS, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Science, she suggested that new pressures on higher education have caused a fundamental shift in the academic workplace at some colleges and universities, where faculty are increasingly seen as employees, "potential revenue sources, resources to be redeployed, and competitors rather than colleagues."

     From her office in the Stanford Institute of Higher Education Research, which she also directs, Gumport reflected on what the changes have meant to a new generation of faculty. "It is no longer legitimate to come into the profession simply with a naive sense of academic calling. We have to be aware that there is widespread public scrutiny of the academic profession. Are we professionals or employees? And of course, we're both. This reflects a real tension that challenges norms for shared governance, particularly at a time when higher education institutions must make critical choices about academic priorities. What expertise and wisdom should our universities draw upon to re-position themselves to be financially as well as educationally viable for the long haul? How can faculty more effectively contribute to this process?"

     The questions come full circle to Gumport's memories of Colgate's faculty. "Where are we going to find these giants in the next generation of faculty?" she asked. "It is absolutely a way of life. The people who will be attracted to it and who will work through the frustrations will no doubt be those who bring a deep sense of calling and commitment to service. But in itself, that will not be sufficient for preserving what matters most in the enterprise."

[IMAGE] A calling
In a very real sense, Gumport was herself called to higher education. As an undergraduate she had thought she would have a career teaching secondary school English, but a brief practicum in a public school in central New York changed her mind. "There was too much time spent taking attendance and dealing with discipline, too little time spent teaching and dealing with ideas. I was happy to have gone through the experience, but I knew then I needed to go to graduate school so that I could teach at a higher level."

     Uncertain whether she wanted to do graduate study in education or philosophy, Gumport took a job as an assistant dean in the Colgate admission office. "It gave me the chance to become immediately engaged in some complex issues of higher ed administration," she said.

     Stanford accepted her into a master's program in higher education administration and policy analysis, and she was off to the West Coast for a brief stay that turned into a career. The master's degree in education led her to the PhD program at Stanford's School of Education, obtaining a master's in sociology along the way to broaden the experience and provide "a deeper theoretical foundation." By the time she completed her program in 1987, she had developed a research agenda for using social theory to examine issues of higher education.

     She took a postdoctoral research position at UCLA working with Burton Clark, one of the top sociologists of higher education, and within the year had also been offered a teaching position at UCLA. In spring 1989 she was hired away by Stanford, where she has taught ever since. She was awarded tenure, early, in 1995.

     That same year, a request for proposals from the Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement set the course for Gumport's current research activities. It took three months to write the grant proposal for NCPI, with the help of some research assistants, the dean, and colleagues at other institutions. Gumport was drawn to the practical nature of the project: "It's not often that we get to do research that is going to have immediate policy implications. The request for proposals was very oriented to research that would improve productivity, efficiency and outcomes of higher education. They identified what they wanted, and I had to find a way to deliver that as well as to build in my own agenda and the agenda of my colleagues."

     When the five-year grant was awarded in February 1996, Gumport was in the position of essentially starting a small business, including designing a logo. The multi-paned window that adorns her business card and letterhead hints at NCPI's efforts to open up the traditional walls between higher education and its constituencies in the outside world. "It signifies a window where we can meet and frame discussions about higher ed research that wouldn't otherwise happen. With a mandate to do research for improvement, we try to expand the conventional boundaries for university research in order to better understand the needs of administrators, faculty, students, parents, employers and policymakers."

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