Commentary
9:59 am
Mon April 8, 2013

Murray State Professor Issues "Observations" of BOR Committee Report on University Progress

Fred Miller
Fred Miller
Credit MSU

In response to an Open Records request, Murray State’s Board of Regents has released the ad hoc report upon which Regents based their decision not to renew President Randy Dunn’s contract.  That report contains some data that is also part of our SACS reaccreditation process, which is entering its most critical period.  If this report is credible and sufficiently negative to justify non-renewal of the President’s contract, it could have a direct, substantial and negative impact on our reaccreditation effort. 

Several news outlets have identified gaps and shortcomings in the ad hoc report. There are additional difficulties with the data in that report that should be noted.

  1. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) Web site clearly states, “NSSE does not support the use of student engagement results for the purpose of ranking colleges and universities.” (http://nsse.iub.edu/_/?cid=304) Yet the ad hoc report includes just such rankings of Kentucky institutions.  No longitudinal data or relevant national norms are reported.  Thus, the report uses NSSE data inappropriately to rank institutions and, beyond that, to influence the University’s most important personnel decision.
     
  2. One Murray State value in the NSSE, the Level of Academic Challenge value of 54.7, which is 3.3 points below the national median, is, at first blush, the most disturbing number in the entire ad hoc report.  However deeper exploration alleviates that concern.  The questions summarized in this measure focus heavily on the number of assigned text books and the number of individual written assignments completed in each respondent’s senior year. 

    Many of our programs, especially our professional programs, use collaborative team-based projects with written reports and oral presentations, often for organizational clients in the community, instead of individual written papers in senior level courses. Faculty in these courses provide high levels of supervision and support to student teams.

    If students in these courses respond accurately to NSSE questions, the values in the Level of Academic Challenge scale will decrease, while the values in the Active and Collaborative Learning and Student-Faculty Interaction scales will increase. And, indeed, Murray State’s values on the latter two scales are above the national medians. In fact, the magnitude by which our Student-Faculty Interaction score exceeds the national median is the greatest of any score by any institution on any scale in the reported data.  So, taken as a whole, these measures do not indicate lack of academic rigor at Murray State but rather a deliberate shift to more active, collaborative learning grounded in extensive student-faculty interaction.
     
  3. These measures have significance beyond their academic impact, in that this approach to professional education serves Dr. Dunn’s Strategic Imperatives of Excellence through Quality (closely supervised student projects), Outreach with Partnerships (for client organizations) and Innovation for Impact (which emphasize relevant professional skills).  These, in turn, support the Board’s Strategic Directions by creating “distinctive academic programming and superior educational …. experiences.”  In this context they render questionable the assertion in Part III of the report that Dr. Dunn is not committed to pursuing the Board’s Strategic Directions.
     
  4. The NSSE Student-Faculty Interaction and Supportive Campus Environment measures reflect very positive student perceptions of the Murray State experience.  So does the endorsement of the Murray State News and the results of the most recently published Senior Survey (2011) in which 96% of 727 graduating seniors agree or strongly agree that they “would recommend Murray State University to a prospective student.”  Though current students were surveyed on their perceptions of Dr. Dunn’s leadership, the results of that survey are not provided in the ad hoc report.  Nor are any other measures of student assessment of Dr. Dunn’s presidency.  While the most recent large scale student survey has not been released, it is very important to note that the ad hoc report contains no data which reflects student dissatisfaction with Murray State University or President Dunn.
     
  5. The issue of online courses relative to extended campus students was mentioned in the session. The ad hoc report indicates that across four campuses the number of extended campus students fell from 2,728 in 2006 to 2,373 in 2012, a decrease of 355 students, or 13%.  In that same time frame, online course enrollments increased from about 3,900 (estimate from a graph in the CEAO Annual Report) to 7,774, an increase of 3,874 or 99%.  

    In 2012, extended campus students took an average of 2.25 courses each.  If the 355 students who would otherwise have attended classes at an extended campus took 2.25 online courses each, they would account for 799 online enrollments or 20.6% of the total increase in online enrollments.  Simply put, if less than one in five marginal online enrollments were taken by these potential extended campus students, service to our extended campuses has decreased.  If that rate is more than one in five, service to those campuses has increased.

    Given the reporting limitations described by the Board Chair, it is impossible to determine which of these scenarios is true.  Thus it is impossible to determine whether online classes have resulted in an increase or decrease of service to extended campus students.  However, the ad hoc report includes only the data which overstates the potential decrease and excludes the data which overstates the potential increase. This is an unusual approach to data analysis.
     
  6. The ad hoc report includes two values for Murray State’s Freshman-Sophomore retention rate, 81.7% in 2006 and 70.0% in 2012, but provides no detailed longitudinal or comparative data for this measure.  Nor does it report the rate for retention within the system (freshmen transferring to other Kentucky institutions). I was unable to locate 2012 data, but in the 2010 CPE report Murray State’s on-campus retention rate was 68.8%, which trailed only UK and Louisville among Kentucky institutions.  An additional 7% of MSU freshmen in Fall 2009 were still enrolled in Kentucky schools in Spring 2010.  Since the CPE has consistently pushed institutions to ease the process of course transfer between them, a decline in the same-institution number since 2006 is hardly surprising.  Nor do the measures for 2010 reveal any MSU weakness relative to sister institutions.  The numbers in the ad hoc report are clearly incomplete and, as a result, misleading.

The observations above offer no great new insight into the ad hoc report.  Indeed they are exactly the kinds of perceptions that would arise were Regents given the opportunity to discuss their perspectives on the report with each other in public session.  The fact that they did not do so, for whatever reason, weakens the credibility of their individual positions and the validity of their collective decision.  Given the potential impact of this report on our SACS reaccreditation process, Regents would serve the institution well by engaging in this discussion.

Dr. Fred Miller is the Thomas Hutchens Distinguished Professor of Marketing and Business GIS at Murray State University.