Forum for Excellence and Innovation in Higher Education

The Forum for Excellence in Higher Education brings together a select group of thirteen outstanding colleges and universities. Each is committed to ongoing efforts to strengthen their undergraduate's experience, and American higher education more broadly, in new ways.

What is the Forum?

The Forum for Excellence in Higher Education brings together a select group of thirteen outstanding colleges and universities – some of the best in the nation. Each is committed to ongoing efforts to strengthen their undergraduates’ experience, and American higher education more broadly, in new ways. Participants have been meeting repeatedly at a series of two-day intensive sessions called “Executive Sessions.” 

Each participating campus is actively exploring how to help their students to maximize the quality and value of their precious time at college. To accomplish this goal, the Foundation gave each college a small grant to develop two focused, new initiatives for students. We call these, simply, ‘innovations.’ A special feature of this Forum is that working collegially, and learning from one another, each college rigorously assesses and evaluates the impact of their innovations on undergraduate learning and success. The ultimate goal is to build innovations with measurably successful outcomes into the fabric of campus life. In the end, this Forum has two main goals. One is the obvious one: that each campus’s students will benefit. The second goal is to share each campus’s ‘learnings’ with many other campuses, and this will be achieved in part by having, on March 14th, 2009, an open Forum with invited leaders of 25 other colleges joining our Forum to hear about which innovations worked, which didn’t, and how we learned about these results.

The Forum meets at Harvard University, one of the participating campuses, where all the participating campuses share their ideas regularly. The Forum is led both by Professor Richard Light at Harvard, and by Dr. Michael McPherson, President of The Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College.

The Forum as a Vehicle to Facilitate Colleges as “Learning Organizations.”

The words “learning organization” increasingly are used to describe this process of innovation and evaluation. One way to think about this Forum is as an ongoing vehicle over several years to help a group of campuses that are already strong, including the host campus, to become even more effective “learning organizations.”

One critical feature for our Forum from its outset has been its emphasis on an evidenced-based search for ways to implement continuing improvements in learning and engagement for students. A second critical feature is the question of ‘sustainability.’ When a campus figures out how to do something new and to do it well so students learn more, or benefit in other ways, how can such ‘learnings’ become sustained on that campus? How can successful innovations become embedded in the ‘fabric’ of a campus so it continues after its original creation as a new idea? At the Executive Sessions, Forum members have been interacting vigorously across campuses for three years and discussing these points. They exchange their ideas for new initiatives. They hear about empirical findings, as such findings emerge, from senior leaders at other campuses. They learn from one another. The campuses participate because they share a thirst for systemic and evidence-based ways to innovate, to enhance students’ learning and growth, and to build on their existing strengths.

Who are the participants?

The Forum has invited three senior participants from each of thirteen campuses.

Amherst Haverford Olin College
Bowdoin Harvard Wellesley
Davidson M.I.T. Williams
Duke Macalester
Georgetown Middlebury

What are Key Topics and Innovations: Some Concrete Examples.

Forum members are initiating and sharing new ideas for innovations that explore an enormous variety of questions about students’ experiences on campuses. A few examples: Williams College is developing a “diversity in science” initiative that trains upper-class students, juniors and seniors, as peer mentors in basic science courses. One goal is to increase engagement with science among students from underrepresented minority groups. Amherst has created an “Academic Peer Mentor Program,” to enhance the number of options that students have when they seek advice at college. Bowdoin has revamped its freshmen writing program, to try a variety of new ideas and then to assess each piece of their program to see which pieces help students to improve the most. Davidson has also developed a new way of organizing its writing program for students. Duke has been working to strengthen a ‘culture of research’ among undergraduates, with special emphasis on economics, public policy, and sociology. They are finding that the proportion of students writing an honors thesis has nearly doubled in the past three years as a result of these efforts. Georgetown is working to capitalize on the experiences of students who study or go abroad for a term, and to figure out ways that the entire campus, and other students, can benefit from the learnings and the experiences of those who actually went.

Harvard has developed a series of small, not-for-credit discussion groups for freshmen to consider in depth some questions that most formal classes don’t cover, such as ‘what does it mean to live a good life?’ Nearly 200 students signed up for this non-credit series of small group discussions, led by faculty volunteers. Middlebury has developed interdisciplinary seminars that combine faculty members from the arts and also from sciences. They especially have been focusing on answering the question of when these interdisciplinary courses work well for students, and when they don’t work so well, with their conclusions based on solid assessment data.

How Well Do the Findings from these Campuses Generalize to Other Campuses?

We do not yet really know the answer to this important question. The emphasis of all the Forum’s work is on strengthening undergraduate education. Yet the obvious diversity among “types of institutions” is intentional. Notice that participants include four major research universities, eight distinguished liberal arts colleges, and uniquely, one “start-up” Engineering College (Olin). By including different kinds and sizes of institutions among the participants, and choosing thirteen that have already demonstrated a commitment to excellence for undergraduates, we hope the robustness of findings from this group will be strengthened.

Who benefits from this Forum on Excellence and Innovation? A Grande Finale to the Forum on Excellence that will Include 25 Guest Campuses.

There are at least two beneficiaries. First are the thirteen participating institutions. Each has had a continuing opportunity to engage with other campuses in an ongoing search for constantly better ways to enhance learning, and the overall campus experiences of their students. Rigor of evaluations has been a core hallmark of The Forum.

A second group of beneficiaries should be other strong campuses, who can ideally benefit from what participating campuses have learned over the past three years. Therefore, to see how well the new ideas and findings about the effectiveness of those new ideas for enhancing student learning and student success generalize to other campuses, the Forum will be inviting leaders of 25 other strong campuses to join our Final Session on March 14, 2009. At this session, a series of Panels will be presenting what they tried on their campus that was new, how exactly they assessed the impact of what they did, and finally what they learned about what works well and what does not work so well. We also will hear the results from a related project that is exploring whether for some campuses, just working to develop two innovations, and then rigorously evaluating their effectiveness for students, has or has not ‘changed that campus’s ‘culture.’

Thus in March of 2009, nearly 40 campuses will hear specific examples, stories of success, and some stories of hopes that resulted in disappointment. A key theme of our Forum sessions has been that no one expects all of the innovations on all campuses to succeed. If that happened, it would be astonishing. Inevitably campuses will find that some new ideas work well, and others don’t. What makes this Forum special is that such conclusions are based on rigorous assessment, rather than hunches and good intentions. The goal for this final session is that all the campuses, both Forum participants and the 25 guests who will be leaders from other colleges, will have an opportunity to learn collegially from the results of one another’s experiments, and systematic assessments of whether or not outcomes and the college experience have improved for students.