Here is a guest post from George C. Wright, president of Prairie View A&M University, who will teach a 300-student lecture class this fall as a way to do his part on a campus beset with budget cuts.
We live in an amazing time in higher education. Technology, coupled with vision and innovation, has taken the world to new and exciting places. Universities are filled with students – traditional and non-traditional – who are eager to learn new things and apply their knowledge to their lives.
Presently, the excitement in academia is tempered with a sense of uneasiness. Visit any college campus across the country and you are likely to see and hear the casualties of an uncertain economic climate. None of us in higher education have been immune to making tough choices. These days, the practice of “do more with less” is the great equalizer that has made all universities similar in a variety of ways, regardless of location and stakeholders. It is a force that has been felt at Prairie View A&M University.
PVAMU is an HBCU - Historically Black College and University - outside of the Houston area. Just shy of 9,000 students, PVAMU boasts an established reputation for producing successful engineers, nurses and teachers. With humble beginnings 135 years ago as a training school for teachers, PVAMU has awarded more than 55,000 academic degrees throughout its rich history.
As president, I called upon administrators, faculty and staff to pitch in and do what was necessary to help the University sustain a 15 percent cut in operating funds. I asked them to take on more courses, teach more students and produce better outcomes with a little less. But in pointing out what they needed to do, I started thinking, “What am I going to do?”
Initially, I proposed a five percent decrease in salary for those in administration if the budget cuts came in higher than expected. Still not satisfied, I made the decision that I would head to the front lines and return to the classroom. This fall, I will be teaching American History to 300 students, which will be the largest class on campus.
I wanted to undertake this challenge as a cost-savings measure. By teaching all of these students in one single class (with the assistance of three graduate students), I will be teaching the equivalent of six classes. Several other administrators are also returning to the classroom, including Dr. E. Joahanne Thomas-Smith, our provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. This decision has invested us all in the objective of thriving through the toughest of economic times.
The prospect of returning to teaching elicits a multitude of feelings. As a scholar, I am presented with the opportunity to remain up-to-date on my discipline. I am anxious to challenge my students with insight into some of the most notable events in our nation’s history. I relish in the thought of reintroducing them to instruction that calls on them to listen, reflect and understand without the aid of PowerPoint presentations and handouts. The semester will afford me the welcome opportunity to interact with students on a more personal level.
I’ve been asked if I am anxious about instructing students after being out of the classroom for eleven years. Quite simply, I am nervous. There is no doubt that today’s students are a different breed. They thrive on quick, focused information delivered in the shortest time possible. They are constantly connected through social media and the ever-present Blackberries and iPhones. I want to challenge all of that. I want them to come in to my class, listen and interpret what they hear.
As an educator, I am well aware that even the best laid plans can be all for naught in a college classroom. Thought-provoking, perfectly designed lectures on the ramifications of the American Revolution can falter completely at the hands of faulty audio, flickering lights or a disruptive student. No matter the circumstances, in a classroom setting, every person in the room – from the professor to the students – is vested in the successful learning environment. I am eager to become part of that equation this fall.
Throughout my career, I have been honored to receive several accolades as a professor. But my teaching awards always made me apprehensive because I had to live up to what they stood for. I knew that I had to deliver and be effective beyond reasonable standards. I believe that when a university allows you to go into a classroom and lead students, you are being trusted with its most valuable commodity. I am looking forward to that feeling again.