Every week, the Daily Texan Editorial team will sit down with a campus or community figure to ask them about issues related to students. These conversations, edited and condensed for clarity, will run in the paper every Monday. This Monday, our Q&A is with senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management David Laude. Laude has served as a professor in the department of chemistry at UT-Austin and a senior associate dean in the College of Natural Sciences. As a vice provost, Laude currently leads the 360 connections initiative, an effort to get freshmen involved on campus by connecting them with a small group of fellow freshmen with similar interests.
Daily Texan: What kinds of organizations will be involved with 360 connections and what is the goal of this initiative?
David Laude: [The incoming freshman class] is this sort of living, 7,000 student-ish sort of entity. It’s organic. It breathes. And the question is, how do you take that thing and get it to feel like all of its vectors are going in the same direction at the same time, whether it’s toward graduating in four years or toward rooting for UT at a football game. Well, [the University] figured out how to get students to show up and cheer for UT at a football game. The question is, how can you get students to rally around the idea of supporting each other in being successful? The only way you can do that is if everybody’s doing it. And so the idea behind 360 connections is that if you take a 7,200-person freshman class and you divide it into the number of seats in a typical seminar room, which is about 20, you go back and you get 360 opportunities for a student to sit in a room surrounded by peers who share several of their interests. And, then, with some sort of adult or some sort of peer, these students address issues that matter to them, first semester freshmen. All first semester freshmen, no matter where they come from or what they do, want to build community. They want to get to know faculty, they want to bleed orange. They want to sort out who they are in terms of their identity and what they want to be. So that’s what 360 connections is intended to do: take 7,200 kids and get them all to go to exactly a certain place at a certain time.
DT: And that certain place at a certain time is commencement four years from now?
DL: No. In this particular case, we want them at a certain place in a certain time each week. So, you can imagine having a spreadsheet of 360 different boxes and into each of those you put 20 students. Well, nobody has ever done a really great job of corralling our students to get them to go places. I mean, our registrar’s office is able to do it, but you see students changing courses all the time and it gets kind of crazy. What makes this easier is that we’ve been working towards this as faculty and advisors and administrators for years because of creating First-Year Interest Groups, signature courses, honors programs. All of these groups already make use of the idea that you meet once a week for an hour in small groups. So, when we went out there and looked, we found that 5,000 or 6,000 of our students were already doing this. So, working with the FIG office and the School of Undergraduate Studies, we began the process of saying, "can we make sure that every student has this opportunity?"
One of the first things we realized was that we hadn’t reached out to the non-academic side of things, to the Vice President of Student Affairs. Their office also has hundreds of communities that they’ve built, whether it’s the wing of a residence hall or a leadership group or a group that shares a certain sort of cultural identity. So, now we have 360 different communities. They exist. They have a room that they go to each week. And we will be asking every one of our students to identify one of those groups and go be a part of it.
DT: In terms of making this initiative happen, what does that look like for you on a day-to-day basis?
DL: The usual sort of metaphor is herding cats. It’s this idea that you’ve got 7,200 students that you have to ask to show up in a certain place at a certain time knowing that they know that showing up is, on a certain level, optional. But it’s only optional to the extent that it’s also optional to go to a football game and cheer for UT or it’s only optional to graduate in four years. There are certain expectations that you have that, if done right, make the University work better. Everybody knows that if you love your university, if you’re committed to it, then it’s going to be a better place for everyone. We’re trying to build that message through constant reinforcement.
DT: So your challenge is to set expectations that weren’t there before?
DL: I think that when you read the task force on four-year graduation rates report, they talked about a culture change. And that is really what this is.
DT: How do you counter the idea that some students want to stay in college because they should get more credentials, another major, another class, something to make them more valuable to the workforce? How do you fight that? And do you need to?
DL: So, I’m going to take off my four-year graduation rate champion perspective and put it more in the context of where I see education going. We’re getting to a place where a three-hour credit-bearing course has really lost a lot of the specific value that we associated with it for the purpose of awarding a degree. This fluidity of course credit with the availability of online courses is such that you’ve got high school sophomores earning college course credit. You’ve got 78-year-olds earning college course credit. So, at that point, as you spill on out over the generations, what is this sort of four-year thing? It’s a thing because there’s a tradition that exists. Right now, four is what we think. Taking it one step further, since I work here at UT-Austin, I have to think, what should a four-year experience here on campus look like? I know it should not be 40 online classes that you take from your bed over in West Campus. That makes the campus we’re on irrelevant.
I can earn three hours of credit by logging on and clicking some buttons for a few weeks. Or, I can earn three hours of credit for working in somebody’s laboratory for two years and publishing a paper in Science. Those both get me three hours of credit. Isn’t that ridiculous? Now, at that point, having devalued the notion that credit is what matters, I can replace it with a whole new construct for higher education. I can say, yes there’s a 40-hour core. But more importantly, how is that student evolving? What kind of community did that student build while on this campus? What kind of intellectual experience did they have while on this campus? I’d rather at some point have that be the way we define a UT-Austin education.
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