BLUEFIELD, WV (LOOTPRESS) – The announcement was made on July 1, 2022 that Bluefield State College had officially made the transition to becoming accredited as Bluefield State University.
Many would understandably equate the arrival at such a milestone with the winning of the battle, as it were – and subsequently, might consider such an achievement to be cause for celebration, and perhaps even the breathing of a well-deserved sigh of relief.
Dr. Robin Capehart, doesn’t see victory in battle as the ultimate goal, however. The Bluefield State University President has his sights set on a more substantial conquest, that being the winning of the allegorical war – the war in question being that for the soul of higher education in this nation.
“We need accountability,” says Capehart, a cup of coffee and scant assortment of documents before him as he prepares to engage in an exchange exploring the shortcomings of higher learning in the modern day.
“We need to provide students, parents and employers with the assurance that we’re providing the most opportunity for the highest quality of education.”
The documents see little in the way of utilization on this, one of many dreary mornings in Southern West Virginia during the Summer of 2022. Rather, the WVU alumnus maintains eye contact for the bulk of the discussion, remaining conversational, listening intently when addressed.
The recent accreditation of the institution for which he serves as president has, naturally, attracted a fair amount of attention from media outlets. As such, this dialogue is likely one in which he has engaged a number of times at this juncture.
Nonetheless, the exchange doesn’t feel contrived. There’s an enthusiasm, a sincerity even, in Capehart’s delineation of the ways in which higher learning could potentially be improved upon that it’s hard not to believe that it comes from a place of humanity rather than one of enterprise.
Conducive to this line of thinking is that the things that the ideas being proposed not only make rational sense on a surface level, but can often be traced back to broader concepts best articulated by the great philosophers of the past – concepts which will generally reveal themselves organically to most anyone willing to be forthright with themselves in the navigation of the frequently turbulent journey of life.
In the case of the business at hand on this day, Capehart offers up a sentiment which many have considered themselves to one degree or another.
“You have parents and students who are starting to question the value of getting a college education,” he posits.
Indeed, it would appear that college students are graduating and moving into the professional world with seemingly little to no preparedness for such an endeavor at a staggering rate.
Illuminating a notable contrast between graduates of college and trade programs, Capehart is quick to acknowledge the almost non-existent rate at which graduates of the latter move into their chosen field of profession with a lack of facility to undertake the task at hand.
“That’s one thing about a lot of our professional education in this country is it does require competence,” he explains. “When you go into plumbing; when you go into electric; when you go into carpentry; you will not be certified until you are competent in that area – and in higher education, it used to be that way.”
It is the revival and reestablishment of this mindset and commitment which act as goalposts of sorts for the newly established academic mission of the newly accredited institution.
Reference is made to a piece of literature which has served as a basis of the intended academic overhaul of what is now Bluefield State University – that being Richard Arum’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a 2011 book which considers the effectiveness of higher learning institutions in the United States.
The findings of these considerations – which drew from several sources of data, including transcript data and survey responses from thousands of students from institutions across the country at multiple points – were referenced in the Bluefield State University press release announcing its accreditation, and were noted to be “significant – but not totally unexpected.”
Some of these findings included those of students entering college unprepared for higher learning, lacking academic commitment, devoting a more substantial amount of attention to nonacademic aspects of the college experience, and – perhaps most significantly – having mastered the “art of college management.”
This refers to (as can be found in the release) – “the student’s ability to navigate their way through the academic process with the least time and effort with the sole goal of receiving a degree – while in the meantime, relegating learning to a matter of happenstance.”
This sort of thinking can be applied to any circumstance which one believes to be necessary but not necessarily beneficial, and thus approaches with a degree of reluctance, effectively kneecapping any hope of walking away from the experience with any greater understanding of anything than when they came in.
This is why, particularly with younger children, an empathetic, connection-centric approach is often more effective in conveying ideas or in evoking a desired reaction than is an approach rooted in intimidation or rank.
Human beings naturally internalize knowledge at a considerably more effective rate when they are engaged in the process. When that engagement is taken off the proverbial table, the process itself becomes a transaction, and generally an exercise in labor for all parties involved.
This issue often occurs at an early age, which is where the root of the problem being faced in higher learning today takes hold.
Students begin their mastery of the “art of college management,” or in this case, the art of academic management, very early on, systematically, yet often subconsciously, developing intricate methodologies of being able to account for having developed certain competencies without actually having done so.
While skating by with a C- on an exam unquestionably sounds more practical to an eleven year old than does delegating focus to the unraveling of what appear to be perplexing conceptual ideas, in doing so, an integral piece of the student’s educational foundation simply goes unaccounted for moving forward.
Students become more adept at this process over time, methodically avoiding the most challenging bits of the educational process all the way through high school, then graduating with with academic foundations so unstable and inadequate that any attempt to properly furnish them (in the case of this metaphor, the furnishing would refer to college education) would result in the property falling in on itself.
So how is this allowed to continue? Are educators not in place for the express purpose of preventing this sort of thing from occurring?
Certainly our professors cannot be attesting to the academic adequacy of students who have employed this very approach throughout their own college careers, right? The answer is a bit more complicated, and like most things in our society, comes down to dollars and cents.
“Colleges and universities [have] become so financially dependent upon enrollment that they [have] become ‘willing enablers’ of these students by sacrificing academic rigor,” Capehart says.
Ironically, it is this statistics-based, instant-results centered thinking by which the students themselves become engaged in these cycles of accountability diversion.
And much like the quandary faced by the students, when institutions concern themselves more with the illusion of effectiveness than with the actual work of imparting knowledge, the proverbial foundation will inevitably fall in on itself.
As such, Dr. Capehart has taken it upon himself to initiate the process of shattering those cycles, reorienting focus of educators and students alike back to the business of learning.
“We need engaging instruction,” he asserts. “[Instruction] that maximizes the interaction between the instructor and the student, thus, maximizing the chances for a successful learning outcome.”
“I do not think we should have a student walk across the stage and get their diploma unless we have a high degree of certainty that they’re competent, and that’s what we want to be known for.”
This process will involve, not only ensuring the preparedness of students for graduation from college, but also the preparedness of new students to engage in the academic experience of college altogether. This, explains Capehart, has little to do with intellectual facility as much as willingness and ambition to grow and learn.
“Students enter college with varying degrees of readiness – and some with little readiness at all” he declares. “That’s okay. They’re our students. We’ll make them ready. As long as they have the heart and desire to learn. That’s all we need.”
This, of course, will be no simple task, and will drive away a number of students who lack the aforementioned desire to learn.
“It’ll be a challenge,” Capehart says overtly. “It’s a challenge for our Board; a challenge for our administrators; a challenge for our faculty; a challenge for our staff; and a challenge for our students.”
“We choose to become a great university focused not just on credentials, but on actual learning – not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard,” he affirms, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy.
“Because our goal of producing learned students will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
It is by this sentiment he intends to guide the institution into a new era in which faculty and students are glad to make the investment toward a more substantial and worthwhile future.
In closing with verbiage lifted from Bluefield State’s own accreditation announcement, “let the future begin.”
To learn more about Bluefield State University and their mission and commitment to becoming the region’s leading institution of higher education, visit the Bluefield State website.