Looking Back to Look Forward

Founded in 1957, the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE) was intended to focus on "leadership and excellence" in the emergent discipline of higher education. Since then it has gained a national reputation, producing scholars and university administrators who have gone on to become leaders in their field. Michigan Education asked three retired CSHPE directors to reflect on what the center has accomplished since it broke ground, and how future generations might build on its legacy.

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Marvin Peterson (PhD '68), CSHPE Director 1976–1996

During the center's first decade, a practitioner-focused PhD program focused on training administrators who would fill high level positions in the rapidly growing higher education sector. However, starting in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the doctoral program, while maintaining its focus on “excellence and leadership,” shifted markedly toward a more scholarly PhD program.

Marvin Peterson
Marvin Peterson

One of the outcomes of this era was the focus on the study of higher education as a “complex social institution.” Higher education was to be viewed as such, and its study would not be descriptive or prescriptive, but rather draw on theory from the social and behavioral sciences. The four areas of concentration grew out of this perspective: organizational and administrative behavior (planning, governance, and administration); academic affairs (student, faculty, and curricular development); public policy (economics, finance, and politics); and institutional research (student, faculty, curricular, and financial). These four concentrations became the base for the curriculum. The courses would predominantly draw on theory and concepts from sociology, psychology, economics, political science, and history. All students were required to have the basic course in each of the four areas of concentration as well as an introductory proseminar and a course in history of higher education. The importance of this design is reflected in the fact that it served as a model for many other higher education programs around the country that were being introduced in the 1970s and ’80s.

To a greater or lesser degree, this focus and these curricular emphases are evident in today's PhD and master's programs. Over the years, as more doctoral graduates entered research and faculty positions, their influence on the field of higher education has expanded and is reflected in the design of—and their contributions to—other higher education programs.

Janet Lawrence (PhD '72), CSHPE Director 1996–2000

When the Center for Higher and Postsecondary Education was created with funding from the Carnegie Foundation, its mission was to prepare graduates who would shape the field of higher education, as administrators, researchers, policy makers, and faculty. The center’s accomplishments have always been benchmarked against this lofty goal. CSHPE has an impressive network of alumni/ae who provide guidance in many different areas of higher education, inside and outside the U.S. Throughout its history, the center has found ways to build with this resource network to enhance the preparation of graduates and the quality of higher education.

Janet Lawrence
Janet Lawrence

The field of higher education is constantly changing. Consequently, a persistent question is how the CSHPE can best utilize its network of graduates and associates to keep abreast of and address contemporary challenges in its teaching service and research? Over the years, the faculty has identified and anchored instruction in traditional core curricular areas (e.g., teaching and learning, policy, administration), monitored changes in higher education, and built out the core areas to address emergent issues. CSHPE needs to maintain its current depth and breadth in traditional areas of expertise while continuing to attract and support faculty work on matters of critical importance such as access, equity, and inclusion.

CSHPE is fortunate to be part of a university that values and supports interdisciplinary collaborative research and to have alumni/ae who teach specialized courses, facilitate the development of internships and doctoral research assistantships, and contribute in myriad ways to the center’s graduate education initiatives. Recently, connections are being forged between higher education and educational studies researchers who seek to strengthen outreach efforts from higher education to secondary schools, enhancing access for underserved groups of students. Creating and maintaining network relations continues to play a critical role in building the center’s future.

Patricia King, CSHPE Director 2003–2006

A key feature of CSHPE that may not be immediately apparent is that it is grounded in a deep belief in the value of multiple perspectives, especially multiple disciplinary perspectives. In the early years of the center, it was quite common for faculty in the program to have degrees in sociology, economics, business administration, and psychology rather than the then-nascent field of higher education. The center remains known for the breadth of expertise among its faculty that in turn supports the range of its academic concentration areas. Another example of the value of multiple perspectives is that a common question in classes and meetings is ‘What’s another perspective on this issue?’ Although institutional accomplishments are typically framed in terms such as influential research projects and their resulting policies and programs, I consider the resolve to maintain an interdisciplinary focus and the accompanying intellectual restlessness about the adequacy of our current perspectives to be a major contribution and accomplishment of the center.

Pat King with students
Patricia King

This broad approach to higher education in general and to scholarship and teaching in particular provides a strong foundation for the center’s future. Many issues facing higher education have come into sharp focus during the pandemic; these include the need to better address students’ financial, housing, and emotional needs; the importance of better understanding and improving campus climate and responses to local and national incidents targeting minoritized students; the need for different kinds of pedagogical training and research support for faculty at different points in their careers; and using technology effectively and responsibly in the service of institutional and community values. These issues require sustained scholarly and administrative attention and will be well served by addressing them from a range of perspectives and by having learned how to turn intellectual restlessness to productive scholarly, administrative, and personal ends.

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