Skip to content

Conversation #38: Belle Wheelan on the Future of Higher Education

Download Conversation #38

Belle Wheelan

A conversation with Dr. Belle Wheelan of SACS/COC on teaching, learning, accreditation and the future of higher education.

The more educated a citizenry is, then the more tolerance we have, the more acceptance we have, because there's a better understanding, greater chances of world peace. It sounds hokey, but the reality is when we start helping people understand differences rather than fearing them and therefore hating them because we don't understand them, then I think the world becomes a better place — and it is faculty who do that. Irrespective of the mission of the college, it is still faculty who share that knowledge, impart that knowledge, explain that knowledge, so that people do have a better understanding and are different people than they were when they entered that environment.


Dr. Todd: Hi I’m J. Todd associate director of the center of advancement in teaching and learning at Xavier University of Louisiana. Today I’m speaking with Dr. Belle Wheelan who since 2005 served as president of the southern association of colleges and schools commission oncologist, commonly referred to as SACS COC. She is the first African American and female to work in this capacity. Over the past 40 years, Dr. Wheelan has worked her way up the academic ladder, beginning as a professor of psychology, the dean and college president. In 2001 after establishing an impressive reputation as the president of northern Virginia community college, she was asked by Gov. Mark Warren to serve as secretary of education for the common wealth of Virginia. Dr. Wheelan received her Ph.D in educational administration from the University of Texas, her M.A in developmental education from LSU and her B.A from Trinity University with a double major in psychology and sociology. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the john hope award for outstanding leadership in higher education, and the terriot prize for the lead in education and community colleges. We really appreciate you taking a few minutes out of your busy schedule to talk to us. I thought I would start with a question or ask you to define the purpose of the accreditation process in higher education to a faculty member that sees it as busy work?

Dr. Wheelan: Well thank you for giving me the opportunity. Accreditation has been around for a long time. Our association has been around since 1892. There are three reasons we go through accreditation in the first place, one is to help the institution improve. We come in once every ten years to see how you are doing. We come back in ten years to see how you have improved. We have a report in there for the second reason for accreditation and that is to help the public feel good about coming to your institution. There is indeed value. It is an opportunity for people to better their lives. And the third reason being to have access to federal aid in order to pull of the first two. Faculty are vital to the accreditation process because they teach the students. So we expect them to identify the expectation of their students as a result of attending their institution. We call thoughs student learning outcomes. For every academic program we ask faculty to tell us what do they expect their students to do when they leave you with a degree. Then how do you know if they have earned thoughs skills. And so we ask them to assess the skill levels of the students. And then the thirst thing is what kind of changes you are making to ensure you are improving and students are getting better. We want to make sure there is value added to the students life as a result of having attended that institution.

Dr. Todd: thank you! If I can kind of flip just a little. Because our main audience is Xavier faculty but we hope that people also interested in faculty development will also tune in. Is there a certain value that faculty can get out of the accreditation process?

Dr. Wheelan: Oh sure! By gathering data to see at what level are the students preforming today, it adds value so that they can go back and say he I didn’t quite explain that well enough or maybe I can find better examples to help the students learn better. Because the process itself is peer review, then you have people from like institutions to say that’s working but here’s something eles that may also work. So there is a consultative piece to help faculty know if what they are doing is working.

Dr. Todd: Great thanks! This next one isn’t so much a question but a statement that I hope you can reply to. SACS defines learning as a change in students’ knowledge, skills, behaviors, and values. These days many faculty get worried about what’s called the professionalization of education in which job readiness becomes the sole outcome. And it often seems that that the very definition of education is shifting to focus on more on skills development.

Dr. Wheelan: I have this argument all the time with people outside of higher Ed because there is no doubt there is a need for people to fill jobs. Our nation will lose its position of national prominence if we don’t continue to have people in positions to move into the jobs of tomorrow. Some of thoughs jobs unlike when we came out college require minimum skills. Many more of thoughs jobs exist today more than ever. And so because of the way our higher education is organized, after high school the only place to go to get thoughs skill sets is to college. But I tell liberal arts faculty all the time, students still need to know how to read, and write, and think critically, all of the things in which a traditional liberal arts education requires. So don’t give up on the liberal arts education just because we got this major need economically to stay strong by having people move into the work force. One way to help that is to talk to faculty in other disciplines. If you are teaching a philosophy or English course go talk to the science department and say hey how can we work together to ensure students understand where this science or history started to see the actability of how it started in today’s world. So that team teaching approach is very much relevant today so that students can see I may not have to sit in a separate class but I can do team taught classes to see relevance between the two processes.

Dr. Todd: So you see the multidisciplinary or the interdisciplinary teaching as a direct…

Dr. Wheelan: Yes! Definitely. And just because I’m going into a computer science or plumbing for that matter does not mean that I am not going to have to write a written report so that a client understands or I’m not going to have to explain to my customer what I did. Thoughs skills are still necessary and either students take courses in though strategies or we find ways to include thoughs strategies in thoughs application course.

Dr. Todd: Are there ways to help change the public perception of the need for…?

Dr. Wheelan: Yes! Having to work with employers all the time is certainly important. You complain on one hand that you just want them to be able to work and plumb but then you complain about how they can’t talk or teach. Make up your mind. Tell us what you really want. And they do want employees than can think of strategies without supervision and who can work in teams and explain whatever the process is. But they also see making money is knowing how to do whatever the specific area is. And they need to admit if they want both.

Dr. Todd: And that kind of leads into the primary question I had in mind, where do you really see higher education evolving in the next ten years?

Dr. Wheelan: I think that because there is such a need…well my story is always this: one we did not prepare for the impact technology was going to have. We did not know it was going to eliminate the many jobs people had and used to be able to hold that job and make a living for their family without a college degree. Thoughs jobs don’t exists anymore. At least 80% of the jobs out there now require some kind of training beyond high school. May generation didn’t have as many children as my mother’s generation did so we don’t have as many people coming into college. So it’s imperative that everybody be skill ready. And a large percentage of people in the work force are old farts like me who want to get out of the work force very soon so that has caused a bubble that has created panic in this country that we will not be able to keep up with our international competes because we don’t have people ready to go into thoughs jobs. So because of that fear and that anxiety, we are trying to find ways to get people trained well enough to get a job and then come back to get a college degree where historically it’s been the other way around. You get the college degree and then you go into these jobs. And so when sisco first came out, with certifications you can take levels A, B, C, and start working and then promoted because of that, well many more career fields are doing the same thing. So you have badges and competency education to give people who already have thoughs skill sets credit for having that knowledge without having to take a class. So I think we are going to continue to have thoughs innervations. So what you have now is a new tapestry for life preparation with the traditional bachelor’s degree being one option now but now we have a slew of options we never had before. So now traditional higher Ed is now having to try and find a way to ensure that it still has students to enroll. Many more adults programs and online programs are surfacing because we have to go where the majority of people are and the majority of students in higher Ed today are over 25 years old. They are not 18-22 years old anymore.

Dr. Todd: What can the individual faculty member do to prepare for participation in…

Dr. Wheelan: Well I think there are different strategies for teaching adults and traditional 18-21 year olds. 18 year old are just coming out of high school where they had to ask for a bathroom pass. And now we expect them to be grown. And then you have 25 year olds are indeed grown and bringing life experiences with them. So spending the same kind of time in knowledge is different. The access of the internet is…when I started as a faculty member, we had to share more basic knowledge because it was harder to get to know. Now people can get on the internet and find terms and explanations. So students are taking a role to find information on their own. So faculty roles have changed to now the facilitator of learner.  

Dr Todd: So when you hear terms like, the flipped classroom, or problem based learning. All of thoughs are kind of hot terms.

Dr. Wheelan: I think that they are real. Because students are older coming in they are bringing a body of knowledge with them that 18 year olds typically don’t have coming in, faculty don’t have to spend as much time giving that basic information. They focus on how they use that information. Competency education has been around for a very long time but not to the extent where you can get a whole college degree. I think all of thoughs forces have converted upon each other and it does impact teaching faculty. And it’s more about the so what question rather than the information sharing question.

Dr. Todd: Do you think all of that applies across the board even to minority intuition, HBCU’s?

Dr. Wheelan: Without a doubt! The challenge that many HBCU’s have that the students coming to them often times are not as well prepared academically. And so there is still a great deal of basic information sharing or the development of skills to teach them to go find that information that institutions with selective admission or you have students who are accustomed to being that old traditional student, would have. I think the challenges are greater because you have to establish skill sets and study skills and library searches that students didn’t bring with them. You have that extra student support that many students coming into our HBCU’s need. But I think that same principle applies that once you can get them orientated in performing in college, then you have the so what question to ask that still makes them responsible for seeking out their own knowledge so when they come to class, they will be able to respond to the actability of the knowledge the faculty ask for.

Dr. Todd: One often criticism and this kind of brings us back to accreditation, but is that the accreditation system can make people fearful of innovation because it would be a violation if we innovate.

Dr. Wheelan: And you know what, I really don’t know where that paranoia comes from, I really don’t. Because all we ask that if you are going to do something differently just let us know. And I understand there are many hoops you must jump if this is brand new, but I don’t know any innovated idea that we have came across that we have turned down. So I don’t know where this fear of we can’t do something different came from. We used to have over 400 criteria that were extremely rigid and prescriptive and in 2002, we changed that to the basic principles. So we have gone from being extremely prescriptive to being extremely non-prescriptive. And it leaves open many doors for innovations. So it boggles my mind when I hear someone say we can’t be innovated. When distance learning came in we had standards that we developed to make institutions easier to work through. We don’t stop innovation but it may not happen automatically. But then is higher Ed, nothing happens automatically.

Dr. Todd: and two things that are going on that are kind of topics at Xavier are interdisciplinary and that the fact of the development in the CAT plus office focusing a lot on the flip classroom. In both of thoughs, would they require us to explain when we got two people in the classroom or when we are putting all the content learning in the flip classroom outside and kind of shifting the balance of contact hours.

Dr. Wheelan: All of higher Ed is based traditionally on 3 semester hour courses. If you do anything differently we need to understand it. So if you have two faculty members teaching in the same course, we want to be assured that both of them are qualified to teach whatever they are teaching. That has never changed. We just need to know that they are qualified. We used to say they had to have a master’s degree and 18 hours of what they were teaching. We got rid of that requirement in 2002, though you wouldn’t know it because some institutions have chosen to retain that requirement but that’s not what we say. You tell us why you think this person is qualified to teach this course and it could be because of certificates they have obtained or awards received or evaluations. So there’s a lot of grey compared to the black and white we used to have but our goal is never to say no. Our goal is for you explain it to us and as long as it makes sense for a collegian level course, then you’ll get no arguments from me.

Dr. Todd: Thank You! Do you see a push for free public education?

Dr. Wheelan: I think it would be wonderful if we could have free education for all. I don’t think it’s realistic given that we legislators both state and federal that won’t raise taxes to create the revenue for free college. But yeah, I think it would be magnificent if we can do that. There are other countries that students have free education. I think that attendance prominence is showing it is a great idea but they don’t have many new people coming into the system as a result of it. So I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I think it’s a start to talk about the first two years of college being free because of the strong need for people in the work force, the original proposal was for the first two years of community college to be free plus community college tuition is less expensive than any other part of higher Ed. But if your goal is to get more educated folks and finances are a part of that especially for adults who have families and jobs who can’t go away to college but want to do distance programs that cost money then yeah let’s do this for everybody to come in the first two years.

Dr. Todd: Do you have any final thoughts on where education is going?

Dr. Wheelan: Yes! I think the more educated a citizenry is the more tolerance we have, the more acceptances we have of people, because there is a better understanding. Greater chances of world peace. The reality of is when we start to understand differences instead of fearing them, then I think the world becomes a better place. And it is faculty that do that and share that knowledge so that people have a better understanding before they entered that environment. I miss being a faculty member. I applaud your faculty and wish them nothing but the best.

Dr. Todd: Thank you! It’s like I said before it’s the change. I thank you for taking the time out to speak to us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.