Friday, November 17, 2023

Building a Strong Foundation: UAGC Deans Fostering Durable Skills in Higher Education

 Bill Davis, Program Chair, Department of Organizational Studies, Sally Deckard, Faculty Support and Classroom Consultant

In this issue of the UAGC Chronicle, we focus on the UAGC student critical goal to offer high-value credentials with marketable skills. Leading this charge for the College of Arts and Sciences and Forbes School of Business and Technology® are Dean Tony Farrell and Dean Maja Zelihic. Recently, Bill Davis, Program Chair of the BA in Operational Management and Analysis, and Sally Deckard, Faculty Support and Classroom Consultant, sat down with these two UAGC leaders to discuss how this goal is addressed in their respective colleges and the vision for the future, moving forward as fully integrated into The University of Arizona.

Bill Davis: For our first question, please share your college’s approach to providing high-value credentials with marketable skills to enhance our UAGC students’ employability.

Maja Zelihic: In partnership with Forbes Media, we educate professionals who want to gain those cutting-edge skills to move up within their companies or change their career paths. To achieve this, the majority of our programs are informed by an industry advisory board that connects us with those in the industry to ensure our programs cover the necessary theoretical basis framework, which is essential and also focuses on the skills necessary for UAGC students to advance. We are striving to create a quality academic experience that promotes decision-making, negotiation, and critical thinking. If we teach these required skills, no matter the marketplace or industry, our students can apply themselves well. We continually check with experts in the field to confirm that we are teaching our students what they need to know and what employers are looking for while paying attention to the educational landscape, lifelong learning, and essential areas of focus depending on a desired career path.

Tony Farrell: The exciting thing about this critical goal is that, in the College of Arts and Sciences, we have gone through a vetting process of our programs for current alignment with industry standards related to programmatic standards and the skills we can demonstrate through our programs. Our academic leaders, especially Program Chairs, have gone through this vetting process. As a result, we now have a roadmap for current and future programs. When students leave our institution, we want to ensure they have a degree that translates to employability. That is what this critical goal addresses. We want to bridge the gap between a degree, employment, and, ultimately, a career. We are unique because our faculty are practitioners who bring a wealth of knowledge from the workplace. They can provide students with much-needed insight and knowledge about specific programs, degrees, and careers through their desire to give back.

BD: How do you see UAGC faculty and staff as contributing to the value of these credentials so students experience optimal learning opportunities and gain valuable, marketable skills?

MZ: Our faculty are practitioners first and foremost. For example, I recently tasked Assistant Deans with soliciting the experience levels of our faculty. We have former CEOs, CIOs, folks running divisions in their industries, business owners, and researchers across the world. One of our instructors owns numerous patents. These people are innovators, and as they are teaching students specific skills, they are not just taking everything out of the textbooks. What they are teaching is based on their experience in the industry.

TF: Looking at specific programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, we have a very eclectic group of programs; in these programs, we have this group of content experts. Our faculty can bridge that area from the degree to the actual career. Our faculty can support our curriculum by providing real-world examples and looking at case studies, course readings, and assignments, and they translate that to the world of work. Our faculty are the most critical individuals when it comes to supporting our students to optimize these learning opportunities.

BD: Durable skills, also known as “power or soft skills,” are essential for success in the workplace. These skills include communicating effectively, adapting to changing industries, demonstrating leadership, displaying emotional intelligence, and creatively engaging in collaboration and critical thinking. How do UAGC degree programs and courses provide students with the technical and durable skills to succeed in today’s job market?

MZ: The old way of thinking was that we needed to cover everything content-wise and give students “the meat on the bones” of the course, and unfortunately, we neglected skills that today one would consider essential. For example, in revising the MBA program, the faculty felt strongly about including exercises such as having students do an elevator pitch and setting up a LinkedIn profile. We have included gaming, where our students are doing simulations. Some of these simulations are based on unique input provided by the student, so no student will have the same experience, and within the class, students will share their experiences. Through this process, students practice decision-making, negotiation, and critical thinking skills, which replicate an actual business environment. We are teaching students to assess the variables and make the best decision based on those circumstances. Just like in the real business world, you may not get the ideal situation, and you make the best decision based on what you have.

TF: The student journey at UAGC starts with GEN101, and we begin developing these soft or durable skills there. The skills are intentionally built into the curriculum, especially when we think about our GEN ED sequence, which supports student mastery of these skills within the scope of their degree. We don’t expect students to come to UAGC with these skills; we introduce, reinforce, and promote the mastery of these skills. Our faculty coach, mentor, and support students in building these skills. In building our courses, we bring in primary sources and multi-media resources, and students have access to role models and examples, all in support of this mastery. How we evaluate learning outcomes in our courses and programs aligns with these skills. It is incumbent on faculty as they develop courses to bring real-world examples into courses, which will enhance the development of these skills.

BD: How does UAGC research the job market, identify which degree programs and skills are in demand, and how do our academic programs meet those demands?

TF: We continue to have opportunities to build on the job market research process at our institution. We leverage career services and the work of the UAGC Business Education Services Team (BEST) in that effort. A big part of how we identify areas of growth and opportunities is our educational partnership teams, who are going out to the industry and talking to our partners about the needs of our clients –including those in business, health care, and education. They are reporting the trends they see in hopes that we can address those needs. We are proactively looking at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics data as we look to possible future programs. We want to engage our students and faculty to understand some of these needs as well.

MZ: We have a significant advantage in our partnership with Forbes Media. We have the Forbes Advisory Board, which has some of the top thought leaders in the United States. They are world-renowned leaders, and they provide valuable feedback on our curriculum. The vast majority of our programs also have industry board advisors. We show them what we are teaching students and ask them, “This is what we are teaching students. Is there something we should be teaching them that we are not? Is there something we are teaching that is no longer relevant, keeping in mind that if you give them the proper baseline, regardless of how the market changes, they will take skills into the marketplace?” We must also recognize what is happening in business globally. You must have that mindset of what is happening around the world. A 100% domestically based business is a thing of the past and degree programs must reflect that perspective.

BD: Continuing with the discussion of providing programs that meet industry needs, what is UAGC doing or considering in micro-credentials or certificate programs that provide students with specific high-demand skills?

TF: We will have some great opportunities, post-University of Arizona integration, to focus on some of these areas that may not lead to a degree. We will benefit from this effort with valuable feedback from the BEST Team, advisory boards, faculty, and especially our students as needed. It may be a bit clich√©, but as Wayne Gretzky once said, we need “to skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” The future state of education may not always be a two-year, four-year, or graduate degree program. We will have to be responsive to the needs of students in the workplace. I hope we can leverage micro-credentials, which can lead to a degree if the student chooses. Let’s be innovative in an intelligent way.

MZ: In the Forbes School of Business and Technology®, we are identifying our courses that can be packaged into certificate programs. Our BEST Team will work with our corporate partners to identify the certificates that are in most demand right now and that our corporate partners would like to see us provide. We have identified courses aligned with the industry standards, such as our courses, which are SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) certified.

BD: Can you share how a program self-study helps UAGC Program Chairs better understand and design programs that prepare our students for success? In other words, how does this process provide opportunities for UAGC students to gain even more marketable skills and experience success in the job market?

TF: The self-study is probably the most beneficial and important process in critically examining our programs. We analyze student success metrics, the acquisition and mastery of learning outcomes, and the demographics of our student population. Taking that critical eye, the self-reflection done in self-study paints a picture of the tremendous quality of our programs and areas of opportunity. We empower our Program Chairs to engage with external reviewers who are thought leaders and subject matter experts and are highly regarded in that field of study. These reviewers will think critically about our programs by reading the program self-study report and then complete a two-day virtual site visit where they meet with key stakeholders. One of the benefits of our evolution to a remote workforce is engaging with reviewers all over the country. We aim to work with external reviewers who are currently working in the field and who are thinking about the future state as it refers to employment trends in areas that relate to these programs. At the conclusion of the self-study, the external review report is transformed into an action plan that will benefit our students.

MZ: It is imperative to step back and reflect. The self-study provides an opportunity to decompress and reflect and, to the extent possible, look at the program from the perspective of an outsider, looking at peer studies, market demands, and every course in a program with a critical eye. Our external reviewers are incredibly objective and equally passionate professionals. Their insights on the self-study report provide feedback on what we are doing well, what may need a minor tweak, and what needs significant repair. As hard as it is to do these studies, I have not met a single chair that walked away without saying, “I am so glad we have done this,” and a newly found sense of passion and purpose. As a Dean, I have discovered so much, sometimes things that are right in front of us, and we don’t see it.

BD: I would like to thank you both for the time you have shared. You have provided valuable information, insights, and inspiration, and it is clear that the UAGC Forbes School of Business and Technology® and the College of Arts and Sciences are in excellent hands.

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