The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

April 20, 2012

Universities amp up the arts. But who’s helping whom?

The arts on campuses seem to be entering a period of unprecedented investment and attention, with ‘arts districts’ and strategic initiatives and a new profile even at institutions famous for cultivating the other regions of the brain. Maybe it’s no coincidence that this comes at a time when the value and relevance of higher education and the value and relevance of the traditional arts (especially to young people) are being challenged  from all directions.

Yesterday, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art announced that its new building would be designed by busy art-world architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Nothing surprising there; campus art museums at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin, Michigan State and many others are building or recently opened gleaming facilities, most of them designed by the same architects that have been creating all those new wings and renovations for larger, non-college museums around the country.

What caught my eye was the university’s positioning of the new Hood and other Dartmouth arts facilities as an “arts district.” This centralizing impulse — thinking about the arts at the level of the university rather than the level of individual organizations or programs — is being felt widely these days. 

MIT just announced its new Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) with a founding gift of $1.5 million from the Mellon Foundation and a vision of better integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum. (That’s something Mellon has been interested in, and funding generously, for almost twenty years, with a particular focus on university art museums and their connections to other academic departments and disciplines.)

And new arts initiatives are underway at Stanford, the University of Chicago (including an interesting new center), Harvard, and many other universities, all promulgating the basic idea that the arts (doing them as well as seeing them) are good ways of learning about much more than the arts. Harvard describes the trend succinctly right on the cover of its 2008 “Report of the Task Force on the Arts” [summary here, full pdf here]: the arts must become

an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge.

Behind all this attention is a major shift in thinking about what the arts are and what they’re for. The language of these university arts plans visions puts notions like ‘creativity,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘innovation’ front and center. It’s not about learning the arts, which was the dominant paradigm for several decades. In a sense, it’s not about music or dance or theater or painting and sculpture at all. It’s about cultivating the kind of capacities that we (nowadays) associate with artistic creativity and performance: the ability to start with a blank page and see what belongs there; to improvise; to make intuitive connections; to bring people and groups together; to bridge ideas and feelings in a spirit of playful challenge. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Higher ed, Improvisation, Innovation, Performing arts, State of the arts, Visual art, Young audiences
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December 22, 2011

Diversity: it's not just an admissions issue anymore

The Obama administration’s new call for universities to increase diversity on campus is probably a welcome one for many schools. After years of court battles over state university admissions policies, centered on the University of Michigan, colleges and universities now have greater clarity about which levers they’re allowed to pull to attract a more ethnically diverse pool of applicants. But what happens when those more diverse classes get to campus?

Much research has been done on the benefits of being in school with a more diverse group of peers. For example, a recent study discussed in the book How College Affects Students notes that exposure to fellow students of diverse backgrounds is one of the key factors influencing whether freshmen return for their sophomore year and whether their experience improves their critical thinking skills. Think about that: more diverse classmates and dorm-mates leads to a more positive, successful undergrad experience.

And our own research for highly selective universities and grad schools has shown that prospects value diversity and take it into consideration when deciding which schools to apply to. When it comes to attracting underrepresented minorities, it certainly helps when they see people who look like them on campus, ideally both students and professors.

That research is echoed in the new guidelines, which were issued jointly by attorney general Eric Holder and education secretary Arne Duncan. "Diverse learning environments," says Holder in the accompanying press release, “promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes, and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world.”

All true. I’m as strong a believer as anyone that greater diversity along all kinds of dimensions — racial, gender, socio-economic, geographic, attitudinal — in higher education is a good thing. What schools need to realize, though, is that with that greater diversity comes a greater need for support for those new members of the student body. Some of our research has shown that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as those who are the first generation in their family to attend college, struggle with the demands and format of postsecondary education more than other students do. They’re more likely to have jobs, work more hours, and be less involved in co-curricular activities. In one study, we found that they needed more help from their advisors that other students did — but were less likely to seek out that help. These diverse newcomers can benefit from greater support, whether academic, co-curricular or social, to help them navigate the unfamiliar landscape.

Yet many schools don’t invest in such support programs, in part because they are not aware of those needs and in part because they don’t want to stereotype their new arrivals or treat them differently on the basis of ethnicity. The ideal is a melting pot, whether or not it actually exists.

Of course, those support programs are also an additional expense for the schools. So that well-intentioned reluctance to engage in anything like profiling may also mask a reluctance to spend more on student-life and academic counseling.

Whatever its causes, that reluctance is a shame. If a school embraces increased diversity as a strategic goal, it ought to carry that strategy through to the  students it affects, by acknowledging and meeting their unique needs. It’s also a good long-term decision: supporting underrepresented minorities and first-generation students would likely contribute to higher retention and graduation rates, and that means stronger rankings and better applicant pools. It may be an additional expense, but it makes both ethical and academic sense.

Does your institution support diversity just at the admissions stage, or throughout the student experience?

Categories: College admissions & marketing, Higher ed, Student research
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January 06, 2011

The happiness curve and alumni engagement

In the airport with my family over the holidays, I ran into a newsstand to pick up some things for our flight. There on the rack, the cover of The Economist caught my eye: “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46).” Being 46 at the moment, of course I bought it.

I thought the article might feature tips relevant to us mid-lifers, like how to prevent your knees from hurting when you hike, or how to remember what you walked into the kitchen for. What I found was something a little bigger-picture, something surprisingly related to my work with colleges and universities.

The not-particularly-happy news about happiness, according to the studies cited in the article, is that, in cultures around the world, people tend to start out happy and get increasingly less so, until they hit a collective rock bottom at age 46. Ouch.

The good news is that, as people continue to age, they report feeling happier and happier until their mid-80s, when (on average) they’re happier than they’ve ever been.

As I stared at the U-shaped chart, pondering all the ways I might feel happier in the future, I realized that I’ve seen this same graph before in our research with alumni.

Alumni tend to stay involved with their school for the first few years after graduation. But then engagement drops, bottoming out with alums in their 40s. It then begins to rise, with greater engagement and positive feelings as they age into retirement.

Common sense and our own research suggest that alums in their 40s are the most time-starved cohort, with jobs, kids, houses, and 401Ks taking up time and energy. So they have less time to devote to life’s optional commitments, like alumni events and class reunions. The Economist article made me wonder how happiness factors into the equation. If you don’t feel particularly good about your life, are you less likely to want to connect with your school and fellow alums? ...

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Categories: Demographics, Engagement, Fundraising, Higher ed, Research findings
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July 12, 2010

Survey “coaching,” accountability, and dollars: a lesson from healthcare

“It only takes a second to fill out,” the x-ray technician told me cheerfully after an MRI I had yesterday. He was explaining that I would soon receive a survey in the mail asking about the service he provided, and he mimed checking off the boxes: “You just go down the list, five, five, five, five…”

Five, as you may have guessed, is the top satisfaction score.

Now, this was a community hospital affiliated with the University of Chicago Medical Center (which is a client of ours). But it’s an example of how all kinds of educational and cultural nonprofits could be thinking about the relationship between customer feedback, staff performance, and the bottom line.

At first it rubbed me the wrong way. My colleagues and I pride ourselves on being rigorous researchers, and we’ve criticized (here and here) survey processes that are less than scientific and objective. The whole point of social and market research is to get a true picture of how people think, feel, and act. You’re not allowed to coach them to give you high marks; you’re not supposed to influence them in any way.

But there was something else going on here, and it made me look more deeply at the role this kind of satisfaction research plays.

My tech’s name was Leo, which he wrote on the card he gave me so I would be sure to put it on the survey. Unprompted by any questions from me, he explained that the survey was a big part of the culture at the hospital. “We strive for five” is a staff mantra. At weekly meetings in each department, workers who received good survey ratings or comments are recognized. This presumably factors into their promotion and salary trajectories.

He even told me that the insurance companies link their reimbursement amounts to those patient satisfaction scores. I don’t know whether this is true or how much of the hospital’s revenue might be at stake in the formula. But what’s important is that Leo and his colleagues see the financial performance of the institution as dependent on the quality of the experiences it provides to individuals like me. ...

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Categories: Accountability, Customer satisfaction, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts, Survey research
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April 09, 2010

“Majority minority” and what it doesn’t tell us about the future of cultural attendance

Much is being made of the fact that, at some point 30 or 40 years from now, “non-Hispanic whites” will become America’s largest minority. But what will that mean for arts participation and museumgoing? In one sense, nothing at all.

A book review in this week’s New Yorker by Kelefa Sanneh, the magazine’s pop music critic, calls our attention to “Stuff White People Like,” that good-natured piece of social self-criticism in blog and book form by Christian Lander. The list of “stuff” reads like my firm’s client roster: film festivals (#3), non-profit organizations (#12), plays (#43), arts degrees (#47), graduate school (#81), public radio (#44), and of course classical music — or rather, “Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music” (#108). Jazz is also here, I think, under the heading, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore” (#116).


Combine Lander’s jokey-but-perceptive point with the demographic shifts that will soon mark the end of white hegemony in the United States, and it may look like all of us — you arts and education professionals, and we consultants who help you — are in the wrong business. White, urban, liberal culture and the values associated with it have seen their heyday and are on the way out.
But Sanneh’s essay goes on to complicate that picture, if not undermine it altogether, by pointing out that the category of American whiteness is itself a moving target. Over the decades it has come to include “many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish.”

At one time, those ethnic minorities were visibly, audibly, even behaviorally other. Yet today, if you wanted to know whether someone is of Irish or Italian heritage, or is Jewish, you’d have to ask.

What changed over that period, the minority or the culture at large? Both. What it meant to be “Italian” or “Jewish” changed, and simultaneously what it meant to be “American” changed. And of course the two processes influenced each other.

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Categories: Arts participation, Culture sector, Demographics, Higher ed, Metrics, Museums, Performing arts, Survey research
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February 12, 2010

Letting their hair down, awkwardly

Yale’s already-infamous musical admissions video shows how easy it is for institutions to come across as old fashioned even when they’re using new media.

Billed as an “independent an independent collaboration between Yale undergraduates and recent alumni working in the admissions office,” the 17 minute video is a slickly-produced, peppy campus musical number in which students sing and dance answers to the question that all college recruitment videos (and viewbooks and brochures) are meant to answer: it’s titled “That’s Why I Chose Yale.”

The Gawker took its swings shortly after the video was released in mid January, and a post at IvyGate was titled “That’s Why I Chose to Ram a Soldering Iron Into My Ears.” At some point the university felt it prudent to disable the ratings and comment features on YouTube.

This week even the New Yorker couldn’t restrain itself from jumping on the pileup, running a “Talk of the Town” piece about the embarrassed giggles and cringing bewilderment of Yale alumni who have seen the video...although some of them couldn’t bear to watch the whole thing.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this the very prescription for success in the YouTube era? The video was a participatory creative act rather than a top-down fiat. It let the students speak — okay, sing — for themselves about the university, not unlike MIT’s pioneering student blogs on its admissions page (which my colleague Bill wrote about in a recent post). It uses contemporary media to meet its audiences on their own turf. It delivers its message with energy and enthusiasm, avoiding the rationalist trap into which so many educational and cultural marketing efforts fall. And it’s an innovation, a risk: just what the doctors have been ordering.

So what’s wrong with this (motion) picture?

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, Higher ed, Institutional personality, Museums, Performing arts, Social media, Student research
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January 22, 2010

Upcoming webcast: a lecture on demographic change

The Center for the Future of Museums hosts a talk by Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez on cultural transformation. It’s not just for museums.

The free webcast is next Wednesday, January 27 at 2pm Eastern time. You’ll need to register here.

The lecture was actually given by Rodriguez in Washington, DC in December and taped for this webcast. But he’ll be online Wednesday for a live Q&A, and there will also be a panel discussion.

Rodriguez is a big name in the world of demographic change, ethnicity, and policy, especially on Latino issues. He was asked by Elizabeth Merritt, who runs the new Center for the Future of Museums at the American Association of Museums (AAM), to turn his gaze on cultural institutions and speculate about how demographic shifts will affect them.

You can get a glimpse of his thinking in an op-ed column he wrote after giving the talk, “Big Tent Salvation for the Arts.”

In audience research and evaluation, we’re often asked to study Latino populations as a distinct group with its own special needs. But that can be a form of segregation, or at least compartmentalization. It might be smarter — and it will probably become necessary, anyway — to try to integrate our understanding of Latinos and other growing minorities in every “general” study we conduct.

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Categories: Demographics, Higher ed, Museums, Other nonprofits, Performing arts, Research findings, Strategy and strategic planning
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January 15, 2010

Say it ain’t so, statistician

I’m just getting to a recent book about the buying and selling of scientific “truth,” and it’s enough to make a grown researcher cry. Any lessons for us in the culture and higher ed crowd?

Unfortunately, yes. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels, an epidemiologist who last month became Obama’s OSHA chief, is an infuriating look at big industry’s manipulation of scientific evidence to derail or delay safety regulations. Think cigarettes, lead, asbestos, or remember Silkwood and Erin Brockovich.

The book’s title refers to an infamous 1969 memo from a Brown & Williamson tobacco executive who wrote that, "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

The companies and their mercenary scientific henchmen didn’t need to work too hard to find uncertainties to exploit, since doubt and uncertainty are built into the scientific method. (The physicist Richard Feynman called doubt the essence of science.) Real science is about disproving hypotheses, and there are always outlier data, competing explanations, and marginal numbers requiring interpretation. Research is supposed to be empirical and objective, but deciding what counts as knowledge – the process of scientific consensus-building by which we decide what it is we know – is messy and human.

Why does this hit home for us researchers in the arts and education? Well, the science we do is social science, but the statistical and interpretive questions are similar. The advocacy impulse in our world may be socially positive, but it’s still an advocacy impulse and has to be kept from influencing our empirical findings about how audiences think, feel, and act.

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Categories: Advocacy, General, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts, Research issues, Survey research
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January 06, 2010

“Engagement” is ready for prime time

One of President Obama’s early changes at the White House was turning the institutionally-flavored Office of Public Liaison into the Office of Public Engagement. I’ll nominate that as word of the year.

According to a White House press release, the mission of the renamed office will be to “serve as the front door to the White House through which ordinary Americans can participate and inform the work of the President.”

So the Obama team, famous during the 2008 campaign for its ability to read and respond to the national sentiment, has intuited the relationship people now want to have with the institutions in their lives: more active than passive, more participatory than receptive.

For cultural nonprofits and educational institutions, “engagement” is the new watchword. Leaders use it almost religiously. And I’ll bet that the changes it connotes – esepecially the idea that institutions need to work at being...well, engaging, and that it’s about two-way relationships rather than one-way communication – won’t be just a passing trend. Engagement is here to stay.

But what does it really mean for a college, a ballet company, or a science museum? How can we tell whether it’s happening, and for whom? How do we quantify it and track its growth?

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Categories: Engagement, General, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »

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