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Advice to New FIPSE Project Directors

Keynote Remarks of Theodore J. Marchese
American Association for Higher Education
before the FIPSE Project Directors' Meeting

Mayflower Hotel
October 26, 1990


It was 1970, a year of change, turmoil, and uncertainty on American campuses; people in policy circles were thrashing about for a federal response. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was pushing a National Foundation for Higher Education, aimed at shoring up educational quality in ways proposed by the colleges themselves (not by the government); Clark Kerr's Carnegie Commission had also recommended a new federal foundation, but saw its task as that of actively promoting reform and innovation on campus. Late that year, HEW appointed a task force to take these and other arguments and fashion an action agenda; it was chaired by Stanford's Frank Newman and staffed by two of the Department's ablest, young aides, Russ Edgerton and Martin Framer. The three worked as a team, pulled no punches, and came up with a document -- the celebrated "Newman Report" -- that proved full of ideas and long in influence. Much of the present outline of federal legislation related to higher education (especially in the area of student aid) traces to the Newman Report and the subsequent Education Amendments of 1972.

A key recommendation of the Newman group was that there be a small federal agency whose grants would spur innovation in the conception and delivery of services to learners, especially new and nontraditional learners. HEW secretary Elliot Richardson got behind the idea, it was enacted with the 1972 Amendments, and in 1973 a "Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education" was set up. FIPSE, as it was soon dubbed, proclaimed that its grants would be field-responsive, learner-centered, and risk-taking, all this via a grant process built around peer-review and open to all comers.

The new agency was an immediate hit. In 1973, the first year of its operation, an initial call for proposals brought over 1,400 applications....the stacks and stacks of which made a telling picture on the front page of The Chronicle. The agency quickly attracted a brilliant, creative staff -- first Russ Edgerton, then Virginia Smith as the first director, followed by program officers Allison Bernstein, Chuck Bunting, Carol Stoel, Rene Cardenas, Felicia Lynch, Dave Justice, Ray Lewis, Manuel Gomez, Rich Hendrix Steve Ehrmann, Lynn DeMeester, Bob Fullilove, Rusty Garth -- people who made it work.

One of the earliest and wisest decisions that FIPSE made was to fund a once-a-year meeting of all its project directors. I remember those first meetings fondly -- a hundred or more people, bristling with ideas, passionate in their pursuit of institutional change....retreats that seemed in equal parts seminar, encounter group, and revival was hard to tell the new FIPSE staff from the new grantees, joined as they were in search of better things for learners....what lively, yeasty meetings they were, the cutting edge. Almost overnight, a FIPSE grant became THE badge of recognition, THE prestigious grant if you thought of yourself -- many people did then -- as a change agent in American higher education.

Was there a certain hubris and naivete also? Yes, you could say so. But it is also true that FIPSE grants collectively made a significant, positive difference to the course of higher education. Many of the early grants had to do with access to higher education -- minority outreach programs, adult reentry, education for the displaced, the migrant, the illiterate, the jailed... not all these efforts survived, but the great presence of adult learners in higher education today -- they are now over 40% of all enrollees -- and of the countless programs to serve them is a lasting consequence of that work. FIPSE also funded important early work on the educational uses of technology; experiential forms of education; partnerships between education and the workplace; a host of new approaches to the teaching of math and writing, including the now-familiar writing across the curriculum; the development of new curricular content, in Black, Hispanic and Native American studies, plus important early work in women's studies; innovations in governance and finance; fresh work in the teaching of science and in teacher education; and so on. And this tradition continues today: a huge chunk of what we now know about assessment, for example, comes from FIPSE grants of the past five years.

If I may reminisce for one more moment, FIPSE project directors' meetings have always been a favorite occasion of mine -- if this be the 17th, I believe I've been to eight or nine now. They' ve changed, at least in the externals. Frugality and informality were the norm in the 197Os, and FIPSE would always find some low-bid venue -- a state park in Illinois, a tatty conference center in Wisconsin -- at which everybody could wear jeans. Now, since the Republicans took over, we meet in fancy hotels in Washington; all the men have neckties on! At the 1975 meeting at Illinois Beach State Park, the keynote was followed by an ice cream social; now we have a cocktail hour. These are changes I haven't fully assimilated.

What hasn't changed, though, is the calibre and determination, the good spirit of the people who direct FIPSE projects. This annual project directors' meeting, with its proud history, remains rich in ideas and people. One of the things I hope you'll feel by Sunday is a sense of colleagueship and common endeavor with many other people here. Know that FIPSE is stronger than ever -- in its staff, in the quality of ideas behind its projects, and in the vitality of its most important people, its project directors. So enjoy this meeting!

Let me turn now to my substantive remarks, which I want to tell you I don't think of as a keynote. A keynote connotes to me something grand and stirring (like Lee Knefelkamp's speech last year); perhaps Jim Atlas will fill that need tomorrow. But there's little that's lofty in what I'm about to say. What the designers of this conference have done this time, in effect, is to ask a person in the audience to stand up and take the microphone first .... maybe not quite any person, since I've been involved with five FIPSE grants over the years ... but a battle-scarred veteran, then, picked from the ranks to share with newcomers some of the lessons about project direction learned by your predecessors. The beauty of the situation from your standpoint (the scary part for me) is that half the people here are also experienced project directors . . . they can and will, at my risk but your benefit, amend and correct over the next two days the advice I'm about to give.

I'm acutely aware, too, of the great variety of FIPSE projects represented in this room, and of how unlike so many of your institutional situations may be. I necessarily generalize but know you'll listen selectively. My goal is to mention two or three things this evening that you haven't had a chance, up to now, fully to think through.

In preparation, I've consulted my own experience and the relevant muse; talked with a half-dozen project directors and with two former project officers; and had a long lunch last week with six current FIPSE project officers. Of course, all errors in what I'm about to say are mine -- or those of the people I spoke with.


I've tried to organize my remarks around five questions that new project directors should be asking at this point:

  1. What is it that your project is about?
  2. Why are you doing it and should anyone else care?
  3. What constitutes a successful project?
  4. How will you or anyone else know that? and
  5. What about your relations now with FIPSE staff?

What Is It That Your Project Is About?

1. The first point is this: that one of your first tasks as a project director is to find appropriate, plain-English ways of describing for others what your project is about. The insight driving the injunction is this: the words you used in your proposal to get your FIPSE grant all too often will have little meaning to the people you have to work with every day in the doing of your project.

Each of us in this room, I say by virtue of our being here, is an expert at grantsmanship -- we've mastered the jargon, we know the code words. When I skimmed the "project titles and summaries" in the FIPSE directory, I found them full of bureaucratic lingo and insider talk; even I, equally a grant-getter and long in experience, couldn't understand what half your projects are about. But that language did work, it landed a grant.

Now your task is different: it's not that of winning a grant from the feds, it's that of running a project in a real world at home, a world that can be skeptical of innovation and money from Washington, and that awaits your words of explanation -- which you now need to find.

Let me illustrate with an example. I visited a college in New Jersey last week that is deep into implementation of into a 25-part, multi-year, several-million-dollar program of curricular change and identity transformation; the magic words in its grant proposal were "collaboration, leadership, and social responsibility." But what do they mean? On my visit, I found they meant some quite particular things to the insiders running the grant, things they could readily explain in 5,000 words or more. Nobody, however, could tell me in a sentence or two what the project was about. I tried some versions on them, like, "We're trying to see if we can get students to take more responsibility for their education, with an eye to helping them do better in their work and community lives after college."

None of my suggestions flew, let me confess; but that college does need to find those words, words, for example, that its admission counselors can use at a college night, or that project leaders can use with skeptical faculty, or that a president can use at legislative hearings or with donors. In much the same way, what is it that your project is really trying to do? You'll need those words, in dozens of situations to come, and finding them (if you haven't already) ought to be a first order of business for you.


Why Are You Doing It and Should Anyone Else Care?

2. My second point is twin to the first -- conceptually, it's not really different but I've made it a second point here for emphasis -- and that is, Why are you doing this project? Why should anyone care about it? Here again, you're looking for 25 words or less -- the words you'll use with a faculty or administrative colleague in that brief hallway conversation that can mean so much later -- words that help those persons not only understand your "it" but that do so in terms your listener can relate to. Again I hasten to examples:

  • I think of a complicated, technology-based writing project I knew, about which doubts might well have been raised, and of the explanation the project director eventually came up with for concerned colleagues: "It's important that we find ways to get students to write better. We're trying to see if computers can help." Here the PD has stated a problem -- an easily acknowledged one -- and set forth not a solution but a search for answers.

  • At Barat College, where I directed a "Better Information for Student Choice" FIPSE project, there were many apprehensions about "going for candor" in our admissions materials and about the departmental-level data we proposed to provide prospective students. Our dean of students helped me find an explanation: "We're trying to see if there's a way to get more students here who can benefit from a Barat education." The statement, with its implicit flattery of faculty efforts and stated goal of enhancing enrollment, worked. Beyond cleverness, it was also truthful, and became a continuing, good reminder to us of the project's ultimate purposes as we labored with its details.

  • At the University of Connecticut, a recent FIPSE project entailed elaborate processes of defining and assessing general-education outcomes, this in the face of Gen-Ed's orphan status on campus and the looming threat of a state mandate. Barbara Wright, the PD, came to say this to skeptics: "We're trying to see if students are learning what we're teaching, and if we can improve that in General Education." It is a masterful statement in the circumstances . . . and a truthful one.

I could go on with such examples, and point out that the words I'm urging you to find may differ by audience (students, community groups, busy faculty or administrators, each may require its own explanation), and also to say that these words need to be found early in your project's life because first explanations form impressions that last and the really good explanation you come up with a year from now may never be heard. But let me conclude this point by repeating, find those words; I've seen a lot of projects flounder when people thought (often wrongly) that the effort was too exotic, or far out, or dangerous. The world isn't waiting for your better mousetrap .... you have to convince people that you have one and that they should want it.


What Constitutes a Successful Project?

3. Which brings me to my third point, namely, what constitutes a successful project? What is "a better mousetrap?" There are many possible cuts at this question; I could argue that a successful project is one that, come what may, tries to do a right thing. But there are always many potential right things; in the real world of FIPSE projects and of improvement processes in postsecondary education, a criterion that matters is project continuation. That is, to a significant extent the worth of your project will be judged, by FIPSE and by others, on the basis of whether your idea, your project, is able to sustain itself after the one-time grant money from Washington runs out.

FIPSE itself cares deeply about continuation as an issue, not least because the Fund itself is judged significantly on the basis of how many of the projects it funds prove self-sustaining. The record here looks right to me: a big study ten years ago found that 80 percent of all FIPSE projects continued after grant support; current inquiries by Dora Marcus of the staff show that figure to have been maintained with more recent grants. I say "looks right" because if the figure were higher than 80 then I'd argue that FIPSE wasn't being risk-taking with its grants in ways that it should. Indeed, every FIPSE project is an experiment of sorts -- if we knew how it would come out there'd be no point of funding it. If your project doesn't work out, let me add, you should have no compunction or apology about bringing it to an end, so long as you fulfill your obligation to provide learning from the project by telling FIPSE how and why things didn't work out.

Nevertheless, the full and fair trial your idea deserves has to begin with a presumption of continuance, indeed with that as an aim. One reason, beyond FIPSE's needs, lies with the credibility of your idea before larger audiences. That is, if your idea won't play at home, it isn't going to have much travel elsewhere. Is your idea viable? How can colleagues elsewhere believe that when, by appearances, your own institution didn't? "Continuation" isn't entirely fair as a criterion, I agree -- a purely local circumstance can subvert even the best idea -- but it is part of the mindset people bring to their judgment of innovations.

Beyond FIPSE's needs or the judgments of others, at bottom you come back to why you are doing your project. You're not (I hope) just doing an experiment for your own or local amusement, ending on some date; you believe you have an idea that can help learners. A project helps learners as it unfolds, learns from experience, takes root in place, then extends to additional settings. All of which means that, from day one, your aim is continuation, and project management proceeds with that as goal.

Well, what do we know about projects that continue? One thing already: that they develop compelling ways of explaining themselves. Another is that they develop credible evidence about their effectiveness (more about that in a moment). A third -- this third point overall -- is that they are managed with an eye on continuation. What does that mean? Many small things; let me mention ten:

  1. Successful projects often have a patron in high places; cultivate one. A president, a provost, the dean -- get that key person (or two) involved. Be sure they know how your project relates to a problem on their desk. When you have good news, let them know -- administrators always need things to brag about.

  2. Successful (enduring) projects also in time have many people who feel ownership in them. A good device for building a broader set of owners can be a project advisory committee, a board as it were .... a familiar, proven way to involve and educate key constituents and gather political support for down the line.

  3. Rather them emphasizing the uniqueness or specialness of your work, emphasize its connections with your institution's on-going traditions, with the real problems it knows it has and wants to solve, and its deeper fit with institutional mission.

  4. You can't run an educational-change project like a research project, and run off into a lab for two years by yourself .... you've got to be out and around, an ambassador for the effort. Good communication through the life of the project with key parties of interest is a must.

  5. How it all starts is important; first acts leave lasting impressions. What you initially call the thing, where you locate your office, how you furnish it, the people you bring on board to help -- all these first decisions count a lot. Every project begins in newness but eventually settles into a pattern; think hard now about the project's longer course and character, and how others will relate to it, as you get going in these first weeks.

  6. Learn the necessary federal and local rules cold, and make them work for you. There's EDGAR, FIPSE requirements, your own campus's rules, there are disbursement protocols to follow and reports to be done in certain fashion. Learn the dreary business first, so you don't get tripped up by it. Clever PD' s also know that a good knowledge of the actual rules can pay off in the inevitable dealing you'll have with the folks in green eyeshades.

  7. There are no incentives in federal grants to do it cheaper, to not spend the full sum of your grant. But a good project with an eye on continuation is always asking, how can we get the same effect for less? Especially after the federal money is gone, is there a way we could keep alive a thing of value with 70 percent, or even just half, the initial funding? Is there a cost-benefit argument I can develop (and gather evidence for) for later use before my university budget committee? Is there a way my project could generate income? This is all part of planning, during the project, for continuation afterward.

  8. An external support network -- which you could start to form at this meeting -- comprised of people doing similar work at other institutions can be helpful. Informal linkages with colleagues elsewhere can be a vehicle for advice in times of need and provide a measure of internal credibility, too. At Barat, my ability to say that the College was doing the project in conjunction with parallel efforts at UC-Irvine, Michigan, and Oberlin made people think, Hmm . . . good company, this project must be important. Even Harvard's Assessment Seminars took strength from the inclusion of peers from MIT, Dartmouth, Yale, UMass, and so on . . . and so might yours.

  9. Don't act like you have the answers before in fact you do. A bit of modesty and spirit of inquiry can go a long way to winning the support, or at least forbearance, of doubters. Resist, too, the temptation to hit the lecture circuit before your idea proves itself at home.

  10. Think hard, now, about how you'll communicate the results of your work . . . think about what you'll want to be able to say later to what specific audiences and work like the devil toward that reporting. Harvard's Dick Light knew a year in advance what kind of report he wanted from the assessment seminars he led, steered project work in those directions, put great energies into the resulting report (it went through nine drafts), and made sure it got in the hands of the people he wanted to read it.

Further points could be heaped up here, but the sum of any number of them is the same: you want to THINK continuation and institutionalization from the start .... think like an educator, but like an economist and politician, too. You want to take all the steps that may be necessary in your environment for your project to have a full and fair trial -- and a life, if deserved, beyond.


How Will You or Anyone Else Know That?

4. My fourth point has to do with evaluation, or, How will we know your "it" is working? And my briefer task here is not to rehearse all that is known about project evaluation, but to warm you up for the task and the sessions on the topic led by Dora Marcus that follow in this meeting. Three things bear mention tonight.

A. The audience for the evaluation you'll do extends well beyond FIPSE. You do owe the Fund a final report, of course; it uses these for its "lessons learned" series. But the ultimate clients for the evaluation you do should be the publics you hope to convince to adopt your idea. This means, most immediately, decision-makers on your own campus. What kind of evidence would it take to persuade your faculty committees, dean or president, or state board to adopt your idea? Why not ask that question of them now? Their responses offer one place to begin with the collection of evidence. Of course none of them may feel later bound by the answer they give you next week; your real aim here is to save a lot of time and effort collecting data that nobody will ever want. "Collecting unwanted data" -- a three-word history of evaluation.

B. The field of evaluation practice abounds with fresh thought; spend a bit of time with evaluation's new literatures before you go off collecting the usual data. Years ago I took coursework in evaluation methods in graduate school, and thought I knew the topic; my mind jumps easily to brilliant, controlled, cross-sectional designs executed by third parties in white coats. What I've come to learn from more recent reading is that my 1960s version represents evaluation as it was thought of (figuratively) three generations ago. Today, evaluation practitioners are leaner on the theoretical, blue-sky side, and deep into the practicalities of getting information at least cost that responds to client questions in ways that bring greatest benefit to a project and its participants; today's literatures talk of stakeholders, naturalistic inquiry, and negotiated outcomes. I say these things mostly to loosen up your mind and whet appetites for your further thinking about evaluation .... if you think of it merely as an end-of-project task or chore, you don't understand it, and will let slip by a great set of concepts and tools that, incorporated now (at the design stage), can help you get what you want . . . a credible project that works.

C. What to read? I have two recommendations, both of them on the bibliography Dora Marcus will hand out tomorrow. One of the recent book by Dick Light and colleagues at Harvard, By Design; the other is any of the recent books by Michael Quinn Patton of the University of Minnesota, which emphasize the usability of information.


What About Your Relations Now With FIPSE Staff?

5. My final point has to do with your relations with FIPSE itself .... now that you have the grant, how do you relate to these people? And the answer is, once chosen, you're family. Once they've made that commitment of funding to you, you're no longer one more supplicant to be kept at bay, you're a FIPSE project director, and FIPSE wants you to succeed . . . when you succeed, FIPSE succeeds. So the relationship moves to new ground, with the emphasis now on mutual candor and cooperative endeavor.

So I return to advice: one of the relationships you want to nurture is that with your FIPSE project officer. You want to share equally project accomplishments and set-backs -- the Fund needs knowledge of the former, it can often help with the latter. Be candid with your project officer, keep her or him informed of events .... "no surprises" is a good policy. You want that officer, in fact, to know and like your project so well that she or he becomes an in-house advocate for your project -- with the Department's grants-management office, for example, or within the FIPSE staff at times of grant renewal or rebudgeting. I'd make a point here at this meeting to get to know my "PO" well; I'd invite that officer to visit my project in year one of the grant. I'd turn to my project officer for help when trouble loomed at home . . . a call from Washington can remind a busy, budget-trimming president of institutional obligations undertaken with the grant . . . a "PO's" intervention has literally saved more than one project. Again, FIPSE is on your side, it wants you to succeed, it's in FIPSE's interest to intervene if necessary, so don't be hesitant about asking if push comes to shove.

Finally, loyalty should be returned, and FIPSE's support for you should be matched by your own regard for it. Credit FIPSE in all of your documents, articles, speeches, and especially in any contacts you have that are political. The great danger to FIPSE lies always in its small size, its lack of visibility in a town where "anything under a billion is too small to be noticed" .... it would be all too easy to "zero out" FIPSE when nobody is looking. In my view, all of us in this room need to think of ourselves not necessarily as lobbyists, but at least as a public constituency in support of the Fund. So: give credit, talk it up, let your senators and congressman know.

This not being a keynote, I have no stirring ending. Let me wish you -- project director to project director -- the courage, the wisdom, and the shrewdness to see a good idea through.


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Last Modified: 06/25/2009