I’ve known Bob Zemsky since he was my professor and doctoral dissertation chair at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. I met Lori Carrell, Chancellor of the University of Minnesota – Rochester on a Zoom call when I began participating as an advisor with the three year baccalaureate degree project led by her and Bob Zemsky.
During my first discussion with Bob and Lori, I discovered that they had recently co-authored Communicate for a Change, published by Johns Hopkins Press in 2021. After Bob referred to it several times, I ordered a copy.
Zemsky and Carrell write in their prologue that their conversations about the state of higher education go back nearly a decade. Approximately a year ago, they decided to write a book about some of the hardest to discuss conversations about higher education. Ultimately, they settled on nine conversations. For each of those conversations, one of the two of them leads off with “a serve” (as in tennis) and the other one replies with “a volley.” To enhance their conversations, they invited other higher education experts and leaders to participate (back in my days of playing tennis, a version of doubles where one player played against two was called “Canadian”).
The titles of the chapters for each of the nine conversations are as follow:
- Why Can’t We Talk about the Mess We’re In?
- Will a Commitment to Community Actually Move Us Forward?
- The Slogans That Ensnare Us
- Why Can’t We Connect with Each Other?
- Why Are We the Bad Guys?
- Money Talks
- The Students We Hardly Know
- Is It Ever Safe to Talk about Changing the Curriculum?
- Why Can’t We Have a Productive Conversation about Race and Gender?
In Conversation 1, Why Can’t We Talk about the Mess We’re In?, Susan Campbell Baldridge, former provost of Middlebury College and coauthor of The College Stress Test joins Bob and Lori.
In Conversation 2, Will a Commitment to Community Actually Move Us Forward?, Teri Pipe, chief well-being officer from Arizona State University joins the conversation.
In Conversation 3, The Slogans that Ensnare Us, Joan T.A. Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota joins Bob and Lori.
In Conversation 4, Why Can’t We Connect with Each Other?, Randall Bass, VP for Strategic Education Initiatives at Georgetown University joins the conversation.
Conversation 5, Why Are We the Bad Cops?, includes Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
In Conversation 6, Money Talks, William F. Massy, former CFO and professor emeritus at Stanford University joins Bob and Lori.
Conversation 7, The Students We Hardly Know, includes Cheyenne Carrell, a Prescott College alum, and Nevaeh Nez, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota Rochester.
In Conversation 8, Is It Ever Safe to Talk about Changing the Curriculum?, Mark Putnam, President of Central College joins the conversation.
Conversation 9, Why Can’t We Have a Productive Conversation about Race and Gender?, includes Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Peter H. Henderson, senior advisor, Office of the President, UMBC, and Kathleen Tracy, associate professor, School of Medicine, University of Maryland.
I thought about writing a few sentences about each of the conversations. Frankly, that was a bad idea. Each of the conversations is so well framed that providing a write-up less substantial than a “Cliff Notes” summary would be a disservice to the authors.
The final chapter is titled “Reflections.” The authors reflect on the nature of communications, the practice of facilitating conversations, and provide a list of general questions that may enable these campus conversations to start in a positive direction.
I enjoyed reading Communication for a Change and recommend it for anyone who works in a leadership or faculty role at a higher ed institution. However, channeling Bob Zemsky’s role as a “provocateur,” I suggest that Communication for a Change is too directed toward higher ed insiders. While some of the conversations may have the best outcomes if they are limited to higher ed insiders, I believe a few (Money Talks, The Students We Hardly Know, and Is It Ever Safe to Talk about Changing the Curriculum) would benefit from including employers, policymakers, and other thought leaders about the future of higher education and the workforce.