The Specific Threats Now Facing Higher Education

My essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 15, 2016

Three questions: What does Donald J. Trump’s election portend for higher education? How should we respond to ill-conceived, threatening, or dangerous initiatives from Washington? Is higher education somehow complicit in President-elect Trump’s victory?

He did not focus on higher education during the presidential campaign, beyond an occasional bombshell, but with the Republicans retaining control of both houses of Congress, many of their initiatives will now receive support from the new president.

Some proposals will spring from basic Republican values — reducing federal power and influence; shrinking the government; spending much less (except on defense), coupled with tax cuts; reliance on the free market. Some proposals will result from President Obama’s past actions, especially executive actions. Still others represent spillover into the world of higher education from deeply held concerns in other realms.

Here’s a quick list of things we should not be surprised to see.

What are the threats?

  • Pressure on colleges to reduce their costs or risk having their endowments taxed.
  • Greater emphasis on career education, at the expense of study in the liberal arts.
  • Re-enfranchisement of for-profit institutions.
  • Additional pressure on regional accreditors, and a push for even more educational credentialing by corporate America rather than by traditional colleges and universities.
  • A reduction of federal support for higher education, including the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Pell Grant program, and greater reliance on student loans through private banks.
  • Institutional risk-sharing, if a sizable percentage of students default on their loans.
  • Raising the bar for unionization.
  • A weakening of Title IX, possibly including the elimination of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, or perhaps the department itself.
  • A rollback of pending changes in overtime eligibility.
  • Significantly fewer new international students.
  • Direct threats to the status of undocumented students.
  • As a result of one or more Supreme Court appointments, negative changes affecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community and women.
  • Defunding of climate-change research, weakening of environmental regulations, and expanding the use of fossil fuels.

What should we do in response?

Those things will surely not all come to pass, but it would be dangerous to assume that our academic lives will continue as before once Trump is sworn into office. What the higher-education community does in response will depend on the specifics of any proposal. But with a large number of academic associations having their annual meetings in January through April, this would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values, our students, and our historic role in supporting the American economy and way of life.

Has academe been complicit in the situation we face?

Sadly, I think the answer is yes. Ernest L. Boyer warned us more than 20 years ago that higher education had lost a key and historic value: the idea that we exist primarily to serve the public good. This was a universally held position at the beginning of the 20th century, even though those then going to college were primarily young, white, relatively affluent males. Ironically, as higher education became accessible to many more people in the years following World War II, it also gradually lost its spoken commitment to serve the public good. We started representing our worth by using metrics such as research dollars and publications, endowment size, exclusivity in admissions, and national rankings.

This would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values.

Underlying the 2016 presidential election was a deep divide between those who were succeeding (or at least who saw a pathway to success) and those who felt disenfranchised and abandoned by a society and a government that were not paying enough attention to their needs. The disenfranchised on the left backed Bernie Sanders and lost; the disenfranchised on the right backed Donald Trump and won. The responsibility of college presidents now must be to articulate higher education’s role in creating agency for many of those who feel disenfranchised.My campus has promoted affordability by freezing tuition for the past five years and increasing financial aid 30 percent; created educational programs for such nontraditional students as prisoners on work-release, teenagers entering the juvenile justice system, and inner-city high schoolers; provided training for corporate employees; and instituted work-force-development programs for underemployed workers.

It’s time for college presidents to make a collective pledge to America to stand for social justice and the creation of opportunities for those whom higher education has traditionally excluded. It’s time we recommitted to having as our primary mission “to serve the public good.”

Donald J. Farish is president of Roger Williams University.

Higher Education in America: A Way Forward

To change the conversation, colleges must actively and openly address society's concerns

It is becoming increasingly difficult to pick up a newspaper, open a magazine, or walk into a bookstore without being confronted with yet another screed about the problems of higher education in America, each one seemingly more shrill than the last. With book titles such as Academically Adrift, or American Higher Education in Crisis?, or Why Does College Cost So Much?, it is no wonder that the parents of a prospective college student are confused and frustrated as they enter the season of campus visitations.

By way of welcoming the start of college this fall, The New York Times recently devoted its entire Sunday magazine (Sept. 13) to a series of articles collectively entitled Collegeland. If anyone thought it was safe to go back into the academic waters, these articles will frighten them back to the beach before they get their ankles wet.

There is no question that problems abound in the world of American higher education; they are serious, and they need to be addressed. But the good news is that genuine efforts are under way at many colleges and universities to implement solutions to these problems. Not every college is deaf to the voices of criticism. Consider three of the most vexing concerns:

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 4)

The Roger Williams University Story

Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” discussed the widespread notion that higher education’s purpose is, first and foremost, to prepare students for the workforce. Part 2, “Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly),” focused on the idea that higher education actually serves a multitude of purposes, preparation for a career being perhaps the most important, but far from the only, purpose. Part 3, “A New Hope,” considered the findings of a Gallup-Purdue study that correlated particular experiences and opportunities students had as undergraduates with a subsequent rich and fulfilling life – and surely “a great job and a great life” is something that all prospective students (and their parents) desire.

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 3)

A New Hope

In Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” I pointed out the growing consensus, particularly among some prominent Republican governors, that the primary purpose of higher education is to prepare students to obtain a well-paying job after graduation. In Part 2, “Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly),” I noted the fragile balance struck by higher education faculty, regardless of whether their particular focus is in the liberal arts, in professional or applied fields, or in community college teaching, in support of the notion that higher education is a big tent, and there is room for several different purposes and outcomes for a college education. Different campuses have different missions; there is no single purpose that encompasses all of them.

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 2)

Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly)

In Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” I pointed out just how pervasive has become the branding of higher education by politicians and media pundits as being primarily – even exclusively – a mechanism for job preparation. And this idea is apparently not a passing fad. The idea that the value of college is to provide the training young people need to “get a good job” is being treated as a truism among a number of probable candidates for the Republican nomination for president in the 2016 election. In Part 1, I quoted Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin as a specific example.

Because the proposition that the purpose of higher education is job preparation is likely to become even more prominent in the coming months, it is important that we consider the origins and merits of this idea.

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 1)

Attack of the Politicians

Recently, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who some consider a potential contender for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, has been in the news for comments he made when announcing his proposed state budget (The New York Times, Feb. 4 and Feb. 17, 2015; Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 5 and Feb. 16, 2015). In addition to calling for a $300 million, two-year cut in state appropriations to the University of Wisconsin system (a 13 percent reduction from its current appropriation), Gov. Walker also called for a change in the university’s mission statement, removing century-old language such as “search for truth,” and “improve the human condition,” and substituting instead “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Year Three of Affordable Excellence: An Update

How we have enhanced educational quality at RWU, even while holding the line on price

In October 2012, following months of discussion and analysis, the Roger Williams University Board of Trustees adopted an initiative called Affordable Excellence®. These two words reference a host of actions devoted either to making an RWU education more affordable to a broader cross-section of families of high school graduates hoping to enroll at a high-quality private university, or to enhancing the quality of that education even beyond its already very high level.

Higher Ed, Income Inequality & the American Economy (Part 4)

Misdirecting Blame: Unwitting or Deliberate?

In the first of three parts of this series, I discussed the general topic of what has been called a “jobless recovery,” following the Great Recession of 2008. In parts two and three, I examined at length the culprits that have been implicated as being the cause of our weak economic recovery: an outmoded and, to date, unresponsive system of higher education; and income and wealth inequality.

Analyzing the root causes of this unusually poor economic recovery is important not merely to ensure that blame is correctly assigned. The real importance lies in our efforts to remedy the problem: If we are focused on the wrong cause, not only will our solution fail to revive the economy, but also the potential for harm in repairing something that wasn’t broken could be enormous – and, in the long run, further negatively impact the nation.

Higher Ed, Income Inequality & the American Economy (Part 3)

The role of income inequality in our ailing economy

In my last post, I considered the claim that more and better education is the answer to fixing our troubled economy. However, as I pointed out in the first post to this series (Sept. 8), there is a second explanation to the uneven nature of America’s economic recovery from the Great Recession: the game may be rigged to favor the very rich at the expense of everyone else. If this explanation has merit, then trying to repair the economy through more and better education will eventually prove to be not just futile but potentially very destructive to long-established institutions of higher learning.

Higher Ed, Income Inequality & the American Economy (Part 2)

Will more and better education fix the economy?

Last week, I provided an overview on a topic of vital importance: the highly uneven nature of America’s economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008. Corporate America and its shareholders are doing very well – but the great majority of wage earners are not. What accounts for this unevenness? Noted Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw is quoted as saying, “The best way to address rising inequality is to focus on increasing educational attainment,” (The New York Times, “Income Inequality and the Ills Behind It,” July 30, 2014). Is this statement true? Or does the real answer lie elsewhere?