Amid Political Polarization and Anxiety, a Message to the RWU Community

I write today to welcome you back to campus for the spring semester of 2017, and I wish you every success in your work and studies. But, as you return, I also want to acknowledge the political polarization, tension and anxiety that exists in our country today, and ask you to recognize that universities have not just the opportunity but the responsibility to demonstrate to the broader society how differing points of view can be raised and discussed in a civil and respectful manner. Roger Williams University has a particular responsibility in this regard because of our relationship to Roger Williams, the man, for reasons that I will review later in this letter.

Our differences, of course are not just political. The people who make up the RWU community reflect the diversity of the broader American public — not proportionately, to be sure, but diversity is present on our campus in many ways: racial, ethnic, religious, national origin, economic, geographic, gender identification, sexual orientation, and so forth. And these are not mutually exclusive categories, since many individuals identify with more than one category. Many people within these categories — or entire categories — have also historically felt (or still feel) the burden of oppression or the sting of rejection by members of other groups, although the magnitude of that bias varies widely: laws against interracial marriage or homosexual practice existed in many jurisdictions until recently, whereas bias based on economic differences results more from unequal levels of access and buying power than because of statutory or case law.

Consider just a few of the issues now before us. For more than a year, America has seen widespread protests against the deaths of black men at the hands of police. Is there nothing we can do to address this situation? The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned state laws banning same-sex marriage — but will that position be reversed once a new justice is appointed? We have witnessed controversy over how best to deal with undocumented immigrants: should they be eligible for in-state tuition at public universities? Should they be granted driver’s licenses? Should they be offered a path to obtaining permanent status, or even citizenship — or should they be deported? And, in answering those questions, does it matter whether they arrived here as adults, or as young children?

These issues, and many others, may soon receive reconsideration, inasmuch as one party now controls the House, the Senate and the White House. What will reconsideration mean for America? What will it mean for the RWU community?

The quick answer is that we don’t know. But our choice, as a community, is between avoiding raising any topic that may be controversial, out of concern of offending someone, or — as I believe — exploring difficult subjects deliberately and publicly, in order to allow members of our community to hear both sides of an issue and to develop well-considered positions of their own. The caveat is that we must find ways to discuss and dispute our differences civilly and rationally.

I want to be clear that it is not my intention to work toward developing an RWU position on these topics.  Rather, I am advocating for a process — a call for an intentional dialogue wherein the sharp differences that divide us as a nation can be explored calmly and politely on our campus, rather than allowing ourselves to fall prey to forums designed for shouting the other side down.

The basis of my advocacy starts with our namesake, Roger Williams. Roger Williams was a man well ahead of his time. He not only opposed the idea of a state religion, but also welcomed those of any faith (or no faith) to settle in our state — an idea that was incorporated into the United States Constitution a century and a half later, yet an idea still not accepted in many countries to this day. Roger Williams opposed slavery, and he purchased, rather than appropriated, land from Native Americans. He learned the language of the local Native American tribes, and did not treat them as savages needing to be converted to Christianity, but as people with a culture worth admiring. He especially loved a good debate. I looked to Roger Williams to provide me moral guidance as I worked through my own position on various of today’s thorny issues.

One of RWU’s six goals from our Vision Project of 2015 is to create a campus that broadly reflects the diversity of our geographic region in all respects — and implicit in this goal is not just to tolerate, but to enhance and embrace this diversity, to work to ensure that members of every group enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other group, to celebrate our collective success as a community, and not to accept, let alone promote, uneven levels of power or prestige in one group relative to another. That requires not mere passive acquiescence, but proactive commitment to fairness and equity as desired outcomes.

So here are some steps I have taken recently:

Over the last few weeks, I, along with many other university presidents, have signed three letters that are being transmitted to the new president and members of Congress.

One letter supports the continuation of DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — a program started by the Obama administration in 2012 that, in return for registration, and subject to a number of provisions, provides minors who were brought to this country certain rights and privileges. We have six such students on our campus now, and there are more than 750,000 registrants nationally (not all of whom are in college). In signing the letter, I wanted our DACA students to know that, absent a legal requirement to do so, Roger Williams University will not provide information about them to federal authorities.

A second letter calls for a reaffirmation of “the core values of our democratic nation: human decency, equal rights, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination.” By today’s standards, these values would seem noncontroversial — and yet there is already talk in Washington of an initiative to roll back certain recent and hard won victories of rights for members of the LGBTQ community. I thought it was very important that I reaffirm our institutional value of providing equal rights to members of all groups.

Finally, a third letter addresses the need to honor our international commitments to reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and “to invest in the low carbon economy” in order to minimize rising sea levels that result from climate change. Our stated campus goal of promoting “sustainability” seemed to require me to sign this letter.

But it’s not enough merely to call attention in Washington to our principles. We also have the obligation to live out those principles on our own campus. For example, as we become more diverse, we confront the reality that not all of us have had the experience of living and working with individuals from historically underrepresented groups.  Therefore, to facilitate more comfortable classroom conversations, we are providing cultural competency workshops for our faculty and staff, beginning in late January, and continuing through the spring semester, to allow all the opportunity to attend. These workshops are in direct response to the student-led Justice in the Classroom movement on our campus, and we believe and hope that these and similar actions will create a better learning environment for all students.

There will be other forums as well, and I urge you to attend as many of them as your schedule permits. Our year-long “Quest for Refuge” series will continue through the spring semester. Both the School of Law and the Division of Student Life are sponsoring workshops that will be announced in due course. I plan to have more “Fireside Chats” on themes that emerge from conversations with students, faculty and staff. We will continue to engage with you on themes and topics that are current and relevant to our campus, our state, and our nation.

I look forward to hearing your views as we incorporate these matters into your educational experiences here at Roger.

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 and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 3)

Is the purpose of college to get a good job or to have a great life?

In the first two parts of this series, I addressed some of the ideas regarding higher education that are being promoted by various candidates for president of the United States. In Part 1, I examined the wisdom and folly of eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities. In Part 2, I raised the inconvenient question of what problem the solution of free tuition is intended to solve – and what unintended consequences might result from such a policy. Now, in Part 3, I want to consider yet another factor that explains why there is such divergence of opinions regarding higher education on the part of our presidential candidates.

Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 2)

Before we choose a solution, let’s identify the problem

In my last post, I considered at some length the pros and cons of tuition-free public higher education, as advocated by some candidates now campaigning to be the next president of our country. After all, the reasoning goes, free tuition has been a long-standing policy in the K-12 sector; why not higher education? Different candidates vary with respect to how generous they are prepared to be, with one advocating a means test and at least a token investment by the students and their families, whereas another wants simply to do away with tuition at public colleges for everyone.

Unfortunately, the candidates are not discussing what particular problem their policy is intended to solve. Surely, in order to be effective, solutions have to derive from a collective agreement on, and understanding of, what problem the solution is intended to remedy – and our presidential candidates appear to have skipped this step.

The presidential election is almost a year away, so we still have time to think more about the problem we want to address before we fall in love with a particular solution.

‘The Death of America’s Universities’ – Overreaction Reaches New Levels

Let’s not confuse legitimate concerns about equity on college campuses with political correctness

On Nov. 16, students at Roger Williams University organized what they referred to as “BlackOut” (pictured below) – a noontime demonstration in support of the students at the University of Missouri whose protests against the indifference of some senior administrators at the university to claims of racism on the campus led to the resignation of the system president and the campus chancellor.

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RWU student leaders spoke and presented a proposed list of action steps they wanted to see taken by our campus and then invited me to speak. The prevailing mood at the demonstration was collaborative and civil – no “demands” were made, and no one’s resignation was sought. I was very proud of our students, and I told them that we would form a representative task force to develop a plan, with timelines and metrics, to address their entirely reasonable concerns. Then we returned to our offices and classrooms to resume the work of giving and receiving a university education. The local newspaper wrote a positive editorial about the event (“RWU students’ intelligent requests,” Bristol Phoenix, Nov. 19, 2015).

The New American College – Two Decades Late

Perhaps the late Ernie Boyer’s argument – service to society as the primary mission of higher education – hasn’t been abandoned altogether

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Ernest L. Boyer

The late Ernest Boyer was a hugely influential voice in higher education policy during the latter part of the 20th century. He was the chancellor of the giant State University of New York (SUNY) system, before becoming the U.S. commissioner of education (a position that later was changed to “secretary”); he ended his career as the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Boyer was very comfortable taking on the higher education establishment and calling out its weaknesses as he perceived them. For example, he believed that American higher education began to lose its way after WW-II, when the National Science Foundation was established (1950) and the National Institutes of Health were greatly expanded, making federal research dollars available, in increasingly larger amounts, to campus-based researchers. Boyer was visibly concerned that the growing emphasis on university-based research was coming at the expense of the historic emphasis on high-quality undergraduate education.

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.