Friday, February 23, 2024

Renewal by "gut punch"

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin referred to his prostate cancer diagnosis as a "gut punch." While Austin received more attention for not revealing the health challenge earlier and more publicly, it is the gut punch that caught my attention. Diagnosis for any life threatening illness is traumatic and is likely to result in dark nights following long days of exploring prognosis and treatment options.

The moment we realize, perhaps for the first time, that we are vulnerable to something outside our control can also be an opportunity to refocus on the things that matter most. Joy Jones-Carmack revealed the recentering that she experienced as a result of her cancer diagnosis. In fascinating ways, her advice applies not only to traumatizing health events but perhaps to the way academics might begin to approach their careers more generally. The major recommendations include:

  • Don't let your career keep you from focusing on your health.
  • Take leave if you want to, and make the most of it if you do.
  • Be willing to relinquish control.
  • Don't be afraid to get personal or be transparent.
  • Realize you won't be the same afterward.
Hmmh... Might each day have more purpose and impact if we took the foot off the gas in ways that reflect this advice? Passion for what we do is a good thing but can also blind us from the limitations of our own humanity. Conviction punctuated by reflection and humility, sometimes stimulated by a shocking moment, may have the potential for greater impact than we could ever have imagined.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Critical studies defined and applied

Some public comment has attacked critical studies and others have advocated it as essential to the future of contemporary learning. Steve Mintz defines what critical studies actually is and takes it another step by suggesting that evolution of critical studies in practice might lead to a reorganization of disciplines. He says, "If colleges and universities were to establish academic departments and disciplines today from scratch, we'd shift away from the traditional departments established in the late 19th and and early 20th centuries. The stand-alone, stand-apart department model would give way to interdisciplinary studies to a greater extent and reflect the complexity of global challenges that do not fit neatly within traditional disciplinary boundaries."

Amen! My view has almost always been that academic departments are dysfunctional and undermine the truly cutting-edge transformation of learning. The departments' insistent on maintaining supremacy tells us a lot - the insularity is sought because it protects enclaves of intellectual independence and thereby fails to see all of the important issues that fall between the cracks. My background in music is probably the origin of my belief in interdisciplinarity but experience being marginalized in student affairs also demonstrates the inadequacies of the department model.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Texas Regents abandon Qatar's Texas A&M partnership

As partisanship and populism continue to surge across the U.S.A. and around the world, internationalization efforts are seeing new vulnerability to the educational objectives of knowledge diplomacy and capacity building through higher education. One apparent casualty of political intervention is the Texas A&M Board of Regents vote to abandon the 20+ year relationship with Qatar Foundation in offering select engineering programs at Education City in Doha, Qatar.

Discerning the background and reasoning of the Texas A&M decision is muddied by Regents' claims versus reactions from Qatar. A decision of this magnitude likely includes multiple tensions and considerations.

Coverage by the Texas Tribune quoted a statement from Qatar Foundation that "It is deeply disappointing that a globally respected academic institution like Texas A&M University has fallen victim to such a campaign and allowed politics to infiltrate its decision-making process." Predictably, the Texas A&M Regents accused Qatar of misunderstanding its decision and claimed that their 7-to-1 vote was based on "regional instability in the Middle East and a desire to focus on the system's stateside campuses."

Coverage from local/regional media such as the Doha News and Middle East Monitor reveal that Texas A&M's relationship with Qatar was called into question when a report by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy raised questions about the partnership soon after the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. The report claimed that Qatar had access to knowledge of weapons and nuclear engineering through Texas A&M's presence, which posed a threat to U.S. national security. ISGAP also asserted that the relationship between Qatar and Texas A&M University was troubling because of Qatar's funding of Hamas and links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Jerusalem Post article about ISGAP's accusations indicated that their report not only went to Texas A&M but also to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Governor Abbot of Texas, and Senator Ted Cruse (R-Texas). Considering the recipients of the report and review of the ISGAP website provides insight on their research and influence priorities. Analysis for the ISGAP report Follow the Money: Qatar Funding of Higher Education started in 2012 and led to a presentation to U.S. DOJ officials in 2019 claiming that Qatar was secretly funding U.S. institutions in order to foment anti-Semitism and anti-democratic ideals. Charles Asher Small, founder and director of ISGAP, published Unreported Foreign Donations to Universities Foment Anti-Semitism as an "Opinion" piece in Newsweek in October of 2020. The opinion references U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education review but there is no record of action on their parts.

The persistence of ISGAP in attacking Qatar coupled with the lack of response from U.S. governmental agencies may indicate that the previous reports were not found credible or that U.S. interests in maintaining positive relations with Qatar counter-balanced ISGAP's assertions. Having worked for Qatar Foundation and now watching the political dynamics underway in the U.S., my belief is that the decision was more political than rational. What may have happened is that ISGAP's goal to undermine Qatar's role in negotiating toward a conclusion of the 2023-24 Israel v. Hamas war, including advocacy for a 2-state solution, finally fell on the fertile ground of conservativism and isolationism of Texas.

International higher education hubs have been a growing trend for over 20 years and scholar Jane Knight outlines their emergence and benefit to all. Many countries around the world have added branch programs as a way to cultivate better trained workers and citizens. Qatar is a particularly notable example for their commitment to building its higher education infrastructure, which is reflected in the 2023 Qatar Ministry of Education update. Inside Higher Education raised the ominous potential that U.S. politicization of higher education in the Texas A&M example could result in other higher education partnerships becoming less attractive.

Whether the Texas decision was about unsettling times in the Middle East and wanting to focus on U.S. interests or the result of a U.S. partisan group's intervention, a mutually beneficial educational partnership is now lost. Ripples elsewhere could result in undermining one of the best forms of knowledge diplomacy available to the U.S.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Transatlantic Dialogue in Luxembourg - 2024

A good colleague with whom I became acquainted while serving as a Visiting Scholar at Miami University's European center in Differdange, Luxembourg, provides the genius and commitment behind the ongoing Transatlantic Dialogue. I attended two of the TAD conferences and found them to be informative, engaging, and including a unique artistic spirit. Francois Carbon is the mastermind behind the conferences which began in 2008 and continue to the coming conference this May 29 to June 1. TAD includes programming related to educational exchange, the arts, and peace making. The website provides background information, schedule, and registration assistance.

There isn't a better European destination than Luxembourg to enjoy Europe, engage deeply in understanding across national boundaries, and meet new colleagues that you may end up cherishing for a lifetime.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Recalibrating the cost of higher education

It's not clear if a trend is underway yet, but 2024 is beginning to look like a period of controlling college costs through budget reductions. Job cuts were announced at numerous institutions ranging from community colleges to state universities to at least one elite university. The wave of cuts includes a variety of institutions with Ohio over-represented. Cuts like these are initiated to align staffing with enrollment changes or in other cases may be designed to control the increasing cost of higher education. Whatever the impetus, it will be important to stay abreast of staffing and other budget cuts and the way these changes play out in public opinion.

Commitment to controlling costs in U.S. higher education is voiced by both Democrats and Republicans but the two sides have different ways of getting there. U.S. House of representatives passed the College Cost Reduction Act along party lines, confirming Representative Foxx's accusations that all of higher education needs an overhaul. Democrats introduced numerous amendments, all of which were voted down by the Republican majority.

Ironically, overall state support for public higher education increased by 10.2%, offsetting the supplemental funds that were allocated during pandemic relief. The pattern of increases includes hefty increases in some of the states where higher education is under attack, as in the examples of Florida where the state funding increased by 16.6% and Texas where the increase was 46%, a large portion creating an endowment for public education.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Resident Assistant roles distributed

The conventional Resident Assistant role of earlier days has become so complicated that institutions such as Binghamton University are breaking it up into separate functions and hourly employment. The Binghamton model defines a community assistant, student support assistant, and other hourly jobs related to management and targeted functions. Higher education has relied on RAs for a long time as a cheap way to manage and program residence halls but, with the growing complexity of student demographics and needs, it seems inevitable that the RA functions would have to be segmented in order to reduce stress and probably effectiveness of those who hold these roles.

The question is, how will the new segmented roles relate to one another and what does supervision by professional staff look like under this model? The idea of addressing the wholistic needs of students could get lost in translation and that would not be in students' best interest. I hope that student affairs educators involved in residence life positions are thinking this through carefully. Distributing functions could improve attention to important issues but it might also mean losing a sense of how all the pieces fit together to fulfill the core purpose of student learning and development.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Top 10 developments for higher education

There are some years where not much of note has signaled change but 2023 has been very different. Steve Mintz offered the top 10 developments for higher education, listing issues that will be familiar to most educators who pay attention. Higher education as a social and political dividing line, declining public trust, alternatives to college, an expanding governmental role, and hyperpoliticization are on the list.

As if to respond to the top 10 developments in 2024, Mintz' subsequent opinion suggested that it's time for institutions to think outside the box in their approaches to organization, curriculum, ways of teaching, and assessment. The first recommendation, one that will challenge student affairs educators, was to reconsider the bureaucratic divisions of academic and student affairs in order to better align cocurricular and extracurricular with academic goals, involve more faculty, and relate academic and career advising more purposefully. Recognizing the impediments to change that are part of the higher education scene, Mintz later offer 10 changes that colleges and universities need to implement.

Republicans plan to target affordability and accountability in the proposed College Cost Reduction Act. Democrats' opposition of the sweeping measures included in the Act are reflected in their Roadmap to College success, which includes provisions for affordability, access, and supporting students.  Review of the Republican provisions provide fair warning for how they view higher education and how they see federal policy controlling it.

With the highly controversial 2024 U.S. Presidential election on the horizon, the politicization of higher education is becoming a major issue, with conservative candidates throughout the ballot claiming "wokeness" and violation of freedom of speech. Attempts to exercise greater control over DEI has been on the rise under conservative governors. Campus responses to the Supreme Court reversal on affirmative action are likely to draw greater scrutiny and the risk of dismantling diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is significant. Higher education world wide may see changes as key elections take place across the globe.

It's difficult to determine if lack of confidence contributed to politicization or politicization led to lowered confidence. An article in the U.S. News and World Report related declining public confidence to politicization, cost of attendance, and access. It may not matter. The point is that higher education faces a barrage of challenges and negotiating them simultaneously will challenge educators of all types, ranks, and places.

Politicization is reflected in numerous legislative initiatives across the country, including challenging tenure, curricular control, DEI offices/programs, and accreditation. An Indiana legislative bill demanding "intellectual diversity" sounds reasonable, except that it mandates post-tenure review of faculty by governing boards, a move that could threaten the careers of faculty whose scholarship does not conform to the preferences of board members.

Being humiliated in the public's eyes has frightening potential as higher education leaders navigate public scrutiny and regulatory whiplash. Some of the critique is based on questioning what proportion of young adults really need a college degree, especially since the return on investment has declined in recent years. As questions loom, it's not surprising that state higher education officials identified workforce preparation as the major concern for their institutions. Preparation for careers in a knowledge-based economy and improving return on investment of time and money indicators for higher education are integral to the workforce development focus and this is the benefit that students expect.

Elite higher education institutions are at the center of the scrutiny of higher education, which was demonstrated during the House Committee hearings on anti-semitism. In his essay, Steve Mintz equated their dilemma to that of a Greek tragedy saying that privileged institutions need to "recenter themselves and to declare, quite boldly, that their purpose is to produce global citizens who serve the world... to ensure that those fortunate enough to attend or teach at an elite university are respectful and are able to interact civilly in a world of discord."

Although 2023 represented some return to stability after the 2020-21 pandemic, there are numerous issues that will challenge higher education leadership moving into 2024.