Friday, October 29, 2021

Higher education funding in Biden's "Build Back Better"

Predictions were that the long-anticipated proposal to "Build Back Better" would result in higher education funding shrinking from what many hoped. The implications of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 signed by President Biden reflected a hard fought battle that includes several significant take-aways.

The most visible features of BBB include; increasing Pell Grants, supporting HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs) enroll about the same name of Black students as HBCUs and require attention, although they have not received the same level of support.

College retention and completion grants included in the funding proposal are considered revolutionary and could lead to a new era of focus on not only getting underserved students in the door but out the door and into lucrative workforces. Focusing on undeserved students is especially important in the face of continued decline in enrollments, most dramatically reflected in minority-serving institutions, with early common application figures for 2022 showing a reversal of the decline. While some education leaders bemoan the reduction of scope of higher education funding, President Biden remarked, "No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that's what compromise is. That's consensus. And that's what I ran on."

The Biden administration's attention to higher education is warranted at a time when revolutionary forces are underway. Steve Mintz summarized the factors driving the revolution and responses education leaders might consider. Included among Mintz' factors of revolution is the question of whether or not college is for everyone, especially in the face of emerging alternative approaches that "rebalance our goals by allocating a far larger share of public resources toward non-college pathways" that are more directly focused on skills development and career preparation. Reinforcing the importance of broad institutional commitment, a new quality assurance group, the Workforce Talent Educators Association, is poised to recognize, and perhaps even accredit, institutions for their effectiveness in preparing students for work.

With 65% (and continuing to grow) of the COVID relief funds designated for students having been spent, U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary Kvaal reported significant impact for individual students and institutions. Kvaal responded to skeptical legislators that proper oversight to guarantee proper use of funds is in place. Students with the greatest financial need are important because they are among the young adults who will need to be upskilled for 21st century work opportunity. Continuing that focus, the BBB funding includes "Dreamers" (DACA) continuing to receive help. Lobbying is still underway to offer help to the broad number of undocumented students in the U.S.A.

Student loan debt has long been known to restrict young adults acquisition of the markers of adulthood - cars, homes, and independence. Debate has continued about whether or not debt relief is warranted but as of May 2022, it appeared that the U.S.A. Department of Education was poised to forgive debt for at least the proportion of students with the heaviest debt. Biden was considering caps to both income and total amount of loan forgiveness for those qualifying for debt reduction. The caveat is that loan forgiveness driven by Democrats could result in major political disruption. Many among conservatives hold higher education in low regard and see loan forgiveness as a maneuver to garner favor among young voters.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Are universities indispensable to democracy?

The answer to the question of universities' relationship to the preservation of democracy was answered very directly by the President of Johns Hopkins, Ron Daniels, in an interview about his book, What Universities Owe Democracy. He said:

...this is a perilous moment for democracy. And it is interesting that if one looks back over the years in the United States, whenever there has been a sense that democracy has been in peril -- you know, whether it was during the Civil War, or the two world wars -- the universities, with support from government, have really understood their role as bulwark institutions of democracy. And I fear in this moment, as much as we do to support democracy, there is an opportunity here to do more. And doing more with some urgency is really essential right now. We're not bystanders. We are indispensable institutions to democracy flourishing.

In his interview, Daniels highlighted the importance of creating more inclusive institutions, reincorporating conservative voices into faculty ranks, and abandoning legacy admissions at elite universities. Reinforcing Daniels' core assertion that more should be done, William Tierney believes that higher education is shirking its responsibility to challenge the emergence of fascism and appealed for action to protect voting rights (to which Matt Reed adds the relevance of rule of law and standing) as a critical area of concern. He proposed that "Trustees can set the tone. Presidents can employ the bully pulpit to make the case for fact-based decision making and the import of democracy. Faculty members can engage in respectful, difficult dialogues to model how tough topics might be discussed. Henry Reichman warns that faculty need to more deeply understand what academic freedom is and remain diligent in protecting it. Students can come to grips with the responsibility they have as activist citizens in a democracy."

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February, 2022, drew the world's attention to the tension between democratic and authoritarian states. The President of the Lumina Foundation referenced this revival of military action to impose political order as a wake-up call in relation to the responsibility to expand access and foster social progress through higher education.

While the role of universities in supporting democratic practices is perceived as increasing in importance, there are troubling indications that political interventions are seeking to undermine it. The move to keep critical theory out of K-12 is evident in the 38 higher education focused legislative bills now being considered at the state level. These legislative actions are essentially "gag orders" and "would have a disastrous effect on the tenets of free inquiry, free expression and critical thinking."

Carol Geary Schneider, former President of the American Council on Education, called all of higher education, but particularly those serving previously underserved populations, to revisit the guidance of the 1947 Truman Commission, which advocated:

  • Education for a fuller realization of democracy
  • Education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation
  • Education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence
In a time where democratic processes are being challenged, Schneider called for a return to making civic education central in all students' experiences, not just an elective or for students of select backgrounds. Hong Kong Baptist University's focus on citizenship and social responsibility is a fascinating example of infusion of key learning outcomes across students' experiences. Complementing Schneider's perspective, the President of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, Lynn Pasquerella, explored public health, questions of life and death, issues of campus controversy, and rebuilding public trust in her book, We Value: Public Health, Social Justice and Educating for Democracy.

One of the greatest challenges of higher education is cultivating democratic practice and participation is creating environments where all voices are welcome. Cambridge University proposed a "mutual respect" policy as a way to support all voices but faculty quickly criticized the approach. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of students who feel that their campus climate stifles free expression and don't feel free to speak out. Law student disruption of speakers at Yale and UC Hastings feed into the view that conservative ideas are silenced. In an age where increased sensitivity to language and history is on so many educators' minds, and where accusations of "cancel culture" are used to defend offensive acts, holding the line on open expression is difficult. Yale's determination that protester's behavior was "unacceptable" but fell short of conduct warranting disciplinary offense won't satisfy conservatives' accusation of stifling their free speech but it does protect the speech of those who felt it was their free speech right to protest.

Free speech could be imperiled if institutions are unsuccessful in framing the importance of, and civil approaches to, free expression which includes recognizing some claims as no more than attempts to impose intellectual conformity. MIT has been dealing with the repercussions of cancelling Dorian Abbot's lecture. Abbot, a University of Chicago scholar, has openly criticized  and drawn equivalency between "academe's diversity 'regime' to Nazism." Princeton subsequently scheduled Abbot's lecture on its campus. Alumni groups are now growing in number as an alliance to take on "cancel culture," a move that asserts a view that alumni should not only be a source of donations but should help preserve the qualities of the institutions that nurtured them in their academic study.

A critical issue embedded in the question of advancing democracy is how to assess the difference between legitimate intellectual criticism versus canceling others' views and presence. Discourse that involves sharp and direct communication is essential to advancing knowledge and mischaracterizing it as "cancel culture" is a very significant danger to the academy. Essentially, balancing civility with free speech requires "the broadest possible tolerance... while also attending to the potentially harmful effects of accusatory or hate speech." Free speech for all should also be distinguished from academic freedom that faculty are assumed to have. Academic freedom for faculty has specific parameters related to their intellectual expertise and protections related to public, rather than private, issues. Some educators warn that academic leaders' pronouncements may compromise their stance as advocates for free speech.

Students who are conservative report greater reticence about speaking out on campus. Those students who are reluctant to share their candid views fear their peers' criticism outside of class. Academic discourse needs to be challenging and the complaints of self-censorship and cancel culture may actually cross the line to a more restrictive culture. Campus administrators can address the rise of incivility on campus by reminding everyone on campus of the commonly accepted classroom norms that support discourse. Effort should also be undertaken to fuse the expectations of in and out-of-class conduct, especially in the face of an "increasingly hostile and toxic work environment" that results from escalating tensions between staff and students over pandemic and other policy directives.

Accusations of cancel culture, fostering campus environments that are inclusive of diverse perspectives, and campus speech are three tensions that must be managed by higher education leaders. Survey results found that most university presidents believe that race relations are either good or excellent on their campuses, demonstrating surprising naiveté about campus discourse. Managing Political Tensions, a collection of articles offered by Inside Higher Education, promotes deescalating tensions and cultivating the cognitive tools in students to resist manipulation. The Bipartisan Policy Committee's Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap "seeks to bridge the campus speech divide, arguing that talking through contentious issues is a skill set that students can and should be taught - and also that academic freedom and inclusion complement each other instead of conflict" as described in the Inside Higher Education announcement about its release.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Free speech abroad?

U.S.A. Students who study abroad may believe that they take the same rights and privileges they experienced at their home institution with them when they travel. A report compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) calls for institutions to be more clear that, when studying abroad, U.S.A. students must be aware of, and follow, the laws of the jurisdiction where they are studying.

The laws of countries where students go vary widely and the details may be difficult to discern, especially when it comes to freedom of speech and dissent. Sarah McLaughlin, director of targeted advocacy for FIRE, said "universities should be doing a little more of the heavy lifting to make sure their students understand what speech issues abroad mean for them specifically." Part of the heavy lifting needs to include the U.S.A. home institutions' policies related to what will happen should a study abroad student violate its policies. Examples of activities that students may assume they can do that could be interpreted as political activism include; wearing pro-LGBTQ+ clothing or pins, writing articles on foreign policy, or tweeting criticism of a host country's government.

One reason for needing clearer statements of institutional policy is that, in the absence of specific declarations, students may unnecessarily self-censor. Fully engaging in the study abroad experience could include service learning or community involvement that would be helpful but, lacking specific direction, students could avoid or not get all the benefit of such experiences.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Generational tension in higher education

Recognition of generational change is usually spurred by key catalytic events that end up defining the experience of those in a new generation. The post WWII "baby boomers" were influenced by the exodus from a world war coupled with a seismic population explosion, growth of a middle class, and a move to the suburbs. The current Millennial Generation has been defined by 9-11, being the first digital natives, and uncertainty in career prospects when they graduated from college. Such distinctions by roughly 20 year increments are challenged as lacking relevance and in some cases contributing to simplistic thinking.

The current generation of college students, born in the early 2000s, were grade schoolers during the trauma of a near depression that exposed business, church, and government corruption. They weren't quite ready to vote in 2016 when a populist demagogue captured the White House but in 2020 they helped defeat him for a second term. And, they were closed down by a pandemic at a time when their youthful energies would typically have been unleashed. All of these potentially impact what college students expect of their teachers.

The 1960s brought a number of very significant changes to U.S. higher education, creating a mix of "complex and contradictory legacies" as Steve Mintz wrote. Mintz previously looked at names and how they have changed in the current generation to discern the more important differences that define this generation. As Karl Mannheim described in 1928 in the Problem of Generations, the character of age cohorts is "defined by its values, aesthetics, and sensibility in opposition to its elders." In a follow-up article, Mintz explored an additional difference that characterizes many of the current generation of students - their longer and more complicated journey to adulthood. The passage to adulthood also includes class differences that must be recognized, with privileged students' lives still resembling the intriguing stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and less privileged looking more like the lives of the Williams sisters in the recently released movie, King Richard.

Herein lies the challenge of an aging professoriate facing students of the new generation - baby boomers, with some Millennials and Generation X mixed in, relating to a new generation which has yet to secure a predictable name. Mintz recommends that in these times of potential generation tension that academics take the time to cultivate ways of relating that include; respect, understanding, support, flexibility, and open mindedness. A core issue in bridging generational tensions is students' sense of "being seen" or believing that institutional staff understand them. Nearly two-thirds of students report the most direct connection with faculty, with somewhat fewer believing they are acknowledged by student affairs and other administrators. Which students are "seen" differs by demographic and socio-economic background. Deeper analysis of the Student Voice data was used to formulate 10 ways to strengthen connections with students.

Mintz quoting Randolph Bourne, "Youth puts the remorseless questions to everything that is old and established... (and) turns instinctively to overthrow them and build in their place the things with which its visions teem." The times they are a-changing... and it scares many of the elders. But why should they fear when the evidence is that to thrive we must be reborn to a new age with new challenges and opportunities? That's why this generation should be called the Resilients or Passionates.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Strong first impressions

University of Maryland President, Daryll Pines, and a colleague who is a faculty member in higher education, created what they believe is essential as part of welcoming new students, faculty, and staff to campus. The TerrapinStrong initiative is designed to build community and pride of membership among new campus members. The focus is particularly on shaping first impressions that strengthen campus values related to identity and inclusion that "creates a launchpad from which Terps can tackle grand challenges, such as racial justice, climate change and civic engagement."

Although orientation programs on college and university campuses have purposefully cultivated community and pride for decades, what may be slightly different about TerrapinStrong is the focus on outcome. Not only are community and inclusion good for encouraging connections and retention, they are the building blocks of healthy community that allow all members to do their best work.