The University of Oregon has paid $25,000 to a political consulting firm to try to influence a student vote in October on whether to impose a new fee to finance renovations of the student union, The Register-Guard reported. Administrators want the students to authorize the fee, but they have twice rejected the idea. A memo about the consultants' work obtained by The Register-Guard said that critics would be described as "narrow minded" and "stubborn." Student leaders are criticizing the decision to hire the consulting firm, saying that students should be able to express their views without an expensive campaign to influence them.
Trustees at the University of Virginia reportedly thought that their president – a self-described "incrementalist" two years into the job – was not making changes fast enough and that they had therefore better get rid of her. I followed the drama closely and suspect many other college presidents did as well.
In fact, several months before the events at the University of Virginia, I was invited by the Mellon Foundation to address new college presidents on a topic of my choice. I decided to reflect on articles urging trustees to demand that their presidents deliver, above all, change. Even though my institution recently had enacted a series of far-reaching new policies -- eliminating merit aid, for example, and soon afterward (despite a very uncertain economy) becoming need-blind in admission, while reaffirming our practice of meeting the full demonstrated need of every student who enrolls -- I advised my new president colleagues first to identify those things that they would not alter.
One of the articles that I mentioned, from The Chronicle of Higher Education in December 2011, reports on a study suggesting that trustees, alas, may serve on boards "for all the wrong reasons"; they are not "really interested and engaged in making change." Another, in the January-February 2012 issue of Trusteeship, asserts that routine evaluations of college and university presidents must be based not on what they have actually achieved but on what they are likely to accomplish in the future, urging board members to see whether "change is actually occurring" and whether their presidents are evincing "change-leadership traits." The principal role of boards, one gathers, ought to be to push their institutions in new directions. Different, it seems, is always better.
Such articles assert or imply that in parlous times presidents should be expected to arrive with agendas for change and pursue them vigorously. To be fair, they specify that presidents should lead the "right" kind of change, “positive” change, but the articles tend to be silent on what constitutes right or positive change. I recall a passage I saw long ago in a government navigation manual that urged quick action in emergencies, but at the same time warned against "hasty decisions that might turn out to be mistaken."
The "right" kind of change, indeed. College presidents learn quickly that there is rarely a single right answer. There are often several arguably reasonable solutions, none of them easy and none of them perfect: one has to listen hard, think hard and then take a reasoned course, based on educational and ethical values and the best understanding one can bring to the situation. As much as I appreciate trustees who challenge administrative complacency, I am not sure that their primary agenda should always be "to propose fundamental changes," to quote again the Chronicle article.
Are the best presidents really those hungriest for change at any cost? Of course the world is evolving, and just as we pride ourselves on giving our students the education and the skills they will need to adapt, we had better be ready ourselves to adapt. There are things on which we must improve – for example, using technology effectively, finding cost efficiencies, collaborating with each other and supporting our students from the time we recruit them to the time we launch them – but there are surely also things in each institution that should rather be preserved. Getting a handle on just what reforms best suit any given institution can take time.
So the wise course, it seems to me, is for presidents to begin by identifying what they do not want to change – for example, their institutions’ core values and the commitments that flow from them. At Hamilton, such values have to do, among other things, with broad access to a liberal arts education, with an emphasis on good writing and undergraduate research across the disciplines, and with the belief that active scholarship and creative activity inform good teaching. We direct our resources accordingly.
Forces that will impose change on the whole sector are certainly in play, and we need to pay attention to trends affecting pricing, energy, curriculum, assessment, technology, globalization and the like. But we also need to figure out when it makes sense for an institution to follow such trends and when to resist them, taking drastic measures only with specific objectives in view.
We ought to keep firmly in mind that, as institutions of higher learning, our horizon is not six months or six years, and that part of our mission is the application of sober critical inquiry to crises of the day. As Alexander Hamilton put it in the Federalist Papers, the role of a leader is to give "time and opportunity" for “cool and sedate reflection.”
I am reminded of an experience I had as a young teacher of French in the 1970s. A curriculum committee decided to make sure that everyone was using the latest textbooks. This made sense for electrical engineering or computer science, but for courses on the early French novel? The works I was teaching had not changed in a couple of centuries, and the anthology I had chosen, albeit a few years older and less glossy than some, was inexpensive and had a good critical apparatus. That committee seemed to me commendably aware that part of our mission was the creation of new knowledge, but it appeared to have forgotten that the other part was the preservation and transmission of things that endure.
The American higher education system has endured for centuries by adapting to change and preserving that which is most defining and essential – and being able to differentiate between the two.
Joan Hinde Stewart assumed the Hamilton presidency on July 1, 2003. As the first in her family to earn a college degree and the first female president in Hamilton's 200-year history, she is very comfortable with change.
Carey Adams, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Missouri State University, has been chosen as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Armstrong Atlantic State University, in Georgia.
Jeffery Allbritten, president of Macon State College, in Georgia, has been appointed president of Edison State College, in Florida.
American higher education is at a crossroads. For much of the 20th century our postsecondary system was the envy of the world. The United States had higher participation rates than our counterparts in other industrialized nations, the cost of a college degree or certificate was affordable, and our research infrastructure and quality was lauded for its innovation and creativity. Over the last decade, however, the country’s public and private institutions have been battered by the recession and a disinvestment from state governments.
Student debt now exceeds credit card debt. Whereas significantly more people should be participating in the postsecondary sector the potential exists that the country will see fewer students entering and graduating with a certificate or degree. Ample empirical evidence points to the impact of financial aid and debt on attending college, on persistence, and on graduation. Until recently the country could anticipate that increasing number of students of color and first-generation students would participate in higher education, but now the very real possibility exists that fewer students will attend college in the future. Until we resolve the vexing issues concerning needed immigration reform, we squander significant talent. And those students who graduate may find themselves significantly in debt and unemployed.
Throughout the 20th century a hallmark of American higher education was the idea of academic freedom. Tenure came about to protect academic freedom. Although advances in technology and online learning provide significant possibilities for improving learning, a postsecondary education cannot be bereft of engaged critical inquiry amongst students and faculty. Faculty productivity in the classroom and in the research arena can always be improved upon, but the centrality of academic work pertains to free inquiry. A commitment to research and science that is based on fact rather than opinion has been a centerpiece of American higher education. America’s postsecondary institutions exist to advance the common good. The common good necessitates the search for truth, and academic freedom is critical for that search.
Accordingly, the most crucial issues facing postsecondary education are:
1. To guarantee that an infrastructure exists that maintains quality, enhances the diversity of the student body and increases the intellectual capital of the faculty.
2. To fund the postsecondary enterprise in a manner that makes college affordable.
3. To ensure that students graduate from college in a timely manner without burdensome debt.
4. To maintain regulations that do not stifle creativity and innovation but also protect consumers.
5. To vigorously support the idea of academic freedom as central to the well-being of the academic enterprise.
6. To take up comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM act, in order to use all the talent we have developed in our schools and colleges.
We look for and encourage specific proposals from the presidential candidates with regard to these issues. Although President Obama is the incumbent and has addressed some of the issues we think are crucial, we frame them as if both candidates are equally situated and equally likely to take office in January 2013.
Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center. William G. Tierney is university professor and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.
As the lurid details of the events that have catapulted Pennsylvania State University into the headlines have emerged, the rush to impose consequences has seemingly overwhelmed good sense and thoughtful, deliberative reaction. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s imposition of penalties -- taking away victories earned on the football field, banning post season bowl participation, loss of athletic scholarships, and a fine of $60 million -- seem, with one exception, to miss what ought to be the targets of everyone’s understandable wrath.
In addition, there are serious questions about how and why the NCAA has chosen to assert jurisdiction over these matters, and what precedent this establishes for future events involving NCAA member schools.
First, the wrongdoers. From all the evidence assembled and made public, Jerry Sandusky has been convicted by a jury and will undoubtedly spend the balance of his days in prison. Former President Graham Spanier and the two administrators implicated in the cover-up of the Sandusky crimes have been fired. Two, and possibly all three, face criminal prosecution, as well. Coach Paterno has died. With the exception of the taking away of victories from the team, which officially denies Paterno and his family the distinction of being the football coach with the most victories of any in history, none of the other penalties imposed affect any of the individuals involved in the events.
Second, the victims. While the actual victims of the horrendous crimes have the satisfaction of Sandusky’s conviction, and will be entitled to civil remedies against the individual wrongdoers, and very likely the university, the NCAA punishment does nothing to compensate the children or their families. The money penalties are going to establish a new charitable enterprise to focus attention on child abuse, a worthy cause, but will do nothing to help the victims associated with this tragedy.
Third, the new victims. The NCAA sanctions affecting bowl games and athletic scholarships will now affect athletes who have done absolutely nothing wrong. And the financial sanctions risk impacting the entire student body and faculty at Penn State. While the NCAA has gotten most of the headlines, the Big Ten Conference imposed its own sanctions on Penn State, including its annual share of television revenue for four years. In combination with the NCAA fine, the university will lose $73 million. Add to that sum the expected funds necessary to resolve civil cases that the crime victims will be entitled to receive, plus litigation costs, and the sums involved could, according to one of the trustees, approach $500 million. There is the further concern that liability insurance carriers could decline coverage of legal claims if it is shown the wrongdoing by Penn State officials was intentional. Typically, coverage is limited to acts of negligence.
With the athletic program hobbled by the sanctions and loss of television revenue, funding the payment of these matters will likely require that either students, through tuition hikes and/or fees, or taxpayers be required to pay up. And as this all plays out, is there any doubt students who might ordinarily choose to attend Penn State will go elsewhere, and a superb faculty, assembled over decades, will slowly but surely drift away to other institutions where resources will not be drained paying for the sins of five people long gone from the institution?
Obviously, not all of these potential consequences are due to the NCAA and Big Ten conference. But the piling on, without a clearly defined purpose and questionable subject matter jurisdiction, is unnecessary, at best, and sadly misdirected.
There is no evidence that the events in any way involved intercollegiate competition, improperly recruiting athletes, providing improper benefits to athletes or any other rule in the NCAA’s micromanaging of competition-related conduct. The use of the notion of “institutional control” as the basis for the NCAA’s jurisdiction in this instance can now be used to assert NCAA sanctions in any event that involves a university and its athletic program employees and students. This seems significantly beyond the legitimate jurisdiction of, and purpose for, the NCAA.
While public universities have been experiencing reductions of state financial support for many years, few if any could withstand the dimension of the impacts that are being imposed, without serious consequences to the academic mission of the institution.
So what has the NCAA really accomplished? With the exception of the Paterno victory reduction (which seems entirely appropriate), its sanctions miss the wrongdoers, miss the crime victims, and in a sense, create a new category of victims (students, faculty, taxpayers and the academic vitality of the university).
The precedent being set raises, in my mind, serious questions about the future. One example: what if the tragic shooting events several years ago at Virginia Tech involved either an athlete or former employee of the athletic department, and as an evaluation later determined, the school had not undertaken sufficient steps to warn other students of the danger as events unfolded. Would such circumstances call for NCAA sanctions over and above the criminal and civil justice responses? After all, the crimes would have been related to the athletic department, and the university’s “institutional control” was found to be inadequate.
The NCAA’s actions in this instance, leaving aside any arguments about due process, feel more like politicians, each trying to one up each other offering competing, kneejerk legislative proposals in response to the world’s latest tragedy, rather than the thoughtful, effective, and properly targeted sanctions expected of respected educators.
Robert L. King is president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.