• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

A Real Horror Story

Denial is a threat.

November 20, 2019
 
 

I don’t have much time for horror movies. I’d rather do a comedy, even a dumb one, than watch some cretin in a hockey mask wield a chain saw. It’s just not fun to watch people suffer.

That said, Tuesday’s Inside Higher Ed story by Paul Fain represented real horror. If you haven’t read it yet, start there. Seriously. I’ll wait.

It’s a microcosm of everything that makes candid discussion difficult in higher ed. For those who didn’t follow the link, it’s a story within a story of Inside Higher Ed being showered with a flurry of legal threats for preparing to run a story linking to a study purporting to score hundreds of private colleges and universities on their financial viability.

Some of the attacks were couched in terms of methodology, claiming that the study in question was flawed in some consequential ways. That sounds plausible until you imagine the opposite. Which would be scarier to the industry: A study that gets some things wrong, or a study that gets them coldly right?

I’m guessing the latter. Quibbles about methods can provide excuses to avoid talking about the more important underlying truth.

Last year, when Massachusetts started talking about a law mandating disclosure of college financial struggles, I objected that disclosure could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Higher education is still largely a reputational business; labeling a college as likely to fail could scare away both new students and possible donors, thereby ensuring that it does. It would add injury to insult. And that’s not just hypothetical. Look at what happened to enrollments at the Community College of San Francisco a few years ago when its accreditation was threatened. Its enrollment dropped by tens of thousands of students in two years. Students (and their parents) don’t want to climb aboard a ship they think, rightly or wrongly, is sinking. Donors like to give to success. Yes, there’s the occasional Sweet Briar College story, but those are very much the exception.

Still, I can’t help but notice that measures that might make private colleges look bad occasion a flurry of legal threats and some thoughtful hand-wringing, but measures that make community colleges look bad -- cough, IPEDS grad rate, cough -- get a government-sponsored online scorecard. The double standard is hard not to notice.

As the parent of a college freshman and a high school sophomore, I get the consumer appeal of information about viability. I don’t want to send my kid to place that might fold, or fall into a death spiral, while my kid is there. And as a flawed human being, I’ll admit following the link in the article to the piece in Forbes from 2017 grading colleges on financial viability and looking up a few places I have my doubts about. My doubts correlated quite well with terrible grades on that list. I also noticed that the single lowest grade on the list went to Newbury College, which just closed. I can’t vouch for every detail, but it seemed to get the contours right.

Still, censoring the information doesn’t make the truth it reflects go away. The single best argument for putting it out there is probably to catalyze improvement before it’s too late. How to win over the doubters on campus without alarming the community off campus is a massive leadership challenge, especially in an age of social media, when information leaks quickly. But it’s increasingly the task at hand.

Sadly, the first response to bad news is often to dig in the heels, amp up the denial and shoot the messenger. Which is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Fain’s story would make a great case study in future courses on journalism, business ethics and higher education. I don’t think I’ve seen one that packs as many dilemmas into as few words in a long time, if ever. It’s scarier than fiction, because it isn’t fiction. Here, the killer isn’t wearing a hockey mask. Things would be easier if it were; at least then, we wouldn’t have to argue about its existence.

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