Why more presidents need to speak out about current issues (essay)

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, while 55 percent of Americans think higher education has a positive impact on the direction of the country, only 36 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents do. This is despite the fact that the economic returns of a college degree have never been greater.

In addition, much of the media coverage about higher education, especially from the hyperactive right-wing media, is negative. Colleges and universities are seen to be inadequately defending free speech on campus, caving in to demands for “trigger warnings” and in general infantilizing students. Stories about massive student debt abound, despite the fact that a significant portion of that debt has been taken out by students attending for-profit institutions. The news about higher education is largely negative -- although the sector is actually doing a reasonably good job of educating ever increasing numbers of students and generally preparing them for the labor force in the face of shrinking budgets.

Unfortunately, America’s college and university presidents have been noticeably absent from the debates about academic freedom, the benefits of a college degree, the financial woes of their institutions, the broader purposes of education, the challenges of the Trump era and essentially all the key issues. Occasionally, when a crisis occurs, such as the shouting down of a speaker and resulting tumult at Middlebury College, the president does speak out, but usually such responses are as anodyne as possible.

It was not always this way. In the past, some college and university presidents were active speakers on the higher education issues of the day, and a few had major influence on policy. Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, and Ernest Boyer, who served as U.S. commissioner of education as well as chancellor of the State University of New York, are two prominent examples. They were not only commentators but also had an impact on higher education policy.

More recently, Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, and William G. Bowen, who headed Princeton University, have written influential books and contributed to current debates. Other leaders who have spoken out on controversial issues of the day have included Stephen J. Trachtenberg, retired president of George Washington University; Johnnetta Cole, former president of Spelman College and Bennett College; John Silber, formerly of Boston University; and Charles Vest and Jerome Wiesner, both former presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had a major impact on American science policy.

Why the Silence?

Without doubt, being a college or university president in the 21st century is not an easy job. Incumbents worry about alienating trustees, faculty members and students. Those internal constituencies are less willing to accept presidential opinions that may disagree with their own.

And academic communities, no doubt reflecting the rest of society, are divided on many issues. They expect their leaders to reflect an often nonexistent consensus. Trustees increasingly see the president as a CEO and expect him or her to avoid controversy rather than be an educational leader. Further, presidents are expected to spend more time and energy fund-raising and may not wish to alienate potential donors by speaking out on contentious issues.

Current issues are complicated, and developing a well-articulated position is not always easy. And any position is almost guaranteed to arouse animosity. When, in 2014, John Ellison, the dean of students at the University of Chicago, issued a strong statement of commitment to free expression on campus, it was immediately attacked from the left and right. Who, one might ask, would oppose a defense of free expression on the campus? In today’s society, many.

Leadership Needed

As never before, higher education needs strong and articulate leaders to speak out on the academic issues of the day. College and university presidents are at the nexus of the 21st-century communication hub. They are the people who have expertise, institutional knowledge and the credibility to speak on higher education and other major societal issues -- the bully pulpit, electronic and otherwise. And they have the responsibility to do so.

Presidents operate at several different levels. Leaders of nationally known academic institutions can speak to a national audience -- perhaps in collaboration with colleagues -- on national issues. But campus leaders must also play a key role in the local context: meeting with community groups and speaking on national and local issues. Many do so, but the point is to ensure that people everywhere are aware that higher education institutions play a key role in their communities -- and that education is a central value, both for the knowledge that it imparts and for the skills that benefit graduates and the economy. That requires constant engagement. And only presidents can reflect on the key issues facing their own institution; it is very difficult to speak broadly since the higher education sector in America is so variegated and complex. Of course, such communication is especially important when there is a campus crisis, or when national issues, such as debt burdens, the attacks on the liberal arts or a strong defense of academic freedom, require a local voice.

Communication is complex in the digital age, and academic leaders must intelligently use all means available -- from Twitter, Facebook and podcasts to traditional meetings with community groups and editorials in the local newspaper. If higher education is to regain the esteem that it once had, it will take a major commitment from college and university leaders. And it is not just the medium but also the message that higher education is more important than ever in a technologically oriented economy and a politically and socially divided society.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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Virginia Tech Professor Arrested, Charged with Fraud

A professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech is accused of defrauding the university and the federal government in a case involving more than $1 million in grant funding, the The Roanoke Times reported. The professor, Yiheng Percival Zhang, is charged with wire fraud, making criminal false claims and making false statements, according to a federal affidavit filed in the U.S. Western District Court of Virginia. He was arrested last week and in jail as of early this week, according to The Times.

Zhang’s lawyer said the professor maintains his innocence and intends to vigorously fight the charges. Zhang, a Tech graduate and Chun You, a postdoctoral researcher in China, are accused of defrauding the university, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy by withholding grant funds from 2014 to 2016. Specifically, Zhang allegedly applied for grants to pay for research that already had been completed in China and only turned over 18 percent of federal funds to Tech when he owed it 30 percent as part of the grant agreement. A university spokesperson said Zhang was still employed there this week.

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Virginia Tech Professor Arrested, Charged with Fraud

Wealth Gains for Americans Who Lack College Degrees

New data from the U.S. Federal Reserve on changes in family income show that Americans without a college degree, and African-Americans and Hispanic families, had the most rapid increase in wealth from 2013-2016. However, college degree holders are still far more wealthy, as are white families (with almost 10 times the wealth of African-American households).

"The largest gains in median net worth occurred among families without a college degree, whose median net worth increased between 24 and 29 percent. For mean net worth, the largest gains occurred among families without a high school diploma, who experienced a 40 percent increase in mean net worth," the report found. "In contrast, families with a college degree saw a modest 2 percent gain in median net worth and a 24 percent gain in mean net worth."

Even so, the report showed that families with college degrees have a big head start, as The Washington Post reported.

"The median net worth of people with just a high school diploma jumped almost a quarter to $67,100, a sizable gain," according to the newspaper. "But people with college degrees have a median net worth of $292,100, over four times as much as those without bachelor's degrees."

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Study Questions Effect of Performance Funding

A growing number of states -- 35 so far -- have created performance-based funding models that tie portions of appropriations for public colleges to outcome measures such as degree production or student graduation rates. A new research paper examines results of performance-funding formulas in Ohio and Tennessee, which are home to two of the most established of such policies. Advocates also cite the two states has having particularly sound approaches to performance funding.

Production of bachelor's degrees at four-year public institutions did not increase in either state after the funding formulas were enacted, according to the study, which was published by the American Education Research Journal. Associate-degree production also was relatively flat during the decade between 2005-15, as the policies came into effect.

"In both states, community colleges produce significantly fewer associate’s degrees than community colleges in other performance-funding states," wrote the study's co-authors, Nick Hillman, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Alisa Hicklin Fryar, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, and Valerie Crespín-Trujillo, a graduate student researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

A sole positive effect on credential production found by the study was a substantial increase in certificate production by Tennessee's community colleges.

"The evidence presented here suggests the exemplar performance-funding states have not yet outperformed other states except with respect to certificate programs," the researchers wrote. "Considering the low returns to certificate programs, where graduates’ earnings are often not higher than high school graduates’, this outcome may work against other state policy goals related to economic mobility and work-force development."

The study cited three limitations: that the two states were phasing in their funding incentives during the examined time period; that both states introduced dual-enrollment policies at the same time, which could have muddied the findings; and that the study did not examine other student success-related outcomes, such as retention rates.

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New presidents or provosts: Aquinas Army Empire Pembroke USD Umpqua Ventura WMU Western Tech

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  • Gail F. Baker, dean of the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media and executive associate to the Chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has been chosen as provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of San Diego.

Academics need to develop a digital presence to support their work

Laura Pasquini writes it is becoming increasingly vital for scholars to share their practices online and develop a digital presence to support their work.

Threat of rescinded federal funds prompts range of responses from online education experts

Department of Education’s inspector general says Western Governors University’s competency-based courses do not meet distance education rules. What does finding mean for online learning? Experts weigh in. 

Inside Digital Learning: Online Education in Question

In today’s “Inside Digital Learning”:

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Inside Digital Learning: Online Education in Question
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Inside Digital Learning: Sept. 27, 2017, Newsletter
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Instructors use OER to take ownership over course materials

Those behind new open resources for intro economics course see a chance to keep field current while saving students money. Instructors in other disciplines also employing free content to better suit their course needs.

2 New Hires by the Education Dept.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday announced two new senior staff hires. Michael Wooten will be deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary for the department's Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education. Leonard Haynes will be a senior adviser.

Wooten most recently was deputy chief procurement officer for the District of Columbia. He previously chaired the governing board of Northern Virginia Community College and was deputy department chair and professor of contract management at Defense Acquisition University. Wooten is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

A former acting president of Grambling State University and adjunct professor of public affairs for Ohio State University, Haynes previously has had several jobs at the department, including stints during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. His roles included assistant secretary for postsecondary education, director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and senior director of institutional service for the Office of Postsecondary Education.

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