Study Questions Value of 'Stackable' Credentials

A recently released paper found "only weakly positive and inconsistent gains" in the labor market for stackable credentials, which are defined as certificates and degrees that are awarded in a sequential order, as students progress in their careers.

The study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, which was released in November, includes several caveats, such as an acknowledgment that estimated earnings gains from stackable credentials may be imprecise. But, using federal data, the study found no clear labor-market benefits from any of the combination of stacked credentials.

"We conclude that the labor market evidence on stackable credentials is (at best) modestly positive: the earnings gains for degrees are robust and the gains for certificates, although not high, are generally positive," the paper said. "Yet, there is no clear evidence on the earnings gains explicitly from stacking these credentials. Moreover, we cannot identify which type of stack -- supplemental, progression or independent -- yields the highest earnings gains."

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Lessons learned in merging a college with another (opinion)

In 2009-10, I was an American Council on Education fellow. All who undertake that leadership development preparation have a memorable experience called Pennyfield. Groups of fellows come together as the president and senior staff of Pennyfield College and -- based on a range of information about finance and mission, competitive market complications and national circumstances -- are asked to work together to create a presentation for the college’s Board of Trustees.

Teams have about 24 hours to identify core problems, propose solutions and, most crucially, reformulate the annual budget. Mentors are available around the clock, and groups can quickly become enthusiastic, competitive and dedicated advocates of the fictitious college. I do not remember what solution we found to Pennyfield’s financial morass nor how we proposed to solve the budget dilemmas, although the Pennyfield board, composed of former and present college presidents and chancellors from around the country, applauded our PowerPoint presentation and solution.

Contrast that experience to July 2012, when I became president of Shimer College. The board I worked with was not a role-playing one gathered to teach and mentor aspiring leaders. Nor were the students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members or our partner institutions imaginary. The financial dilemmas were real, the market challenges facing liberal education (especially in Illinois) immense, and our educational mission perplexing to or misunderstood by many people around us. In this, I was not unlike many of my peers who imagine administrative work and then face the realities of institutions that have their own particular histories and possibilities. Shimer was not Pennyfield.

And yet I thought about Pennyfield repeatedly during my years as president of Shimer College. I thought about who was not in the room when we undertook our 24 hours of work (faculty, students and administrative staff, for example, not to mention local community leaders). I thought as well about the ways the Pennyfield experience, created to help aspiring leaders understand finance, risked allowing educational mission to slip into a secondary place in the work of each team.

In fact, Pennyfield came to mind over and over again as insider’s shorthand for the intersecting dilemmas and hopes, the Gordian knot, that is American higher education generally and American private liberal arts colleges more particularly.

Recently, I reflected anew on Pennyfield, as I thought about the processes by which I led Shimerians to a new future. The work required finding Shimer College a potential partner (eventually North Central College). Then followed a nearly two-year process of regulatory, legal, financial and curricular work at two institutions, undertaken alongside significant data management, technological, infrastructure and employment changes. This past summer, Shimer and North Central College’s deal was completed, and what was once an autonomous Shimer became the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. In one sense the deal was done. In another, it was simply another step along the way to a fully embedded Shimer Great Books School of North Central College.

Three Motifs

Neither the form of this victory nor the lessons I learned in pursuit of change would have occurred to me as I worked through the night on the difficulties facing Pennyfield in 2009-10. Here are three that are worth remembering.

First and foremost, life is not a case study. No matter how messy any case study is, reality is much messier. Much, though not all, of that mess may be discernible only in hindsight.

In the case of mergers and acquisitions in higher education, the messiness is not limited to a single aspect of the institution(s) but can be pervasive, reaching into every arena of institutional functioning -- including personnel, finance, governance, marketing and communication. Whether understood through the lens of structural, human resources, political or symbolic frames, the full organization is involved. (Of course, no such deal occurs in a vacuum, so the messiness may extend well beyond institutional boundaries.)

Among the messes that were notable were those where the governance differences between the two institutions were most evident. For example, internal Shimer governance was an assembly, which included all students, staff, faculty and administrators. And our Board of Trustees included two faculty members and three students as voting members. North Central follows a more traditional shared-governance model. Shimer’s community was tiny and close-knit, while North Central’s was larger.

As a result of those two differences, our communication plan at Shimer was substantially more complex than one might have guessed given the smaller scale -- for every member of the Shimer community had a governance role in our decision making and following one’s governance procedures is vitally important in such transactions. In our case, as well, every Shimerian, whether faculty member, administrator or student, was affected -- though differently -- by our decisions. Our student trustees, by the way, were amazing in their capacity for confidentiality and for responsiveness in the process.

Among the messy details we addressed together were:

  • shifting from semesters to trimesters;
  • ensuring students at various stages of their Shimer careers were able to graduate on time;
  • meeting the housing and commuting concerns of students -- whose needs varied significantly as we moved to a residential campus;
  • retaining staff members when few would be offered jobs at our new campus;
  • supporting student and staff choices about their futures with an eye to what was best for each individual while meeting metrics of student and staff continuation that would ensure the success of the deal;
  • raising substantial dollars from alumni and friends while navigating nondisclosure agreements;
  • planning for deal success while knowing how to manage deal failure;
  • managing emotions associated with loss and success as the deal neared completion; and more.

Such pervasive messiness has been acknowledged in the literature on mergers and acquisitions in higher education at least since the wave of mergers in the 1970s and the spate of meta-analyses of these that followed. While we may forget such messiness eventually -- as perhaps has happened in the decades-old cases of Carnegie Mellon University and Case Western Reserve University -- recognizing its likelihood may help prevent a forced choice between closure and merger, enhance our understanding of mergers as one of a series of kinds of strategic alliances, and strengthen the potential to accomplish the missions to which we are all committed.

It turns out, on reflection, that messiness can be the source of creativity and hope rather than failure. Working to ensure that is the case is one lesson to take from Shimer’s experience that is perhaps less obvious than what one learns from the more staged work of a case study.

Second, although Pennyfield was developed to facilitate financial and budgetary learning among aspiring leaders, nothing in higher education is simply or solely about money. In short, decisions about money have far-reaching implications and ought not be made in isolation. That is equally true of decisions regarding educational mission that willfully ignore the financial situation. In some very real sense, the tension between educational mission and the “business model” of higher education operates as a fractal -- it appears whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, in every decision, large or small, made by every actor in higher education.

Certainly that was true at Shimer, where the educational mission was distinctive and beloved and the financial precariousness both legendary and long-lived. To be successful, the acquisition, which led to the emergence of the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College, required meeting fund-raising and fiscal management goals and sustaining a continuity of curriculum and culture.

Third, presenting the idea is not the conclusion of one’s work -- most often, it is the beginning. Whereas the work of Pennyfield was done when the fictitious board applauded, the work of the real world is not concluded when the actual board receives reports, votes or recommends action. Much of the effort preparing for board meetings -- and then the follow-up work that comes from board decisions -- is relatively invisible to anyone not regularly on the campus. And the extraordinary work of a merger takes place in the interstices between routine educational, regulatory, financial and other activities.

There were many board votes at both Shimer and North Central, each a decision marker along the way. Each brought increasing commitments to engage with shared governance as well as rising demands for staff and faculty members at both institutions to prioritize efforts to make the deal “work.” That included a full summer of intensive labor (often by North Central personnel) on a change of control document for the Higher Learning Commission, a regulatory approval prerequisite to any further action, and the fulfillment of additional deal-related requirements. Some of Shimer’s board members appeared on a regular basis (and at some points, on a daily one) on the campus as we moved toward the future -- communicating, raising money, managing budgets and personnel, and helping ensure that the board’s decision came to fruition.

The idea of coming together with another institution as a new form of Shimer was, thus, only the beginning. We came to know that as the days, weeks and months wore on from our initial conversations to the final signatures on documents. The changes we were managing -- leading -- always felt rushed and always took too much time. The carrying of the business solution of mergers and acquisitions into the landscape of our particular corner of American higher education did not mean that the tension between speed and deliberation, business model and educational mission, dissolved.

In fact, regulatory, legal and financial tasks of higher education mergers and acquisitions are time-consuming. They have opportunity costs and are often undertaken in circumstances where staff and faculty members are already stretched, as was the case with Shimer and to a lesser extent North Central College. What began, we thought, as a six-month process was, in fact, a two-year process. As we build change together, we are both building and refusing history -- working at the cusp between a certain past and an uncertain future, when history matters less than the stories we tell to hold past and future together. Time matters -- and we never have enough to be prepared for what comes next.

Wicked Problems

Everything else is a corollary to these three points: messiness is pervasive, money is not everything and ideas are the start -- not the end -- of institutional work.

Whether we are discussing the kind of asset purchase agreement undertaken by Shimer and North Central or other decisions on other campuses, the quandaries we face in higher education are what I referred to above as a Gordian knot and what some refer to as “wicked problems,” raising matters that are ethical and managerial -- affecting more people than one is likely to imagine both at individual and group levels. Those matters are located at the confluence of the symbolic, the political, the structural and the interpersonal. Rarely is our time frame 24 hours. Rarely are our options singular. Most often, they require a both-and approach rather than an either-or. Change is always about loss and gain.

The kinds of full-on change that Shimer -- and North Central, perhaps less obviously -- risked involve every one of the characteristics of wicked problems: “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.” Wicked problems require us to resist both simple binaries and endless perseveration, both the absence of analytical thought and analysis paralysis, both simplistic approaches and immobilizing complexity.

Indeed, a quick review of the literature on higher education reveals that much of what we at colleges and universities do has been labeled a wicked problem in recent years: assessing our quality, strategy and strategic planning, as well as our capacities to transform our institutions to meet the needs of the social order; moderating the growth of tuition; addressing access and affordability; and much more. While Pennyfield was itself attempting to present us with a wicked problem, capable of many solutions and yet nearly impossible to solve, such problems become more salient than ever when one moves from case study to real life.

Among the challenges facing us at Shimer were the conflicting requirements to hold matters confidential yet to be transparent, to use democratic processes of shared governance yet retain the urgency of top-down, board-level decision making. In real-world dynamics, we had no choice but to focus on institutional (regulatory, legal, financial and educational) change and the cultural particularities of Shimer itself.

The fact is, whether we are discussing Pennyfield or Shimer, change in higher education is always about refusing the easy solution. It is about change as loss and gain, about the human impact of all we do, and about the capacity to hold multiple possibilities in mind and in action as we build a more sustainable educational model.

When we are successful, leadership in higher education and in the classroom means navigating between necessary change and change for change’s sake, between proactive and reactive stances. When we are successful, we are the bridge between past and future that refuses nostalgia and empty optimism in favor of hope. That is the victory Shimer has found -- for now.

Susan Henking was the 14th president of Shimer College. She is president emerita of Shimer, professor emerita of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and a senior consultant to Academic Career and Executive Search.

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The challenges of following a long-serving senior administrator (essay)

One of the most challenging issues new leaders face when following those who've held the same position for years is dealing with contradictory messages about change, writes Judith S. White.

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How digital learning shapes physical spaces on campuses

Institutions are pouring money into modern spaces designed to promote active learning and technology engagement. Balancing costs and benefits remains a challenge.

Report: LGBTQ students enroll in long-term counseling services the most

A new report says that college students who grapple with their gender identity or sexual orientation often are in counseling the longest, but the top focus of counseling centers is anxiety and depression.

New presidents or provosts: Castleton Columbia Basin IUPUFW MTSU Mississippi Nipissing Saint Mary's UCSD UVA WGU-Texas

  • Mark Byrnes, interim provost at Middle Tennessee State University, has been appointed provost and chief academic officer there.
  • Ronald Elsenbaumer, special adviser to the president at the University of Texas at Arlington, has been selected as chancellor of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Professors at Lehigh, Florida Gulf Coast Resign Amid Sexual Harassment Claims

Professors at two more institutions have resigned amid sexual harassment allegations against them. Lehigh University said Tuesday that James Braxton Peterson, former director of Africana studies and associate professor of English, resigned during a campus investigation that eventually found “sufficient cause” of sexual misconduct on his part, The Morning Call reported. Lehigh officials said in a campuswide email that they were notified in November of allegations against Peterson, who was then placed on leave and not permitted on campus during an investigation. Peterson resigned before the inquiry was complete, but officials said their findings would have otherwise triggered termination proceedings. A regular media commentator on race, Peterson hosted a podcast on Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate, which will no longer be distributed in light of the allegations, a station spokesperson said.

Florida Gulf Coast University also believes that a former professor of music there sexually harassed multiple students, according to local ABC affiliate WZVN. Five women told university investigators that Rod Chestnutt harassed them, in some cases hinting that he wanted to have sex and or asking them back to his home or a hotel after a musical performance. Chestnutt, who resigned this fall, is also alleged to have commented on female students’ appearances or touched them. A university report on the matter says that Chestnutt’s behavior was “unwelcome, severe, persistent, pervasive” and damaging to the complainants' educations, according to WZVN. University spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Chestnutt.

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Improving the value of campus facilities (opinion)

Articles in recent years about higher education spending on luxurious campus facilities can leave readers with the impression that students are only attracted to lavish campus frills -- and that colleges and universities are merely motivated by the pressure of an amenities arms race. Perhaps that is true of some institutions and students, and the fact is that certain colleges and universities that construct lazy rivers or tanning beds may be unnecessarily spending resources and, in so doing, damaging an otherwise educationally sound rationale for facility development. As the cost of attendance rises, levels of public funding slow or decline, and private institutions question the longevity of tuition-discounting models, institutions that invest too much in expensive building projects may be putting themselves at risk when it comes to not only public perception but also their bottom lines. Recently, a growing number of colleges and universities are becoming aware of that possibility and moving away from trophy buildings and other seemingly excessive amenities.

All that said, however, there are many good reasons -- other than student consumerism or competitive pressure -- that colleges and universities should invest in their facilities. I have been making this educational case for facility development throughout my 30-year career.

Higher education leaders know from years of research that what students learn -- about themselves, about others, about the world around them -- is significantly influenced by those with whom they interact and occurs largely outside the classroom. Just as initiatives in our most livable towns and cities often include spaces and experiences designed to incubate unplanned serendipity -- such as parks, libraries, civic spaces and festivals -- students, too, need places for such engagement if they are to bridge misunderstanding and build more cohesive communities. The disintegration of civil relationships on our campuses points to the need for connection. Only through connection can people learn to constructively disagree.

The programs and experiences within campus facilities give students an opportunity to practice these relationships and roles in preparation for a postcollege life in which our businesses, communities and neighborhoods need highly skilled leadership and participation. Developing a more sophisticated capacity to live, lead and contribute is not solely a cognitive exercise. Going to a football game is very different than watching it on television, and experiencing new music, food, people, languages, music and ideas is very different than simply reading about them.

Some campus facilities are intentionally developed to expose students to people and ideas that are different from those they might have previously known. Residence halls, for example, match roommates with different backgrounds or majors wherein students learn about accepting difference, managing through conflict and literally living together in harmony. And student centers offer spaces for students to learn about organizing people and managing meetings, as well as civic spaces for programs that are overtly or subtly educational. Recreation facilities, dining centers, cultural spaces and the like give students opportunities to practice, make mistakes, form opinions, explore values and learn, lead and follow. These facilities are worthy of investment because student learning is worthy of investment.

What’s more, many of the nation’s campus buildings were constructed during a period of historically high enrollment decades ago and are now in significant need of repair. Some estimates place higher education’s collective deferred maintenance backlog in excess of $30 billion. As in our own homes, building systems fail, materials become worn and ways of use become outdated. The cost of replacing facilities almost always outweighs the cost of renovating them, although sometimes these buildings reach the end of their useful life and simply must be replaced. Regardless, campus buildings -- classrooms, recreation centers, libraries, plazas, laboratories, counseling offices -- matter for the total educational experience, and to neglect their need or their purpose means neglecting the people who use them.

Even so, campus construction costs are too often unexplainably high, institutional leaders too often plan within administrative silos and student life administrators too often lack a narrative to counter unfortunate rankings that describe “luxury dorms” or “amazing recreation centers.” Although it is fun for students and administrators to learn that a campus facility is purported to be among the best, these misleading lists lack any form of methodology or inquiry about the campus itself, perpetuate a mythology of higher education being wasteful, and ignore the educational purpose and intentional learning designed into such facilities.

New Approaches Required

To improve value for students and their families, remedy the public relations challenge, and aid public understanding, colleges and universities must:

  • Insist on educational and institutional outcomes for facility development. For example, can student persistence and retention be somehow correlated with the creation of a new student success and advising center? Can student self-efficacy or appreciation for difference be measured as a consequence of a student center renovation?
  • Bring down the cost of campus construction. The cost of campus construction almost always exceeds the cost of construction in the private market. While there may be reasonable rationale (e.g., additional federal and state regulatory obligations), that reality drives up student costs, strains endowment earnings and astounds the public. We must find new ways to build less expensively, for shorter lifespans and/or with private-market relationships.
  • Be open to private-market practices in operations. Some colleges and universities have successfully lowered costs and improved service by looking to peers and private markets for examples of operating benchmarks in information technology, auxiliary services, conferencing management, procurement processes and the like. Although not always appropriate for all campuses or situations, we might lower operating and building costs and improve revenues and returns through operational self-examination.
  • Eliminate planning silos. Higher education is organized into offices, departments, schools, colleges, divisions and other structural units for effectively managing the institutional enterprise. Too often, however, we plan only within those structural silos and miss opportunities for cross-functional synergy, efficiency, knowledge and shared focus on student learning and experience. We should acknowledge that including students, faculty and other colleagues in facility planning discussions can result in more support, better buildings and powerful outcomes for students.
  • Push back on “luxury” narratives and related rankings. Higher education should develop its own measure of quality for student facilities, similar to institutional comparisons that have arisen as a counter to the U.S. News & World Report rankings, such as the Voluntary System of Accountability created by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; the University and College Accountability Network developed by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities; and the National Survey of Student Engagement based at Indiana University and funded by Pew Charitable Trusts. Moreover, we should assertively counter more populist rankings with information about the experiential intent of these buildings.

Recreation centers, student center buildings, residential buildings, dining halls, student success offices and similar facilities provide space, programs, experiences and challenges that contribute to the sum of a student’s education. They do not replace what is in the classroom, and they should not be the primary reason a student selects a college. Most important, they must be responsibly developed to serve the institution’s mission. Yet they are vitally important for educational reasons and not merely competitive ones. We shouldn’t oversimplify these reasons and throw the baby out with the bathwater -- or the learning out with the lazy river.

Loren Rullman spent 30 years as an administrator at five universities and is now a higher education consultant and strategy advisor for Workshop, a planning, consulting and design firm with offices in Milwaukee and Ann Arbor, Mich.

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Challenges and opportunities of gameful design examined in new book

Principles of game design could prove useful in engaging modern students in the classroom, according to a new book from Australian academic Kevin Bell.

The tax on college endowment unconstitutionally targets institutions (opinion)

In December, Republicans in the U.S. Congress passed a tax bill aimed at helping the very, very rich. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be paying for it the rest of our lives, as it adds trillions to the national debt. But the Republicans excluded one group of rich institutions from the gift it gave to big corporations: elite colleges and universities.

In fact, the tax legislation includes a big bill for the wealthiest higher education institutions: a 1.4 percent tax on endowment income for any college with more than 500 students and an endowment worth over $500,000 per full-time student. For about 30 colleges, the Republicans are the Grinch who taxed Christmas.

It might be tempting for some of us not to cry any tears for overprivileged colleges, run by wealthy administrators to serve the children of the affluent, which waste vast sums of money to prove how much better they are than everybody else. But doing so would miss a vital point: the endowment tax is an attack on academic freedom, and it is an attack on all colleges and universities. This is a warning shot across the bow of higher education, done for explicit ideological reasons to try to pressure institutions to silence leftists and lift up conservatives.

Although the endowment tax will raise a few hundred million dollars a year to offset the massive tax cut for the wealthy, both supporters and opponents of the tax acknowledge that its true purpose is to send a political message to American colleges and universities deemed hostile to Republican interests.

Columnist George Will argued that “the Republicans, without public deliberations, and without offering reasons, would arbitrarily make university endowments uniquely subject to a tax not applied to similar entities.” Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute said it “amounts to little more than a politicized, ‘Take that, Harvard!’”

Harvard Law professors Jack Goldsmith and Adrian Vermeule blamed elite universities themselves for the endowment tax, citing “the public contempt of so many university academics for those who fund their subsidies.” According to Goldsmith and Vermeule, “Conservative politicians and their constituents hear, on the one hand, that government owes universities a continuance of largesse and, on the other, that conservatives are ignorant, unworthy or corrupt. This sounds suspiciously like special pleading by an intellectual elite that wants to indulge in social criticism at the expense of the criticized, in both figurative and literal senses.”

Yes, it sounds like educators want the government to fund education and yet they want to have the freedom to criticize the government. Since when is free speech considered “special pleading”? Since when is supporting the ideology of the government in power considered part of a professor’s job in a free society?

The few Republican politicians who have commented on the endowment tax have tried to disguise the obvious ideological motives. Tom Reed, a Republican congressman from New York, claimed that the tax would be aimed at pushing colleges to address the “college debt crisis.” Reed did propose to tax only colleges that fail to spend a minimum amount of endowment dollars on financial aid. But the endowment tax that passed has no such provisions, and taking away endowment money that’s used for financial aid has the exact opposite effect.

Kevin Brady, a Republican congressman from Texas and the lead sponsor of the Republican tax bill, claimed that the endowment tax “ensures that private endowments are placed on equal footing with private foundations.” Private foundations, which disperse money to charities, are required to pay a tax. But colleges are the only kind of charity being targeted by Congress. Just as Democrats could not target churches for leaning conservative and demand that they should pay extra taxes, right-wing Republicans cannot target universities based on ideological beliefs.

The political motives behind the bill were also revealed by how hard Republicans worked to exempt conservative colleges from the tax. Passage of the Republican tax bill was delayed by a day as part of a failed attempt to exempt a Christian college in Senator Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky from the endowment tax. Only four Senate Republicans voted against a special exemption for Hillsdale College, the college beloved by conservatives for its right-wing political correctness. But because that special exemption didn’t pass, Republicans protected Hillsdale by raising the threshold for taxes to an endowment of $500,000 per student. That indicates a clear political motive in passing this special tax and a desire to punish colleges perceived (incorrectly) as being too liberal.

In short, it’s clear that the point of the endowment tax is not to tax wealthy universities. It’s to send a warning shot at all colleges and universities to restrain academic freedom or risk further economic assaults on higher education.

Punching Progressives in the Mouth

Richard Vedder and Justin Strehle at Minding the Campus attribute the endowment tax to “growing hostility by Republican lawmakers angered over the large political donations and public criticism that academics have made attempting to oust them from office. Lawmakers are growing tired of feeding the mouths that bite them.”

Vedder and Strehle praise the endowment tax because it “does send a warning to politically relatively clueless college administrators that their special privileges as institutions should not be taken for granted, and, indeed, are under intense scrutiny.”

But the First Amendment does not allow Congress to punish people or institutions as a way to send politically motivated warnings aimed at silencing criticism. And that is what makes it unconstitutional. Congress cannot impose “ideology taxes” on particular types of corporations they believe are antithetical to the political interests of the party in power.

What’s more, tax-avoidance schemes are notorious among the wealthy, and there’s no reason to think rich universities won’t adopt them if taxes become onerous enough. In fact, there might be an easy way every college could refuse to pay the endowment tax. They could perhaps avoid it by simply offering online courses and declaring that anyone who takes free online classes is an enrolled “student.” Students don’t need to be eligible for a degree and don’t even need to pay anything, since earlier provisions about “tuition-paying” students were ruled out of order by the Senate parliamentarian. Harvard’s online Introduction to Computer Science, with about 350,000 registrants from around the world, should be more than enough students to exempt Harvard from a $43 million annual tax. That would be a very real act of resistance if universities are courageous enough to risk retaliation from Republican politicians by refusing to pay a politically motivated tax.

But will colleges challenge the constitutionality of the new endowment tax as retaliation for the expressions of controversial ideas by their employees? The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and academic freedom, so a law by Congress that punishes colleges hated by the party in power is deeply suspect.

The Constitution also specifically bans bills of attainder, when Congress targets an individual or a group for punishment. If Congress passed a law imposing a 1.4 percent tax specifically on Warren Buffett or Planned Parenthood, it would be unconstitutional. Attacking a small group of elite colleges for their perceived political offense of being too liberal should also be unconstitutional. Although courts have interpreted the bills of attainder provision narrowly, it adds to the argument of a constitutional prohibition on congressional retaliation against their ideological enemies.

No, rich colleges won’t be bankrupted by this law. That’s not the point. The point is the principle. If Congress passed a law imposing a 1.4 percent excise tax on college professors making over $100,000 a year, it might not bankrupt anyone. But it would still be wrong, and unconstitutional.

David Horowitz, who long ago pushed for the Academic Bill of Rights, has written Big Agenda: President Trump's Plan to Save America, which proposes massive repression of liberal institutions as a tool of political power. According to Horowitz, Republicans cannot “continue to allow the left to use the trillion-dollar structures of the university system as a political base to destroy the society that created them.” He argues that Republican politicians must target universities for repression by using the power of money: “Republicans control the purse strings that can be used to restrain the progressive juggernaut. Why should half the country fund institutions that regard them as racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes and xenophobes -- in a word, ‘deplorables’?”

Horowitz believes that conservatives “must begin every confrontation by punching progressives in the mouth.” The endowment tax is the first punch. More taxes, and other efforts to silence criticism of President Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress, will follow.

If the Republicans are allowed to target universities (even wealthy ones) for political retaliation, the repression will only escalate. The endowment tax is an unconstitutional attack on higher education by powerful conservatives who see universities as an enemy to be destroyed. And that means we are all vulnerable.

John K. Wilson is the author of eight books, including President Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire (OR Books).

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