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SAN FRANCISCO -- Public trust in colleges and universities is eroding at a time when liberal education is crucial -- and institutions must respond aggressively. That was the current running through several panels here Thursday at the annual meeting at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
“A liberal arts education is situated as reserved for those within the ivory tower, reflecting a willful disconnect from the practical matters of everyday life,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the AAC&U, during a plenary address called “Always on the Fringe: Closed Futures and the Promise of Liberal Education.” It’s a trend that’s been “exacerbated by the recent political jockeying and appeals to people’s fears and prejudices, in which rational inquiry built on evidence has all but been abandoned.”
In order to restore trust and “destabilize the attitudes at the basis of proposals that devalue education,” Pasquerella said, “we need to demonstrate in a more compelling way to those outside of the academy, Democrats and Republicans alike, the extent to which we are teaching students 21st-century skills, the ability to solve the world’s most pressing problems -- local, national and global issues -- within the context of the work force, not apart from it.”
Beyond that, she said, “championing liberal education must reaffirm the role that it plays in discerning the truth.”
The AAC&U has long advocated for liberal education, or a broad education that stresses critical thinking skills and preparation for a career as opposed to specific job, and lifelong learning, not just at liberal arts institutions. But administrators and faculty members spoke with a new urgency here, referencing declining governmental and cultural deference to peer-reviewed research and facts in general. Several speakers, including Pasquerella, said devaluing academe not only threatens the pursuit of truth but has a disparately negative impact on underrepresented groups and the poor. That risks greater inequality, or what Thomas Jefferson called an “unnatural aristocracy.” Indeed, Pasquerella called economic inequality the biggest challenge for higher education.
“We need to be vigilant in rebutting accusations of irrelevance and illegitimacy leveled specifically at the liberal arts and sciences and to recognize those charges for what they are -- collusion in the growth of an intellectual oligarchy,” she said, “in which only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions.”
Pasquerella called on those present to face their share of the blame for the state of higher education, and there was lots of blame to go around.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream, pointed to the economics of higher education. Many colleges, including public institutions, have become so unaffordable to so many that students and their families doubt a degree’s promise of economic mobility, she said. That’s especially true among those who take out loans and truer still for those who leave campus for whatever reason with debt but without a degree, she said.
Colleges and universities promote the idea that “We’re worth it, debt is worth it, taking a loan to come here is very much worth it,” Goldrick-Rab added. “We’ve not only shifted sort of our own rhetoric about this, but the major mechanism of financial aid at the federal level has become loans and not grants over time. And part of that has been facilitated by the rhetoric that says, ‘We can charge what we want because what we’re providing is a value, and we will discount it for those who have need, and we will do so effectively’ -- what’s called the high-tuition, high-aid model -- despite the fact that over 30 to 40 years, we’ve failed to actually implement that model. We told ourselves a story over and over where our students are actually all right, or they must be, or we wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, quite frankly.”
Jeff Selingo, author of There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, said institutions themselves perpetuate the public-versus-private good debate by focusing too much on higher education’s personal economic returns. At the same time, he said, “It’s very tough to put that genie back in the bottle.”
Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College, pushed back on the idea that all colleges tout economic gains over liberal education values, saying that her institution stresses community uplift -- precisely why some students choose to attend it over other colleges or universities that offer them more aid. And while access to liberal education for the underrepresented is at risk, too many of the minority, poor and first-generation college students already on campus interact too little with other socioeconomic and racial groups, she added. (Tatum wrote the literal book on that topic, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, which she’s currently updating.)
But Tatum, too, expressed concern about citizens who lack "historical understanding.”
Answering a question about higher education under President Trump, she cited his predictable “unpredictability," saying, “When people don’t have a historical education, you don’t know what they’ll do.”
Goldrick-Rab, who moved to Temple from the University of Wisconsin at Madison over that state’s recent gutting of tenure at public institutions, said she thought, “We’re all living in Wisconsin now.” Predicting the further erosion of for-profit college and university regulations and the possible “starving” of nonprofit institutions, she encouraged a “resistance” that involves naming threats for what they are without fear of retribution, and being allies to the most vulnerable.
Much of the talk about a “resistance” to present and future challenges to higher education involved adopting a new language of advocacy. One audience member pointed out that even the word “liberal” to describe education is fraught and misunderstood in today’s political discourse.
Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, said “parochialism” has been successful for the leaders of the “new populism we’re seeing,” but that academics should take a “deep dive” into their own brand of provincialism. A liberal education aims to promote certain habits of mind, and “learning to learn,” but not prescribe “ways of life people ought to adopt.” Like Tatum, he stressed the importance of meaningful dialogue (what she called “learning to listen”), and also said that academe must be more accepting of “traditional conservative religion and thought.”
Roth even called “critical thinking” overrated as a term and, to a certain extent, as a practice; criticism comes easily for students, just as irony does to the faculty, he joked -- so students should be taught not only to take ideas apart but to make new ones. (The idea was particularly relevant so close to Silicon Valley and in a crowd that had at an earlier plenary been encouraged by faculty members from Stanford University's Institute of Design to teach students innovative, entrepreneurial thinking.)
“If everybody’s ready to be critical, then the brainstorming is over,” he said. “Have we given [students the] courage to create?”
At the same time, Roth said to applause, educators cannot engage in conversations based on “bigotry” or “collaborate with fascistic, extraconstitutional measures that target minorities.”
‘Naked’ Transparency and Unhelpful Binaries
In a separate panel explicitly called “‘Coming Clean’: Rebuilding the Public Trust,” other thinkers took responsibility for decreased confidence in higher education and said how it might be earned back.
Mary Ellen Petrisko, president of the Accrediting Commission for Schools-Western Association of Schools and Colleges, pointed to a 2015 Wall Street Journal report called “Watchdogs of Higher Education Rarely Bite” and said that accreditors “are certainly an answer to why public trust has eroded.” She said organizations like hers must do a better job of explaining to the public and policy makers the nuanced process of ensuring institutional accountability, from what’s on the line for students when an institution is at risk of failure to what robust assessment really means.
Institutional value is about much more than sound bites and quick numbers, she said, but colleges and universities can also help themselves by being more transparent about how they know they’re succeeding.
"It’s really easy to get flustered about this as an institution and not know what to do," she said. "Take a deep breath — look at what your learning outcomes are. Do you have general education outcomes? Do you have outcomes or competencies? What are they? How are they stated and how do you know they are being met? In how you know they’re being met, you're getting some information somehow. How do you look at that to know what’s good or bad? How do you translate that into this percentage, or this band of students are doing this, and figure out to present that? That’s a snapshot."
Debra Humphreys, vice president of strategic engagement at the Lumina Foundation, agreed that “the train has left the station” on transparency, saying that institutions need to “go naked” with data on institutional performance. Moreover, she said, those data need to be desegregated so as not to disguise inequity.
Ideally, Humphreys said, institutions would coordinate with each other in such an effort, “but we don’t really have a system of higher education. It would be easier if we did.”
Beyond data, re-engaging the public also means talking more about -- and designing policies and programs around -- who college and university students really are, since only a fraction are “traditional” students straight out of high school, she said. It also means “maintaining a laser focus on equity and quality” in what will likely be a deregulated environment going forward. Lumina, for example, is pushing for high-quality sub-baccalaureate credentials, for example, to oppose “dead-end” offerings.
Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, said, “Change really moves at the speed of trust,” and that institutions have to do a better job at finding other, more trusted agents to speak for them -- namely alumni. Yet too often, she said, even successful graduates don’t realize they’ve learned the critical thinking and other skills they were supposed to.
“They think they learned it all in spite of us, because we never told them that’s what we were going for.”
People typically equate learning something with taking a class on it, so if they never took a class on, say, ethics, they don’t think they’ve learned it, Jankowski said. Yet even welding programs can and have taught ethics, she said, through problem-based learning exercises about being pressured to finish a bridge contract without the proper materials, for example.
“Being explicit about something that is complicated is very hard,” she said, but being open with students about the relationship between general education and a major or how learning is scaffolded over time not only helps them understand the value of their education but also could help them re-enter a degree program more easily after time away.
Aaron Thompson, interim president of Kentucky State University, knows about rebuilding the public trust, at the helm of an institution that’s faced challenges, including lower graduation rates, in recent years. Recalling Pasquerella’s comments, he said his approach is to reject the binary of liberal arts and technical education, such as by incorporating microcredentials into some programs, and by ceasing to demean critical thinking and other important skills as “soft.”
"Where do we go from here? Build quality into a quantifiable strategic agenda. Let’s be purposeful, let’s be directional, let’s be proactive — let’s do it," he said. "Engage employers early and often. Educate internal and external stakeholders on the value of education. And let’s produce an educated graduate."