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Speakers at Inside Higher Ed's Feb. 15 meeting

WASHINGTON -- The splay of fault lines running through nearly every facet of higher education widens in sometimes unexpected places.

Yes, there are the stalwart tensions: liberal arts versus job training, free speech versus inclusive campuses, public institutions versus privates, colleges versus regulation. Then there are the less obvious, yet still very real divides: educating adult students versus traditional 18- to 22-year-olds, giving colleges more public funding versus demanding they control costs.

Underneath it all are the esoteric issues, like the gulf between the high-quality education colleges and universities believe they are imparting to students and what many companies' chief executive officers think are poorly prepared graduates entering the work force.

Issues like the hazy gulf between higher education's perception of itself and reality.

Numerous fault lines came into focus Thursday during a series of sessions at “Higher Ed in an Era of Heightened Skepticism,” the first installment in Inside Higher Ed's 2018 leadership series. In both on- and off-the-record discussions, speakers covered public confidence in higher education, leadership, branding, strategy and possible paths forward.

Some of the tensions discussed have been exposed by shifting demographics, as populations in many parts of the country grow more diverse. Others have been exposed by economics, as income inequality grows and state budgets continue to tighten.

Politics hung heavy over most conversations. And rising tension between conservatives and higher education proved to be of great concern.

Also evident was the aftermath of the populist wave that lifted Donald Trump to the presidency. It left some speakers obviously leery of the new-look Republican party and others chiding blue lines of academics on the nation's coasts who dismiss the great red swaths in its middle. Still others railed against the excesses of Ivy League spending.

Dean Zerbe was senior counsel to the U.S. Senate's finance committee when Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, scrutinized wealthy university endowments a decade ago. He characterized a new tax law that targets large university endowments as a case of colleges and universities resisting reasonable attempts to change their behavior for so long that Congress ultimately acted in spite of their protests.

Zerbe also took aim at what he sees as a broader culture of not controlling costs.

“You all can say, ‘We’re trying,’” he said. “Stop. Stop. You've been trying for years. You've got to make improvements. You've got to make them now, today.”

He was far from the only one criticizing costs -- and the prices students pay for postsecondary education.

Zakiya Smith, strategy director for finance and federal policy at the Lumina Foundation and a former Obama administration official, pointed to problems with the way Americans view higher ed.

“They think they need it,” she said. “They aspire to it, and they are frustrated by how expensive it is and how unattainable it can seem.”

With the perception of higher ed such a focus, it might have been tempting to call for a branding campaign to wash away criticism. But the idea that such an effort is possible without changes in behavior was ultimately rejected.

“To think that we can have a better brand if we don't change is ridiculous,” said Elizabeth Johnson, a partner at SimpsonScarborough, a higher education marketing firm. “It's one of the real problems. Higher education has been so slow, so slow like a snail, to adopt even the basic principles of marketing and branding.”

In spite of the challenges, some tried to strike more optimistic chords. Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, called for meeting students' needs, building a curriculum based on outcomes and delivering when and where education is needed. To paraphrase, higher ed should be much, much more flexible.

“That's a new world for us, but the world needs us,” he said.

If a single theme can be drawn from the many tensions discussed Thursday, it is that in a rapidly evolving world, nearly everything in higher education is unsettled. If one question can capture them all, it is whether higher ed, long organized to be insulated from the whims of the outside world, can adapt fast enough to its remarkable new demands.

The longer the question goes unanswered, the more the fault lines seem to spread.

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