When college leaders talk to the public about issues facing higher education, they are so ineffective that "they might as well be talking backwards, in Russian.
That remark Sunday, by Brian Foster, provost of the University of Missouri at Columbia, reflects the degree of concern evident at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. Rest assured that plenty of those speaking at the meeting, which started this weekend in Los Angeles, spoke about the many wonderful things colleges do -- and the tragedy that higher education isn't sufficiently appreciated.
But there is also some fear in the air here -- concerns that the national commission studying higher education  may well propose new policies, and in particular some form of testing requirement for colleges, that don't reflect the realities of the way higher education operates. And at a standing-room-only session on "recapturing public confidence in higher education," several speakers from academe had tough love to offer their colleagues. Academics were told that they need to use language people can understand, stop infighting, get tough with David Horowitz, learn to speak eloquently about why testing might not be such a good idea -- and get comfortable with substantially more accountability than may currently be in place.
One audience member summed up the presentations as "gloom and doom" and the presenters didn't balk.
Foster said that communication between higher education and the public is so bad that academics need to "quit relying on rational arguments to make our points." What colleges think of as rational just doesn't strike anyone else that way, he said.
Part of the reason for that, he said, is a fundamental change in higher education over the last few generations -- a change colleges have embraced without realizing the full political implications, he said. That change is the shift away from viewing college as something for "a privileged few" and instead viewing it as something that everyone needs.
In many respects, Foster said, that's a wonderful evolution for higher education. But what colleges seem not to realize is that the minute society declares a higher education to be a necessity, it becomes natural for lawmakers to start looking into things like college access, what students actually learn, and how much college costs. All of those issues are "great for sound bite politics" in ways that don't help colleges.
Similarly, he said, colleges have embraced with gusto the idea that they are engines of economic development, But they have pretended that everything fits neatly together between colleges' traditional roles and their new ones related to the economy. Colleges need to abandon their "romantic fantasies" about how "you can get a $1 billion business out of a freshman learning community."
While colleges play real roles in economic development, Foster said, they need to be honest about what they do -- and the fact that much of what they do isn't directly about economic development.
Tomás D. Morales, provost of California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, also spoke to his fellow administrators about accountability. He said he understood the concern of many that "testing has been the central conversation" of the Education Department's commission. But he said that -- like it or not -- higher education needs to move toward a "culture of evidence" about what students actually learn in college.
Morales, who is active in the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting agency, said that educators have some serious filling in to do with regard to measuring their value. "What do we mean when we say educational effectiveness?" he said.
A bad sign about the state of higher education, Morales said, was the reaction to proposals by some lawmakers to require colleges to have all programs put online in a public place data that show the objectives and results of their programs. "The word on the street," Morales said, was that many college leaders didn't like this idea and viewed it as intrusive.
Such an attitude, he said, would end up fueling the fire of the accountability movement and lead to the results many colleges oppose. "That's going to lead to testing," he said.
And Morales added that the push for such accountability is "not just coming from the right," but from people of a variety of political views.
Alan Jones, vice president and dean of the faculty at Pitzer College, agreed that demands have grown dramatically over the past five years -- both from accreditors and the government -- for "objective and demonstrable learning outcomes."
Jones said that colleges need to respond to those demands, but that they need to do so in ways that preserve their values -- something he said that may not always be easy. For instance, with regard to measuring what student learning goes on in college, he cited Heisenberg's view that the very act of observing and recording can change what is being observed and recorded.
"We need to not inadvertently compromise ourselves," he said.
One reason to be wary of all of the scrutiny, he said, is the motives behind much of it. Jones said that while colleges face genuine questions, they also face "deliberately fostered questions" from the "well orchestrated PR campaign" of David Horowitz and others who are pushing the Academic Bill of Rights.
Jones said that Horowitz has managed to sell the idea that the Academic Bill of Rights is a grassroots movement and not a campaign funded by several conservative groups. While Jones is no fan of Horowitz, he applauded his ability to "stay on message" and said that helps him attract attention and supporters.
Colleges have been too slow to take Horowitz seriously, Jones said, because they disagree with him and assume others will as well. As with the accountability demands from others, Jones said, colleges are out of the loop. "We need to take all of this much more seriously than we have in the past."