One of the most perplexing features of the studies and reports on student success that have emerged in recent years in higher education is that many are dominated by discussion of student failure. Often, these documents included a section with a title like “Barriers to Persistence and Completion.” These narratives fixate on factors that identify students as “at-risk,” “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged.”
Chief among these factors is some variation of what I call the big three deficiencies: minority, low income, first generation. Maybe my sensitivity to them comes from the fact that I fit all three descriptions when I graduated high school.
More than ever before, colleges and universities are having to demonstrate their ability to ensure that students with big three labels achieve. Demographic trends indicate that the pool of prototypical college-ready students -- recent high school graduates from high-performing schools whose parents have had a successful college experience -- is shrinking. As the domino effect trickles through the system, all of our institutions will be competing at some level to enroll such students to fill our classes. The numbers as well as societal pressures have driven many schools to announce campaigns aimed at recruiting students of color. Public and private funders are insisting that once we get these students, we impel them to completion.
However, the deficit framework on which many of our efforts are built hardly seems an appropriate foundation for strategies aimed at success. As long as being a person of color or of modest economic means, or the child of parents who did not go to college, is deemed to be, first and foremost, an indicator of potential failure, the integrity of our proclaimed expectation of success is undermined. Certainly, many of these students face challenges that require intentional and thoughtful support. Yet our overwhelming reliance on deficit-laden labels -- or, more recently, the painfully impersonal acronym URM (underrepresented minority) -- to routinely describe these students is an indication that we do not portray them predominantly as being imminently successful or exceptionally attractive to us. If that is the case, our best efforts will be impaired.
My perspective on this comes from my community organizing work and experience with practices of asset-based community development in urban neighborhoods. The approach recognizes that marginalized communities that are defined mostly by their very real problems -- poverty-stricken, crime ridden, violent, distressed -- are equally filled with talented residents and community assets, formal and informal, that are largely ignored. Research by John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Cormac Russell of Nurture Development and others show that such communities all over the world experience transformative change when residents see themselves as being beyond needy, are affirmed in the strengths they have to contribute and work together to solve problems on behalf of their families and their neighbors. Meanwhile, in contrast, communities where residents are seen, or see themselves, mainly as clients and recipients of services struggle to improve.
For instance, McKnight and other asset-based proponents argue that the obstacles associated with poverty are debilitating not because they extinguish one’s gifts and talents, but because they limit the opportunity for them to be fully actualized. Too often these contributions go underappreciated by systems of assistance that, while providing essential services, categorize people based mostly on their placement on a needs assessment. As McKnight states in his book The Careless Society, “Communities depend upon capacities. Systems commodify deficiencies.”
Now, apply this thinking to higher education, where the overarching culture of college and university life for all students starts with the premise that “you need us.” The counterbalance that “you also bring great value to the institution” is assumed to be in place for those considered college ready. Students whose identities upon arrival are tied almost exclusively to their deficiencies start at an extreme disadvantage.
Adopting an asset-oriented view of all students, including the big three, can be accomplished by overtly acknowledging and articulating the assets that these students possess. This does not require wishful thinking or mind tricks. It is increasingly evident that minority, low-income and first-generation students possess experiences and characteristics that make them prime candidates for what a 21st-century college student needs to be. In an increasingly diverse, urbanized world, many of these students have firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by the majority of people. Many have succeeded through challenging economic and social conditions with a measure of grit and tenacity that is beneficial in a highly competitive, fast-paced society. Often, driven by their own experiences, they bring a keen sensitivity and insight to issues of equity and justice, which are sorely needed at a time when seemingly intractable disparities within society are straining social and economic structures.
Many of these students also bring a high appreciation for familial and communal collaboration. A 2012 study by Northwestern University professor of management Nicole Stephens and her colleagues found that first-generation students, for example, were more likely to express motives of interdependence -- such as helping out family and being a role model -- than more affluent students. At a time when collective action is being lauded above individual heroism as vital to problem solving in civic or corporate arenas, such sensibilities would seem a welcome contribution to campuses fueled by the hyperindependence traditionally associated with going to college.
In order to develop the discipline to value and amplify the strengths and capacities the big three bring, however, I am convinced that higher education administrators and faculty members desperately need a new language to characterize these students that frees us from our dependence on labels such as “disadvantaged” or the dreaded URM designation.
Such a tactic is not trivial. Consider how new terminology has invigorated the efforts of those who work with some of the most marginalized individuals in our society: men and women who have served time in prison and have been released back into society. Long stigmatized as “ex-offenders” or “ex-cons” or “felons,” they are now routinely referred to as “returning citizens.” The term has been advanced by policy makers, criminal justice experts and community leaders who have come to recognize that these individuals’ productive transition back into neighborhood life is essential to community well-being and stability. The term has become so universally accepted that the city of Philadelphia in 2013 officially amended its city code to abolish the term “ex-offender” in favor of “returning citizen.”
A similar reorientation is needed in higher education. I suggest we adopt a term such as “rising scholars” to refer to big three students. It would force us to articulate our expectations for success in students who typically are characterized for their likelihood of failure. It would remind those of us who seek to assist them to recognize first their gifts, talents and contributions, rather than their deficits. Perhaps it would help us chart a surer path to success among students for whom failure is no longer an option.
Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.
There’s been a great deal of recent press and politics around the climbing walls, lazy rivers and other seemingly lavish campus amenities that have become commonplace at colleges and universities. But critics are missing the real arms race in higher education: a new student-recruitment spending war that is orders of magnitude more expensive and ends in only higher tuition rates for students -- with none of the fun and relaxation.
For decades, nonprofit colleges and universities spent around 2 percent of their tuition revenue on recruitment -- on things such as direct marketing and other marketing initiatives. Spending a great deal of money on recruitment was pointless -- while it might yield more applications and therefore a higher selectivity and better U.S. News ranking, a university’s physical facilities limited capacity. Exponentially growing enrollments led to more buildings, professors and maintenance engineers -- all with long lead times and high costs.
Twenty years ago, for-profit colleges emerged in shopping centers and others in physical spaces that were less costly and easily expandable. The for-profits invested heavily in marketing and recruited effectively; enrollment grew by 225 percent in the decade ending in 2008. But though they won reputations as great marketers, they were actually just prolific ones, spending 10 times more than traditional institutions -- almost 20 percent of their tuition revenue.
In the past decade, colleges moved their degree programs online, eliminating physical constraints entirely. With the limitless scaling potential of online learning, nonprofit institutions have brought more and more programs online. This has given prospective students hundreds of new options within easy reach.
In many ways that is what online higher education was meant to do -- increase access and options for students and spur competition among colleges. That, in turn, promised to lower costs through efficiency and produce better quality. And it still can.
However, this access is creating a massive problem: those lower costs allow colleges to spend more on marketing, and the new competition forces them to spend more. As nonprofit marketing budgets start to look like those of the for-profits, the annual recruiting spend of American colleges will move inexorably from its current $10 billion to $100 billion a year.
As bad as the amount of this new spend are the tactics. To populate their online programs and appear more selective, colleges hire shady companies to generate clicks and inquiries, then drive those inquiries to call centers using sophisticated scoring algorithms. And to lower risk, many are offering marketing and management firms direct shares of their online tuition revenue. My company, Noodle Partners, has been offered 30 percent of tuition to market and recruit students by more than one university. Needless to say, we declined (among other problems, that violates Title IV regulations).
This new and bizarre arms race could trigger a windfall for education marketers and make recruiting the most expensive component of a higher education. At a time when everyone should be committed to lowering the cost of postsecondary education, this seems an unconscionable use of federal student loan and student tuition dollars -- especially considering that marketing costs don’t directly contribute to better quality or efficiency.
It’s likewise difficult to see a benefit for consumers in other industries with runaway marketing budgets. Pharmaceutical companies have, for example, steadily increased their marketing budgets to 24 percent of their revenue since 1990, but Americans haven’t gotten healthier as a result.
To get this marketing explosion in check, a statutory or regulatory fix may be needed. For instance, Congress could limit subsidized student loans to the cost of the education itself, as the former Senator Tom Harkin once proposed, avoiding subsidies for recruiting expenses and profit. Or the Department of Education could limit outside providers from sharing tuition revenue if marketing spend exceeds 5 percent of tuition (of course, this limit would have to somehow be extended to universities’ in-house programs as well).
Whatever solution we settle on, the higher ed marketing assault needs rules of engagement before it goes nuclear.
John Katzman is CEO of Noodle Partners and founder of The Noodle Companies.
Racial tensions, which erupted last fall in the form of numerous student protests, continue to fester on college campuses. Within the last several weeks and months, for example, students at both Harvard Law School and the University of Washington have engaged in a series of sit-ins and protests at which they made demands intended to bring about changes in the racial climate on campus.
In November, the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri appropriately resigned after students, administrators and faculty members protested their tepid reactions to racial incidents on campus. In a transcript posted in The Columbia Missourian, now former President Timothy Wolf stated, “It is my belief we stopped listening to each other … this is not, I repeat, not the way change should come about.”
While it may have come too late, Wolf has effectively diagnosed the problem: we do not listen well to each other on matters of race. Discussions about race typically take the form of confrontations and polarizing debates. If we listen to each other at all, we do so not to seek understanding but instead to advance and defend our own positions. That is not an effective way to resolve social conflict.
Seeking to promote racial justice, colleges promulgate formalistic policies and procedures prohibiting harassment and acts of discrimination. Clear acts of racial discrimination are appropriately handled with such policies. There is no place on campus for racially motivated violence, slurs or harassment -- just as there is no place for administrators who are not fully committed to responding to ongoing racial tension.
But the full range of racial tension cannot and will not be solved through policy and enforcement alone. That is because racial tension is a human problem and not simply a legislative one. At base, dealing with racial conflict is a problem of affirming the dignity of the other, something that can’t simply be mandated. Instead, it must be cultivated over time by establishing an ethos of mutual understanding, empathy and respect for other people’s humanity. This is a collaborative process that requires engaging the emotions as well as the intellect. And it is no small task.
Steps to the Collaborative Resolution of Racial Conflict
Fortunately, however, a vast literature shows how principles of conflict management can bring about meaningful changes in the attitudes of people involved in social conflict. Those principles, as expressed, for example, in Fisher, Ury and Patton’s classic Getting to Yes, are founded upon the importance of seeking to resolve conflict while preserving and enhancing the dignity of all participants -- regardless of the positions and attitudes they may espouse. They are directly applicable to addressing issues of racial tension in the academy.
By following such principles, campuses can model ways to have difficult conversations about the unspoken issues that underlie racial strife. Conflict management principles help people to (a) articulate their genuine concerns about race in ways that (b) preserve the dignity of those involved in the conflict. They also help them (c) seek resolutions to resolve the unmet needs of each party (d) without giving in.
Colleges should consider four basic steps when confronting racial tension on their campuses. To illustrate, I will draw on the case of Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College, who resigned her post after protests spurred by an email. In that email, she communicated her commitment to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold” -- a phrase that many people regarded as racially insensitive.
Step 1: Acknowledge the humanity of the other person. We live in an increasingly polarized society. We tend to think of people with whom we disagree in extreme terms: they are out of touch, crazy, stupid or evil. We forget that the people with whom we disagree are human beings. And so, the first step to resolving a social problem is to try to understand the interests, beliefs, fears and failings that motivate the other person’s actions -- and especially those actions with which we disagree. That is necessary in order to open up dialogue and pave the way to genuine problem solving.
In the Spellman case, seeing the humanity in the other would simply take the form of seeking to understand and have compassion for the plights of both the students and the dean -- regardless of whether one agrees with their actions. It would involve acknowledging the deep hurt experienced over time by minority students and how the dean’s email was experienced as yet another recapitulation of those hurts. It would also involve extending the benefit of the doubt to a dean, whose clumsy words would seem to be motivated by noble intent.
Step 2: Identify unmet interests. Racial conflict on campus often involves contests over demands. A demand, especially when made in the throes of a heated protest, is a kind of pre-emptive solution. But arguing over demands tends to make it more difficult to solve the genuine problem at hand because it is never identified -- and thus cannot be addressed.
In conflict management, a distinction is made between the positions or demands made by people involved in a conflict and the underlying interests that motivate those demands. Positions are the initial stances taken by opposing sides in a conflict; interests are the unmet needs of participants that give rise to initial positions and demands. In conflict resolution, the problem to be solved is how to meet the unmet needs and interests of each party involved in a conflict.
In the Spellman case, students demanded the resignation of the dean, and the situation then became a contest over whether or not she would keep her post. But the students’ interests likely included: being recognized as full members of the college community, having their history of indignities acknowledged, changing the perception of minorities as second-class citizens and so forth. From the available evidence, the dean’s interests involved supporting students of color and seeking understanding and forgiveness for her clumsy use of words. The administration’s interests were likely to avoid the embarrassment of exposed tensions.
Step 3: Negotiate from interests, not demands. To resolve racial tensions, it is helpful to create forums in which parties can express their genuine interests, anxieties and concerns without fear and without impugning the humanity of others involved in a conflict. The simple fact, however, is that this does not come naturally. We simply do not know how to talk effectively about issues like race. A skilled mediator can help parties learn to identify their genuine interests -- public and private -- in ways that minimize blame and preserve the dignity of others involved in a conflict.
Take the Spellman case again. Imagine a series of public and private forums, organized over long periods of time, run by a series of trained mediators. Imagine that the mediators were to teach and enforce a series of strategies and ground rules for expressing interests and needs. Imagine that students had the opportunity to express, without interruption, the full range of their experiences of indignity and marginalization -- but with a minimum of blame or hostility. Imagine that administrators, faculty members and others agreed to continue to listen until they could demonstrate to the students’ satisfaction an adequate understanding of students’ experiences (even if they were to disagree). Imagine that the students felt heard and perhaps even empathized with.
Now imagine that the roles are reversed, and students are asked to listen and demonstrate their understanding of the interests, needs and fears of their opponents. Imagine that the goodwill that could be accrued by being understood carried forward into the task of seeking to understand the other.
Step 4: Seek solutions for mutual gain without giving in. Once people have their genuine interests heard and acknowledged, they often, although not always, find that their core interests do not conflict. At this point, genuine problem solving can begin. The task becomes one of seeking novel solutions for mutual gain -- that is, solutions that can meet the interests and needs of all parties to the conflict.
When that happens, the problem becomes: Is it possible to develop solutions that meet the core interests and needs of each party, without any party giving in? In the Spellman case, that might translate into: Is it possible to address the marginalization that students experienced by the dean’s choice of words while simultaneously entertaining multiple interpretations of those words? Or more broadly: Can we change our institutional culture in ways that respect minorities as full members of the college community while also promoting honest and sensitive racial communication?
Moving Past Fear
Although we know a great deal about managing conflict and reducing prejudice, we fail to act upon this knowledge. Our failure is born mainly of fear. We fear that our efforts will be difficult and take time. That is true. We fear that if we lead with compassion we will appear weak. That is untrue. Seeking understanding does not imply giving in to the other.
It is possible to understand -- even empathize -- without agreeing. When we learn that the other person does not have to lose in order for us to gain, listening becomes easier on both sides, and collaboration for mutual gain becomes possible.
Could such an approach fail? Of course. But without significant change in the communicative culture of the academy, racial tensions are more likely to continue to fester than to heal. And we haven’t even begun to try.
Michael F. Mascolo is a professor in the department of psychology at Merrimack College.
Submitted by Philip Nel on April 12, 2016 - 3:00am
Guns in Higher Ed
Shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, a mentally disturbed former student of mine contacted Kansas State University (where I teach), saying it would be too bad if something like Virginia Tech happened at Kansas State -- and if I, in particular, were the target of the shooting. The university recognized the email for the threat it was and contacted me. Fortunately, I was then out of town. Before I returned, the university determined that the ex-student, who had been expelled for several reasons, sent the email from his home abroad.
Students, faculty members and administrators at American colleges and universities all know that, at any time, we could be shot dead. Mostly, we try not to think about it -- until another mass shooting, such as at Umpqua Community College in Oregon (nine killed, nine wounded, October 2015) or the University of California at Santa Barbara (six killed, 15 wounded, May 2014). Then we are forced again to face the possibility that, one day, we too may join the next sad, inevitable list of the murdered.
In 2012, a white male student in my class was behaving strangely. During discussion, he would either offer oddly confrontational comments or he would look down, refusing to meet anyone’s eye. Often, he sat silently in the back of the room, shaking with what seemed like suppressed rage. I tried talking with him about his behavior privately, not during class. (I didn’t want to make him feel ashamed.) But it didn’t help. He was making the other students uncomfortable. He was making me uncomfortable. After each class with him, I would think, “Gee, I hope he doesn’t come back in here with a gun and kill all of us before turning the gun on himself.” Other instructors had also reported the student’s strange, belligerent interactions. The university intervened, and the student withdrew.
Both the email and classroom incidents occurred when only members of the university’s police department were armed. As of July 1, 2017, the state Legislature’s Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act (yes, that’s really its name) forces guns onto all state university campuses. This law will make Kansas the ninth state to invite guns into classrooms, dormitories, libraries, laboratories and offices. Before the Virginia Tech massacre, only the university system in Utah required colleges and universities to allow guns on campus.
The shooting at Virginia Tech, which killed 32 people, should have motivated gun-safety advocates (as the National Rifle Association claims to be) to support legislation that helps keep weapons off college and university campuses. Instead, the reverse has occurred. The NRA drafted a “campus carry” law, versions of which have now been adopted by Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin against the wishes of those who actually work and study at higher education institutions in those states. It’s not a popular move in Kansas, either. According to a survey conducted by the nonpartisan Docking Institute of Public Affairs, 70 percent of state university employees in Kansas oppose campus carry.
The governor and Legislature are unlikely to back down. After all, the same governor and Legislature have already deregulated firearms, removing background checks and the requirement that gun owners learn to use their weapons. In Kansas, all you need to own a gun is a heartbeat and a credit card. The Legislature has even proposed lowering the age requirement from 21 to 18.
How Do We Adapt?
Kansas may be the ninth state to weaponize its campuses, but it’s the first state to have both campus carry and no meaningful gun regulation. So what can we do? A few older faculty members have decided to take early retirement. Other teachers are changing the curriculum. Since some students will be armed, instructors are less comfortable talking about racism, sexism and other sensitive subjects.
At the University of Houston, avoiding sensitive topics is already becoming policy. As part of a Campus Carry Faculty Forum in January and February, the Faculty Senate offered advice to help professors adapt to Texas’ new campus carry law: “Be careful discussing sensitive topics,” “drop certain topics from your curriculum” and do “not ‘go there’ if you sense anger.” As Dominican University history professor David Perry recently wrote, “Every one of these bullet points conflicts with basic principles of what makes education work. As a teacher, my job is to raise difficult topics, push students to think about topics in new ways and to assess their work, even if that process can sometimes be uncomfortable.” Campus carry effectively ends freedom of speech in college classrooms and thus fundamentally compromises our ability to do our jobs.
As Perry notes, it can be pedagogically useful to explore subjects that make your students cognitively uncomfortable. Here at Kansas State University, a colleague teaches her students about colonialism by conducting the first 15 minutes of one class entirely in French: What’s it like when an authority figure issues you instructions in a language you don’t understand? What challenges does it pose? It gets the students, for a moment, to imagine themselves as the colonized. It’s a very tense and effective 15 minutes. Once, a student said, “Stop it!” and pointed a finger gun at her. Fortunately, it was only a finger gun. If the students are armed, that could become a real gun. This is why, on an armed campus, we’re less likely to explore uncomfortable subjects. Classrooms can offer a place for vigorous debate, spirited exchanges of ideas -- but only if these classrooms are safe.
In other words, guns on campus uphold established systems of power: white supremacy, patriarchy and the privilege of the tenured. As a University Distinguished Professor and a straight white male, I’m more likely to continue pursuing ways in which my students can explore difficult subjects. However, I’ll also be more cautious than I was, less willing to embrace the risks that accompany creative teaching. I would quite understand if my colleagues who are women, people of color, LGBTQ or nontenured decide to be even more cautious.
Guns in the workplace make the already vulnerable even more vulnerable. Armed students make the free exchange of ideas less free. Of course, since the Kansas Board of Regents abridged state employees’ rights to freedom of speech back in 2013, we have come to accept the steady erosion of intellectual inquiry as a condition of working at Kansas universities. But guns only make this problem worse.
What can be done? There’s a pervasive sense of hopelessness here. Appealing to the Legislature is like pleading before the court in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most of our legislators genuinely think that increased lethality leads to increased safety. In February, they passed legislation expanding concealed carry for public employees and defeated a measure that would have delayed campus carry at state universities. Senator Michael O’Donnell also proposed an amendment to move up the campus carry date to July 1 of this year. His reasoning? “We just want Kansans to be safe. There is no reason to put that off another year when we know there are people in society who want to harm other people.” That measure failed, but O’Donnell speaks for the majority of his colleagues when he equates more guns with less gun violence. With legislators like him, you can see why, even though the majority of students, faculty and staff at Kansas universities oppose this law, we despair at being able to change it.
Should We Fight?
Yet those of us facing this law and similar ones across the country must not stand by and let campus carry become our new reality. If we accept armed campuses as inevitable, then we are adapting our way toward the demise of the public university in America. We already endure funding cuts, crumbling infrastructure, the adjunctification of teaching, assaults on academic freedom and now … assault rifles in our classrooms? If we accept this latest legislative attack, we risk becoming the proverbial frog who is slowly boiled alive. Although recent experiments refute the scientific veracity of this tale, it is nonetheless an apt metaphor for where the modern public institution finds itself -- in hot water that’s getting hotter.
Here are five ways to respond.
First, protest. Despite legislative disdain for educators, we should protest. Elected officials need to at least pretend to care about what we think, and a minority of them actually do care. Our voices may go unheeded by the majority, but this is quite literally a matter of life and death. Win or lose, our right to freedom from harm is worth fighting for.
Second, practice civil disobedience. Nobel laureate and University of Texas physics professor Steven Weinberg is opposing his state’s guns-on-campus legislation by stating on his syllabus that his “class is not open to students carrying guns.” That statement violates Texas law and will violate Kansas law, too. It is also going on my syllabus, come July 1, 2017. Including that sentence may mean that I end up in court and get a different kind of sentence. But other people’s right to own firearms does not supersede my right to being alive, nor my students’ right to being alive.
If we faculty collectively adopt a no-guns-in-class policy, then we will make a more powerful statement. I realize that, unless the university installs gun detectors and guards outside of each classroom door, our no-guns policy will be unenforceable. But it makes a principled statement upon which we can build our case for gun-free campuses.
Third, if this approach fails or if civil disobedience simply isn’t your style, insist on teaching only online. Then, if any in the class are armed, they will at least not all be in the same room. I prefer being in the classroom with my students, but teaching online would allow me to continue doing my job while keeping my students and myself safer.
Online teaching and the civil disobedience approach are both imperfect. There yet may be occasions when we are required to be on campus -- to work in a lab, to retrieve a library book or to go to a meeting. In those situations, we will not be able to avoid the threat posed by guns.
For those who feel that the civil disobedience model doesn’t go far enough, a fourth approach is to strike. Whether we teach on a unionized campus or not, we can simply refuse to teach until the Legislature restores our university’s right to maintain a safe, gun-free campus. In the fall of 2017, students arriving at their first class of the term could encounter a sign on each classroom door: “No class until the Legislature repeals campus carry. Guns do not belong in classrooms. Contact your state legislator and governor.” If the legislators complain (as they surely will), we can say, “Effective teaching requires a safe environment for debate; armed students create fear in the classroom, stifling the free and open exchange of ideas. Guns in our classes make it impossible for us to do our jobs. We will return to our jobs when you let us do them. End campus carry.”
Or Should We Leave?
Fifth and last, vote with your feet. I realize that this is easier in theory than in practice. The scarcity of academic jobs (see adjunctification, above) makes it difficult for faculty and staff members to pack up and move or to decline a job offer at a university in a campus-carry state. Distinguished faculty and junior faculty are a bit more mobile; everyone else is stuck. For example, the University of Texas at Austin’s dean of architecture, Fritz Steiner, recently announced he would be moving to become dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. “I would have never applied for another job if not for campus carry,” he explained. Just last month, we learned that Kansas State’s own president, Kirk Schulz, is leaving to become Washington State University’s next president. He is too politic to cite campus carry as a reason, but I strongly suspect that it’s a motivating factor.
It’s certainly motivating me. In addition to exploring the other four options (protest, civil disobedience, online teaching, strike), I am also looking for another job. This decision has been hard. I like my job. I have fantastic colleagues. However, when the phrase “killing higher education” ceases being a metaphor and becomes state policy, I need to seek a safer harbor.
As director of K-State’s graduate program in children’s literature, I cannot in good conscience advise prospective students to come to a university where they put their lives at greater risk. As a member of my department’s Graduate Advisory Committee, I feel uncomfortable recruiting new graduate students. When we have job candidates on campus, I feel guilty when I fail to warn them of the imminent arrival of firearms.
If I were more at peace with the inevitability of my own death, perhaps I could bravely face a weaponized campus. But I am not. I still have books to write, more to learn, ideas to pursue, cities and countries to visit. I want to see my four-year-old niece grow up and be there for my 74-year-old mother as she ages. I want to be here for my wife -- and I want her to have the chance to age.
It won’t be easy to find another pair of academic jobs in the same place: any move would also require a position for my wife. We may yet remain here a while longer; we may not leave at all. I am well aware that all colleges and universities have problems. Should we leave, there is much that I would miss about Kansas State University -- my colleagues, most of all.
But guns change my relationship with what has been a nurturing academic home. When your state Legislature threatens to kill you and your students, then it’s time to look for a new job.
They Know Not What They Do. Or Do They?
I wonder if those who cut funds from education, inflict weapons on campuses and restrict freedom of speech have any sense of the long-term damage they cause. Are they aware that they’re poisoning healthy communities of learning, driving faculty and students away, and fostering fear in those who remain? Do they know that we feel their contempt for us? Yes, campus carry will change colleges and universities, but not for the better. And it’s so much easier to destroy than it is to create.
Philip Nel is a University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University, where he directs the program in children’s literature.
On Aug. 1, 1966, in the city of Austin, Texas, on the campus of the University of Texas, gunman Charles Whitman arguably began the tragic trend of campus shootings that continues today. When I was in my second year of graduate school, attending classes and teaching quite literally in the shadow of the tower that Whitman had fired from, Texas Monthly published an excellent reflection on the event to mark its 40th anniversary. During Whitman’s assault from UT Austin’s iconic central tower, locals with firearms of their own returned fire. Notably, they used long rifles, not the handguns that many citizens carry today in legal concealment. They were not firing with sidearms at close quarters but with more accurate weapons over greater distances.
According to the 2006 Texas Monthly article, witness Clif Drummond reported, “Students with deer rifles were leaning up against telephone poles, using the pole, which is rather narrow, as their shield. And they were firing like crazy back at the Tower.” In the same article, witness Brenda Bell recalled, “I don’t know where these vigilantes came from, but they took over Parlin Hall and were crashing around, firing guns. There was massive testosterone.”
Even in 1966, opinion was mixed as to whether this citizen response had been harmful or helpful. Eventually Whitman was killed by police officers who stormed his position. Some of them claimed that the covering fire provided by citizens had reduced Whitman’s ability to take more lives than he did, while some victims present in the melee claimed that the return fire of untrained civilians created confusion and itself jeopardized the safety of those fleeing Whitman’s rampage. Importantly, by barricading himself in a protected and tactically advantageous position, Whitman’s assault was very different from most subsequent campus shootings. In those, assailants frequently appear to move from position to position and to not always choose those that offer the physical protection Whitman fired from. Had Whitman been moving about, he would have been more exposed, but the confusion of those firing back would also have been greater -- as would their chances of hitting an innocent bystander.
Now Texas, both the state and its public university system, finds itself at the fore of how to move forward within a society in which campus shootings are no longer novel but assumed to be nearly inevitable. Recently passed legislation has made it legal for students, staff and faculty to carry concealed weapons, but the law has left large portions of its implementation up to individual campuses. Only private colleges and universities in the state can opt out entirely from allowing concealed weapons on their campuses, and virtually all of them have, including conservatively aligned Baylor University. University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, a retired admiral and no stranger to the violence weapons are capable of, opposed the legislation.
Like McRaven, campus law enforcement leaders and associations oppose legislation that would allow concealed weapons on campuses, not on ideological grounds but for the simple reason that, if they do ever have to respond to an active shooter, they will have no means of differentiating “bad guys with guns” from “good guys with guns.” And in fact, they are trained in active shooter situations to fire at any civilian with a gun immediately, before any other assessment of the situation. They also are entirely unconvinced, as law enforcement professionals, that concealed weapons would make college campuses safer.
Just a little over three years ago, as my own state of North Carolina considered similar legislation, I wrote a column contemplating the idle fantasy that perhaps I would quit my job if guns were permitted in my own state’s classrooms. The backlash I experienced from pro-gun individuals and groups was striking, widespread and bordering on libelous. I remain, despite owning guns and understanding them well, strongly opposed to allowing students, faculty and staff to carry weapons on college campuses.
I will readily concede and agree that the vast, vast, vast majority of concealed-carry permit holders are law-abiding citizens. And because they have gone through the proper processes to obtain permits, they are likely to be more law-abiding than citizens who own guns but have not obtained similar permits.
I also am not really concerned that the average concealed permit holder would ever intentionally threaten me or another member of my campus community. Thousands of permit holders walk around daily, experiencing the routine frustrations and maddening conflicts of contemporary American life without pulling their weapons and making threats. The average concealed-carry permit holder realizes the inappropriateness of such behavior and truly reserves his or her weapon for life-threatening situations. And fortunately, even though life-threatening situations precipitated by assailants are all too common in our culture, the average concealed-carry permit holder never has occasion to pull their weapon in response to a threat. They are armed against possible threats, even though such threats are statistically unlikely to face the average concealed-carry permit holder. All of which I believe is fine, the vast majority of the time.
I also believe that those who advocate for allowing guns on our campuses generally mean well. They truly believe -- mistakenly -- that such weapons will make us safer. I disagree with them on that point, but I do acknowledge that they, like all of us, want our public places to be safe and free of violence. Their philosophy of how to prevent violence is, unfortunately, bolstered primarily by frequently unverifiable anecdotes and inaccurate “scholarship” by gun-rights advocate John Lott.
And while most concealed carry permit holders are responsible and law-abiding, it will only take a fraction of irresponsible owners for additional fatalities to rack up on our campuses. There will be accidental discharges, suicides and gun-backed altercations that otherwise will not exist.
There are two primary arguments for why guns should be allowed onto our campuses, both equally unconvincing.
The Deterrence Argument. Advocates for allowing students and faculty members with appropriate permits to carry guns on college campuses often argue that the presence of concealed weapons will deter acts of violence. Because the weapons are required by law to be kept concealed, the logic goes, would-be perpetrators of violence will think twice before initiating their violent plans, possibly abandoning them entirely.
But while there is a certain Occam’s razor simplicity to this logic, repeated college campus shootings have shown us that attackers often do not expect to survive their rampages. They seem in many cases to anticipate taking their own lives or inflicting as much damage as possible until brought down by law enforcement, which leads to the second argument. Rather than entirely deterring an attack, the presence of concealed weapons seems likely to simply encourage an attacker to strategize further, finding scenarios where concealed weapons holders are likely to be absent or without their weapons.
The Intervention Argument. Advocates of on-campus concealed carry also argue that when a shooting does commence, law-abiding concealed-weapon carriers will be able to intervene and therefore cut short the time and scope of the attacker’s rampage. The biggest hole in this argument is that permit holders of concealed weapons by and large are not trained for how to respond to active-shooter situations. Certainly some concealed-weapons carriers have a military or law-enforcement background wherein they did receive such training, but they are a slim minority. Concealed-carry classes do not train permit holders how to respond to hostile fire or active-shooter situations.
Instead, such classes, which can be completed in a single day in most states, are concerned with educating students about the laws governing their concealed-carry permits, about basic gun safety principles and basic gun use. In other words, the highly difficult active-shooter response training, which military and law-enforcement personnel spend dozens upon dozens of hours practicing in simulated environments, is simply not a part of concealed-permit class curricula. Having a concealed permit tells us nothing of whether or not the permit holder is competent to respond to an active shooter. Indeed, during the recent attack at Umpqua Community College, a military veteran carrying a legally concealed weapon made the prudent decision not to attempt to intervene, citing concern about interfering with the police response or being mistaken for the murderer.
Most concealed-carry permit holders have not experienced combat and been trained how to fire accurately or judiciously in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, the idea that citizen defenders will neutralize the mentally ill assailants who more and more routinely threaten campus safety is a fantasy. It is the boys’ dream of being a hero, but carried often by those who have not been taught how to act with heroism, as our military and law-enforcement personnel have been trained.
My idle fantasy of three years ago, of quitting if guns come to my campus, was just that, idle fantasy. I rely on my job and according to my colleagues and students am good at it. What will I do if concealed carry is permitted on my campus? Unhappily, I will begin carrying a gun, hoping never to have to reveal it, let alone use it, and on who? A student? A colleague? In a last-ditch effort at self-defense because our society has decided that the only last option is for the innocent to take up their own defense? I will worry every day that a fellow gun carrier might behave irresponsibly, creating an accidental discharge in my classroom or overreacting to a situation that is not at all life-threatening.
The new Texas legislation allowing students, faculty and staff to carry concealed weapons on campus will take effect on Aug. 1, 2016, the precise 50th anniversary of Charles Whitman’s rampage.
Nate Kreuter is an assistant professor in the English department at Western Carolina University, where he teaches writing and rhetoric.
A couple years ago, I noticed something strange: intelligent and interested students were showing up to class without having done the reading. That might not sound shocking, but even those who came to class early and stayed late to ask questions and were deeply invested in the topics under discussion were routinely failing to put even modest efforts toward preparing for class. Puzzled, I asked them why. They claimed simply not to have the time to read or prepare for class due to commitments to extracurricular activities.
My students are not dumb. Nor are they lazy. Can so many of them really be so busy singing in a cappella groups, planting trees for the environment and playing intramural ultimate Frisbee that they just can’t find the time or energy to get to readings or problem sets? It seems they are. And it is robbing them of their education.
I should clarify at the outset that I not talking about students who need to work full-time jobs for financial reasons or who have onerous and essential duties to care for children, siblings, parents or other family members. Such students face other, larger challenges than those presented by campus activities.
I am also not talking about that small subset of students actively pursuing specialized careers -- e.g., in professional sports or on Broadway -- that are deeply related to activities outside of course work (and for which these activities can often become effectively extended auditions). My students also are not just lounging about all day or partying all night.
Sports, clubs, social advocacy groups and other activities can all be good things and have positive impacts on students and the community. But a critical mass of some of the country’s most talented and diligent students systematically sell themselves short, turning away from their academic work in favor of all and sundry extracurricular activities. Many are intensely stressed and consumed by those pursuits, such that they appear to have substantially less time for rest and leisure than their counterparts did two decades ago, even as they spend much less time in the library or laboratory.
Why would they do this? What would make all those extras seem more important than the curriculum itself? It isn’t just that they are more fun -- though many may be -- and, in fact, some students said they didn’t enjoy or even really care about all those activities. Yet they compete for opportunities to squander much their college years on them. I have no authoritative answer but can suggest some hypotheses.
Holdover mentality from high school. Many American high schools push their students to excel in as many extracurricular activities as they can, often because they think this helps those students gain admission to top colleges and universities. To the extent it does, a purposely selected sample of the most driven extracurricular participators turn up on our campuses.
Barely removed from extracurricular hothouse of high school and admissions, they are suddenly thrust into a world in which their time and lives are truly their own and the possible extracurricular activities are nearly limitless. Unable to shake what has been so deeply ingrained, they sign up for as many as they can. They then feel that dropping any activities would look bad on a résumé, so they remain overextended (and probably become increasingly so) throughout their college years. Some students even said to me -- mistakenly, in my view -- that participation in a wide array of extracurriculars, even at the expense of excelling in their classes, was necessary to land a job or for success in the admissions process for law school or graduate school. It is as if they believed the whole world works like high school.
Also, we tell young people of the need to show leadership, so they seek out arenas in which to demonstrate it, even when it hurts their main occupation as students. On campuses, administrators talk frequently of training new generations of “leaders.” Some employers likely ask job candidates to talk about or demonstrate “leadership experience.” In its pathological form, such leadership fetishism drives students to believe earnestly that serving a term as deputy assistant secretary-general of the Model United Nations is more important than doing the readings on organizations and institutions for their international relations class. A corollary is that today’s youth, reared in a fishbowl of social media and extreme in-group stratification, feel intense pressure to show their peers publicly that they belong -- through turning out for water polo Quidditch, as well as on Facebook or Instagram.
Competitive differentiation in an era of extreme grade inflation. Extracurricular overextension may be a result of decades of extreme grade inflation. If everyone gets at least a B, and most students are getting A’s, how does one stand out from the crowd? It may just be, at least in their minds, that extracurricular activities are one of the few ways for our students to distinguish themselves when all GPAs are high and rising. As students put less and less effort into their classes, we also feed the grade inflation machine by continuing to award high grades nonetheless. The academic bar sinks lower and extracurricular activities become ever more important markers of achievement.
Unintended consequence of helicopter parenting and overscheduled childhoods. It could be that students whose days were planned in 15-minute blocks since the age of three are uncomfortable with unstructured time. Many grew up with doting parents who handled the scheduling for them, always ready to step in to ensure there was time for homework, bassoon lessons, volunteering at the homeless shelter and the cross-country track team, as well as for adequate sleep and healthy meals. With no one to set limits or manage their time for them, these students may be unable to choose or say no when confronted with the smorgasbord of college activities. If their grades do not suffer much -- which they aren’t likely to in this era of grade inflation -- such students may never get the wake-up call that tells them to drop some of the teams and clubs for the sake of their education or their sanity.
Whatever the cause, extracurricular activities now crowd out academic work and cause critical harm to students’ intellectual and personal development. Several years ago, researchers led by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published a study called Academically Adrift, arguing that today’s students were learning very little (perhaps nothing) and spending too little time or energy on their studies. Indeed, some of our country’s best and brightest (and hardest-working) students are falling haplessly into this pattern -- all because they feel a misguided compulsion to climb rocks, perform improv comedy or host ice cream socials to talk about HIV, when really they should be reading or studying.
Perhaps most usefully, our students ought to try just thinking about what they are learning (or seeking to learn) or meditating on how their lives are changing and (hopefully) coming into focus. In short, the extracurricular arms race needs to stop before it destroys undergraduate education. But how are we to stop it?
We should not try to place undue restrictions or limits on our students’ participation in activities. College students are adults and should be treated as such. Indeed, some parents’ infantilizing micromanagement of their children’s lives may be at the root of the problems we now see. But I do believe we ought urgently to consider at least four concrete steps.
First, admissions officers should reduce the emphasis placed on extracurricular activities in evaluating applications, and they should make it clear publicly to high school students and teachers that they are doing so.
Second, faculty colleagues and college administrators should do all they can to rein in grade inflation that has spun completely out of control at most colleges and universities. This may be easier said than done, but it behooves us to try.
Third, administrators and student life staffers should curtail excessive praise of leadership and leaders to focus instead on helping students develop contemplative, thoughtful and mature scholarly, emotional and social lives and personae.
Fourth and finally, colleges need to stop competing with each other so intensively in terms of the climbing walls and squash courts and return to their roots of rising or falling based on the academic rigor and intellectual vigor to be found on their campuses.
Only when we restore sanity and sober perspective to our own approaches to undergraduate admissions and education can we expect our students to do the same.
William Hurst is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.