I grew up in the era of remarkable college presidents, individuals who were seen as public intellectuals. These leaders -- Derek Bok, Kingman Brewster Jr., A. Bart Giamatti, the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh -- spoke out on issues that extended far beyond their campuses. As they saw it, contributing to the larger public conversation on critical issues of their time was part and parcel of their role both as college/university presidents and in the years thereafter. Voices like this are disappearing, a point made all the more relevant and poignant with the passing of Father Hesburgh last week at age 97. Today’s educational leaders are vacating the bully lectern -- even on issues related to their own campuses.
With the increased craziness in current events, the void in presidential voice has become increasingly obvious. But the need for it could not be greater. Think: terrorism, young people turning to lives of violence here and abroad, Ebola, cheating in a professional sport, gridlock in government, lack of trust in police, and the beheadings of journalists and relief workers, to name but a few of the issues before us. Where are the voices of presidents of institutions of higher learning who can provide some moral grounding or an intellectual compass?
What accounts for the silence? It is obviously not one reason. One powerful argument is that speaking out on national and international issues is not the role of college and university leaders in the 21st century. The job, instead, is to run a campus as an effective business, keeping our myriad of constituencies (like shareholders) happy.
Speaking out can alienate faculty or students or parents or trustees or community members. It can impair revenue generation. We need to mediate these differing perspectives, regularly smoothing feathers and finding balance among irreconcilable positions. For public institutions, we need to please politicians if we want institutional funding, if we want a workable board, if we want state grants for students.
Adding to all this is the impact of social media; it has transformed the consequences of our speaking out; our words get truncated into short sound bites; our positions take on a life of their own, with little opportunity to clarify or rectify or inform. And even when needed corrections are made, they are hardly noticed.
I get it. It is easier and safer to be silent. The job of a college/university president is hard enough without speaking up and out. We know that even when we speak out on issues related to our institutions, which some presidents are doing, we risk being subjected to considerable criticism (often nasty and mean-spirited) and even termination. And the heat is rising: legislation was just introduced in Kansas that seeks to bar professors (and one assumes presidents) from using the titles they hold at public institutions in any op-eds they write -- quite the silencing device.
Yet, as educational leaders turn inward, we are simultaneously teaching our students the value of multiple perspectives, the importance of rigorous but civil debate, the interrelationship of the disciplines that cannot and should not be cabined into silos in real life. We are encouraging them to deal with new people and new ideas, and encouraging experimentation and innovation and risk taking. We want our students to engage actively in the local community, literally feeling and understanding the value of serving others. We want them to see their obligations to the larger world -- voting, sorting through vast quantities of data in search for truth, among other things. With a degree, we preach, comes responsibility. We argue that problem solving and critical thinking are what we teach across the disciplines, educating the thoughtful leaders of tomorrow. We pay homage to Jefferson’s notion that our democracy depends on an educated populace.
But it’s ironic. As presidents and in our lives thereafter, we are being disingenuous. We are doing one thing and teaching another. We are not acting as role models for our students -- from the top down. What we ask of our students should be the minimum of that which we ask of ourselves. We challenge our students to become their best selves. This means that as presidents and leaders, we have to speak up and out on the critical issues of our day. We may not have some unique lock on wisdom, but we certainly do not have less insight than others who voice their views.
When I was a college president, I had a piece of art by Rachel Kerwin outside my door. Amid a swirl of black and gray and white, the word “SPEAK” appears dead center in capital letters. I always said this was to remind students, faculty and staff to share openly what was on their minds when they came into my office, something that is rarely easy. It also served another purpose: reminding me to speak out, no matter how hard or risky that is. It still does.
Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College.
Chad Brown, provost and executive vice president of Zane State College, in Ohio, has been promoted to president there.
Andrew H. Card Jr., acting dean of the George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, has been selected as president of Franklin Pierce University, in New Hampshire.
Hugh Brady, professor of medicine and healthcare strategy and president emeritus at University College Dublin, in Ireland, has been appointed as vice chancellor and president of the University of Bristol, in England.
For years now, the main trend in public university policy has been to impose budgetary austerity on them. Regardless of the revenue level that universities seek or the efficiencies they announce, the result is always the same: inadequate public funding coupled with rising tuition and student debt.
On the surface, 2015 promises more of the same: more austerity, more fees, more adjuncts, more tech, more management, and more metrics— metrics as a substitute for money. Years of attacks on austerity economics by prominent critics like Paul Krugman have not damaged austerity politics, which favors some powerful interests and which has hardened into a political culture. Our public universities have been stuck in a policy deadlock that I think of as halfway privatization. This has meant the worst of both worlds: not enough tuition and endowment income to escape the perma-austerity of state legislatures, and not enough public funding to rebuild the educational core.
University officials opened with their only revenue move — a tuition hike. UC President Janet Napolitano, who had been the Democratic governor of Arizona and then President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, proposed an annual 5 percent hike for UC students for each of the next five years. The state’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, responded by saying the hike would break an agreement in which the state is to increase California State University and University of California funding 4 to 5 percent per year on the condition that tuition stays frozen, as it had been for three years.
From there, the parties made a series of scripted points. Napolitano responded that UC couldn’t maintain academic quality with funding levels that were lower that when the recession began. The state replied that UC had more than made up for the massive cuts with its even more massive tuition increases. UC officials countered that the state’s math was wrong. An existing line was redrawn in the sand: we need more versus you have plenty. Much of the state’s top brass showed up to argue against Napolitano and the regents. Though the speeches were especially passionate, no votes were changed. The tuition hikes passed 14-7, with every politician on the board voting no.
Some editorialists were impressed that Janet Napolitano had started a new public discussion of the university’s fate, and yet the austerity script generated the standard follow-up gesture of split-the-difference. UC officials said they would rather have the state buy out the tuition increase by adding $100 million to the general fund allocation of about $3 billion. In response, Democratic leaders hatched his-and-hers halfway measures. His, from the Democratic president pro tem of the state Senate, was a full tuition hike buyout funded by a raid on the legislature’s halfway measure of last year, a “middle class scholarship” plan, plus a hike in the triple-tuition paid by non-resident students. Hers, from the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, was half a tuition buyout linked to higher teaching loads for faculty and a gesture toward “zero-base budgeting.”
Regardless of which components prevail, the austerity outcome is already programmed: not enough money to fix basic problems. The California tuition fight is about who would pay an additional $100 million, but that comes to 1.4 percent of the university’s core budget of $7 billion, and is a drop in the bucket of its $27 billion overall budget. UC also says it has a structural deficit: exact size varies, but one estimate was $2.4 billion by 2015-16. The tuition increase (or state buyout) comes to 3.3 percent of that, so that the university system would need about 25 years of such increases to close the deficit it will have next year.
UC managers and state politicians are debating mirror versions of the same austerity molecule. Either way, academic planning is ruled by insufficient funds, and quality upgrades are kicked further down the road. The university system actually needs 16 to 20 percent annual increases in funding for five years to get back on track, and yet the budget script assures that the university will neither ask for nor receive the reinvestment to do so, defined as growing at the same rate as state personal income. The tuition debate and its larger narrative aren’t about advancing public higher education but about sustaining the austerity already imposed on it. The outcome for students, year after year, is that they pay more tuition to get less education.
And yet something has happened in the last few months. The three leading players began to tire of their roles.
First, there are the university’s senior managers. Their deal was to accept austerity, but instead they were getting insolvency. They had spent every year since 2008 announcing major efficiency programs, but political leaders were never satisfied. Operated from the Office of the President in Oakland (UCOP), these programs had nine-figure savings goals, consumed immeasurable amounts of staff time, pushed expenses onto already-suffering campuses, cost the central administration most of whatever good will had remained among the rank and file, and yet still didn’t help the university.
One flagship efficiency measure, an IT centralization plan called UCPath, has missed all its time and cost milestones and is now being funded through borrowing. The most likely outcome is that the university will spend $220 million to save a net $5 million per year over a couple of decades while going into debt to do it. The university could get real savings through major structural simplification, but that would take knowledge, money, and trust that UCOP doesn’t have, and bottom-up initiative that it doesn’t support. All this efficiency programming has done little to close the deficit.
Faced with weak results and mounting unpopularity, an administrative glove or two finally came off. The university’s senior budget official used phrases like “I fundamentally disagree with the notion that tuition increases have made up for cuts”— fighting words in the deference culture that normally prevails — and appeared on multiple radio and TV shows to plead the university’s case. Political leaders can keep forcing university officials to accept their lump of coal, but the change this year is that perma-austerity has undermined their united austerity front.
As for the Board of Regents, the deal was that cooperation would maintain prestige and not produce humiliation. Board members have been very good at taking their austerity medicine — with the expectation that someday it would reward them with improved fiscal health.
One sign of health would be for the state to rescue the regents from their single biggest fiduciary mistake, which was to have stopped employer and employee contributions to UC’s retirement fund and not to have restarted them for almost 20 years. But the state’s Democrats have been as unwilling as its Republicans to fund the state share of the employer’s re-started contributions, now at 14 percent of payroll, although it has always done this for the California State University system. Since the state has also been unwilling to fund cost of living increases, the result of the restart in employee contributions was a 12 percent faculty pay cut between 2010 and 2013.
The board resembles the faculty in one way, which is its lack of political clout, and they are now angrier about this than I have ever seen them. One regent described the state’s relation to higher education funding as “breach of contract,” and this was just one of many expressions of frustration and disgust. Cost-free complicity between the university board and state leaders has come to an end in California. Its days may be numbered elsewhere.
The third major player is the undergraduate student body, for whom the deal was to pay more for the same, not to pay more for less. Worried about jobs and skills, they have started to zero in on declines in educational quality. As part of the tuition hike debate, Caitlin Quinn, a student government leader at UC Berkeley, said, students “aren’t seeing this supposed quality education. I've been [at UC Berkeley] for three years and ever since I've been here students have been struggling to see the value of a UC education. We’re in huge classes. I’ve been in classes as big as 800 people. I don't think there's more than one or two professors who know me by name.” Students increasingly doubt that public universities can give them the individual attention they need to build the special capabilities now required by a permanently demanding job market.
As a result, UC students were as disgusted with the austerity Democrats who opposed tuition hikes as they were with the UC officials who proposed them. The tone was nicely captured by a UCLA Daily Bruineditorial that began, “State Senate Democrats say they ‘stand with California’s students and their families’ with their new proposal for funding the University of California.... But this is an outright lie.”
Students were now calling not just for flat tuition but also for the public reinvestment that would rebuild quality. They were clear that no decision-maker was offering this. There was a new multilateral hostility to all of the solutions proposed by the university and the political establishment — a pox on all your houses! Events this past fall began to decouple mainstream students from the mainstream policy options in a way the country hasn’t seen since the 60s.
The weakening of higher ed's austerity front reflects the weakening of Democratic fiscal politics. For years, Democrats called for inclusive progress without paying for it through the taxation levels of the high-growth postwar economy. This has helped them to hang onto wealthy liberal donors and the progressive upper-middle class, but lost them the confidence of most working people. Their “politics of drift” allowed them to coast along with Republicans on the investments of the past, even as the freeways, laboratories, electrical grid, and everything else aged and declined.
By 2000, the country no longer had the world-leading pubic infrastructure that would sustain the inclusive economy Democrats still said they wanted. Public research universities were primary victims of their austerity drift. Austerity Democrats have been as invested as Republicans in the fantasy that prosperity’s infrastructure didn’t need high levels of investment, just more techno-efficiency that somehow needed no investment itself.
Although austerity theory still rules public colleges, three of its major players no longer project future benefit from following their scripted roles: cutting and squeezing (administration), political compliance (governing boards), and tolerance for higher tuition and debt (students). It has become clear to them that these austerity policies will never make things better.
The decline of austerity’s political coalition offers a second chance to two other parties. One is the body of university faculty, whose senate voices have largely echoed those of their administrations. The other consists of the families of college students, who are poorly organized and have not held politicians accountable for their destructive cuts. Each has a crucial piece of the puzzle. Educational quality can’t be defined and pursued without the faculty. The full impact of student debt can’t be understood without the families who, through mechanisms like Parent PLUS loans, are now indebted for college along with their children.
Were these groups to push for real public reinvestment, they would face weaker opposition from the austerity coalition than they would have faced in the past. A strong push would make 2015 the year that the country finally started to rebuild its public universities and colleges.
Christopher Newfield is professor of literature and American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
On September 9, a breast cancer diagnosis shattered my plans for the new academic year. At the moment I heard the words spoken by the radiologist, my vision of the future simply dissolved. Later in the day, as my surgeon described the treatment plan, I was thinking about how it would affect me, my family, and my work at Simmons College. With barely any time to consider it, I made the instinctive decision to live my new future publicly, sharing my experience with the Simmons students, professors and staff in a real-time fashion. I am convinced this was the right decision for me.
Why I arrived at that conclusion so quickly is, I think, self-evident: I am president of a university that has an all-women's undergraduate college, graduate schools serving women and men, and a culture that emphasizes gender equality and celebrates diversity and inclusion. In this environment, how could I imagine maintaining a leadership role while combating a challenging disease in secret? Further, how could I not share my new and evolving learning about an affliction that affects 12 percent of the women in the United States? I could not. I would live this battle publicly.
Each week, I write to the Simmons community about things that are on my mind; it has become the natural way to share my breast cancer journey, and I have found the response to be overwhelmingly supportive. If I had a moment's hesitation over my decision to go public, it faded quickly once I recognized the opportunity to reassure my community that it is possible to contend with a challenging diagnosis and to continue meaningful work, as have many before me. I hope that by writing candidly, I can help make a difference for those who may be experiencing similar challenges.
As the semester moved along, I tried to keep the same robust schedule I’ve always maintained with a few modifications for my treatment. For example, many people are shocked to find themselves scheduled in a meeting with me the day after chemo. It’s two to four days after these treatments that become challenging for me because the steroids in my system are wearing off. Through the generosity of the college’s trustees, I am now driven to work and to my daily professional appointments. It was difficult for me to accept such support given how much I value self-reliance, but not having to personally drive has made a huge difference in my ability to maintain my working schedule.
One aspect of my treatment that I find particularly difficult is the requirement that I avoid large groups because of my weakened immune system. For a college president who regularly meets with students, faculty, alumni, staff, community members, and donors, this was a tough change. However, there is really no way to get around this important requirement. I have had to make adjustments such as canceling my annual fall community meeting and missing the annual faculty and staff holiday party.
A cancer diagnosis of any kind constitutes an unspeakable event for many people. There is no escaping the facts: cancer affects one in two American men and one in three American women, according to the American Cancer Society. Changing societal attitudes about cancer so that we talk about it in honest and authentic terms and arm ourselves with knowledge can only help us in dealing with the No. 2 cause of death in the United States.
Fear of breast cancer plagues patients, survivors and women who do not have the disease. Even women who acknowledge knowing that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States fear that they will most likely die from breast cancer. Such fear too often leads to avoidance of screening or even seeing a physician for self-identified symptoms, creating great risk of more serious disease.
I have generally shared these fears, particularly as I visited the Avon Foundation Comprehensive Breast Evaluation Center at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) every year for several decades for my annual mammogram. Many who participate in this important test will say that the waiting room is a quiet and sober place. All of us know why: Most of us will leave with a clean bill of health, while others require further review. This year I was in the second group, and while the anticipation was terrifying, it prepared me for my important learning that putting my life before my fear was the best way for me to handle the fear.
During diagnosis, surgery, and now chemotherapy, I have seen that my single greatest source of fear is lack of any sense of understanding or control over what will happen. My response has been to be as engaged a patient as I can be while soliciting as much information about my treatment from my care team as I can handle. Facing the fear head-on is empowering, oddly enough, and finding role models who have done so in any circumstance has been especially helpful. When I write about my experiences with breast cancer, I try to be as explicit as possible about how I am dealing with the fears associated both with the disease and the treatment.
In addition to the fear factor, I have observed what I consider is the diabolical confusion in the marketplace about the efficacy of mammography screening. The American Cancer Society advises annual mammograms for all women age 40 and over, while the United States Preventative Task Force (USPTF) a government agency, recommends biennial mammography after age 50 until age 74. In addition to confusion, this government advice opens the door to changes in reimbursement for testing done outside guidelines, particularly worrisome as we consider the ongoing national concerns about health care affordability.
Daniel Kopans, a physician at MGH, has been a particularly committed advocate for mammography in the face of this confusion, and cites both the poor quality of the Canadian studies, which are the basis for the USPTF guidelines, and the lack of media attention to the new Canadian studies, which demonstrate results supporting the value of mammography. As a woman who clearly benefited from annual mammography, I think anything less is a disservice to all of us.
My primary care physician has steadfastly advised me to have annual mammograms over the course of our 20-year relationship, and I have never missed one. All previous tests revealed nothing abnormal, but in the fall, the test revealed a stage 1, grade 3 tumor. Stage 1 is an early finding of a tumor less than 2 centimeters in size, while a grade 3 tumor is the most aggressive kind of tumor. Had I delayed this mammogram, the progress of the disease was inevitable. My story is the classic scenario in support of annual mammograms. However, women in the United States face great confusion due to significant differences in the recommendations of key advisers.
My battle with breast cancer is now fully engaged, and I am committed to all aspects of the fight – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and long-term medication – and to doing everything in my power to defeat this disease. One of the unexpected gifts of this experience is that I see life with more clarity and in a more intense light than ever before and I feel a sense of urgency in everything that I do – for myself, for my family, for the college. We just need to get on with it – face our challenges squarely and make every minute count. There is no time to waste.
I trust that by sharing my experiences with those in the Simmons College community, I can help them face the challenges in their lives, too, whatever those are, and inspire them to engage their own challenges with tenacity.