America’s universities are home, more than any place else in our country, to the enterprise of science. That has been an important and proud role for our great universities, and it has produced wonderful discoveries. Besides providing technical progress, science gives our society its headlights, warning us of oncoming hazards. As the pace of change accelerates, we need those headlights brighter than ever. So when a threat looms over the enterprise of science, the universities that are its home need to help address the threat.
The threat is simple. The fossil fuel industry has adopted and powered up infrastructure and methods originally built by the tobacco industry and others to attack and deny science. That effort has coalesced into a large, adaptive and well-camouflaged apparatus that aspires to mimic and rival legitimate science. The science that universities support now has an unprecedented and unprincipled new adversary.
The science-denial machinery is an industrial-strength adversary, and it has big advantages over real science. First, it does not need to win its disputes with real science; it just needs to create a public illusion of a dispute. Then industry’s political forces can be put into play to stop any efforts to address whatever problem science had disclosed, since now it is “disputed science.” Hence the infamous phrase from the tobacco-era science denial operation -- “Doubt is our product.”
Second, the science-denial operatives don’t waste much time in peer-reviewed forums. They head straight to Fox News and talk radio, to committee hearings and editorial pages. Their work is, at its heart, PR dressed up as science but not actual science. So they go directly to their audience -- and the more uninformed the audience, the better.
Our universities and other organizations engaged in the enterprise of science struggle for funding. Not so for the science-denial forces. You may think maintaining this complex science-denial apparatus sounds like a lot of effort. So consider the stakes for the fossil fuel industry. The International Monetary Fund -- made up of smart people, with no apparent conflict of interest -- has calculated the subsidy fossil fuels receive in the United States to be $700 billion annually. That subsidy is mostly what economists call “externalities” -- costs the public has to bear from the product’s harm that should be, under market theory, in the price of the product. These $700-billion-per-year stakes mean that the funding available to the science-denial enterprise is virtually unlimited.
And it’s your adversary. Those of you who either are scientists, or value and want to defend scientists, should beware. You have a powerful, invasive new alien in your ecosystem: it is a rival assuredly, a mimic at best, and an outright predator at worst. Make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail. That is its purpose.
Given the connections between the fossil fuel industry and the new administration, we can’t count on government any longer to resist this predator. Regrettably, that science denial machinery is now probably hardwired into the incoming administration, as shown by the appointment of the fossil-fuel-funded climate denier Myron Ebell to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. This considerably increases the denial machinery’s threat to the enterprise of legitimate science. The hand of industry now works not just behind the science-denial front groups but in the halls of political power.
That makes it all the more important for entities outside government -- notably universities as well as other scientific organizations -- to join together and step up a common defense. It is neither fair nor strategically sensible for universities and scientific associations to expect individual scientists to defend our nation against the science-denial apparatus. Individual scientists are ordinarily not trained in the dark arts of calculated misinformation. Individual scientists are ordinarily not equipped to deal with attacks and harassment on multiple fronts. Individual scientists don’t often have squadrons of spin doctors and public relations experts at their disposal. And they have no institutions devoted to ferreting out the falsehoods or conflicts of interest behind their antagonists.
Individual scientists are trained in the pursuit of truth through the tested methods of science. The science-denial machinery has truth as its enemy, and propaganda and obfuscation -- even outright falsity -- as its method. So the enterprise of science generally, and universities specifically, will need a common strategy to resist this potent and encroaching adversary.
In the Senate, I see the work of this apparatus, and its associated political operation, every day. Do not underestimate its power and ambition. Again, make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a United States senator, a Democrat, representing Rhode Island.
Application season will soon be upon us, and graduating high school seniors across the country will be in the thick of deciding where to apply to college. Unfortunately, after they are accepted and enrolled, many won’t go on to earn a degree -- especially if they are black or Latino. According to the Digest of Educational Statistics, only about 41 percent of black and 52 percent of Latino students obtain their bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling, compared to 61 percent of white and 69 percent of Asian students.
I have spent the past three years tracking more than 500 black and Latino students across their first three years of college to better understand the factors that could increase their likelihood of degree attainment. Over the course of this work, one question kept coming to mind: How did so many of them arrive on a campus having thought so little about why go to college -- and why that college in particular?
The answer came from understanding how their high schools failed them in the college application process. Most received what I now call mechanical advising: maximum logistical assistance but minimal decision-making support.
For example: Claudia is both a first-generation American, born to parents who immigrated as teenagers, and a first-generation college student. She relied on her high school for everything concerning applying to college. Although she was an excellent student, graduating fourth in her class of more than 800 students, it was not until senior year that she received guidance on applying to college. Even then, most of that guidance came in the form of schoolwide announcements and application support for the entire class.
Claudia credits her senior year AP English Literature teacher with getting her into college: “If it wasn’t for [her] I probably wouldn’t even have applied or known how to apply. She was a big role in how I did everything, because one of the assignments was actually to apply to colleges. Every step of the way was an assignment, so I did it all.”
Mechanical advising is designed to make sure increasing numbers of high school graduates enroll somewhere, anywhere. Claudia recalls: “They said, ‘Go to college.’ They always announced on the megaphone for morning announcements. They would tell you deadlines, ‘apply, apply, apply.’”
The Pew Research Center reported that, from 1996 to 2012, college enrollment increased by 240 percent among Latinos and 72 percent among blacks, compared to 12 percent for whites. While efforts to increase college enrollment are apparently succeeding, is this system helping if we are simply increasing the numbers of blacks and Latinos who won’t get a degree?
Because college has large financial and personal costs, the past few decades of broadening access without increasing graduation rates has created a college-going context that could be particularly detrimental for students from economically disadvantaged families. Expansions in college access have coincided with rising college costs and a shifting of student aid funding away from grants that don’t have to be repaid to loans that can’t even be discharged in a bankruptcy. Essentially, students who do not obtain a degree still walk away with the burden of college debt. The most recent numbers from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found undergraduate borrowers who dropped out over a decade ago had incurred a median debt of $7,000 in loans before leaving college. Given the steep increase in college costs, it is likely that today’s student borrowers who drop out are leaving with significantly more debt.
Expanding access to student debt without also increasing the likelihood that students will graduate means not only is college more of a financial risk, but increasing numbers of low-income students are exposed to that risk. Because of the strong correlation between race and ethnicity and income, the likelihood of dropping out is not spread evenly across all racial and ethnic groups, as the percentages of students earning a bachelor’s degree show.
For black and Latino students in particular, there is one important thing to add to the list of factors to consider in the college decision: How many students of their racial or ethnic group has their potential college graduated in the recent past?
Using overall graduation rates can be misleading. For example, based on the six-year graduation rate of five cohorts of freshmen who enrolled from 2004 to 2008, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities had an overall graduation rate of 73 percent. But that dropped to 65 percent for Latino students and an even lower 52 percent for black students. Concordia University Wisconsin had an overall graduation rate of 59 percent that dropped to 31 percent for Latino students and, again, an even lower 20 percent for black students.
The pendulum has swung too far. The current narrative that pushes all students toward a bachelor’s degree has resulted in mechanical advising that is not in the best interests of many students. The alternative advising model asks counselors to be both encouraging and discouraging -- encourage all students to develop postsecondary education plans and discourage aspects of plans that are implausible and imprudent. That means going beyond merely providing application support and engaging in discussions about the costs and benefits of college, and how various certifications and degrees fit into a spectrum of occupational trajectories.
More immediately, students and their families can be armed with vital pieces of information that will enable them to make better decisions about which college or university they should choose to take on the student debt they are about to accrue. Comparing institutions based on their graduation rates is rarely on the list of things that students do when deciding where to apply and which admission offer to accept. But as students and parents are armed with more information, it increasingly will be.
For their part, universities would do well to embrace the understanding that retention is as or even more important than recruitment. A high retention rate is itself a competitive recruitment tool, and an increasingly important success metric that determines government funding. For administrators eyeing the bottom line, it is more cost-effective to retain those already enrolled than invest in the replacement of those who have dropped out. One examination of the fiscal benefits of student retention found that retention initiatives are estimated to be three to five times more cost-effective than recruitment initiatives. One example found that at the University of St. Louis, each 1 percent increase in the first-year retention rate generated approximately $500,000 in revenue by the time those students graduated.
Graduation rates aren’t the only aspect of college that matters, but it is one tangible number that prospective students can use to guide their decisions. Admitted freshmen should enroll at the college with the highest graduation rate for their racial or ethnic groups. And if all of the institutions to which they have been admitted have low graduation rates for their racial or ethnic groups, we should expect them to think twice about the amount of debt they will need to incur.
As the costs and benefits of getting a college degree continue to rise, so do the stakes associated with making the decision to enroll in college and the decision about which college to attend. These two decisions are intimately intertwined -- students can no longer be encouraged to enroll at any college and at any cost just for the sake of being counted among the college-going population. And colleges, for the long term, can little afford not to help them succeed -- and graduate -- once they get there.
Micere Keels is an associate professor in the department of comparative human development at the University of Chicago. She is a faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and member of the Committee on Education.
It’s the gray chair. You know, the one across the desk or at the edge of the cubicle occupied by a financial aid counselor, academic adviser or other staff person on campuses everywhere. As colleges and universities have welcomed students back to school and freshmen have begun their much anticipated college years, these gray chairs have been in high demand. As an undergraduate then medical student, I occupied that chair more times than I can count, and more than a decade later, I still remember it well. More important: I remember the staff members who sat across from me.
Today I am an academic pediatrician at an Ivy League institution. When I retrace the path that brought me here, I recall my relationships with staff members as much or more than those with faculty members. In their own way, they were equally -- or even more -- important.
That was especially true for my undergraduate years, when as a female minority student, I watched the rapid decline of pre-meds who looked anything like me. During those years, you would often find me perched in my gray chair, talking to my favorite staff members about life, goals, relationships, clubs and organizations. They were the ones who supported me through the sorrow of my mom’s losing battle with cancer, the joy of planning my wedding and the excitement mixed with apprehension of having a baby. They were my academic family.
There are more than 1.7 million staff members at postsecondary institutions in the United States, a number that continues to grow. In addition to their core functions, they often serve as advisers to student clubs and organizations, teach students life lessons as they navigate their newfound independence living away from home, and serve as support systems as students deal with personal and peer conflicts. Often these additional activities require staff members to attend events or student meetings after business hours, cutting into their personal lives. Yet they still show up smiling.
The role of staff assumes added importance as colleges and universities make plans to increase diversity initiatives in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these student-led movements across the country called for increased student support and a more diverse presence within the classroom. Staff members from a diverse range of identities are also integral to the overall student experience and the creation of inclusive campus environments. At many institutions, the staff is much more diverse than the faculty. However, that trend often dissipates when you look at senior administrators across college campuses.
To address that, some institutions are incorporating staff initiatives in to their diversity plans. For example, Brown University is starting initiatives to help foster the professional development and career growth of staff members. If other institutions are committed to changing the cultures of their campuses, they should acknowledge the vital role of administrative staff members and ensure their diversity plans incorporate ways to foster those staffers' career growth.
While we as faculty are experts in our fields, we are not the experts in all fields. As we ascend to leadership positions, it behooves us to keep a finger on the pulse of the larger campus community and to foster an opportunity-rich environment for all. Staff members have goals, career plans and ambitions that need to be supported. No one would accept a job if they were told from the beginning that they would have minimal to no potential for growth. But for many staff members at academic institutions, that becomes the reality. They often receive little, if any, career mentoring from supervisors and have to consider other job opportunities (often at other institutions) to advance or reshape their careers. Many of us have had annual reviews that simply serve the purpose of checking the box. While perhaps simple in theory, we should make these opportunities meaningful and substantive. Faculty or leadership development programs may be necessary to support supervisors in providing meaningful mentoring and career advice.
In recent years, inflated administration paychecks have come in for attack as one reason for the soaring cost of student tuition. But let’s be clear: few staff members are making impressive salaries, let alone the jaw-dropping seven-figure packages that have drawn the most attention. This is not an argument for or against increased pay or an increased number of administrators on campuses. Rather, it means to highlight the importance of diversifying the current staff and faculty at colleges and universities. If increased attention were given to current staff members, noting their skill sets and future ambitions, perhaps it could lead to more productivity, lower turnover and increased job satisfaction. All of which could save money in the long run.
In his last State of the Union address, President Obama asked, “How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?” I believe the challenges that many colleges and universities will need to address over the coming year as they create inclusive environments, valuing diversity of all types, will be solved by retaining and strengthening all members of the team. That includes the countless campus staffers who welcome students to their gray chairs.
Stephanie White, M.D., is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth/Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the Geisel Diversity Liaison for Student/Resident Advising. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.