Reviewing past accomplishments can help administrators achieve success in the future (opinion)

Previous successes demonstrate that members of a group have achieved goals together before and can do so again, writes Judith S. White.

Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

The impact on college sports programs if athletes are paid (opinion)

Now that the football season is over, college sports fans have several options. They can argue about whether next year the University of Alabama will defend its 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship title. Or they can turn to watching some of the more than 50 National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball games televised each week.

These obvious choices do not exhaust the possibilities for excitement, because the real game is going to be played off the court and in court. That’s because U.S. District Court judge Claudia Wilken will be holding a hearing on motions for summary judgment in the case of Jenkins v. NCAA, a class-action suit that challenges the NCAA’s compensation limits on athletes. According to a recent article in Time magazine by Sean Gregory, “This could be the last college football championship game with unpaid players.” Representatives for college players are confident that, within the coming year, college athletes will be able to receive payment beyond the current limits of a grant in aid plus cost of living adjusted expenses. And even though almost 69 percent of respondents surveyed by the NCAA last year expressed opposition to paying college athletes, Gregory suggests that today avid college sports fans may have little problem with such an innovation.

Advocates for paying college players justify their cause and case on the grounds that since the NCAA, major conferences, big-time college sports programs and their high-profile coaches make millions of dollars from college sports, the amateur athletes who play the college games that attract spectators deserve to “share in the bounty.”

That may be good news for student athletes who think they are financially exploited. Less clear is how the other principle participant -- the college athletics department -- will fare under the new arrangements. If college athletes are allowed to be paid salaries, what will the impact be on intercollegiate athletics programs' budgets and operations? How will college athletic directors pay for “play for pay”?

Most likely, no college athletics director will relish the new professionalization, because paying salaries to players will increase program expenditures without necessarily increasing revenues. But if the court does approve player payment, a handful of powerful programs will stand to gain in competition for athletic talent simply because they can afford to pay salaries. Others will mimic as they try to keep up but eventually will fall short in trying to outbid Auburn University, Florida State, the University of Southern California or the University of Texas in the college player arms race.

Even before factoring in the added expenses that might come from the anticipated court ruling, the important prequel is that now only about 20 college athletics programs consistently operate in the black, even though the traditional justification for big-time football is that it serves as the golden goose to subsidize the other “nonrevenue” sports. More surprising is that many NCAA Division I football programs lose money. With the added expense of paying some athletes salaries, most programs will go deeper in debt. The harsh reality is that they will still fall behind as the gap in the competition for star athletes will widen, with the Bowl Championship Series conference members gaining a pronounced edge.

This syndrome of the rich getting richer among big-time college sports programs is not surprising. Less obvious is that with player payroll expenses, even many of the high-profile, commercially successful college sports programs will face unexpected consequences that will strain their annual operating budgets.

For example, when an athletics department pays a salary instead of providing a grant in aid, it faces substantial new expenses for no gain in services. It must pay federal taxes for Medicare and Social Security, matching the dollar amount paid by the employee. If, for example, a player received a salary of about $140,000, the employer and employee each would pay about $9,100 per year for these two federal taxes.

Athletic departments pay another price if they shift from scholarships to salaries. When player compensation was in the form of a grant in aid, an athletics department could rely on the university financial aid to transfer a Pell Grant worth up to about $5,000 per year to a player’s package if the student athlete had demonstrated financial need. So if 100 grant-in-aid recipients were receiving Pell Grants, that might save the athletic department $500,000 per year in fulfilling their obligations on funding financial aid packages. Under the new rules, that potential subsidy would evaporate.

A crucial question is whether any of the court’s rulings that allow a college to pay players will jeopardize a college sports program’s status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Some prominent tax law scholars such as John D. Colombo of the University of Illinois have argued that it would be difficult and unlikely for a college sports program to forfeit this legal status.

Perhaps so. But the recent trends in the court cases suggest one vulnerable point where paying salaries to student athletes could jeopardize the customary federal tax-exempt status. To qualify for 501(c)3 status, an educational activity must also be a charitable activity. As long as athletic programs and their host corporations such as the state university athletic association or the state university athletic foundation use their revenues to pay for scholarships, the charitable status of the overall athletics program probably is safe. Shifting, however, to paying salaries to student athletes goes counter to an essential condition because it would be hard to define a salary as a charitable expense.

Why is this important? If a college sports program department or athletics association forfeits its tax-exempt status, it may have new, big expenses from which it was spared under the student aid model. Those could include state and local categories of taxes, such as property taxes. There are already cases whereby a local government has pressed a major state university to explain why a golf course or other real estate not used for educational purposes that the institution owned should qualify as an educational and charitable site. With professional athletes on the payroll, such local and state scrutiny of land used for sports entertainment provided by hired professionals will increase.

One possible strategy to reduce this potential tax exposure would be for athletic directors to decide to pay salaries only to student athletes for selected sports. Most likely, that would include football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and a few others such as hockey at a handful of universities. All other sports might be left in their current, familiar grant-in-aid category. The risk is that paying salaries to student athletes in a few high-profile sports will open the door to Title IX compliance problems, especially if comparable compensation is not given regardless of gender. This concern is not outlandish, because a football squad with an allotment of 65 players is a large number, as already shown in the problems athletic directors have in gaining parity for women’s sports in paying for grants in aid.

Those added expenses will take place just as the new federal tax reform bill passed in December 2017 takes effect, requiring colleges and other nonprofits to pay an excise tax for employee salaries surpassing $1 million per year. That measure will have disproportionate consequences for athletics programs where coach and athletic director salaries are high. The obvious targets are head coaches who can make as much as $7 million or more a year. Yet in recent years, the potential impact has extended to a wider group, as some assistant coaches make over $1 million per year. The new tax legislation also places greater limits on tax deductions for donors who give to athletics programs and earn the right to purchase season tickets to games.

Furthermore, in some states, legislators are filing bills that would require university governing boards to review big sponsorship and endorsement deals with Adidas or other sports merchandising companies, which can be as high as $165 million over 10 years.

College sports programs will still enjoy great exemptions and benefits but will face increasing scrutiny and constraints. Expenses will continue to rise, but revenues will be subject to more taxes. Courts and Congress are increasingly, albeit reluctantly, acknowledging the commercial character of the NCAA and its sponsored sports. On June 4, 2015 in the case of Javon Marshall, et al., v. ESPN, et al., federal district Judge Kevin H. Sharp wrote, “College basketball and football, particularly at the Division I and FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision] levels, is a big business. Of that there can be little doubt.” Nor is there much doubt that the financing of big-time college sports is entering a new, problematic period of adjustment due to the pressures and precedents pointing toward increased student athlete compensation, combined with some signs of congressional concerns about commercialism and colleges.

If college players can be paid, how much will they be paid? Even though advocates of paying student athletes invoke the rhetoric of “fair market value,” it’s unlikely that new court rulings will open the floodgate to allow uncapped salaries for college athletes. A more probable scenario is that the courts will designate the conference as the crucial collective unit that works with its member universities to set ceilings and floors on player salaries. Conferences such as the Ivy League will probably not participate in the added commercialization of paying salaries to athletes. The Power Five Conferences will be likely participants.

Between those two extremes, for other Division I conferences, athletic directors will pay a heavy price if they opt to pay players. After the euphoria of achieving partial gains in financial equity by allowing salaries for hardworking student athletes passes, the sobering reality is that even big-time college sports programs will be stretched in their budgets and conflicted in reconciling payment of student athletes with their educational mission.

John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky, is author of American Higher Education: Issues and Institutions (Routledge, 2017).

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Two journals experiment with 'registered reports,' agreeing to publish articles based on their design and potential significance, not their results


Two major journals experiment with "registered reports," agreeing to publish articles based on their design and potential significance, not their results. Could this be a model for others, and one solution to the reproducibility crisis?

Colleges should understand the special issues related to autism and Title IX (opinion)

The call came from a former colleague who coaches college students on the autism spectrum. “We’ve got someone who’s in trouble, and we could use some advice. It’s one of those Title IX things.” She told me the story. The student loves punk music and wanted to start a band. He put up fliers on the campus, which in itself was an issue because he violated the institutional posting policy.

But even in today’s climate, I thought, that doesn’t usually rise to a Title IX complaint. She continued. “He wrote something in Morse code on the flyer, a message directed to women, because he was trying to recruit some to join the band. It was a little ‘stalky-creepy’ -- OK, pretty creepy -- but this guy is totally harmless and clueless and just doesn’t know how to meet women.”

My first reaction was to smile. Morse code? How many college students even know what it is? But it didn’t surprise me to learn this about a student with Asperger’s syndrome, the commonly used term for those with high-functioning autism. Indeed, this kind of situation, I have come to realize, exemplifies a disastrous nexus of two trends on college campuses: the increased awareness of Title IX’s expectations for student behavior and institutional response, and the growing number of students with a diagnosis (or simply just characteristics) of autism who are attending college.

I imagined the student had learned Morse code at the age of 5 and was no doubt still fluent in it. In his mind, a wondrous place created by the distinct neural connections common among those with this diagnosis, the use of Morse code to signal his interest in meeting women made perfect sense. To those who know him, it is one of many quirky characteristics -- some of them sweet, some of them annoying -- that require a bit of translation for him and about him as he moves within the world of higher education.

That’s what these professionals like my friend do, taking the place of parents who have provided this kind of interpretation for years. They, and occasionally I, try to explain to a student that what is being expected of him is a reasonable request from a peer, a faculty member, an administrator. And then we explain to that peer, professor or staff member that the way the student is responding makes sense when viewed through his eyes. Working with students on the autism spectrum is about 75 percent translation services.

The reason for this lies in the very nature of autism, a communication disorder rooted in brain anatomy. In every interaction we have with another human being, our brains are detecting and calculating thousands of bits of information: the expression on the person’s face and their tone of voice, the context of the interaction, the relationship between the two individuals, the reactions of those who might witness the interaction. At lightning speed, the brain takes in all of this information, calculates it at a rate comparable to that of a powerful computer and spits out a suggestion of how to respond. Every interaction, every day. Our brains never get the credit they deserve for this astonishing feat until something doesn’t compute: a comment is misinterpreted, a joke is not understood. We then must hit the pause button and recalculate, using additional information.

The autistic brain is its own curious computer. Most people know about those Rain Man savants who can calculate large numbers, count cards and repeat lengthy passages from books or movies but are unable to interact normally with others or take care of themselves. Most college students with autism, however, are not like the Dustin Hoffman character. They can interact with others, although they may come off as a little odd. (“Quirky” is the common term.) They can care for themselves, for the most part. They can get to classes and turn in assignments and live, with varying degrees of success, in a residence hall. And they want to do such things, which is why they have been motivated enough to overcome the social and communication challenges their autism presents.

What are they not good at? Interpreting the subtle cues of social interactions, seeing the often fine line between wanted and unwanted attention -- flirty and creepy, appropriate and inappropriate. And that is what lands these students in a chair in the office of a Title IX investigator.

My advice to my former colleague was to coach her student to begin the conversation this way: “I have autism” (or Asperger’s, which is sometimes what students prefer to say). “It is a learning difference that sometimes makes it difficult for me to understand the implications of things that I say, or that others say to me. I’m sorry if my posters offended anyone, and I won’t do this kind of thing again.” I heard later from my former colleague that this is what he did, and the situation was resolved through the conversation with the investigator, with no further action required.

Acknowledging Communication Deficits

But I found myself returning to this scenario over the next few days, because situations like it seem to be occurring more frequently, if the requests for assistance I’m receiving are any indication. My background as an experienced student affairs professional, combined with my work with students on the autism spectrum, has given me the opportunity to consult with families and lawyers who find themselves assisting a student with autism who has been charged with sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has made clear that sexual assault is a violation of Title IX. In addition, they have broadened the definition of sexual assault to include any unwanted physical interaction of a sexual nature. Colleges and universities have invested considerable money and effort into following, as closely as possible, instructions provided by the Department’s Office of Civil Rights. On most campuses, recognition of Title IX violations and responses to accusations of violations have improved considerably, though many people believe a lot of work still needs to be done to sort out the enormous complexities.

It is not my goal here to dive into a battle that many writers and activists have taken on with great skill. What I do want to assert is that at the root of the many controversies involving Title IX is the lack of a common agreement about many of the crucial terms: consent, sexual nature, unwanted, incapacity and standards of evidence. Even the term “evidence” and what constitutes it is the subject of intense debate.

I cite those terms not because I want to engage in semantic battles but because of this fact: students on the autism spectrum often have a very difficult time interpreting social cues and reading social context to determine what kind of response is appropriate in a social setting. They seek clear and precise instructions and structure in order to manage their worlds, which, because of their neural anomalies, often feel distressingly chaotic.

That is where the second trend flows into the first, two rivers combining to create a third that routinely overflows its banks. The number of students with a diagnosis of autism who are arriving on campuses each year is growing. Ponder this confluence for a moment: an institution where there is going to be a swift response to a student behaving in a way that appears to be inappropriate and a growing number of students who, because of the way their brains are wired, often behave in ways that are unexpected (a less judgmental way of saying “inappropriate”).

Among the students whose families have sought my input are those who have had what they believed to be consensual sex, who have been accused of stalking, and one whose behavior appeared to another person to be sexual in nature but who contended he was moaning and rubbing the groin muscle he had just pulled. That particular claim was supported by a staff member who happened along right after the accusing party had observed him; he stopped to ask the student, whom he knew, what was wrong and was told by the accused student that he had just injured himself. Nevertheless, he was the subject of a complaint from the initial observer and went through a humiliating and stressful investigation into his actions (and was ultimately exonerated).

We have all heard about male students who believe they have been wrongly accused of sexual assault and of the growing concern among activist groups and family members that the pendulum of response to sexual assault on campuses may have swung too far in the direction of believing accusers to the exclusion of considering other perspectives. That debate will continue, perhaps indefinitely. Those who are survivors of sexual assault and their defenders want to be believed, a reasonable request. But those who feel they have been unfairly accused are equally determined to uncover what they feel is a rigged system.

What I am suggesting is that among those who have been accused are some with a diagnosis, or characteristics, of autism spectrum disorder. Let me make this clear: such a diagnosis does not excuse behavior, does not mean someone could not have sexually harassed or sexually assaulted another person. It does not mean that if a student is found responsible for such an act, they bear no responsibility. I am speaking here of those students whose communication deficits leave them at a significant disadvantage in their interactions with peers.

As most of us would probably admit, the social landscape of traditional-aged college students is, at best, one of mixed messages, uncertain responses, peer pressure and alcohol-impaired judgment. Asking a student with a communication disorder to interpret subtle, or even not-so-subtle, signals is akin to expecting a student with a visual impairment to read a “No Entry” sign on a door and then faulting the student for walking through it, or holding a hearing-impaired student accountable for not exiting a building during a fire drill that involves only an audible fire alarm.

Sadly, it also leaves those students vulnerable to the bullying or ridicule of their peers, some of whom find great sport in exploiting the apparent social ineptitude of others. Perhaps they encourage a student on the spectrum to pursue a woman he likes, assuring him she shares his interest. For a student on the spectrum, it does not seem logical that someone would lie about such a thing. Lying is one of those enormously complex brain operations that we take for granted until we encounter someone who is unfailingly honest and trusting.

Small-A Accommodations

Student conduct officers have long been familiar with students on the autism spectrum and the particular difficulties they face on a college campus. These students are sometimes disruptive in classrooms because they talk out of turn or say things others believe are inappropriate. They can create residence hall challenges because of their sometimes inflexible commitment to following rules (and expecting others to do the same) or sensory sensitivity. Conduct professionals have been negotiating “stalking” claims for years, trying to help a student with autism understand appropriate boundaries or one who feels “stalked” make clear and unambiguous statements about their lack of interest in the accused student’s attention.

But there is now another minefield for these students and conduct officers to navigate: the increasing willingness of a student to report behavior they believe violates Title IX. Again, there can be great benefit in this willingness. But are Title IX investigators and hearing officers, many of whom have not previously worked in the student conduct arena, aware of the challenges that students with autism bring to campuses and the challenges those students themselves face?

Both of these streams -- Title IX-based reporting and the matriculation of students with autism -- will continue to grow. Colleges have a duty to the students they’ve admitted, especially students with known disabilities, to assure proper training and response. The Americans With Disabilities Act requires it.

But a student may exhibit autistic characteristics and lack a formal diagnosis. Or they might never have been told they have autism. Or they may know but choose not to disclose. A recent study of over 600 students at one institution showed that while just 10 first-year students disclosed a diagnosis of autism, 148 students reported they had enough autism-related characteristics to warrant a clinical assessment.

One could say that failing to disclose removes from the institution any responsibility to treat the student differently. But if certain characteristics and deficits may lead to a student being suspended or expelled, does it not seem incumbent on institutions to be certain they are fully capable of making such distinctions?

In my work with campus staff, I often differentiate between “capital-A accommodations” and “small-A accommodations.” The former are those that have been determined by the disabilities professionals charged with making these decisions and include things like extended time on tests, a single residence hall room or a distraction-free environment for exams. Small-A accommodations are demonstrated by, for example, an instructor’s patience with a student who blurts out answers in class. A small-A accommodation is the result of understanding that a person’s overreaction to a situation or a person’s inability to fully grasp another’s perspective are not signs of moral weakness but a difference in brain wiring.

A small-A accommodation costs nothing but has tremendous value. It may mean the difference between a passing grade and a failing one, a successful semester in a residence hall and being asked to leave because of chronic disruptions. In Title IX-related situations, the stakes are high. A student found responsible for a charge of harassment or assault may lose their opportunity to continue their education. Lawyers and costly expenses may be involved. A lot of staff time is monopolized by a charge and its fallout. Students with autism are not, of course, incapable of harassing or assaulting others. But often their behavior is misinterpreted in a way that starts those involved down a slippery slope of accusation, denial, frustration and sanction.

It could be different. A knowledgeable Title IX investigator and hearing officer can interpret a situation through this lens and perhaps help all parties reach different conclusions.

The streams of both Title IX awareness and students with autism enrolled in college are rising rapidly. Administrators must do more than stack sandbags. We must more fully understand the nature of autism, the campus experience of students with autism and the confluence of these students’ experience with the expectations students have for one another and their institutions when it comes to sexual assault response. Too many students are being swept downstream when a simple handrail and a warning sign might have kept them from slipping into the water in the first place.

Lee Burdette Williams is the director of higher education training and development for the College Autism Network.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Overview of forthcoming university press books on Donald J. Trump

A second tell-all book on the Trump White House will be out on Monday, in advance of the president's first State of the Union speech, scheduled for the following evening.

Just writing that sentence makes me tired. The man has held the public sphere hostage for two solid years now. Yet he remains ever on the verge of unleashing some new surprise on the world, as if to make sure we're still paying attention. And each incident, epithet, tantrum and lie is broadcast, often in real time, then replayed incessantly -- not just for a couple of news cycles, but also for months to come, to provide background for coverage of the next rant or tweetstorm. Among the few neutral ways to describe Trump's political career is to call it unprecedented. What that's meant in practice is that he creates his own context, which becomes normal through the blunt force of repetition.

A little analytical distance is perhaps in order. Between now and the end of the summer, scholarly presses are slated to publish a crowded shelf’s worth of books on Trump or on matters closely associated with his presidency. Review copies for most haven't come in yet, but the following descriptions of some of the forthcoming titles might be of interest to readers looking for more than recycled sound bites or informed guesses about whom Mueller will indict next.

Political scientists are professionally equipped to find order and continuity in developments that otherwise look chaotic or disruptive, or both. And the forthcoming poli-sci books on Trump are true to form. (Quotation below are taken from press catalogs; the publication dates given here may vary from those indicated by online book vendors.)

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck (Princeton University Press, September) maintains that economic conditions and demographic factors pointed to "an extremely close election" from early on -- exactly what was delivered on election night. Alan I. Abramowitz's The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation and the Rise of Donald Trump (Yale University Press, June) updates the argument, made in his earlier book The Disappearing Center (Yale, 2011), that American political polarization is a real and deepening phenomenon that reflects “an unprecedented alignment of many different divides: racial and ethnic, religious, ideological, and geographic.” His statistical analysis indicates “‘racial anxiety’ is by far a better predictor of support for Donald Trump than any other factor.”

Its scope is much wider than the Trump years, or U.S. politics, for that matter, but Patrick J. Deneen's analysis of Why Liberalism Failed (Yale, January) surely applies. The problem lies in liberalism's inherent contradictions: "It trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history."

The hollowing-out of formal democracy by increased disparities in wealth is also central to Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age, by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry E. Brady and Sidney Verba (Princeton, June): "With those at the top of the ladder increasingly able to spend lavishly in politics, political action anchored in financial investment weighs ever more heavily in what public officials hear." A similar argument seems to inform Yascha Mounk's The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press, March). The author points to "three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy and the rise of social media."

Those forces do not remain within national borders, of course, nor does Trump's influence. Chaos in the Liberal Order: The Trump Presidency and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century, a collection of papers assembled by Robert Jervis and three co-editors (Columbia University Press, June), looks at Trump in a global frame: "Does Trump’s election signal the downfall of the liberal order or unveil its resilience? What is the importance of individual leaders for the international system, and to what extent is Trump an outlier? Is there a Trump doctrine, or is America’s president fundamentally impulsive and scattershot?"

More than any earlier president, Donald Trump is a creature of the media -- both broadcast and social, though his activity blurs that distinction a little more all the time. The range of topics covered by Trump and Media (MIT Press, March) -- a collection of papers edited by two communications scholars, Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi -- includes “the disruption of the media landscape, the disconnect between many voters and the established news outlets, the emergence of fake news and ‘alternative facts,’ and Trump’s own use of social media.” It is too late for a paper on the president's relationship to the adult video industry, but maybe that's for volume two.

Three forthcoming titles from Pluto Press look at the relationship between Trump as media figure and as political force. Christian Fuchs's Digital Demagogue: Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Trump and Twitter (February) updates Frankfurt School media theory to analyze Trump as an example of how reactionaries use digital platforms to promote "the rise of authoritarianism, nationalism and right-wing ideologies around the world." Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right, by Lawrence Grossberg (January), sees Trump's media presence as part of the far right's "political strategy of sowing chaos into the heart of mainstream politics." And Mike Wendling's Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House (April) takes up the role of social media in consolidating a movement characterized by "technological utopianism, reactionary philosophy and racial hatred," which then rallied behind Trump's message of nativism.

While the Pluto titles do sound broadly similar, two of the authors come to different assessments. Grossberg "lays out a possible nightmare future: a vision of a political system controlled by corporate interests, built on a deliberate dismantling of modern politics," while Wendling thinks the alt-right's "lack of a coherent base and its contradictory tendencies are already sapping its strength and will lead to its downfall."

The quintessential American thinker Homer Simpson once made the profound observation that it takes two people to lie: one to lie and one to listen. Let's wrap up with a few forthcoming titles that, in effect, apply Homer's insight to the politics in the era of fake news and alternative facts

Misinformation and Mass Audiences (University of Texas Press, January), a collection of papers edited by Brian G. Southwell, Emily A. Thorson and Laura Sheble, takes the potential for false, misleading or outright dishonest information to proliferate to be the downside of mass communications -- obliging scholars to "investigate what constitutes misinformation, how it spreads and how best to counter it." By contrast, Linsey McGoey argues in The Unknowers: How Elite Ignorance Rules the World (Zed, August) that "ignorance is more than just an absence of knowledge, but a useful tool in political and economic life" because "financial and political elites have become highly adept at harnessing ignorance for their own ends: strategically minimizing their responsibility and passing blame onto others." Dana L. Cloud's Reality Bites: Rhetoric and the Circulation of Truth Claims in U.S. Political Culture (Ohio State University Press, February) acknowledges "widespread skepticism regarding the utility, ethics and viability of an empirical standard for political truths."

Finally, there's Lee C. McIntyre's Post-Truth (MIT, February). The title names a condition in which "the assertion of ideological supremacy by which its practitioners try to compel someone to believe something regardless of the evidence" has become normalized, and so much the worse for reality. Without any of the books at hand, I can't surmise exactly how they propose to change the situation, but a pedagogy oriented to developing critical skills is bound to be part of the remedy. The question left hanging unanswered is whether it's not already too late.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

2018 AACRAO Annual Meeting

Sun, 03/25/2018 to Wed, 03/28/2018


8701 World Center Dr Orlando World Center Marriott
Orlando , Florida 32821
United States

A president cites lessons learned from a controversy concerning academic freedom (opinion)

Here are two simple truths.

One, when you’re a college president who happens to be a black woman, you get asked to speak about diversity and inclusion a lot. Two, when you’re a college president whose campus has been disrupted by a social media maelstrom over a professor’s words, you get asked to speak about managing crises and the tension between academic freedom and other fundamental values a lot.

This year, I’ve experienced the convergence of those two truths because the controversy our campus weathered last summer involved a perfect storm of race, politics, safety on campus and competing claims of ownership over who has the right to speak and what they can and cannot say.

The trouble began on June 20, when Campus Reform -- a conservative website that counts as “victories” the firings of faculty members or changes in college policies that result from its efforts to expose liberal “bias and abuse” at colleges -- reported on the Facebook posts of a tenured Trinity College sociology professor who is black. A couple of days earlier, the professor, a scholar of race and racism in America, had expressed his outrage at continuing racial violence in a series of provocative posts on his personal social media accounts. In doing so, he used a hashtag borrowed from the title of a piece written by someone else (#LetThemFuckingDie). I’ve said that hashtag not only offended me personally but also was inconsistent with the highest values of our institution.

You don’t have to know the specifics of this story to have a sense of what happened next, because this sort of controversy is now familiar throughout higher education, and the events follow a well-worn pattern. Other conservative and alt-right organizations picked up the story, distorting it (in some cases publishing outright falsehoods), and social media trolls descended upon us. The professor and his family received numerous direct threats, as did my family and I, and we were forced to close the college for half a day after receiving several threats to campus. People across the campus -- administrative assistants, admissions counselors and many others -- were besieged with vile, hateful phone calls and emails.

And then, of course, we heard calls for the professor and me to be fired, and demands for me to defend the professor and his academic freedom unequivocally. There was fear on the campus and worry among our community broadly. The college placed the professor on leave while we examined the matter more carefully and in consideration of the safety issues. And many faculty members considered this an infringement on the professor’s academic freedom. Though our administrative report (released July 14, 2017) supported the professor’s right to say what he did, anger remained throughout many of our constituencies. The trolls, at least temporarily, had succeeded. We were a college divided.

Over time, the trolls (mostly) moved on, and we were left to come back together as a community and, hopefully, grow stronger. That work is hard. Anger on my campus and among our alumni remains. But we have worked hard to encourage programming that has allowed each side to express opinions and to understand the nuances and contours of academic freedom. We have been vigilant about safety issues on campus. That work continues.

And now I’m regularly asked to reflect on lessons learned. I can do that now, with a little distance from the intensity of the storm. There are many lessons. Here are a few.

  • Resist the pressure to make hasty decisions and view a situation simplistically. From all sides, we were bombarded with demands to say more, do more, act more quickly and see things in absolutes. As educators, our role is to help our students see and embrace complexities, and a situation like this is full of them.
  • Stick to your principles. I can both support free speech and acknowledge that it and every other freedom has limits and carries responsibilities. As a college president, I can uphold a community member’s right to free expression and express my own opinion when I believe something runs counter to our institutional values. This is not a popularity contest. This is a complex situation and, as a leader, you have to look yourself in the mirror each and every day as the controversy continues.
  • Rely on plans and processes. We put our emergency management plans to the test, and they worked. We also turned to existing policies in evaluating what had happened. But it’s important to acknowledge that most governance processes aren’t meant to address crisis situations, and college leaders must prioritize safety and balance an often-divergent set of institutional needs.
  • Listen. So many people were demanding that I say a particular thing (and, in fact, very different things, depending on their perspectives), but listening was at least as important as speaking. If I had it to do over again, I’d work harder to stay in direct conversation with the professor myself, before so many other external forces leaned on us. And I think more listening from everyone involved -- to hear perspectives from all sides -- would have helped us get more quickly to a point of understanding. Indeed, having gone through our recent experience, our hope is that all members of our community better understand the need to listen and our shared responsibility to communicate directly and honestly with each other.
  • Find strength in numbers. Colleges don’t bear the sole responsibility for protecting speech -- it’s the duty of all citizens. This is complicated in a society that recognizes that speech by bullies hurts and has consequences on the victim. But colleges and universities do have a special role to play in protecting speech, as a vicious culture war is being waged against higher education today. We -- college leaders, faculty members, alumni and organizations that exist to advance and support higher education -- must work together to battle it, to stay true to our values and protect academic freedom for the good of the academy and the public.

I don’t know what the future holds for this particular story. We are not yet a college united. The professor will be back teaching in the spring, and it’s very possible we’ll see a renewed attack from the alt-right and others. Some faculty members and students are still angry because they believe that I didn’t stand up strongly enough for academic freedom and placed concerns of physical safety over intellectual safety. Some alumni and students are still angry because they believe that the professor’s words set a hateful tone and damaged the college -- and in a business setting would have resulted in firing. Did I make the right choice in balancing academic freedom and safety? I believe I did. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees.

I’m hopeful, however, that the entire Trinity College community has learned important lessons. And I’m heartened by the way I saw our college community come together this past semester -- including around an initiative we launched called Bridging Divides -- to continue the ongoing work of engaging in productive, respectful dialogue and understanding across deep differences. Today, in our deeply divided world, that work seems more important than ever.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney is president of Trinity College in Connecticut. This column is adapted from her remarks at this year’s Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute.

Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Lessons learned in merging a college with another (opinion)

In 2009-10, I was an American Council on Education fellow. All who undertake that leadership development preparation have a memorable experience called Pennyfield. Groups of fellows come together as the president and senior staff of Pennyfield College and -- based on a range of information about finance and mission, competitive market complications and national circumstances -- are asked to work together to create a presentation for the college’s Board of Trustees.

Teams have about 24 hours to identify core problems, propose solutions and, most crucially, reformulate the annual budget. Mentors are available around the clock, and groups can quickly become enthusiastic, competitive and dedicated advocates of the fictitious college. I do not remember what solution we found to Pennyfield’s financial morass nor how we proposed to solve the budget dilemmas, although the Pennyfield board, composed of former and present college presidents and chancellors from around the country, applauded our PowerPoint presentation and solution.

Contrast that experience to July 2012, when I became president of Shimer College. The board I worked with was not a role-playing one gathered to teach and mentor aspiring leaders. Nor were the students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members or our partner institutions imaginary. The financial dilemmas were real, the market challenges facing liberal education (especially in Illinois) immense, and our educational mission perplexing to or misunderstood by many people around us. In this, I was not unlike many of my peers who imagine administrative work and then face the realities of institutions that have their own particular histories and possibilities. Shimer was not Pennyfield.

And yet I thought about Pennyfield repeatedly during my years as president of Shimer College. I thought about who was not in the room when we undertook our 24 hours of work (faculty, students and administrative staff, for example, not to mention local community leaders). I thought as well about the ways the Pennyfield experience, created to help aspiring leaders understand finance, risked allowing educational mission to slip into a secondary place in the work of each team.

In fact, Pennyfield came to mind over and over again as insider’s shorthand for the intersecting dilemmas and hopes, the Gordian knot, that is American higher education generally and American private liberal arts colleges more particularly.

Recently, I reflected anew on Pennyfield, as I thought about the processes by which I led Shimerians to a new future. The work required finding Shimer College a potential partner (eventually North Central College). Then followed a nearly two-year process of regulatory, legal, financial and curricular work at two institutions, undertaken alongside significant data management, technological, infrastructure and employment changes. This past summer, Shimer and North Central College’s deal was completed, and what was once an autonomous Shimer became the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. In one sense the deal was done. In another, it was simply another step along the way to a fully embedded Shimer Great Books School of North Central College.

Three Motifs

Neither the form of this victory nor the lessons I learned in pursuit of change would have occurred to me as I worked through the night on the difficulties facing Pennyfield in 2009-10. Here are three that are worth remembering.

First and foremost, life is not a case study. No matter how messy any case study is, reality is much messier. Much, though not all, of that mess may be discernible only in hindsight.

In the case of mergers and acquisitions in higher education, the messiness is not limited to a single aspect of the institution(s) but can be pervasive, reaching into every arena of institutional functioning -- including personnel, finance, governance, marketing and communication. Whether understood through the lens of structural, human resources, political or symbolic frames, the full organization is involved. (Of course, no such deal occurs in a vacuum, so the messiness may extend well beyond institutional boundaries.)

Among the messes that were notable were those where the governance differences between the two institutions were most evident. For example, internal Shimer governance was an assembly, which included all students, staff, faculty and administrators. And our Board of Trustees included two faculty members and three students as voting members. North Central follows a more traditional shared-governance model. Shimer’s community was tiny and close-knit, while North Central’s was larger.

As a result of those two differences, our communication plan at Shimer was substantially more complex than one might have guessed given the smaller scale -- for every member of the Shimer community had a governance role in our decision making and following one’s governance procedures is vitally important in such transactions. In our case, as well, every Shimerian, whether faculty member, administrator or student, was affected -- though differently -- by our decisions. Our student trustees, by the way, were amazing in their capacity for confidentiality and for responsiveness in the process.

Among the messy details we addressed together were:

  • shifting from semesters to trimesters;
  • ensuring students at various stages of their Shimer careers were able to graduate on time;
  • meeting the housing and commuting concerns of students -- whose needs varied significantly as we moved to a residential campus;
  • retaining staff members when few would be offered jobs at our new campus;
  • supporting student and staff choices about their futures with an eye to what was best for each individual while meeting metrics of student and staff continuation that would ensure the success of the deal;
  • raising substantial dollars from alumni and friends while navigating nondisclosure agreements;
  • planning for deal success while knowing how to manage deal failure;
  • managing emotions associated with loss and success as the deal neared completion; and more.

Such pervasive messiness has been acknowledged in the literature on mergers and acquisitions in higher education at least since the wave of mergers in the 1970s and the spate of meta-analyses of these that followed. While we may forget such messiness eventually -- as perhaps has happened in the decades-old cases of Carnegie Mellon University and Case Western Reserve University -- recognizing its likelihood may help prevent a forced choice between closure and merger, enhance our understanding of mergers as one of a series of kinds of strategic alliances, and strengthen the potential to accomplish the missions to which we are all committed.

It turns out, on reflection, that messiness can be the source of creativity and hope rather than failure. Working to ensure that is the case is one lesson to take from Shimer’s experience that is perhaps less obvious than what one learns from the more staged work of a case study.

Second, although Pennyfield was developed to facilitate financial and budgetary learning among aspiring leaders, nothing in higher education is simply or solely about money. In short, decisions about money have far-reaching implications and ought not be made in isolation. That is equally true of decisions regarding educational mission that willfully ignore the financial situation. In some very real sense, the tension between educational mission and the “business model” of higher education operates as a fractal -- it appears whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, in every decision, large or small, made by every actor in higher education.

Certainly that was true at Shimer, where the educational mission was distinctive and beloved and the financial precariousness both legendary and long-lived. To be successful, the acquisition, which led to the emergence of the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College, required meeting fund-raising and fiscal management goals and sustaining a continuity of curriculum and culture.

Third, presenting the idea is not the conclusion of one’s work -- most often, it is the beginning. Whereas the work of Pennyfield was done when the fictitious board applauded, the work of the real world is not concluded when the actual board receives reports, votes or recommends action. Much of the effort preparing for board meetings -- and then the follow-up work that comes from board decisions -- is relatively invisible to anyone not regularly on the campus. And the extraordinary work of a merger takes place in the interstices between routine educational, regulatory, financial and other activities.

There were many board votes at both Shimer and North Central, each a decision marker along the way. Each brought increasing commitments to engage with shared governance as well as rising demands for staff and faculty members at both institutions to prioritize efforts to make the deal “work.” That included a full summer of intensive labor (often by North Central personnel) on a change of control document for the Higher Learning Commission, a regulatory approval prerequisite to any further action, and the fulfillment of additional deal-related requirements. Some of Shimer’s board members appeared on a regular basis (and at some points, on a daily one) on the campus as we moved toward the future -- communicating, raising money, managing budgets and personnel, and helping ensure that the board’s decision came to fruition.

The idea of coming together with another institution as a new form of Shimer was, thus, only the beginning. We came to know that as the days, weeks and months wore on from our initial conversations to the final signatures on documents. The changes we were managing -- leading -- always felt rushed and always took too much time. The carrying of the business solution of mergers and acquisitions into the landscape of our particular corner of American higher education did not mean that the tension between speed and deliberation, business model and educational mission, dissolved.

In fact, regulatory, legal and financial tasks of higher education mergers and acquisitions are time-consuming. They have opportunity costs and are often undertaken in circumstances where staff and faculty members are already stretched, as was the case with Shimer and to a lesser extent North Central College. What began, we thought, as a six-month process was, in fact, a two-year process. As we build change together, we are both building and refusing history -- working at the cusp between a certain past and an uncertain future, when history matters less than the stories we tell to hold past and future together. Time matters -- and we never have enough to be prepared for what comes next.

Wicked Problems

Everything else is a corollary to these three points: messiness is pervasive, money is not everything and ideas are the start -- not the end -- of institutional work.

Whether we are discussing the kind of asset purchase agreement undertaken by Shimer and North Central or other decisions on other campuses, the quandaries we face in higher education are what I referred to above as a Gordian knot and what some refer to as “wicked problems,” raising matters that are ethical and managerial -- affecting more people than one is likely to imagine both at individual and group levels. Those matters are located at the confluence of the symbolic, the political, the structural and the interpersonal. Rarely is our time frame 24 hours. Rarely are our options singular. Most often, they require a both-and approach rather than an either-or. Change is always about loss and gain.

The kinds of full-on change that Shimer -- and North Central, perhaps less obviously -- risked involve every one of the characteristics of wicked problems: “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.” Wicked problems require us to resist both simple binaries and endless perseveration, both the absence of analytical thought and analysis paralysis, both simplistic approaches and immobilizing complexity.

Indeed, a quick review of the literature on higher education reveals that much of what we at colleges and universities do has been labeled a wicked problem in recent years: assessing our quality, strategy and strategic planning, as well as our capacities to transform our institutions to meet the needs of the social order; moderating the growth of tuition; addressing access and affordability; and much more. While Pennyfield was itself attempting to present us with a wicked problem, capable of many solutions and yet nearly impossible to solve, such problems become more salient than ever when one moves from case study to real life.

Among the challenges facing us at Shimer were the conflicting requirements to hold matters confidential yet to be transparent, to use democratic processes of shared governance yet retain the urgency of top-down, board-level decision making. In real-world dynamics, we had no choice but to focus on institutional (regulatory, legal, financial and educational) change and the cultural particularities of Shimer itself.

The fact is, whether we are discussing Pennyfield or Shimer, change in higher education is always about refusing the easy solution. It is about change as loss and gain, about the human impact of all we do, and about the capacity to hold multiple possibilities in mind and in action as we build a more sustainable educational model.

When we are successful, leadership in higher education and in the classroom means navigating between necessary change and change for change’s sake, between proactive and reactive stances. When we are successful, we are the bridge between past and future that refuses nostalgia and empty optimism in favor of hope. That is the victory Shimer has found -- for now.

Susan Henking was the 14th president of Shimer College. She is president emerita of Shimer, professor emerita of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and a senior consultant to Academic Career and Executive Search.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

The challenges of following a long-serving senior administrator (essay)

One of the most challenging issues new leaders face when following those who've held the same position for years is dealing with contradictory messages about change, writes Judith S. White.

Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Improving the value of campus facilities (opinion)

Articles in recent years about higher education spending on luxurious campus facilities can leave readers with the impression that students are only attracted to lavish campus frills -- and that colleges and universities are merely motivated by the pressure of an amenities arms race. Perhaps that is true of some institutions and students, and the fact is that certain colleges and universities that construct lazy rivers or tanning beds may be unnecessarily spending resources and, in so doing, damaging an otherwise educationally sound rationale for facility development. As the cost of attendance rises, levels of public funding slow or decline, and private institutions question the longevity of tuition-discounting models, institutions that invest too much in expensive building projects may be putting themselves at risk when it comes to not only public perception but also their bottom lines. Recently, a growing number of colleges and universities are becoming aware of that possibility and moving away from trophy buildings and other seemingly excessive amenities.

All that said, however, there are many good reasons -- other than student consumerism or competitive pressure -- that colleges and universities should invest in their facilities. I have been making this educational case for facility development throughout my 30-year career.

Higher education leaders know from years of research that what students learn -- about themselves, about others, about the world around them -- is significantly influenced by those with whom they interact and occurs largely outside the classroom. Just as initiatives in our most livable towns and cities often include spaces and experiences designed to incubate unplanned serendipity -- such as parks, libraries, civic spaces and festivals -- students, too, need places for such engagement if they are to bridge misunderstanding and build more cohesive communities. The disintegration of civil relationships on our campuses points to the need for connection. Only through connection can people learn to constructively disagree.

The programs and experiences within campus facilities give students an opportunity to practice these relationships and roles in preparation for a postcollege life in which our businesses, communities and neighborhoods need highly skilled leadership and participation. Developing a more sophisticated capacity to live, lead and contribute is not solely a cognitive exercise. Going to a football game is very different than watching it on television, and experiencing new music, food, people, languages, music and ideas is very different than simply reading about them.

Some campus facilities are intentionally developed to expose students to people and ideas that are different from those they might have previously known. Residence halls, for example, match roommates with different backgrounds or majors wherein students learn about accepting difference, managing through conflict and literally living together in harmony. And student centers offer spaces for students to learn about organizing people and managing meetings, as well as civic spaces for programs that are overtly or subtly educational. Recreation facilities, dining centers, cultural spaces and the like give students opportunities to practice, make mistakes, form opinions, explore values and learn, lead and follow. These facilities are worthy of investment because student learning is worthy of investment.

What’s more, many of the nation’s campus buildings were constructed during a period of historically high enrollment decades ago and are now in significant need of repair. Some estimates place higher education’s collective deferred maintenance backlog in excess of $30 billion. As in our own homes, building systems fail, materials become worn and ways of use become outdated. The cost of replacing facilities almost always outweighs the cost of renovating them, although sometimes these buildings reach the end of their useful life and simply must be replaced. Regardless, campus buildings -- classrooms, recreation centers, libraries, plazas, laboratories, counseling offices -- matter for the total educational experience, and to neglect their need or their purpose means neglecting the people who use them.

Even so, campus construction costs are too often unexplainably high, institutional leaders too often plan within administrative silos and student life administrators too often lack a narrative to counter unfortunate rankings that describe “luxury dorms” or “amazing recreation centers.” Although it is fun for students and administrators to learn that a campus facility is purported to be among the best, these misleading lists lack any form of methodology or inquiry about the campus itself, perpetuate a mythology of higher education being wasteful, and ignore the educational purpose and intentional learning designed into such facilities.

New Approaches Required

To improve value for students and their families, remedy the public relations challenge, and aid public understanding, colleges and universities must:

  • Insist on educational and institutional outcomes for facility development. For example, can student persistence and retention be somehow correlated with the creation of a new student success and advising center? Can student self-efficacy or appreciation for difference be measured as a consequence of a student center renovation?
  • Bring down the cost of campus construction. The cost of campus construction almost always exceeds the cost of construction in the private market. While there may be reasonable rationale (e.g., additional federal and state regulatory obligations), that reality drives up student costs, strains endowment earnings and astounds the public. We must find new ways to build less expensively, for shorter lifespans and/or with private-market relationships.
  • Be open to private-market practices in operations. Some colleges and universities have successfully lowered costs and improved service by looking to peers and private markets for examples of operating benchmarks in information technology, auxiliary services, conferencing management, procurement processes and the like. Although not always appropriate for all campuses or situations, we might lower operating and building costs and improve revenues and returns through operational self-examination.
  • Eliminate planning silos. Higher education is organized into offices, departments, schools, colleges, divisions and other structural units for effectively managing the institutional enterprise. Too often, however, we plan only within those structural silos and miss opportunities for cross-functional synergy, efficiency, knowledge and shared focus on student learning and experience. We should acknowledge that including students, faculty and other colleagues in facility planning discussions can result in more support, better buildings and powerful outcomes for students.
  • Push back on “luxury” narratives and related rankings. Higher education should develop its own measure of quality for student facilities, similar to institutional comparisons that have arisen as a counter to the U.S. News & World Report rankings, such as the Voluntary System of Accountability created by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; the University and College Accountability Network developed by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities; and the National Survey of Student Engagement based at Indiana University and funded by Pew Charitable Trusts. Moreover, we should assertively counter more populist rankings with information about the experiential intent of these buildings.

Recreation centers, student center buildings, residential buildings, dining halls, student success offices and similar facilities provide space, programs, experiences and challenges that contribute to the sum of a student’s education. They do not replace what is in the classroom, and they should not be the primary reason a student selects a college. Most important, they must be responsibly developed to serve the institution’s mission. Yet they are vitally important for educational reasons and not merely competitive ones. We shouldn’t oversimplify these reasons and throw the baby out with the bathwater -- or the learning out with the lazy river.

Loren Rullman spent 30 years as an administrator at five universities and is now a higher education consultant and strategy advisor for Workshop, a planning, consulting and design firm with offices in Milwaukee and Ann Arbor, Mich.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/Frank Ramspott
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 


Back to Top