The late Notre Dame University president Father Ted Hesburgh advocated for the values that animate liberal education: critical thinking, persuasive communication, insightful judgment, cultural competence. He saw these values as essential to liberate people from inchoate fear, prejudice and the sense of powerlessness that often accompanies social change.
Buoyed by the votes of millions of Americans who never went to college, the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States seems to be a failure for American higher education. President-elect Trump’s rhetoric articulates values that are the antithesis of the liberal education values that Father Hesburgh proclaimed.
How did higher education in one of the most educated nations in human history lose its narrative and become marginalized in the wave of fear and resentment that Trump rode to victory?
Hesburgh was at his peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in some ways that social and cultural era has parallels today: widespread dissatisfaction with “the establishment,” a fear of America’s loss of international prestige because of being bogged down in an unwinnable war, alienated young people, racial strife and the emergence of a political demagogue with roots in the anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy era -- a man who harbored a long sense of grievance against college-educated elites. President Richard Nixon’s defeat of Hubert Humphrey and, later, George McGovern might now be seen as foreshadowing the pathway to President Trump.
Hesburgh locked arms with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., staunchly advocating for civil and human rights; he defied President Nixon. There is no Ted Hesburgh today. There are certainly wise and courageous presidents speaking out here and there, but there is no singular great voice strengthening the backbone of American higher education and daring to stand in the bully pulpit of reasoned opposition to expressions of hatred and threatened repression. We have no prominent moral and intellectual leader asserting the role of higher education as the central pillar of principled debate about the means and ends of government.
Instead, for quite a long while, American higher education has been adrift in a devolving eddy of self-pity, whining about overregulation while obsessing about bracket placements and rankings, pandering to political and philanthropic overlords while remaining largely silent on the great social issues of our times. We have lost the great narrative of American higher education as the counterweight to government excess, as the bastion of free thought and speech, as the public intellectual voice of the society.
We have allowed the story of higher education today to become one about value, to be sure -- monetary value, dollars and cents as surrogates for quality and more important moral values. It’s not just about the incredible wealth of some universities, although that is part of the perceived value today, at least in rankings. Even more, it’s all about the economics for the consumers: whether the student finds the experience of higher education to be valuable not in terms of the person we help him or her to become, but rather, whether the graduate gets a well-paying job. PayScale has shoved aside the philosopher king as the arbiter of the worth of college.
Higher education needs a deep and pervasive transformation of its value proposition for the American public and the global society we serve. And this value proposition should be, unabashedly, about real civic, social and moral values -- a concept that Hesburgh warned was on the wane in his time, whose weakness has led to our marginalization in the national conversation about the kind of society America wants to be. In a broadly collaborative effort among all types of institutions, we must find solutions to these issues:
Expanding access to college. The election exposed the fault line that runs deep between college-educated Americans and those who have not gone to college, a sort of Starbucks v. speedway divide. There’s a tremendous irony right now in that many, if not most, colleges and universities are struggling to fill seats, and yet millions of Americans remain outside higher education.
Too many institutions, particularly wealthy private and flagship state institutions, claim a desire to welcome more low-income students of color yet fail to change the interior circumstances of costs, culture, educational programs and pathways that would enlarge the pipeline and ensure success for those students. Meanwhile, other significantly less wealthy institutions -- community colleges, open-access public institutions, smaller nonelite private colleges -- dare to enroll large numbers of low-income students and those of color. But we wind up being roundly criticized by media and policy makers because these students do not progress through college according to traditional measures of persistence and completion.
While we spend a lot of time worrying about the shrinking demographic of immediate high school graduates, in fact, the problem is not too few students, but rather, not enough seats configured in the right way to get more Americans into and successfully through the college maze. To achieve transformation, we must consider deep changes in degree requirements, curricula and programs, delivery systems, and cocurricular services. We need more focus on students and less on institutions. We must have deeper understanding of the 75 percent of students with “nontraditional” characteristics such as work, parenting and other family responsibilities while attending college.
We must end the obsessive inter-institutional competitiveness that drives up costs while keeping too many students out, replacing competition with a more open collaboration that recognizes and makes good use of the different characteristics of the spectrum of institutions to support student needs at each stage of the academic life cycle.
We should, collectively, reconsider the fundamental principles of general education, majors and electives, as well as the amount of credit required to earn degrees. What is the magic of the 120-credit baccalaureate degree? Is there a different way to achieve the same learning outcomes in a shorter, more efficient way?
Barriers to access also exist in the inhospitable corners of campus cultures that foster cruel exclusions (e.g., Greek houses), spawn attitudes where sexual abuse and assault thrive, or give life to racial, ethnic or religious bigotry. All those behaviors drive students who are “other” away, contribute to diminished academic performance and degrade the values of the academy. We can hardly exert moral leadership for the larger society if we continue to tolerate discriminatory, abusive behaviors on our own campuses.
Reforming the cost/price structure. No programmatic changes will amount to anything unless and until we reform the cost/price structure. College has become entirely too expensive for most people to bear, even with generous financial aid. Debt burdens are impossibly heavy, and tuition discounting has become overwhelming and harmful for many private colleges. We are sinking under the weight of an enterprise that has become too costly to sustain.
While many costs are fixed and hard to reduce, every budget has, in fact, opportunities for expense reformation that can control costs more effectively. We have to reconsider how much we spend on facilities, executive compensation and technology investments that quickly become obsolete. We need to do a better job reducing expenses for activities that are ancillary to the purpose of the university -- dare I mention athletics?
Universities with great wealth have a great opportunity right now. Rather than waiting for the new administration to act, perhaps the wealthiest universities could collaborate in a way that would help all students by pooling some percentage of their earnings to create a new foundation for college access that could benefit students broadly throughout higher education.
Reclaiming our public intellectual voice. A journalist recently asked me why college presidents are so darned reluctant to have anything to say about the important issues of our times. Some presidents say that they feel constrained by their boards or their political situations, particularly in state institutions. Others say they don’t feel a president should express opinions on public issues because that would be interpreted as intimidating those who disagree.
Father Hesburgh wrote in 1976 that the best gift a president can give to students is the gift of a good example. He wrote, “There are great moral issues facing young and old alike today … the young [should] perceive clearly where we elders stand on issues like human rights, world poverty and hunger, good government, preserving the fragile ecosphere …” Today, I would add where we stand on issues like Black Lives Matter, the deportation of undocumented children, religious bigotry and repression of religious expression, objectification and degradation of women, and freedom of speech and the press.
While respecting individual campus challenges, I disagree with those presidents who advocate silence as a form of some sort of politesse, a discretion that makes sure everyone remains comfortable. That, to me, is the height of political correctness. We need to risk being politically incorrect at times, in the best possible ways. We must roust our faculty members and students out of their comfort zones, to give voice to the values that our mission statements and vision documents claim as our entire reason for being.
In the next four years, if not eight or more, this country and higher education could well be challenged in ways we’ve not seen since the McCarthy era to demonstrate courage and conviction on behalf of the fundamental values of our society: free speech, equality of educational and economic opportunity for all people, racial justice, the right to profess every religion without fear of reprisal, the right to enjoy the blessings of liberty for all.
We must be courageous advocates for our students who are at risk right now, particularly for our undocumented students and students of color who continue to suffer racial hatred. We must stand up for equal rights for women, starting at home on our college campuses. We can hardly be advocates for justice in the world if we ignore the shameful stain of sexual assault on campus.
The promise of America has always been grander than our reality, but we had hoped in the last half century to have moved past the racial, ethnic and religious bigotry that now runs rampant with the approval, role modeling and rhetoric of the next president of the United States. The election was a shocking result, but perhaps it’s a necessary one to force higher education to reclaim its public voice.
We have to teach our students that self-governance among citizens of a free society is not a zero-sum game; that in order to help those in need we do not have to take opportunities away from others; that we should take greater care in developing solutions that do not pit people against each other, breeding the anger and resentment that fueled the presidential campaign.
Ultimately, our job is to educate the citizen leaders who will build the future of civilization, and we must find a way to teach them how to be far more effective in constructing a truly good society than we have been able to create thus far.
We college presidents are not curators of museums to some glorious past for human history. We are stewards of humanity’s future, and the current circumstances require us to exert far more moral courage and intellectual scope than we have ever dared before.
In the wake of the election, our nation’s colleges and universities are experiencing divisive incidents, which requires higher education leaders to quell tensions by making strong vocal calls for tolerance, inclusivity and free speech. While these waters may be difficult to navigate, I hope these leaders will also take up the difficult challenge of speaking out on our nation’s higher education policy agenda, an issue of central importance to all Americans.
Postsecondary education is crucial to addressing income inequality and sustaining our nation’s commitment to democracy and equal opportunity. A diploma yields a more prosperous future for most Americans, and is a public good for societal stability and prosperity. Despite this, the public has grown increasingly distrustful of higher education, especially given concerns that college costs have risen so rapidly. This is manifest in increased calls for evidence on the earnings impact of a college degree, for greater assessment of student learning outcomes and for information on the uses of large endowments.
Higher education leaders, political leaders and the public have been polarized, but we must work together to understand the issue of increasing income inequality and the role of higher education in addressing it. It is imperative that we forge a new path forward for higher education, but given the election results and today’s constraints on college and university presidents’ speaking out, it is unclear if that will happen.
It is ironic that many of those people affected the most by increasing income inequality, and the fear about the future that it engenders, have chosen Trump for president when his stated policies are unlikely to improve either income inequality or postsecondary educational attainment. In fact, tax cuts, rolling back the Affordable Care Act, reducing regulations, increasing protection and the likely increases in interest rates and inflation will all probably exacerbate income inequality rather than reduce it. Right now, there is no telling exactly what Trump’s policies directly addressing higher education will be, absent any substantive discussion during the campaign.
Higher education leaders have been largely silent about various policies throughout the election, consistent with the fact that the visibility and influence of university and college leaders on national issues has been muted in general in recent years. Leaders of public institutions must walk a fine line, as they are not able to support particular candidates, but the broader absence of these voices from public debate is also a function of the continual demands of fund-raising and the harsh light of social media.
Colleges depend increasingly on donors to meet operating expenses as well as to build endowments and fund capital projects. Many institutions are in perpetual comprehensive campaigns and annual fund drives run by large offices of development professionals. Donors, and alumni in general, are important constituencies with valid institutional interests. Alumni support their colleges in many nonfinancial ways, as well as with gifts that allow colleges and universities to do things they couldn’t otherwise. And with reductions in state appropriations and lower earnings on endowments, donors are more important than ever in supporting higher education expenditures. But relying on donors to do so can have important implications.
If a college president takes a strong position on a national issue, she can cost her institution financial support if alumni who disagree close their checkbooks. Over the last few years, alumni have threatened to withhold support when higher education leaders have made decisions or taken positions with which they disagree. Those include policies on divestment from fossil fuel companies, calls for boycotts of certain speakers and academics, efforts to support student demands for trigger warnings and more aggressive confrontation of racism, and even decisions to cull campus deer to reduce overpopulation. Having had these experiences directly, or having read about them, presidents weigh the value of adding their voices to an important national conversation against their continued ability, and responsibility, to raise funds to support campus programs. They often make the choice not to jeopardize those programs, particularly if the issue is one that is only tangentially related to higher education and to their own institution.
Social media has made that choice even more likely. While it has democratized the influence various constituencies have, it has also significantly complicated these relationships. The positions that college leaders take, or even just the daily decisions they make, on a wide variety of issues are more readily available than in the past and can be more easily and loudly criticized. Responding to questions and challenges about those positions, often publicly and rapidly, is both complex and time consuming. Comments and events that would have passed unnoticed in the past now live on and on -- and often go viral.
That was not always the case. For generations, college and university presidents were intellectual participants in the life of the nation, playing active roles in debates on major issues. Henry Noble MacCracken, Vassar College’s president from 1915 to 1946, was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage and then for isolation in the 1930s. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, played a significant role in the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Kingman Brewster, Yale University’s president from 1963 to 1977, took a strong public stance against the Vietnam War.
Can we get there again? Now is the time. We need higher education leaders to take positions on the issues. And we need them to address the concerns of those who elected Trump by making higher education more affordable for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, not just for the very poor or the very rich. Our college and university presidents will need the support of their boards of trustees to do so, as well as understanding and trust from their donors, alumni and the public. To influence our nation’s path going forward, both words and actions are needed from the higher education community and its leaders. I hope they will rise to the challenge and that Americans and our president-elect will be listening and watching.
Catharine Hill is managing director at Ithaka S + R and president emerita of Vassar College.