“All eras in a state of decline and dissolution are subjective,” said Goethe in a moment of sagely grumbling about the poets and painters of the younger generation, who, he thought, confused wallowing in emotion for creativity. “Every healthy effort, on the contrary, is directed from the inward to the outward world.”
I didn’t make the connection with Svend Brinkmann’sbook Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvment Craze until a few days after writing last week’s column about it. One recommendation in particular from the Danish author’s anti-self-help manual seems in accord with Goethe’s admonition. As Brinkmann sees it, the cult of self-improvement fosters a kind of bookkeeping mentality. We end up judging experiences and relationships “by their ability to maximize utility based on personal preferences -- i.e. making the maximum number of our wishes come true.” The world becomes a means to the ego’s narrow ends, which is no way to live.
Besides offering a 21st-century guide to the Stoic ethos of disinvestment in the self, Brinkmann encourages the reader to rediscover the world in all its intrinsic value -- its fundamental indifference to anybody’s mission statement. How? By spending time in museums and forests:
“A museum is a collection of objects from the past (near or distant), e.g. art or artifacts that say something about a particular era or an aspect of the human experience. Obviously, you learn a lot from a museum visit -- but the greatest joy lies in just reveling in the experience with no thought of how to apply the knowledge and information. In other words, the trick is to learn to appreciate things that can’t be ‘used’ for some other function....
Similarly, a walk in the woods gives us a sense of being part of nature and an understanding that it shouldn’t be seen as consisting of resources that exist merely to meet human needs and desires. ... There are aspects of the world that are good, significant, and meaningful in their own right -- even though you derive nothing from them in return.”
Making similar points from a quite different angle is The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Abraham Flexner (1866-1959), the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, in an edition from Princeton University Press with a long introduction by the institute’s current director, Robbert Dijkgraaf.
The essay giving the book its title first appeared in Harper’s magazine in October 1939 -- a few months into the New York World’s Fair (theme: The World of Tomorrow) and just a few weeks into World War II. “I [am] pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use,” Flexner wrote, “and for the freeing of the human spirit.” It must have seemed like one hell of a time for such an exercise. But the essay’s defense of the Ivory Tower was tough-minded and far-sighted, and Dijkgraaf’s introduction makes a case for Flexner as a major figure in the history of the American research university whose contribution should be remembered and revived.
The germ of The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge was a memorandum Flexner wrote as executive secretary of the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1921.The principles it espouses were also expressed in his work bringing Albert Einstein and other European academic refugees to the Institute at Princeton in the early 1930s.The essay defends “the cultivation of beauty ... [and] the extension of knowledge” as “useless form[s] of activity, in which men [and, as he acknowledges a few sentences earlier, women] indulge because they procure for themselves greater satisfactions than are otherwise available.”
But the impact of Flexner’s argument does not derive primarily from the lofty bits. He stresses that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has in fact shown itself already to be a powerful force in the world -- one that the ordinary person may not be able to recognize while swept up in “the angry currents of daily life.” The prime exhibits come from mathematics (Maxwell’s equations or Gauss’s non-Euclidian geometry took shape decades before practical uses could be found for them), though Flexner also points to the consequential but pure curiosity-driven work of Michael Faraday on electricity and magnetism, as well as Paul Ehrlich’s experiments with staining cellular tissue with dye.
“In the end, utility resulted,” Flexner writes, “but it was never a criterion to which [researchers’] ceaseless experimentation could be subjected.” Hence the need for institutions where pure research can be performed, even at the expense of pursuing ideas that prove invalid or inconsequential. “[W]hat I say is equally true of music and art and of every other expression of the untrammeled human spirit,” he adds, without, alas, pursing the point further.
The untrammeled human spirit requires funding in any case. Although written towards the end of the Great Depression -- and published ten years to the month after the stock market crash -- The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge reads like a manifesto for the huge expansion of higher education and of research budgets in the decades to follow.
Flexner could point to the Institute for Advanced Study with justified pride as an example of money well-spent. He probably corrected the page proofs for his essay around the same time Einstein was writing his letter to President Roosevelt, warning that the Germans might be developing an atomic bomb. And as Robbert Dijkgraaf reminds us in his introduction, another Flexner appointee was the mathematician John von Neumann, who “made Princeton a center for mathematical logic in the 1930s, attracting such luminaries as Kurt Godel and Alan Turing.” That, in turn, led to the invention of an electronic version of something Turing had speculated about in an early paper: a machine that could be programmed to prove mathematical theorems.
“A healthy and balanced ecosystem would support the full spectrum of scholarship,” Dijkgraaf writes, “nourishing a complex web of interdependencies and feedback loops.” The problem now is that such a healthy and balanced intellectual ecosystem is no less dependent on a robust economy in which considerable amounts of money are directed to basic research -- without any pressing demand for a return on investment. “The time scales can be long,” he says, “much longer than the four-year periods in which governments and corporations nowadays tend to think, let alone the 24-hour news cycle.”
That would require a culture able to distinguish between value and cost. Flexner’s essay, while very much a document from eight decades ago, still has something to say about learning the difference.
Over the last decade or so, universities around the country have been tripping over one another to see who can slap the word “entrepreneurial” on the most things on their campuses the fastest. Entrepreneurial studies curricula and majors, business incubators, entrepreneurial centers, on and on -- entrepreneurial efforts have sprung up faster than the “innovate and disrupt” start-ups scattered about Silicon Valley whom they seem to desperately want to imitate.
This “Silicon Valleyization” of the university can be seen in places like Florida State University, which recently received a record $100 million to open the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship, or at Rice University, which last year announced the formation of an “entrepreneurial initiative” to transform the university into an “entrepreneurial university.” Other institutions -- such as Emerson College, the University of Hartford and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell -- have also joined the entrepreneurial arms race with their own centers and curricula.
For advocates of the entrepreneurial university, such moves mark a more full alignment of higher education with the needs of the new economy. Universities are finally recognizing the central role that they now must play in spurring “endogenous growth” in the highly competitive global market, where innovation determines national, state and individual winners and losers. They are finally coming down from the ivory tower and lining up their curricula and research to meet that need. For critics, however, such developments represent yet another chapter in the capturing of the university by particular economic interests -- and a further loss of autonomy and intellectual integrity, as institutions mindlessly chase the latest fad and buzz meme.
While the entrepreneur as a particular type of economic actor in the market economy has been around for some time, entrepreneurialism as a full-blown social and cultural movement is much newer. If we situate entrepreneurialism as a historically distinct social phenomenon, or perhaps as a post-Bretton Woods economic model, it contains several assumptions about society, politics and markets that largely go unacknowledged in the frenzy to create the entrepreneurial society and the enterprising university to accompany it.
First is the profound shift from a more organized style of the market economy -- with large corporations, unionized labor, slow growth, steady-state capital and a welfare-oriented state -- to a more disorganized one composed of start-ups, flexible labor, erratic growth, impatient capital and a market-oriented state. In the newer, churning model of the market economy, the entrepreneur -- personified in cultural and political heroes like Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg, rather than the corporate manager or professional -- becomes the central new cultural icon.
One of the things that this unceasing push for entrepreneurial innovation as a driving force of economic growth dismisses or ignores is the actual destructive part of creative disruption. Creative disruption seems fine as long as it is other people whose lives are disrupted rather than your own. This view is often callously unconcerned with the harm that can be generated by disruption for the sake of disruption or the mantra that all innovation is progress. Here, in the mold of the economist Joseph Schumpeter and the Harvard University management gurus Clayton Christensen and Michael Porter, all disruptions are ultimately positive and all innovations are advancements. The market will miraculously, fairly and brutally sort out any lumps in the end. What disrupters yearn for is an always roiling and never resting society generated by people in continuous struggling with one another to provide the next best thing and “strike it rich.”
As Virginia Heffernan recently described it, such innovators compose a “sneakered overclass -- whose signature sport is to disrupt everything, from Ikea furniture to courtship.” They embody the religiously inspired dream of heavenly redemption, the modernist desire of continuous progress and “lotto fever” rolled into one. It is unclear, however, how far such a model can actually extend. How much innovation and disruption does the world need? Or, more important, how much can it actually take?
Second, entrepreneurialism as an idealized economic model promotes a rather distinct type of asocial, social Darwinist, “go it alone” mentality where the single, self-interested individual is seen as solely responsible for his or her successes. Here, even when philanthropy happens, it is ultimately designed for self-interest, as with Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC.
Even with the rhetoric of Google-style teamwork aside, the entrepreneurial model celebrates the ideal of the lone-wolf innovator who works hard, charts their own course and “defies the odds.” It is the American mythology of rugged individualism recast for the jobless age of the precariat, forever-flexible labor and the post-welfare state.
In doing so, this new economic model passes off social inequality as just the normal and inevitable ebb and flow of winners and losers in a free-flowing economy that is in constant flux -- and one that people need to adapt to rather than try to change. If you work hard enough, innovate and adapt to the market, you are entitled to reap the rewards. Those who cling to the collective protection of unions or change movements, or even the left-behind world of tradition, are but mindless sheep who lack the imagination to think for themselves and adapt. If you fail in your endeavors, you need to readapt and reinnovate in order to make your way again.
As on the TV show Shark Tank, the swirling and hungry accumulated venture capital of those “who have already made it” is there waiting to provide for newbies with the right stuff. Surviving and prospering are strictly by your own fruition. Yet all this ignores not only the highly likelihood of failure in these start-ups (90 percent, according to Forbes magazine) but also the social costs of living in a world composed of a handful of wealthy winners and scores of poor losers chumming up the shark-tank economy.
Third, implicit in the romantic idealization of the entrepreneur is the neoliberal idea of a limited pro-business government. Rather than expecting government to level things out a bit through progressive taxation or some other modest modes of redistribution -- or through various social services such as public education -- the new economic model promotes a government that is entrepreneurial, too. This enterprising government doesn’t protect people from the market as in the social democratic model but rather forces even more marketization onto them.
People must be coerced (or, in the more polite terms of behavioral economics, “nudged”) by government to “have grit and determination,” “manage their own retirements and health care,” “have positive affect” and “be responsible.” They must be calculating, self-interested and self-promotional, even if they don’t want to be. Responsibility will, in the words of former British Prime Minster David Cameron, finally force people “to ask the right questions of themselves.”
What all this means is not that entrepreneurialism is necessarily a bad thing when taken in moderation and seen within the light of a larger political economy. We can certainly acknowledge the important contributions of the loads of small businesses and innovations built on entrepreneurial principles. But an entire society or university based solely or largely on those principles is rather problematic and limiting.
Universities should be leery of aligning their curricula and research just to meet the needs of the entrepreneur. It is one thing for a higher education institution to recognize entrepreneurialism as one particular economic form but quite another to become an entrepreneurial university. Universities are -- or should be -- like the economy and society themselves: too multidimensional to remake themselves into any one particular cause of the moment.
Steven C. Ward is a professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University.
Re: Current Status of the Committee to Make Us Special
First, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to chair this ad hoc committee. While I’m fairly certain my appointment was the result of my admittedly vociferous criticisms of just about every suggestion Old Oak’s senior administrators have made to improve our recruitment and retention of students, that doesn’t mean I didn’t take up the charge with the enthusiasm that such an opportunity truly deserves. The course release and travel stipend helped, too.
I’m sorry to say, though, that after nine months of weekly meetings and a great deal of research, the Committee to Make Us Special has come up mostly dry. This is not to say there were not ideas. In fact, at last count there were over 2,300 ideas shared by faculty, students, staff, alumni and anyone else who could find their way to our webpage.
We created four categories into which we sorted these ideas:
We Like This but Could Never Afford It.
We Like This, but It’s Been Done, Which Sort of Defeats the Purpose of Making Us Special.
This Will Likely Undermine All That Our Founders Imagined for Us.
Nice Idea but It Will Not Bring Us a Single Student.
Some ideas were category crossovers. For example, the lazy river in the shape of our initials was both a category 1 and category 2. It was also its own category: Ideas That Cannot Actually Be Implemented. We realized our particular moniker’s initials would create a very lazy river, one without the necessary water outflow. On the upside, it might have looked intriguing in a satellite photo -- something, perhaps, as Professor Whelan from the religion department pointed out, similar to a concrete crop circle, or, as Professor Martin from biology pointed out, a wastewater treatment plant (definitely not special).
One suggested category, Ideas Richard Russo Would Likely Satirize, ended up being too large a single category and so we deconstructed it into the above four (a process we acknowledge would undoubtedly be something Russo Would Likely Satirize -- one of our many meta moments).
We considered 22 possible new majors. We began with some of what we’ve come to realize are the usual suspects in such an undertaking. Nursing. Physical therapy. International business. Social justice. Video game design. Recognizing that we are behind the curve on them (a number of our peers and aspirants have already announced these particular programs), we began to think more creatively, combining the best features of some into interdisciplinary majors. Thus, global physical therapy, taught mostly online and focusing on injuries commonly sustained by those on mission trips to developing nations, was popular with the committee.
We did review a number of suggestions for new athletic programs that we might want to add -- water polo, fencing, water fencing (that’s still an emerging sport), trapeze. I must say I was astonished to discover how rapidly the circus arts in general are growing, and the irony of adding those to our campus was not, I assure you, lost on anyone. Twelve different sports with the terms “extreme” or “ninja” in the name were quickly set aside. In the end, the cost of facilities and equipment and the very hefty increase to our liability insurance premium made almost all of them unlikely. I say “almost all” because I’m happy to inform you that our bocce club will become a varsity sport next year. Professor Rubino and the rest of the Italian studies department are thrilled, as you might imagine. This idea may, however, belong in category 4.
Our Subcommittee on Enrollment Strategies (we thought about calling it “Extreme Enrollment Strategies,” but again, set that aside) examined some possibilities as well. One that you had suggested, bringing in our largest first-year class ever, was carefully vetted by our Sub-Subcommittee on Making at Least the Incoming Class Feel Special. Their determination was that this was a shortsighted approach. Our discount and acceptance rates would skyrocket, thus lowering our ranking in U.S. News & World Report, which would, in turn, make future recruitment efforts more difficult. Also, our housing staff would resign en masse. (I realize you think they’re all easily replaceable with cheaper, younger new professionals, but we saw what happened the last time we tried such a thing, and I don’t think the students without housing assignments for three weeks who lived in [yes -- admittedly very nice] tents will ever truly trust their alma mater again. Experience is worth something, is it not?)
In addition, four of our peer institutions announced last year the arrival of their largest first-year classes ever, and apparently at least three will do so again this year. Our demographics consultant made it clear this is not a bottomless well we’re peering down, so to speak. Although we could double our enrollment by attracting and admitting students who cannot pay anything, will need remedial assistance in every subject and don’t actually want to come to Old Oak, it seems this might not solve our long-term need for steady enrollment and revenue growth. In fact, after much number crunching, we believe it would ultimately sink us permanently. I realize that limiting enrollment growth will be a source of great disappointment to our president, who we know loves to announce such things at board meetings, but perhaps you could remind him that his retirement is within sight and his deferred compensation is within reach. That often seems to calm him.
Of course, I recall that one of your charges to our committee was to “investigate the role of the liberal arts for the future of Old Oak, indeed, for all of higher education.” Tall order, that. We did, however, do our best, creating yet another group: the Subcommittee to Read Everything That’s Been Written About the Liberal Arts in the Past Three Years.
Contrary to what you might have heard, those committee members did still find time to teach their classes and tend to their administrative duties, though not particularly well. Their work resulted in a book-length report (yes, they acknowledge the irony of adding to the pile of reports, books, films and tweets on this topic), which then led us to put the issue to a vote of the full committee. The results are instructive:
Votes in favor of recommitting to the liberal arts nature of Old Oak: 12
Votes in favor of abandoning the liberal arts completely: 12
Honestly, I have not witnessed such a deeply felt deadlock since the great hyena vs. dingo mascot controversy of ’97. As you know, the scars from that battle remain. Literally, in some unfortunate cases.
The alumni office representatives on our committee did take seriously your suggestion that we engage our alums in this process. We learned the following about our alums:
They would be willing to help us recruit, if they were not feeling so overwhelmed by their monthly loan payments.
They would be willing to provide internship sites for current students, if they were not feeling so overwhelmed by their monthly loan payments.
They would be willing to come to campus for career-related events, if they were not feeling so overwhelmed by their monthly loan payments.
It’s worth noting that the one alumni-generated idea the committee felt was worth moving forward for review was the suggestion that we devote a portion of our endowment to alumni debt relief. That would indeed Make Us Special. It would also, our budget director determined, Make Us Broke.
As we conclude the work of our committee, recognizing that we have not succeeded at our appointed task, we feel a deep sense of melancholy, which I suspect you share. I’ve looked for harbingers of better times ahead, but as I suspect many of my counterparts on other campuses are also realizing, there are few. They are there, though, if one squints a bit and ignores demographics, economics and Malcolm Gladwell.
Perhaps you’ve seen the recent excellent movie The Martian? An astronaut named Watney is on a Mars mission, gets injured in a storm, is presumed dead and is left behind by his crew mates. Of course, he’s not dead. (That version of the movie would probably not have gotten green-lighted, although given our cultural fascination with zombies, who really knows?) Watney, fortunately, is a botanist, and so manages to stay alive for months, eating potatoes that he has miraculously grown in Mars soil fertilized by the human waste left behind by the crew. He is also good with a wrench and duct tape. Upon learning that Watney is alive, his crew mates ignore orders from NASA and turn around to get him. (Trust me -- this is all explained in appropriate scientific detail in the movie.) They are successful, bringing Watney back to Earth, where he fulfills his lifelong dream of becoming a professor (a plot twist less believable than the rescue, if you ask me).
I share this brief synopsis in order to end this memo on as positive a note as I can muster (and since there are 47 separate supporting documents attached, I don’t want to take up more of your time). As I ponder the work of our diligent committee, I can’t help but think of Watney, alone and frightened, yet determined to survive against ridiculous odds. What kept him alive till he was rescued was a clear-eyed view of just how dire his circumstances truly were, an ingenious use of shit and, ultimately, the hope of rescue by an intrepid band of space-traveling crew mates. If there is such a band out there, perhaps they will come our way. We are running low on potatoes.
Lee Burdette Williams is a writer and educator living in Burlington, Vt.
Stan Jones, founder and president of Complete College America, died this week. He spent his life helping needy students get an education.
I first met Stan in the mid-1990s, right out of graduate school, as an entry-level analyst at the Indiana State Budget Agency. The job involved keeping track of how various government agencies were spending their money. Most of the time, it was boring. The Legislature appropriated funds for something, and the relevant agency did that, more or less.
The exception was the Commission for Higher Education, which had historically left the state’s colleges and universities alone. Stan had recently been put in charge, and he had different ideas. Not-boring ideas. He was creating new committees and initiatives, inventing policies, cutting deals. It was not clear who had given him the authority to do any of those things. Some of them didn’t even seem to be about higher education.
So, every month or two, I found myself making the short walk from my cubicle in Indiana’s beautiful 19th-century statehouse to Stan’s office up the street, to ask some variation of: What, exactly, are you doing, and why are we just hearing about it now?
Stan would always welcome me with a smile and give me his full attention, nodding from time to time. He had roundish features, wore baggy suits and kept his hair in a perpetual undergraduate cut. In his even, friendly voice, he would explain why it all made perfect sense, and of course he wanted the budget agency’s full input -- my full input -- and he absolutely appreciated my ideas and looked forward to talking again.
I would leave and walk back to my cubicle with the vague feeling that he had put one over on me, although I could never explain exactly why. I don’t know if Stan Jones ever told me that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, but that was, for him, something of a life philosophy.
A few years later, I was in his office again, this time for personal reasons. I had jumped over to the State Senate during a gubernatorial transition and then back to the executive branch as assistant state budget director. The next rung on the ladder was the governor’s office, as K-12 policy adviser, right down the hallway from the man himself. But the job went to someone else, with fewer policy chops, from the political side. It was my first real professional setback, and it seemed terribly unfair.
Stan sat for a while, listened and looked at me closely. Remember, he said, when one door closes, another one opens, with the assurance of someone who had lived long and well enough to understand that clichés exist because they’re true. The he told me a story about himself.
Stan began his political career at the ripe age of 24, when he won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives as a Democrat during the post-Watergate election of 1974. He had been an engineering student at Purdue University and ran in the Lafayette district that included his fellow Boilermakers.
For the next 16 years, he cut a swath through the Indiana political scene, winning appointments to the Ways and Means Committee and then the Education Committee, learning the intricacies of politics and education finance while pushing a range of reforms. He often partnered with another young representative named Marilyn Schultz, a path-breaking legislator who would go on to become a senior administrator at Indiana State University. They called it the Stan and Marilyn Show.
Stan was ambitious, and by the late 1980s, political control of the House teetered on a knife’s edge. When the Democrats gained the upper hand, Stan gambled his career on an upstart campaign against a more seasoned pol to become Speaker of the House. He lost. As a man once said, if you come at the king, you best not miss. Support from the party melted, and Lafayette voters turned him out in the next election.
It was a huge setback. But Stan still had important friends, none more so than Evan Bayh, the senator’s son who had just been elected governor at age 33. Stan became a top adviser and soon began plotting a return to office. Indiana elects its top education official, the superintendent of public instruction, and the seat was open in 1992. Brimming with ideas and backed by a popular young governor, Stan mounted a fresh campaign. His opponent was a local education official from the small town of Rushville in east-central Indiana. The race was his to win.
But Suellen Reed turned out to be a better politician than anyone realized. Moderate and sensible with the look and demeanor of everyone’s favorite grade school teacher, she won the first of what would become four consecutive terms. Stan Jones would never leave his fate in the hands of voters again.
Political campaigns often make enemies. They rarely make friends. The obvious thing for Stan to do was return to his influential post as the governor’s adviser and legislative director and work to stymie his opponent’s agenda. But that’s not what happened at all. Instead, he secured his appointment as the state’s commissioner for higher education, a post he would ultimately hold for 12 years under four governors, Democrats and Republicans both. Then he went about implementing all the ideas he had run on in his failed campaign, with the full cooperation of the person who had beaten him -- Suellen Reed.
An Ever-Changing Agenda
For while Stan Jones was a lifelong Democrat, his true allegiance was to the party of Midwestern practicality. He knew that Hoosier politicians of all stripes were anxious about the future of their state. Indiana is home to many great colleges and universities, but its roots are in agriculture and manufacturing. The Rust Belt runs across the state’s northern regions, while the farming counties along the Ohio River had troubles of their own. At the time, the state ranked near the bottom in the percentage of adults with a college degree.
At every stage of the education pathway, students were falling away. Far too many were dropping out of high school. Of those who graduated, too few were taking college prep courses. Even the well-prepared students often had trouble paying tuition and finding spots in the right schools and degree programs.
Stan started by helping birth the state’s 21st-Century Scholars Program, which promised low-income eighth graders free tuition at a state university if they kept their grades up and graduated from high school. It was smart policy and a political bonanza for Evan Bayh, who had his sights set on the United States Senate and, he hoped then, the White House. (Because the eighth graders gathered in photo ops wouldn’t reach college for five more years, the bill for all that forgone tuition wouldn’t come due until after Bayh decamped for Congress.)
Stan then set to work creating a “Core 40” academic curriculum for Hoosier high schools, which would eventually be linked to the scholarship program. This was during the first wave of state enthusiasm for academic standards, testing and accountability systems -- before No Child Left Behind made them mandatory nationwide. The teachers’ unions were suspicious, and many conservatives were wary of infringement on local control.
In theory, the State Board of Education should have led the effort. But it was filled with political appointees who bickered over narrow agendas. So Stan began convening a private group of stakeholders from both parties, carefully balancing the interests of business and labor. Soon Governor Frank O’Bannon, Bayh’s successor, came on board, along with Superintendent Reed. The discussions proved so fruitful that the Indiana Education Roundtable was codified in law, with responsibility for building consensus around standards, testing and accountability.
Stymied by the existing Board of Education, Stan had essentially created an alternate version, composed of his friends and allies, with the power to set the policies that he cared about most.
The meetings and phone calls were endless. But Stan Jones didn’t see the work of building political coalitions as tiresome. That was the work. He never fell victim to the expert’s fallacy of believing that the world had some obligation to act on his ideas just because they were right and good. While other people spoke into microphones, he would stand to the side, arms folded, face impassive, watching. He gathered information from everywhere and released it only for good reason.
In the Senate, I worked for Stan’s West Lafayette counterpart, who had also ridden the ’74 wave into the statehouse. Stan, he told me, goes into every negotiation knowing exactly what he wants at the finish. He will concede literally anything else along the way. But he won’t budge an inch on what he cares about most.
In addition to leading K-12 reform, Stan also had his day job of running the higher education commission. Here again, his starting position seemed to be weak. The Commission on Higher Education had little real power. It would coordinate a joint budget proposal from the public universities every two years, a process the institutions submitted to grudgingly before immediately going around the executive to lobby the appropriators directly for their own individual items and needs. The commission had some authority to approve new buildings and academic programs, but most of the big decisions had been made long ago -- Indiana University got the law school, Purdue had engineering, and the medical school was located on a jointly administered campus in Indianapolis, equidistant between the two.
Stan’s approach was to simply talk and act like someone who had much more formal authority than he actually did. From his perspective, the state had made a wrong turn back in the 1960s, when, instead of building a robust community college system, it went with a combination of independent technical schools and regional campuses overseen by IU and Purdue. Communities loved having an IU branch nearby, but the local chancellors were like minor lords dreaming of promotion to the capital city or of building research empires of their own. Graduation rates at the regional campuses were often terrible and coordination with local industry was haphazard.
Stan began talking about restructuring the system, which earned a front-page rebuke from Myles Brand, the philosopher president of Indiana University who famously ran Bobby Knight out of town. Stan Jones, Brand said in a tone of accusation, saw himself as another Clark Kerr, the legendary architect of California’s higher education master plan. Stan took this as compliment. It was true.
Since Indiana didn’t have a community college system like California’s, Stan essentially willed one into being, by proclaiming that, hereafter, the technical college system was the community college system. The words “community college” began featuring prominently in branding, marketing and signage. New course sections were introduced. Skeptics doubted that enrollment would follow. It more than doubled over time. Stan Jones saw the world as it was, and as it should be, and moved it from one state to the other through sheer force of persuasion.
Of course, most of the money was still going to the traditional universities. One year, in advance of the budget process, I proposed that, in addition to describing how much money they wanted, universities should also include some information about how well they were doing their jobs. Federal performance data barely existed then, so we left it up to each campus to define success on their own terms. Stan said this was a great idea, and offered to let me take the lead in discussing it with university representatives.
I ended up in a conference room with a dozen grim-faced higher education lobbyists, each explaining through gritted teeth that their campus was so unique in its mission and particular in its needs that no mere numbers could adequately encompass their considerable, albeit ineffable, success. They were such nice people when picking up the bar tab or handing out choice tickets to football games. Stan stood to the side, arms folded, and may have smiled.
Not long after Stan told me about some doors closing and others opening, my wife and I left Indianapolis for a new life in Washington, D.C. A few years later, I found myself back in town for a conference. I walked downstairs to the hotel restaurant for lunch and ran into Stan and his deputy, Kent Weldon.
Stan could be hard to work for. He kept a list of his ever-changing agenda -- seldom with fewer than 20 items -- plastered to the wall in his office. There was never doubt about whose agenda it was. But he respected Kent, a professorial type with an entirely different yet somehow complementary personality. You would see them around, often in deep discussion. But I never saw them both after that day. Later that year, Kent was struck by a fast and brutal kind of cancer. I don’t know that Stan ever found someone he trusted in the same way again.
He continued to patiently chip away at the barriers that kept students from college. High schools, he realized, were drastically overestimating their graduation rates. Just getting them to report accurate numbers took months of careful work. Credits weren’t always transferring from the new community colleges to four-year schools. When the internet appeared, he launched an early web portal to help students choose colleges and a program to provide discount-price computers to low-income families. Past victories needed to be tended as new politicians came on the scene.
After more than a decade on the job, Stan finally stepped down from the commission. Surprisingly, his next move took him away from his home state, to the nation’s capital, where he would found and lead the national advocacy organization Complete College America. The plan was to take the lessons of Indiana’s success and seed them in other states where governors and legislators were willing to listen.
Part of me hoped our occasional conversations would recommence. But I didn’t seem him much, and one day he told me why: he and his wife were caring for a young child in Indianapolis whose mother was struggling. He was almost 60, his own children long since grown.
But I would still get phone calls from time to time. They always began the same way. “Kevin? It’s Stan.” No last name was needed. He was always working on something, a new argument or angle, another governor to convince, with patience and sensibility, that more students needed to go to college and surely could. They’re out there now, in the tens of thousands, diplomas in hand, the legacy of a life devoted to getting things done.
Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.
What do these events say, if anything, about activism on college campuses today? Have they sparked a new wave of student engagement? Or is it a momentary outcry?
If the former, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that students led the charge against the agendas and decisions of our nation’s policy makers. Since our country’s founding, college students have challenged the status quo and played a key role in movements for social change. Historian David F. Allmendinger Jr. reported that between 1760 and 1860, New England colleges experienced “the most disorderly century in their history.” Quickly spreading to colleges in the South and Midwest, student “disquietude” (also called mobs, uprisings, riots, unrest, resistance, lawlessness, disorder and terrorism) challenged everything from slavery to the quality of the butter in the dining hall.
The next significant wave of student activism came during the Depression, when students challenged capitalism and wealth inequality in the 1930s and favored socialism, labor unions and public work programs. Snuffed by the McCarthy era and dubbed a “forgotten history,” student unrest faded until the late 1950s and ’60s, when anti-war sentiments and civil rights movements galvanized students. College activists successfully sought the closure of ROTC programs and catalyzed the establishment of interdisciplinary programs such as African-American and ethnic studies. Student protest also led to the ratification of the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. In the 1970s, female students challenged sexism on campuses and throughout American society.
Student activism sporadically reoccurred until the 2000s, when, according to University of Illinois Professor Barbara Ransby, students shaped “the conscience of the university” by raising awareness about racial inequality, sexual assault on campus, immigrant rights, homophobia and unequal rights for the LGBTQ community, as well as global issues such as the Palestinian crisis. And in recent years, students on campuses throughout the country have supported the Black Lives Matter movement and protested over racism in various forms.
Leveraging the Moment
So where are we today? Online activism has surged. In the weeks following the election, many virtual resources and communities of practice were created by people working together, sometimes anonymously, on distinct causes. Some of these come from colleges and universities (although, for most, the originator is hard to identify). Examples include Post-Election Support Resources (Stanford University) and Election Clapback Actions (CUNY). An assistant professor at Merrimack College, Melissa Zimdars, created a resource for spotting fake news. Recent data suggest that digital platforms empower students and facilitate civic and political engagement. According to a recent Educause study, around 96 percent of college students own smartphones. This enables communication and organizing capacity.
Colleges and universities will undoubtedly face more student unrest. How can educators leverage this historic opportunity and encourage constructive, inclusive political learning and participation? We offer some suggestions.
Approach student activism with the right attitude. Student protest is not a bad thing, unless it is accompanied by violence or seriously disrupts the educational process. Student protest provides a teachable moment not just for those who are protesting but for the rest of the campus community. Consider it a timely opportunity for problem-based learning.
Provide students with opportunities to gather, identify the issues that concern them the most and identify their networks. This includes providing students with physical spaces to convene and connecting them with faculty members or people in the community who share their interest.
Teach the arts of discussion. Your institution already has experienced facilitators among faculty members, administrators and students. Have them teach others to facilitate and engage in constructive discussions as a foundation to organizing. Many civic organizations provide training (see the resources section of this publication).
Study, deliberate, study: don’t let students go down some rabbit hole of alternative facts or myopic analysis. Insist that students answer questions, like what do we know about this issue? Is what we know reliable? How will we fill knowledge gaps? And most importantly, what are all of the perspectives on this issue, including unpopular ones unrepresented in this group? Weigh the pros and cons of different perspectives rather than dismissing them without consideration or, worse, denigrating the people who hold them.
Help students think positively by envisioning “the mission accomplished.” What will the world look like if their goals are achieved? The process of identifying a shared vision among group members is in and of itself a good lesson in framing, persuasion, collaboration and compromise.
Teach the history and most promising practices of social change movements. There are thousands of well-researched publications to consider as text. We offer two very different resources: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow offers 500-plus pages of insight into the meticulous, long-game planning, as well as the strategies used to overcome unthinkable barriers, by leaders of the African-American civil rights movement. In her research for the Ford Foundation, Hahrie Han, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, outlines essential strategies, such as coalition building among civic organizations, political leaders and other potential allies.
Emphasize the importance of voting and what’s at stake when candidates have vastly different policy positions. Our National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement found that only 45 percent of college and university students voted in 2012. And while we haven't analyzed all the final numbers for 2016 yet, as the election demonstrated, who turns out to vote matters.
Finally, college and university presidents have historically been hesitant to offer their viewpoints on political issues, but recent events, particularly on the issue of immigration and new border controls, have given rise to a series of powerful statements from presidents and higher education leaders. We wonder what would happen if presidents who plan to make public statements about matters of public policy were to involve students in the discussion about that statement to take advantage of the educational moment.
Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi research college student political learning and engagement in democracy at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.
I was horrified reading the latest diktat on immigration from an administration blown into power by the winds of intolerance and resentment. President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is an exercise in cynical obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.
The obfuscation begins early on with the linking of this crackdown to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when, as has been pointed out by many commentators, those responsible for those attacks had no connections to the countries targeted by this order. The bigotry of the decree closing our borders to refugees from these seven countries is most evident in the exception it makes for religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.
The hard-heartedness of the executive order is unmistakable. Desperate families who have been thoroughly vetted for months have had their dreams of a safe haven in America shattered. Students, scientists, artists and businesspeople who have played by the immigration rules to ensure that they have secure passage to and from the United States now find themselves in limbo. Colleges and universities that attract and depend on international talent will be weakened. So much for the so-called respect for law of an administration that has made a point of promising to crack down on undocumented children brought over the Mexican border by their parents.
Eighteen months ago I solicited ideas from Wesleyan alumni, faculty members, students and staff members as to what a small liberal arts institution like ours could do in the face of the momentous human tragedy unfolding around the world. We discussed the many ideas we received on our campus and with leaders of other institutions. The steps we took were small ones, appropriate to the scale of our institution. Working with the Scholars at Risk program, we welcomed a refugee scholar from Syria to participate in one of our interdisciplinary centers. We created internships for students who wanted to work at refugee sites in the Middle East or assist local effort at resettlement. We began working with the Institute of International Education to bring a Syrian student to Wesleyan. And, perhaps most important, we redoubled our efforts to educate the campus about the genesis and development of the crisis.
In the last few months, I have traveled to China and India to talk about the benefits of pragmatic liberal education, and in both countries I saw extraordinary enthusiasm for coming to America to pursue a broad, contextual education that will develop the student’s capacity to learn from diverse sets of sources. Since returning, I’ve already received questions from anxious international students and their parents about whether we will continue to welcome people from abroad who seek a first-rate education. Students outside the United States are often fleeing educational systems with constraints on inquiry and communication; they are rejecting censorship and premature specialization, and they are looking to us. Will they continue to do so?
Here at home we must resist orchestrated parochialism of all kinds. A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one doesn’t agree, but the politics of resentment sweeping across our country is substituting demonization for curiosity. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.
With this latest executive order, the White House has provided colleges and universities the occasion to teach our students more thoroughly about the vagaries of refugee aid from wealthy, developed countries that are themselves in political turmoil. The new administration has also unwittingly provided lessons in the tactics of scapegoating and distraction traditionally used by strongmen eager to cement their own power. There are plenty of historical examples of how in times of crisis leaders make sweeping edicts without regard to human rights or even their own legal traditions.
Our current security crisis has been manufactured by a leadership team eager to increase a state of fear and discrimination in order to bolster its own legitimacy. The fantasy of the need for “extreme vetting” is a noxious mystification created by a weak administration seeking to distract citizens from attending to important economic, political and social issues. Such issues require close examination with a patient independence of mind and a respect for inquiry that demands rejection of falsification and obfuscation.
As the press is attacked with increasing vehemence for confronting the administration with facts, universities have a vital role to play in helping students understand the importance of actual knowledge about the world -- including the operations of politics. To play that role well, universities must be open to concerns and points of view from across the ideological spectrum -- not just from those who share conventional professorial political perspectives. At Wesleyan, we have raised funds to bring more conservative faculty to campus so that our students benefit from a greater diversity of perspectives on matters such as international relations, economic development, the public sphere and personal freedom. Refusing bigotry should be the opposite of creating a bubble of ideological homogeneity.
As I write this op-ed, demonstrators across the country are standing up for the rights of immigrants and refugees. They recognize that being horrified is not enough, and they are standing up for the rule of law and for traditions of decency and hospitality that can be perfectly compatible with national security.
America’s new administration is clearly eager to set a new direction. As teachers and students, we must reject intimidation and cynicism and learn from these early proclamations and the frightening direction in which they point. Let us take what we learn and use it to resist becoming another historical example of a republic undermined by the corrosive forces of obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.
Submitted by Anonymous on January 31, 2017 - 3:00am
Several days ago, President Trump issued an executive order barring immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States -- significantly impacting many students and scholars. This follows on the heels of two other executive orders focused on immigration enforcement and border security that he signed last week, which froze refugee admissions and called for the immediate construction of a wall along the southwestern border of the country.
In addition, the president has ordered federal immigration enforcement agencies to increase efforts to deport undocumented immigrants with criminal records, called for the construction of additional detention facilities and restored the controversial “secure communities” program that compelled state and local law enforcement officials to collaborate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency to enforce federal immigration law.
None of the recent executive orders concerned the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, initiated by President Obama in 2012, which provides a two-year protection from deportation and employment authorization to select undocumented youth and young adults, many of whom are enrolled in our colleges and universities. However, Trump’s aggressive approach to immigration enforcement and his characterization of unauthorized immigrants as “a significant threat to national security and public safety” has already begun to cause upheaval and hardship within immigrant communities -- and this will inevitably have a negative impact on undocumented students, as well as on U.S. citizen and permanent resident students from mixed-status families. Moreover, despite White House statements promising a more nuanced approach to DACA recipients, fears that the new administration may still rescind DACA are not without basis.
In anticipation of the Trump administration’s promises to target the U.S.’s approximately 11 million undocumented residents, over the past few months, campuses nationwide have developed sanctuary statements or issued declarations in support of educational access for all students, regardless of their immigration status. In the past few days, campuses are also now scrambling to provide emergency legal advice and services to faculty members and students from “barred” Muslim nations who, although visa holders, are confronting difficulties returning to America following authorized travel abroad. In many cases, campuses are advising those faculty and student members -- even those who are U.S. permanent residents, and all of whom have already been through extensive vetting during the visa application process -- to avoid leaving the country until the precise parameters of the new immigration enforcement directives are determined.
No one knows with certainty what policies the Trump administration will implement, or what impact they will have in the long term on faculty members and students who have immigrated legally to the United States from barred Muslim nations. What is certain is that undocumented students and students from mixed-status families will also face increased challenges under this new presidential administration. It has long been difficult for such student to earn money, drive legally, travel and afford college tuition. Without clear pathways to legalization, many also experience anxiety about their futures. These are not new problems, but in light of the White House’s recent orders, our undocumented students will face even greater obstacles to their academic success and well-being.
While most university faculty, staff and administrators may not be in a position to directly influence federal immigration law or enforcement priorities, we do have the ability -- indeed, we would argue, the responsibility -- to mediate the impact of immigration policies on undocumented students. As immigration scholars and engaged teachers who work closely with undocumented students, we offer the following suggestions for faculty and administrators to consider.
Be aware of the wide range of people affected by proposed changes to immigration policy. About a fifth of the undocumented residents in the United States are youth and young adults who arrived in America as children, and an additional 16.6 million people live in mixed-status families where at least one member is undocumented. It is important to recognize that anticipated changes to immigration policies will impact not only undocumented students but also permanent resident students concerned about their undocumented parents, relatives, friends and community members. These issues affect individuals from a wide range of ethnic, racial and national origins.
Educate yourself about the laws and policies that impact undocumented students’ educational access. Learn the details of your own state laws here. For example, in California, certain undocumented students can pay in-state tuition at public universities, and the California Dream Act makes state financial aid available to those students. We often find that students do not distinguish those laws from their DACA status, which leads to unnecessary anxiety. Review the recommendations provided by national organizations such as United We Dream and the National Immigration Law Center. Even after educating yourself, recognize your limitations and the high stakes involved for the student who is seeking your advice. It is better to say, “I don’t know,” than to give out misinformation.
Signal to students that you are supportive. Undocumented students often rely on stereotypes to identify faculty and staff members with whom they feel they can safely share their immigration status or ask for help. They may, for example, perceive that “coming out” to faculty members who identify as Latina/o, or as immigrants, presents less of a risk than disclosing their status to white or native-born citizen faculty members. In reality, of course, allies are found among people from all ethnic and racial backgrounds, but some of us may need to do a little more to provide students with verbal and/or visible cues that demonstrate that we are supportive of the undocumented student community. Many colleges and universities offer ally training and provide those that complete it with a sticker to exhibit in their office; do this if the opportunity is available to you. If not, you can signal that you are supportive by displaying flyers about immigration-related events or hanging immigration-related artwork. In your course syllabi, explain how you will accommodate immigration-related emergencies in terms of attendance, late work, extensions and incompletes. Although you may feel that is already described in your institution’s existing policies for medical or familial emergencies, making it explicit sends a powerful signal of both symbolic and concrete support for students confronting immigration crises.
(Re)consider how you discuss immigration-related issues and the current political climate in your classroom. Advise students in advance before initiating classroom discussions of immigration issues, especially if that is not on the agenda from the syllabus. Remind your students that you will be bring up topics that personally impact many people living in the United States and ask those students to frame their participation in ways that are respectful of different experiences and opinions. Avoid spotlighting individual students according to their citizenship status or immigrant background during class discussion. (For example: “Kim, as an immigrant, can you share how you feel about Trump’s proposal to deport three million criminal aliens?”)
Maintain student confidentiality and privacy. Do not refer to students’ citizenship or immigration status in public conversations or written communication. Only do so when necessary and with the students’ permission, such as when helping them identify resources or explaining their personal background in letters of recommendation.
Use appropriate terminology when discussing immigration issues. Many people find the terms “illegal immigration” and “illegal immigrant” offensive; they often prefer “undocumented” and “unauthorized.” Some students may also use the term “DREAMer,” originally a reference to the proposed federal DREAM Act, which would have provided undocumented students with a path to legalization but that now alludes to various state laws that provide educational access. But other students may reject that nomenclature because it suggests that undocumented students are more deserving of support than other undocumented people.
Provide resources that will help mediate the financial instability that many students will also be facing. A recent systemwide survey at the University of California conducted by one of us, Laura E. Enriquez, found that 63 percent of the undocumented students at the UC have experienced food insecurity during the past academic year. Thus, even a small measure can be helpful, such as offering healthy snacks like granola bars during office hours or meetings with students. You can also try to put course readings on library reserve so that students can devote their financial resources toward living expenses. It’s also good to find out and counsel students on whether they can access waivers for course materials fees or tutoring services. It is possible that undocumented students, many of whom are first-generation college students, do not know about these resources or that they may be inadvertently denied access to them.
You can also lobby for additional resources as needed. Encourage your institution to establish alternative legal forms of employment, internships or research opportunities to undocumented students lacking work authorization by providing payment via stipends or as independent contractors. Consider donating to scholarship and/or emergency funds for impacted students. If your campus doesn’t have one, help start one.
Offer career and graduate preparation opportunities. Undocumented students struggle to develop career-relevant work experience or access research opportunities to prepare for graduate school -- in some cases, because they are DACA ineligible and therefore lack the work authorization that allows them to accept paid internships or research assistantships; in other cases, it is because they are ineligible, as noncitizens, to apply for certain programs; and finally, it may be because, like other first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students, they lack the understanding or social capital that facilitates securing these kinds of positions. To that end, Enriquez’s survey of undocumented students in the UC system found that only 31 percent feel prepared to achieve their career goals, and only 49 percent have had a career-relevant experience like an internship or research opportunity. As faculty members and administrators, consider offering independent study courses, sponsoring research opportunities and identifying internships that are open regardless of immigration status. Work with your institution to figure out a method for paying immigrant students for their labor in these areas.
Identify, improve and refer students to campus and community resources. Immigrant students will probably need special guidance and encouragement to access academic resources, financial aid, legal services and mental-health counseling. Familiarize yourself with the resources available at your college or university and in your surrounding community. Identify knowledgeable staff members in relevant campus offices to whom you can refer students directly. Lobby your institution to identify, train and raise awareness of point people in various offices so that students can easily find them and access correct information. Enriquez’s survey also found that 56 percent of the undocumented students at the University of California report being given inaccurate or incorrect information from a staff member about how to complete a university procedure. If your institution does not have a staff member dedicated to supporting undocumented students, advocate for one.
Identify and raise awareness about your campus’s policies regarding undocumented students. Currently, U.S. immigration officials consider educational institutions, including colleges and universities, to be “sensitive locations” where enforcement actions “generally should be avoided.” You should try to identify under what circumstances you and others are your institution are legally required to share student information and provide access to immigration enforcement officers. Your institution should work with legal counsel to clearly lay out under what circumstances cooperation is required and designate a senior administrator to promptly respond to any staff or faculty members who receive information requests or visits from immigration enforcement officials. It should ensure that faculty members know whom to contact if they receive such requests or visits and publicize procedures for reporting and documenting hate speech and threatening incidents on the campus. It is important for campuses to assess their own situations in order to respond appropriately.
The actions that we’ve outlined are just a few ways that faculty members and administrators can provide support for students facing immigration-related crises. Although they are small steps, our research and work with students suggest that they can and do make a difference. We firmly believe that collaboration among students, faculty members and administrators is essential to supporting undocumented students and students from mixed-status families as we move forward.
Finally, despite the multiple -- often invisible -- ways undocumented people contribute to the U.S. economy and society, we think it is important to recognize that only a tiny percentage of undocumented people in the United States ever benefit from the opportunity to pursue a higher education. With this in mind, we encourage educators to also consider how they can support the broader undocumented immigrant population in their communities and nationwide.
Anita Casavantes Bradford is associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies and history at the University of California, Irvine. Laura E. Enriquez is assistant professor of Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. Susan Bibler Coutin is professor of criminology, law, and society and anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.