Chief executives / executive directors

Can a college president remain neutral about candidate Donald Trump? (essay)

Donald Trump, as the likely nominee of a major political party for the presidency of the United States, raises questions heretofore unimagined. Among them is the question of how and to what degree a college or university president should react to his candidacy.

If any doubt exists about the fact that the Trump situation is unusual, consider that some students viewed the recent chalkings of “Trump 2016” on the Emory University campus -- absent any other language -- as an act of intimidation. And the university’s president, James W. Wagner, observed that “the students with whom I spoke heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.” That is, some people considered Trump’s mere name as equivalent to an offensive epithet.

While such sensitivity might in part be a sign of the times in which we live, it is nonetheless true that Trump is more or less a walking violation of the mission statements and codes of conduct at most American colleges. Were he a student at Emory who engaged in some of his characteristic behaviors in a classroom or residence hall, he would likely face severe criticism and even disciplinary action. Few college presidents would hesitate to condemn a member of their community who, for example, clearly appeared to mock a person with a physical disability, insulted more than one religious and ethnic group en masse, and habitually belittled women.

The question, then, is whether Trump’s status as a leading presidential candidate inoculates him against such condemnation. How does an academic leader balance the responsibility to remain “neutral” against the duty to speak in defense of the values that are most central to a place of learning?

Nonprofit colleges and universities are prohibited by law from officially endorsing or opposing particular political candidates; they are compelled by mission to be places where a wide range of views, even those that are unpopular and provocative, can be expressed. For those reasons, college presidents typically, and wisely, steer clear of politics. Although they are, of course, free to speak and act as individual citizens, their leadership roles can blur the line between personal and institutional agency.

The exception, however, is when political matters bear directly upon the work of higher education. Thus, presidents will not hesitate to speak out on such issues as the funding of Pell Grants or the importance of affirmative action, despite the fact that such issues have clear political dimensions. Typically college presidents will be careful to support or oppose a policy and not a person, though it would be disingenuous to insist that their positions have no implications for the candidates and political parties they do or do not endorse.

Trump presents a special challenge because the policies and the personality seem so deeply interwoven and because both the policies and the manner in which they are expressed represent such a clear challenge to the work of higher education. Banning the entry of all Muslims into the United States, for instance, would have a direct impact on many international students and faculty members on campuses across the country. Forced deportation of undocumented residents would remove many students from those same campuses. I might go further and argue that the incitement to violence and the encouragement of fear and anger also undermine the academy’s commitment to civility and rational discourse. Trump is far from the first politician to engage in such tactics, but he is the first, I would argue, to stand so close to the highest office in the republic.

So what, if anything, is a college leader to say about a candidate like Trump? While speaking out about a presidential election can be difficult, for me remaining silent in the face of so much behavior and proposed policy that is antithetical to the mission of higher education is infinitely more difficult and ultimately more dangerous. A higher education president who opposes some of the offensive behavior that Trump engages in or the policies he promotes might run the risk of being too outspoken. But passively observing Trump creates a risk that is in my view much greater: that of failing to speak when the values most important to the institution within one’s care are imperiled.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

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Executive officer

Date Announced: 
Wed, 03/30/2016

Executive director

Date Announced: 
Tue, 03/29/2016

Essay on value of states banding together for stronger, more clear regulation of online education

A coalition of consumer groups, legal aid organizations and unions object to the state of New York joining an agreement that would change how colleges offering distance education courses in the state would be regulated. As coalition members asserted in an Inside Higher Ed article, the state would be ceding its authority to other states. Students would be left with no protection from predatory colleges, and it would make it easier for “bad actors to take advantage of students and harder for states to crack down on them.”

That all sounds ominous. It would be, if it were true.

Even in the digital era, the regulation of educational institutions is left to each state. The resulting array of requirements confuses both students and institutional faculty and staff. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) was created to apply consistent review standards across the states. An institution approved in its home state is eligible to enroll students (within limits) in any other SARA member state. As of this writing, 36 states have joined in a little over two years. That number may approach 45 by the end of 2016.

SARA means now there is a consistently applied set of regulations over distance education when students from one state take courses from an institution in another SARA state. Chief critic Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former official at the U.S. Department of Education, cites Iowa as proof that “some states have discovered they can’t add more qualifications,” as if that were a surprise. Reciprocity agreements depend upon consistency. If Iowa wishes to change a policy, there is a process for regulators in the state to suggest a change. States enter into the agreement openly knowing that consistency is a requirement.

Currently, many states -- notably including New York -- have no regulations in place to protect their in-state students who enroll in courses from many out-of-state colleges. SARA’s critics depict New York as “a national leader in protecting its citizens from unfair business practices.” If a college has no other physical presence in New York other than enrolling students in an online course, it is not regulated and those students are not protected. The state has not allocated any funds to regulate the estimated hundreds of colleges from throughout the country currently serving online students in the state. Asking each state to regulate the institutions headquartered in their state regardless of where they serve students is a much more reasonable solution. Put another way, SARA increases the amount of regulatory oversight of distance education, but does it in a manner more relevant to today’s economy.

To be fair, New York has been aggressive in pursuing bad actors in the for-profit education sector, as evidenced by its $10.25 million settlement with Career Education Corporation. It is worth noting, however, that the lawsuit was largely based on brick-and-mortar schools that have nothing to do with SARA. In addition, this action was brought by the New York attorney general’s office and was not the result of education-based regulation. There is a relevant section in the SARA policy stating that nothing precludes “a state from using its laws of general application to pursue action against an institution that violates those laws” and another stating that “nothing precludes the state in which the complaining person is located from also working to resolve the complaint.”

The reality of SARA hardly qualifies as “ceding the ability to guard its citizens against abusive practices,” as a Century Foundation letter objecting to New York signing the SARA agreement claims.

What would be lost if New York were not to sign the SARA agreement? There is certainly a downside for institutions offering distance education courses and programs for out-of-state students. It might surprise readers of the letter, but fully 70 percent of students who take all of their courses at a distance do so from public and nonprofit institutions. Institutions like Empire State College, a longtime leader in distance education that is part of the SUNY system. Furthermore, the large for-profit institutions referenced in the article have the budget and history of obtaining state-by-state approval already. It is the smaller-profile nonprofits that have the most difficulty in obtaining authorization to serve students in different states.

A reciprocity agreement between Massachusetts and Connecticut is cited as an alternative. As best we can tell, it allows each state to continue using its own current regulations. This is not reciprocity and does not improve the consumer protection landscape for students or institutions.

Were New York to avoid signing the agreement, students who live in the state would end up with fewer choices, primarily from fewer nonprofit institutions that can operate there. Under SARA, New York students actually would have more consumer protection than currently exists as well as regulatory support for any complaint process, including from in-state agencies. Additionally, states systematically working in concert through SARA will more quickly find and deal with institutions that treat students poorly. This is far better than hypothetical, unfunded regulatory oversight by New York trying to operate independently from any other state.

New York has the opportunity to sign an agreement that would expand the regulatory oversight of distance education programs, would leave the state with the same ability to go after bad actors as they have done in the past and would increase choices for resident students -- particularly working adults -- seeking to get a valuable degree that is only enabled by distance education. It would be a mistake to let a complaint based on hypotheticals and misrepresentations of reality derail this progress.

Phil Hill is co-publisher of the e-Literate blog, co-producer of e-Literate TV and partner at MindWires Consulting. Russ Poulin is director of policy and analysis at WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies), which is a division of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

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