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.
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