Higher Education’s Postelection Voice

Pete Mackey describes four pillars that must serve as the foundation for how colleges and universities communicate in this new era.

December 14, 2016
 
 
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In the wake of the presidential election, most analysts have concluded that the higher education community  was one of the biggest losers. American colleges and universities may offer the education the world desires, but people in huge swaths of the country perceive campuses as elitist and full of political views they reject.

The election results arrived, too, amid long-boiling cynicism and doubt about the value, and values, of our institutions. Even for students seeking degrees, the costs and debts have often become onerous, and the results -- notably the jobs -- are not always what have been promised. Now, exit polls say, the election has confirmed how differently college and noncollege graduates view just about everything.

We in higher education must address vital issues of access, cost and effectiveness (let alone widespread and brutal economic inequality). We must also reconnect who we are and what we do with our own campus communities and especially with America’s wider citizenry. But communication is especially fraught as postelection campus strife swirls, amid calls for sanctuary campuses, walkouts, hate speech and acts of violence.

Our institutions, aiming to serve outstanding talent wherever it is found, bring together human differences -- cultural, racial, economic and more -- that even in normal times invite tension. Day after day, in classrooms and residence halls, events and offhand conversations, diverse and changing generations wrestle with ideas that invoke all those differences. Even without postelection duress, conflicts over ideology, language, race, gender identity and every other complicated topic would be guaranteed. Throw social media into the mix and you have quite a brew. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like can turn campus struggles into national, and immediate, spectacles.

When such crises emerge, we must respond with speed -- and across numerous media simultaneously. But what do we say in those moments, and even more, over the longer term? Having worked in higher education, at both public and private institutions, since the administration of George H. W. Bush, I believe that four pillars must serve as the foundation of higher education communication in this postelection era.

First principles. Higher education is by definition about something, well, higher. Ideals that are the cornerstone of mission statements everywhere express a commitment to liberation of the mind, rigorous pursuit of the truth, skepticism about received wisdom, engagement in civic life, respect for freedom of speech, and the imperative of decency and character. These ideals connect colleges and universities to something greater in the human spirit than the pressures of the moment -- be they political, cultural or otherwise.

These ideals are largely American ideals, too. Especially when doubts are greatest and bigotry is rising, the vocalizing of those ideals must be steady. Through speeches, statements, emails to alumni, op-eds and other means, campus voices must convey and stand by them. Presidents, provosts and deans -- the academic leadership -- must take the lead, as some already have done forcefully since Nov. 8. That must spread and continue for months and years to come. Presumably we believe that, in difficult times, higher education has light to fight for, and to offer.

The academic core. The noble principles that our institutions profess are rooted in the belief that powers of the mind can bring us closer to truth, and therefore closer to those better angels of our natures that our missions promise to inspire. Reason, logic, analysis, accuracy -- colleges and universities are built around such qualities. Foregrounding what is essential seems especially critical when the difference between fact, falsehood and opinion is being muddied. But a cursory examination of much of our messaging will find other ideas prioritized: career value, community service, leadership development, economic impact. These are important, but they all depend upon delivering the academic mission first, and the rhetoric shouldn’t confuse what’s first and foremost.

Stories. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about human beings going back to our cave days, it’s that we’re fascinated with stories. We in higher education need to tell ours, specifically the ones that show why the ideals and academic mission of our institutions matter.

The election autopsy is making the case that elites too often talk past other people, but that argument isn’t only about the failures of ignoring economic pain or “flyover country.” It’s also about assuming that facts and data are sufficient for argument or advocacy. Our ideals need a down-to-earth life, because that is where they reveal themselves. If we’re going to make our missions real and honest, sound reasoning has to be paired with stories of the people who are affected by the ideals. Thankfully our resources for these stories, in the experiences of students and alumni, are virtually limitless.

A bigger audience. Four-year colleges and universities naturally spend most of their time communicating with people already in the same sphere: people on the campus, admissions prospects and alumni. But only a third of American adults have a four-year degree. If we’re not communicating regularly with the rest of the country, meaning the rest of the community around us, we actually are living in a bubble, just as critics allege.

There are numerous places through which to connect, including local civic clubs, shelters, hospitals, K-12 schools, churches, farms, small businesses, industry -- and local two-year colleges, too, where so many of tomorrow’s bachelor’s degree aspirants begin. This can’t only be through service work by students and others, either. It has to be through sharing ideas, listening and building understanding and relationships. The election has been an intense reminder of the vast gap that can exist between how people with a four-year degree and those without one experience the world. Higher education can do more to listen, learn, serve -- and bridge the divide.

The election makes clear the striking importance of reaching out -- and of how, how often and how extensively we do it. The stakes have become extreme for higher education, and more importantly, for our nation. Getting this right is crucial.

Bio

Pete Mackey led communications at such institutions as Amherst College, Bucknell University and the University of South Carolina and now runs the communications firm Mackey Strategies.

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