At the Higher Ed Leaders Forum hosted by The New York Times, some of the nation’s top education experts shared their thoughts about the biggest challenges facing educational institutions today and how to meet them. Following are excerpts from panel discussions and other onstage conversations. They have been edited and condensed.
We live in this tribal time in our politics; there’s deep polarization. And let’s be honest, if you look at the vote in the last election, Hillary Clinton won overwhelmingly among people with postgraduate degrees, college-educated whites; she lost by 40 points among noncollege-educated whites. Young people voted overwhelmingly for her over [Donald J.] Trump. And so campuses generally have a skew. And in this deeply polarized environment there is a lot of pressure. One of the professors at the University of Chicago invited Steve Bannon recently for a debate with Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers on globalism. And what could be richer than that?
And the campus was in an uproar. A lot of students and 100 faculty members signed a petition saying we shouldn’t allow Steve Bannon on campus. The invitation was not rescinded. He himself decided, unfortunately in my view, not to come. But I don’t think we can yield to that, and I think, you know, there may be some campuses that react differently than ours. We have a very strong commitment to free expression.
Colleges are supposed to be places where you learn how to deal with the world you’re about to be in. And if you’re in a funk by 10 a.m. because somebody wrote an offensive tweet, you’re going to be in a safe house for the rest of your life. You need to deal with it. You need to learn how to counter it or ignore it, or whatever needs to be done. That’s what a good academic experience should be. I was very fortunate to be invited to be on the faculty of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, to go to the faculty meetings and stuff, for two years. And I told the students, “The ones getting the best education here are the conservative students, because their views are challenged every day.” About 3.7 percent of the registered voters in Cambridge are Republicans. That’s a fact. So the dominant view is a little different. That’s fine. But you need to have different ways to have your views challenged.
I think it’s quite apparent that there are a host of people who feel left out. And what we see around the country is a reaction to, and to a certain degree of anger at, institutions that promote the idea that I am unworthy somehow, because I hold the wrong ideas, because my lifestyle is not appropriate in some way, because I’m not smart enough.
We talk about inclusiveness all the time, but we don’t really mean it. When we say “inclusion,” we mean inclusion if you agree with me, and if you believe in the same things. But we are so diverse and we believe in a lot of different things, some of which are admittedly pretty heinous things. But still, we’re part of the human family. And the trick for us in higher education is to figure out a way to promote the values that we believe in, the standards that we know to be important, and at the same time make people feel included in that.
Higher education has historically been — and still is — an important bridge to opportunity and an engine for economic and social mobility. And for many people, that seems inaccessible. Either it doesn’t meet the needs or it doesn’t seem like it’s a place for me or it’s unaffordable. So building on that, I think as a system there’s a view that it’s not keeping up, it’s not supporting and meeting the needs of students, and therefore one’s ability to access the American dream is perceived as less.
I can’t really identify a tipping point, but what I have seen is there’s a sort of steady trend in the direction of increasing fragility and increasing vulnerability in students. Your impulse as a teacher is to sort of put your arms around them and make sure they don’t hurt themselves, and that you don’t hurt them, and that other students don’t hurt them, in a way that wasn’t an issue when I first started teaching. It looks like they’re going to break if one bad thing happens. So certainly I think in the last 20 years of my time at Swarthmore, I was dealing with much more fragile people than I was in the preceding 20 years — there’s no question.
The economy has changed so much, and now nearly every employer creating any new job is requiring some sort of postsecondary credential. So we have an entire population in California, over eight million individuals, who are in the work force but only have a high school diploma or some college but no credential. Those are nontraditional learners — those individuals who are stranded, who are stuck in the work force, who don’t have any real opportunity to have wage gain, promotional opportunities, unless they get some sort of credentials.
So that’s why we now look at them as students. These are individuals who need learning and certification and credentialing. So those are our students, and I guess you would consider them nontraditional, although pretty soon they’ll be just as traditional as everybody else.
I think here is where income plays an advantage, and that well-off families, families that can pay the full fare at any institution, will find a home. And oftentimes they will find not only a home but may likely have money given to them to attract them into an institution. I think that many institutions are trying to address the students of the lowest income levels and for them they’re finding students are getting full fare or all tuition and cost of attendance paid for.
And so a lot of institutions, many at sort of this private level, are becoming bimodal. So I think it’s the families in the middle, the families able to pay some portion but maybe not all, who are finding themselves squeezed and challenged, and maybe are not able to meet that ideal of being able to go to the college they most want to go to. They’re going to the college they most feel they can afford.
Without a just cause, we start feeding people what they want rather than what they need. Ted Koppel talks about this in the news. He says: “We used to give people the news they needed, whether they wanted it or not. Now we give the news they want, whether they need it or not.” And I don’t have to go into the polarizing nature of news in America today, and what a vicious cycle that creates, and these echo chambers. I would argue that universities are leaning toward that same direction. We’re giving people the classes they want whether they need them or not, and we’re sometimes avoiding giving them the classwork they need, whether they want it or not — real important things that will help advance your just cause but, more important, will help advance them as human beings.
Because I can tell you in my work the people who make choices based on salary alone end up unhappy, end up in broken marriages and end up doing rather unethical things because they’re so driven by the mighty dollar. Why aren’t we teaching people? Let’s put that in affirmative: You should teach. I strongly urge you to include things like confrontation, effective confrontation, communication skills.
You’ve heard already from younger generations with increasing rates of anxiety, increasing rates of depression, increasing rates of suicide. We’re seeing it in these school shootings, where something like 80 percent of them are perpetrated by a kid — by children who are lacking good relationships. It’s human relationships that are missing.
When we first learned that [the conservative scholar] Charles Murray was coming on our campus — he’d been invited by a student group — the first thing that we did is we put together an engagement team. That engagement team included the academic leadership of the university, our student affairs people, our public safety people, our facilities people, to have a dialogue with the students who were organizing the talk. To learn about what their goals were. To let the students know that we were fully committed not only for the right of the speaker to speak but the right of the audience to hear and the right of those who wanted to express dissent to be able to do so in a way that didn’t preclude the others’ rights.
Those discussions were about lots of tactical things, including what they’ll wear, what the location of the talk would be, what access would look like. The students decided that they wanted to limit it to just University of Michigan students, which made things a little bit easier. Our public safety folks put together a plan to figure out how we were going to do things in case there was a disruption.
I think it’s a great part of Brown’s history that in the ’60s this very clear policy was articulated. It says that any student organization or faculty member can invite any speaker of their choice onto campus. I remind students when they object to it that this was during the ’60s. It was a time when the university president did not want antiwar protesters coming onto campus. So the policy was really put into place to protect people who wanted to bring in antiwar protesters or civil rights activists, and it’s persisted over time. So if I have students who complain about it, I say, look, this policy has stood all groups well for over 50 years.
The hierarchy in the real world is very different than the hierarchy at universities. In the real world, Christians and today Jews — Jews are today’s WASPs. You know, when I went to school, Jews were discriminated against. We couldn’t get jobs in law firms, and we couldn’t get jobs. But today, Jews can get jobs everywhere, and so we are not in any way marginalized in the major society.
But on university campuses, the hierarchy is totally and completely different. Minorities are the most empowered. If they want to shut down a professor, if they want to claim they’re victims of hate speech, they’re going to get more attention than a Christian student or a Jewish Zionist student.
And so, you know, maybe that’s fair. You give students four years or six years or eight years where the hierarchies are very different but you have to recognize they are very different. Affirmative action is not only an admission criteria today: It is a criteria for free speech. You get more free speech if you are a minority and less free speech if you’re not, and I think that safe spaces are mostly reserved for minorities. Zionists and Christians and others aren’t entitled to safe spaces.
In spite of the current occupant of the White House, we are living in a global era, and unless the president messes up higher education by making it difficult for international students to come to the United States — and he’s well on his way to get that done — we have a comparative advantage as a consequence of the international footprint that we have with our universities. People from all over the world come here, not just to go to school but to become members of the faculty. So it is an international operation to begin with, higher education, and there’s no question in my mind that the students get tremendous value.
And by the way, 75 percent of our students are international, not because we want it to be 75 percent — we don’t have any geographic preference at all. But there’s no question that they get tremendous benefit from being involved together, getting to know each other and working in international communities.
Carolina at this point has a 36 percent study abroad rate, which is in the top 20 of the public universities in the country. Thirteen percent of those students are going to Asia. We saw a 2 percent increase in the last year of student interest in Asia. But it’s not a problem of interest, it’s really a threefold problem.
There’s a financial barrier; some of these students work so hard to get to Carolina and then they say, now I want to go to Shanghai, and that feeds into another barrier, which is a cultural family barrier. Some of these students have a very difficult time convincing their families this is something that they should do.
And I think the third one is maybe institutional, where these kids are so focused on their majors, particularly the science majors or the pre-meds, that getting off those tracks are difficult sometimes to study abroad. So what we’ve been trying to find and create and encourage over the last 12 years is more faculty-led programs, more partnerships with science labs, getting musicians to study abroad, getting linguists to study abroad, really opening it up as wide as we can. But certainly access and affordability will always be the challenge.
The four-year colleges and community colleges are a perfect opportunity to bring people together to live together, to work together, to socialize together. We have to do a better job, I think, of fostering interpersonal relationships. But I don’t think we’ve done a very good job — I mean we don’t even teach civics in many places anymore in America in the K-through-12 system. If you wait until college, it’s too late. We’ve got to start earlier understanding people come from different faiths, different cultures, different races, religion. We’re a melting pot. That’s who we are as a country.
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