Top 6 Stories--The Year in Higher Education

This has been a turbulent year in higher education. From free speech to the true meaning of diversity, rankings to ROI, sexual abuse and its adjudication, the noise level coming from our nation’s colleges reached a fever pitch. What does it all mean? My take-away is that we educators continue to face challenges from a rapidly-changing world. The task ahead is formidable—giving students an education that broadens their understanding of the world; offering preparation for the modern workplace; and empowering students to speak up for their beliefs while respecting the views of others.

In case you missed the hubbub, here are some of the top higher ed highlights of 2016:

1) “Safe Spaces” and Trigger Warnings College is the last stop before students enter the real world as adults. Ideally, it’s the time and place to prepare young people for life as responsible citizens and yet, on many campuses, students are being treated like children. Administrators assume that they cannot handle anything offensive and have taken measures to protect their sensibilities. In this environment, free speech has taken a real hit. To protect students who feel offended by people with different views, “safe spaces” were created which have become refuges for like-minded people who choose not to engage in inquiry to broaden their perspective by including that of others. Some professors have included warnings on material that might trigger anxiety such as coursework touching on racism or sexism. In many schools, “free speech zones” are where the First Amendment applies and beyond that, strict rules on what constitutes acceptable speech are enforced. If we are tasked with preparing students for the real world where sensibilities may be offended, we must help them grow a thicker skin, open their minds and learn to engage in debate and in some cases, disagree respectfully. Yet, there are limits that must be in place. Balancing free speech while protecting students from abuse and bias sometimes requires the wisdom of Solomon and the understanding of Job.

2) Ranking and Ratings What’s the best college in the country? Depends who you ask. U.S. News, which bases its rankings primarily on reputation, is no longer the only game in town. Now, a proliferation of rankings exist and many have placed the emphasis squarely on outcomes--potential earnings as a measure of ROI as well as graduation and loan repayment rates. This year, the Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education introduced their first college ranking system which blended outcomes measures with resources contributing to student engagement and learning environment. While the multitude of rankings can be confusing, I would advise students to evaluate colleges on a variety of factors. Potential salary cannot be the sole determinant of where one goes to college. However, it may be a key factor, along with how well the school engages students intellectually and offers career preparation. Visiting a campus and speaking to faculty and students can provide a real sense of a school’s mission and ethos.

3) Retreat of MOOCS Just a few years ago, college administrators were warned that their product might be relegated to the realm of the obsolete as people flocked to Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCS. MOOCS were offering a free way of acquiring knowledge in the convenience of one’s own home. Educators who understood the critical importance of the professor-student connection were skeptical, but it seemed everyone was touting this very real threat to the traditional classroom. As it turns out, personal interaction--even in today’s digital world--does count for something. MOOCS did not work for the very population they sought to reach—those who didn’t have access to higher education any other way. This impersonal, mentor-less approach benefits those with access to computers and no socioeconomic challenges. While the problems of high tuition and faculty recruitment still need solving, it’s become abundantly clear that MOOCS are not the answer.

4) Regulations on For-Profit Colleges Last year’s story was the crackdown on these institutions by the Obama Administration which imposed regulations preventing students from spending federal funds at these schools and stopped recognizing a private oversight body, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges. Troubled for-profit colleges were forced to increase cash reserves in the event that they close. This may change under President Trump who is anticipated to remove some of the regulations. Stay tuned.

5) Redefining Diversity on Campus – In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof urged liberals to reconsider their notion of diversity. He pointed out that 90% of professors in the humanities are Democrats. Says Kristof, when we embrace every type of diversity except for ideological, we champion tolerance for those “who don’t look like us, so long as they think like us.” He cautions against inhabiting a bubble where our own voices echoing back are the only sounds we hear and encourages colleges to recruit professors with diverse views, bring conservative speakers to campus and avoid a hostile work environment for conservatives. Professors deserve academic freedom, but they must teach students to distinguish fact from fiction and opinion from truth. Presenting far left (or far right) bias as fact does a disservice to students and colleges.

6) A Welcome Challenge to “Boys Will be Boys” At least three Ivy League sports teams were suspended after they were found to have engaged in discriminatory and misogynous writings. Not all the details have been released so it is impossible to determine how offensive each case was. Just as with comments relating to the creation of “safe spaces” on campus, policing social media requires balancing the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment with the rights of others to exist in a bias-free environment. Only by teaching and expecting ethical and humane behavior can we protect all of our students. Intelligence, privilege and athletic ability are no guarantee of virtue.

The issues facing college administrators, faculty and students as we head in 2017 are momentous but the enterprise remains rewarding, exciting and yes, noble.

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