Photo by Hanif Mahmad on Unsplash

In the Hot Seat, Presidents Defend Their Pandemic Leadership

Every year, for decades now, college presidents and education journalists have met in New York City for a grand dinner to talk about the pressing issues facing higher education.

This year, of course, we gathered on Zoom. Little squares of people beaming in across the time zones, fending for ourselves for dinner (I, for one, burnt bratwurst and broccoli on the grill). We were brought together by Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.

Here’s one thing that struck me about this year’s conversation. These college leaders are really on the hot seat right now, and they’re a little bit defensive about what they’re hearing.

They’re tired, for example, of being told they’re doing too much student blaming.

Universities hold students accountable in numerous ways, said David Leebron, president of Rice University. For cheating on exams, for sexual assault, for abusing alcohol. This is no different.

Sure, he said, colleges have a responsibility to be realistic in what they ask, but holding students accountable for their behavior is an important part of a successful strategy in this pandemic. And the university intends to do so.

The presidents also pushed back on this idea: they’re doing everything for the money.

That, said Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University, “is a bit of a misguided line of questioning in terms of what it means for all of us.”

Nearly half of Howard’s students are eligible for Pell Grants, and the university has focused on helping students who are struggling to pay for housing and food. They made a hard decision to make the fall semester fully online and non-residential. None of that helped their bottom line.

Some of the other presidents, who are bringing students back to campus, emphasized the downsides of not doing that — downsides not related to money. How would students take courses that are critical to their studies and are experiential in nature? said Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. What might happen to graduation rates, which her university has worked hard to improve?

“Standing on the sidelines,” she said, “is shameful.”

Look in the Mirror

This all reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Freeman Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

For the most part, he said, he’s not discouraged by the times we’re living in. “The problems you see right now have been with us for a long time,” he said, and now more light is shining on them. More people than ever believe inequities are real, are saying that Black lives matter, are asking what they can do.

But it’s also a time, then, to act, to be better. For people leading our nation’s colleges, that means being open to change. Looking in the mirror. Being honest with yourself and where you’re lacking. Not being defensive.

For UMBC, one thing that means is doing better on faculty diversity. For all the progress they’ve made on other fronts, Hrabowski said, they still have some departments without any black professors.

“Part of our responsibility,” Hrabowski said, “is to make sure our institutions are places where we’re all learning more.”

A sense of evolution came through in the presidents’ dinner, too. Six months into the pandemic, the leaders talked a lot about new things they’re now questioning, or questioning even more. (Does an academic calendar controlled by farming cycles and religious holidays still make sense? Why haven’t we always offered a virtual option for Bronco Day? What do we do about a tenure system that perpetuates inequities?)

“Leadership is always about making decisions in the face of uncertainty,” said Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

This era, she believes, will usher in a wave of accelerated innovation in higher education. But right now, she said, everyone’s just still trying to barely stand up on the surf board.

— Sara Hebel

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A Successful Failure

The 2020 class at Cuyahoga Community College celebrates its graduation remotely.

Over the last decade one of the most celebrated reform efforts at community colleges has been the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs. Through requiring students to attend full-time and providing a range of counseling and financial help, it’s markedly improved three-year graduation rates and increased transfers to four-year colleges.

Foundations have since helped other systems replicate the program, to similar positive effects. So why isn’t it taking the higher-ed world by storm?

That’s the question Jamaal S. Abdul-Alim, education editor at The Conversation, explores in his recent piece for the Washington Monthly: “Higher Ed’s Most Successful Failure.”

He digs into what happened to Degree in Three, a program at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, based on that CUNY model. Research showed it was so successful that even though it costs more per student up front — for additional financial aid, more advising, and even gift cards for gas and groceries — the overall cost per degree was lower because so many more students graduated.

Nevertheless, when outside money ran out, the college cut the program in 2018.

The struggle of the Ohio programs to survive, much less spark similar efforts across the country, tells a larger story about ambitions to make community college better. No past effort had been tested so rigorously and seen such success. Community colleges generally operate on such thin margins that, on their own, it is nearly impossible for them to come up with the additional cash to pilot new programs. But without some money to try out new strategies, it’s hard to see how these schools will ever solve the stubborn problem of low graduation rates — or really any of the problems they face. State and local lawmakers could have theoretically provided the funds to bring CUNY ASAP to their states, but as a practical matter, we now know they won’t.

I talked with Jamaal a bit about the story. Does this just boil down to money? To a degree, he said. But more specifically it’s about how difficult it is for governments to spend more now to save in the future.

He compared it to buying a new air conditioner. “But maybe you don’t have the money on hand to purchase it, and maybe you have other priorities, like the rent and food, so you stick with your old A/C because at least it kinda works,” he said. “So you end up with a house that isn’t quite as cool is it could be and an electric bill that is higher than it could be all because you don’t have the cash or credit at the moment to make the switch.”

Plus, he said, getting state legislators excited about a program where some of the big ideas are “good advising” and “better counseling” is super hard.

“When it comes to things like college completion, it just doesn’t scare the nation the way Sputnik did,” he told me. “Maybe if we heard a strange noise emitted every time a student dropped out of college we’d get alarmed the way we did when we heard those strange Sputnik sounds and respond accordingly.”

— Scott Smallwood

A Factory for Making Liberals?

Does college really turn students into liberals? Pinning that down is tough, but a team of researchers can hint at this much: four years of college does seem to make students feel more positive about liberals.

The Interfaith Diversity Experience and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey examined the perceptions of more than 3,000 college students at three different times — once when they started college in the fall of 2015, again that spring after one year of college, and then upon graduation in the spring of 2019.

  • The portion that had positive feelings about political liberals climbed — from 58 percent to 70 percent.
  • The percentage that reported the same about political conservatives rose initially and then fell back to the starting level — 42 percent.

In our polarized nation, if colleges were making them deeply liberal, we might expect to see their opinions about conservatives plummet. Instead, they basically stayed the same. More from the lead researchers, Alyssa N. Rockenbach at North Carolina State University, and Matthew J. Mayhew at The Ohio State University in The Conversation.

The researchers point out that the study “was conducted during an especially volatile political period when a highly polarizing presidential administration took office.” So chalk up some of this to a Trump effect. But they went on: “The national climate undoubtedly shaped students’ attitudes about different political ideologies, but this tumultuous period also illuminates the vital importance of encouraging students to see value in diverse political perspectives.”

Spotlight

What Did College Leaders Think Was Going to Happen?

University administrators should have seen this coming. (The Atlantic)

As a University Spokesman, Can I Promote a Reopening Plan I Question?

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on what to do when you believe an employer is putting financial concerns ahead of health and safety — and more. (The New York Times)

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