The departure of U. Penn’s president and higher ed’s trust problem. Plus, three final bylines from our HBCU reporting fellows.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

‘The public distrusts us already’

I want to zoom out this week on an event that has grabbed the attention of people inside and outside of higher ed: The fallout from a congressional hearing on antisemitism and the subsequent resignation of the president and board chair at the University of Pennsylvania. 

A quick recap: The presidents of three ultra-selective universities — Penn, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — testified before Congress in a hearing about their handling of anti-semitic protests on their campuses. Since the hearing, all three presidents have faced criticism for clumsy, legalistic responses when trying to explain their free-speech policies.

One such criticism came from Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff: “Seeing the presidents of some of our most elite universities literally unable to denounce calling for the genocide of Jews as antisemitic — that lack of moral clarity is simply unacceptable,” he said at the national menorah-lighting ceremony. Liz Magill, Penn’s president, has since resigned.

At first glance this might seem unrelated to our work here at Open Campus. After all, we focus our reporting on the role colleges are playing in their communities, and on providing the information people need to make choices about their lives. We often say that higher ed coverage is a local issue, since most Americans go to college close to home. And to be sure, most Americans do not go to Penn, Harvard, or MIT. But what’s playing out matters — it underscores how skeptical people are of higher ed as an enterprise. 

“While the hearing tells us little about the actual state of American colleges, it tells us much about how they are perceived by the public,” Brian Rosenberg, former president of Macalester College, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week. “The strongly negative response to how the Israel-Hamas conflict has played out on college campuses is less a cause for public distrust than a symptom of the fact that the public distrusts us already.”

This sentiment isn’t a surprise to readers of this newsletter. Combating the resentment of and distrust in higher ed institutions is core to the creation of Open Campus, after all. People are questioning the value of a degree, and the cost to get one.

Politicians have seized on this souring public sentiment. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has bashed colleges as woke indoctrinators; banned activity around diversity, equity, and inclusion; and overhauled the once-quirky New College. Conservatives in Texas have also taken aim at what they see as college’s liberal agendas: tanking a high-profile Texas A&M hire; eliminating campus DEI offices; and trying to end tenure

Conservatives have for years criticized the liberal bent of universities. The presidents’ struggles during the hearing brought things to a head. While conservatives aren’t alone in criticizing the performance — Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, was among those calling for Magill’s ouster — the controversy has flipped the script. Instead of conservative voices being silenced on college campuses, conservative lawmakers have nailed leaders of liberal bastions for failing to meet the moment. 

Saying goodbye to our fall HBCU fellows

Photo: Courtesy of Spelman College

Our fall cohort of HBCU Student Journalism Network fellows wrapped up their time with us this week. It’s been a joy to work with them. They had a few more bylines in their final week:

  • Dejah Miles writes about the challenges facing student parents at HBCUs. We co-published her piece with Capital B.
  • Kendal Manns details how the rising cost of owning a car — now $1,015 a month, per AAA’s estimate — is weighing heavily on college students. “Sometimes I barely have enough money to buy food or gas,” one student said.
  • Rosegalie Cineus explores legacy admissions at HBCUs. While the practice has come under scrutiny at predominantly white institutions, it remains an important tradition at historically Black colleges, she found.
    • For more: Education Reform Now, in new analysis out this week, found just 1 in 8 public universities now consider legacy in admissions. 

Support our work

Help us continue to grow our Local Reporting Network, train HBCU student journalists, and write ambitious stories about rural issues and higher ed in prisons. Donations to Open Campus of up to $1,000 are triple-matched through the end of the year. We can’t do this work without you.

Donate Today

You can show your support for our local newsroom partners as well with a donation to their year-end campaigns: 

++ We’re accepting pitches now through Jan. 15 for one-time ambitious stories that local newsrooms want to tell with our support. If we accept a pitch, we’ll give the newsroom $10,000 and guide the reporter through the process.Learn more and apply.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

A bulletin board at Cleveland’s James F. Rhodes High School details information for graduating seniors. (Photo: Amy Morona / Signal Cleveland)

From Cleveland: Cleveland State University has been using Instant Decision Days to try and attract more students, writes Amy Morona at our partner Signal Cleveland. It’s kind of like getting pre-approved for a mortgage, Amy writes — applications still go through official channels at the university, but prospective students can get a preliminary acceptance on the spot.

From Chicago: Lisa Kurian Philip, our reporter at WBEZ Chicago, spoke to two students — Callie Stolar, a Jewish junior at Northwestern University, and Youssef Hasweh, a Palestinian American senior at the University of Chicago — about how they’re coping with the conflict abroad and on campus. Listen to their stories here.

From Indiana: Butler University is creating a two-year degree program in the hopes of broadening its appeal to students, writes Claire Rafford at our partner Mirror Indy. It’s following a model started at Arrupe College in Loyola University Chicago in 2015.

From Mississippi and Texas: Two of our reporters — Mississippi Today’s Molly Minta and The Texas Tribune’s Sneha Dey — recently visited rural parts of their respective states for stories that complicate the narrative around the value of college.

In Mississippi’s Issaquena County, just a few dozen people have a college degree. And getting one requires leaving home. In Vernon, Texas, Krystal Fancher Smith is one example of someone who has opted out of college. She works for her family business, and is happy there. “At this point in my life, I would not” go back to college, she told Sneha.

The stories are part of a collaboration on workforce issues in rural areas, supported by the Rural News Network.

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