By Doug Ward

American higher education has taken a beating over the last 40-plus years.

Many of those blows came from the outside. Many others were self-inflicted. I won’t rehash those here, other than to say that higher education has done a poor job of fighting back. Much of the time, it has seen itself as above the fray. Its arrogance not only blinded it to its own shortcomings but let critics paint an unflattering portrait that has lingered in the minds of millions of Americans.

A board at the AAC&U meeting asked participants to share their thoughts about higher education. The theme of the meeting was “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?”

Thankfully, colleges and universities have awakened from their slumber and started to realize that they must live within the broader society, not separate from it, and that they must make a case that higher education plays a vital role in democracy and the American dream. Yes, that sounds lofty. But it is crucial if we hope to maintain our colleges and universities as places of knowledge, aspiration, and above all, hope.

That sentiment was clearly evident last week in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Speakers were alternately determined, defiant, pragmatic, searching, and hopeful. Like so many others, I came away energized by conversations with colleagues who are determined to reinvigorate higher education, and by sessions that focused on the core elements of AAC&U’s new strategic plan:

  • Championing sustainable models for high-quality undergraduate education
  • Advancing equity
  • Articulating the value of liberal education
  • Pushing for innovative approaches to change higher education

Speakers at the conference’s opening plenary were blunt about the problems that higher education faces. The United States used to be the world leader in degree holders, Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U, told participants. It now ranks 15th. Public higher education was once a truly public venture financed mostly by taxpayer dollars. Now it is public in name only as colleges and universities rely increasingly on private fundraising, tuition dollars, and grants to pay the bills. That, in turn, pushes institutions to obsess about rankings, which pushes them to seek students with higher test scores, which pushes them to build luxury facilities, which forces universities to seek private financing and push up tuition costs, which puts college further out of reach for more and more families.

That chain of events has led to both a financial and moral crisis in higher education, said Linda Martin Alcoff, a professor at City University of New York. Privatization has turned students and faculty into “human capital,” she said. Rankings have “infected” every faculty search as departments seek out stars who can improve rankings, Alcoff said. Faculty achieve star status by attracting private grant money, which has deteriorated the civic nature of higher education, she said.

“We’ve become beggars at the table,” Alcoff said. “Every time there’s a search, our chairs are beggars at the table with deans and provosts for positions that are ultimately decided by corporate boards of trustees and ranking mechanisms. … We’re all quite aware of the problem, but we have been lulled into quietude.”

New pressures on a college degree

Tamara Draut, a vice president at the public policy organization Demos, said that we in higher education must work to “unleash that era of possibility” that allowed so many people to get through college without enormous debt. Debt has poisoned higher education by creating an obsession with rankings and a need to recruit increasing numbers of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.

“There’s a lot of perversion that has happened in the academy because it has become connected to debt,” Draut said. “It has put pressure on a college degree to do something it was never supposed to do, which is show some ROI for the degree you get.”

She gave the example of a young woman who called in to an NPR show that Draut participated in. The young woman, who had an art degree and was working at a community center teaching art to children, was having a difficult time paying off her college debt. The next caller ranted about the young woman for “daring to get an art degree” rather than an engineering or technical degree.

Debt, Draut said, is “putting all kinds of burdens on institutions and on degrees that they were never meant to carry. And it’s making us devalue the learning and the doing that are the high marks of civilization: art, music, philosophy, education, doing good for others. That is what we should be lifting up. But the reality is, if you get an art degree and can’t pay back your student loans, we are saying to people that you did something bad and you should have studied something different.”

AAC&U members clearly took an inclusive view of higher education, as they should. College was once only the purview of the elite, and the rising cost of attending is clearly pushing it that way again.

“What happens is a lot of working class and poor people hear us saying you need to go to college,” Draut said. “The reason you are struggling is because you didn’t go to college. You made bad choices.”

That either/or narrative only sours people on higher education, she said. College is important, she said, but it is not a solution to poverty, prejudice or the growing gap between the ultrawealthy and everyone else.

“Higher ed is great, but it’s not all we have to do to fix society’s economic and racial inequality,” Draut said.

The importance of access

Panelists throughout the conference issued a call for educators to push for policies that provide broader access to higher education but also help re-establish a broad middle class.

“Teaching the poor should not be a niche market in higher education, but that’s what it has become,” Alcoff said.

She added: “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in any kind of labor can have financial security.”

Wes Moore of the Robin Hood Foundation urged educators and alumni to tell their stories about the importance of higher education. Statistics can be helpful, he said, but they can also be manipulated.

“Make sure people understand the human implications of what we do,” Moore said. “It’s important to remind people not just what we are talking about but who we are talking about.”

Alcoff offered a similar point, saying that we must espouse the importance of higher education without alienating those who choose not to – or can’t – get a degree. By linking a college education to social mobility, we leave out a large portion of the American population.

“The goal of social mobility is the wrong goal in the United States today,” she said. “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in manual labor – or any kind of labor – can have lives of dignity, can own a home, can send their kids to a good state university, and can have financial security.”

We must also make room for less-than-perfect students who aspire to the intellectual challenges of college, Alcoff said. With what she described as a “checkered past,” she never would have made it through college in today’s environment, she said. She was on her own financially at age 16, earned a GED, dropped out of college, found her way back, and eventually graduated. College is no longer forgiving for such students, she said, especially with costs that weigh on students for years.

Naomi Barry-Pérez, director of the civil rights center for the Justice Department, tied decreased funding of higher education and many social programs to a backlash against the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Government programs aimed at making society fairer were demonized once women and people of color gained more power, she said. We are the richest nation on earth, she said, but we life in a perpetual state of austerity.

“We have to be champions of reinvesting in ourselves,” she said.

Conflicting ideals

As passionate as the speakers were, they offered few solutions to entrenched problems that have been exacerbated by polarized politics. In most cases, there are no clear answers.

In the closing plenary, the author William Deresiewicz told conference-goers that higher education had been in crisis “since the beginning, perhaps since 1636.” The problems have changed, though, with the biggest today being the decline in education funding.

He said, though, that academics needed to delve more deeply into their own beliefs and actions. We talk about freedom, equality and justice, he said, but rarely think about the conflicts inherent in them. Equality often demands the diminishment of freedom, he said. We want to encourage creative expression, but at the same time, we have a need for all people to feel safe. That, in turn, often requires restrictions. Dealing with those conflicts is difficult and troubling, he said. Nobody wants to think about their own beliefs, values, and assumptions. At colleges and universities, that inaction silences voices and distances academia from the rest of society, he said.

“We live at a time when progressive opinion, which dominates most campuses, has hardened into something approaching religious dogma,” Deresiewicz said. “There’s a right way to think, and a right way to talk, and a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity occupy the center of discourse.”

There really is nothing to debate, he said, saying that he shared those beliefs, but “the fact that it’s inconceivable to think otherwise is precisely the problem.”

“The assumption on the left is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth,” Deresiewicz said. “We already know what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right, what’s wrong. There really is nothing to discuss, except how to put a belief into practice. Dogma makes for ideological consensus, and consensus is enforced through social means.”

He told of a recent experience in teaching a writing class for college juniors and seniors. All of the students were ill-prepared to read deeply, analyze others’ work, or to make strong arguments. These were smart students, he said, but they had learned only a technocratic form, one in which difficult question could be worked out in predictable ways. They also thought of writing as “something that just happened,” rather than as a process that requires persistent revision and questioning.

He pointed to several things he said were at the heart of the problem: social media and its fast-paced, anything goes mentality; grade inflation; adjunct instructors who can’t afford to spend time with student papers; and professors who lack incentives to take the time. If we spend all our time focusing on skills that can be scaffolded and measured, he said, we miss opportunities to delve into bigger questions like values, purpose and meaning that can transform students during their time in college. All too often, the humanities converts open-ended questions into things that can be assessed and tested, he said. As a result, students think fundamental questions about life and meaning have been settled. They learn to spout opinions, but recoil at the idea of public argument. They talk about things like patriarchy, intersectionality, trigger warnings, and microaggressions, but they are lost when they have to think outside those categories or are asked to examine what they mean or how others might feel differently.

“Big questions are big questions because no one has the answers,” Deresiewicz said.

What he failed to mention is that the dogma that afflicts the left also afflicts the right, making meaningful conversation and compromise even more difficult. Like other speakers at AAC&U, though, he was spot-on in calling for higher education to take a deep look inside itself. That’s the only way we will find a way forward.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Students try to assemble a Lego creation after instructions were relayed from another room.

By Doug Ward

Here’s some sage advice to start the semester: Don’t be a jerk.

That comes from a student who will be an undergraduate teaching assistant for the first time this spring. Actually, he used a much more colorful term than “jerk,” but you get the idea. He was responding to a question from Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning, about things that undergrad TAs could do to set the tone in classes they worked in. More about that shortly.

Lyles’s workshop on fostering an inclusive classroom climate was one of half a dozen sessions offered for 94 undergraduate assistants in STEM fields this week.  Other sessions focused on such things as grading; team-building and communication; sexual harassment reporting; and expectations of undergraduate teaching assistants.

Molly McVey, workshop organizer, checks in students at a training session for undergraduate teaching assistants.

The workshop was organized by Molly McVey, a teaching specialist in the School of Engineering. McVey organized the first such workshop a year ago after the number of teaching fellows (the name for undergraduate assistants in engineering) increased from four to 25. The school had no formal training program, so McVey created one.

Other fields, including math, have their own sessions for undergraduate assistants. The program McVey started is unique, though, in that it brings together student assistants and instructors from a variety of disciplines. In addition to engineering, students at this week’s session came from biology, physics, and geography and atmospheric sciences. Department representatives had time to speak with students in their specific disciplines, but the overarching goal was the same for everyone: to help undergraduate assistants in STEM fields better understand their role in the classroom.

McVey added another element this time, based on experiences with the previous two training sessions.

“We realized that we really needed to get the faculty in the room, too,” McVey said. “Some of the things we were communicating to the teaching fellows, faculty needed to hear, as well, so that everyone was on the same page.”     

Students assemble Lego creations at the workshop.

The need for undergraduate TA training has grown as active learning in STEM fields has expanded over the last several years. These TAs perform a variety of duties, but their primary role is to move about large classes and help students with problem-solving, discussions and questions. Instructors choose the TAs from among the students who have taken their classes in previous semesters. That way the TAs know the subject matter, the class format, and the needs of fellow students.

Undergraduate assistants have been instrumental in improving student retention and learning in such fields as engineering, geology and biology. Many other factors have been involved in those improvements, but the assistants provide key support as instructors shift courses from lecture to hands-on class work. They offer additional eyes and ears in large classes, and they provide additional contacts for students who might be reluctant to speak up in large classes.

The training sessions this week helped undergraduate assistants understand some of the challenges they will face. Lorin Maletsky, associate dean for undergraduate studies in engineering, led a workshop in which teams of students assembled Lego contraptions using instructions from teammates who listened to descriptions in a different room and then raced back to explain – or try to explain – the appropriate steps. The scene was occasionally comical as students dashed in and out, gave colleagues blank looks and grimaces, and tried to put together pieces based on sketchy directions.

The exercise was eye-opening for those involved, though, in that it simulated the challenges that students face in trying to understand information that instructors provide in class. Sometimes that information is clearly understood. Most of the time, though, it comes through in patchy and incomplete ways as students struggle to grasp new concepts.

Students consider questions posed by Ward Lyles (in the background)

Maletsky offered another analogy between the Lego exercise and teaching: Good teaching requires instructors and students to bring together many pieces, put them in the right order and create a coherent whole.

“That’s not easy,” he said.

In the diversity workshop that Lyles led, participants grappled with questions of student motivation, preconceived ideas, student perceptions, and class climate. Toward the end, he asked the undergraduate assistants to think about things they could do to help foster an environment that encourages learning.

The student who told his fellow participants not to be jerks said he spoke from experience. An undergrad TA in a class he took in a previous semester was pompous and unapproachable, souring the atmosphere for many students in the class. He vowed to approach his job in a more appropriate way.

Other participants offered these suggestions:

  • Relate your own experiences so that current students better understand how you learned course material.
  • Call students by name.
  • Find something unique about each student to help you remember them.
  • Pay attention to student struggles.
  • Be an ear for instructors and listen for potential problems.
  • Work at leading students to finding answers rather than just giving them answers.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

 It was excellent advice not just for undergraduate assistants, but for anyone working with students.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.