By Doug Ward

Robin Wright has a clear vision of the future of education.

Understanding that future requires a look 6,000 years into the past, though. It requires an assessment of the technological wonders that have promised revolution over the years. It requires an understanding of literacy rates, which have reached 90 percent worldwide. It requires a look into the chemistry of the brain, which reacts to emotion and stress but also to action and interaction. It requires a look outward at the students in our classes. And perhaps most important, it requires a look inward at who we are and who we aspire to be.

Robin Wright spoke about the human side of teaching and learning in her keynote address at Thursday’s Teaching Summit.

Wright made it clear that if we can do that, we, too, will have a clear vision of education’s future. (More about that shortly.)

Wright, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota, was the keynote speaker at KU’s annual Teaching Summit on Thursday. She shared with the summit’s 400 participants some of her research into active learning and student development, along with personal experiences in teaching undergraduate biology courses. Some of those experiences involved her own challenges as a teacher, including times when students simply weren’t understanding what she was teaching.

“This is where I made a big mistake,” Wright said. “If my students weren’t performing well, I just worked harder. That wasn’t a problem for them; they weren’t working harder. I wasn’t putting the burden on them.”

That is, she wasn’t following the key principles of learning. Here’s how she described those:

  • Every brain is different.
  • The person who does the work does the learning.
  • You can only make memories by connecting them to older memories.
  • People almost always learn better when they work together.
  • Making memories requires repetition, feedback, elaboration and sleep.

Until students do the hard work that learning requires, it doesn’t matter how many times instructors go over course material or how much effort they put into making classes active and engaging, Wright said. Mastery requires time and effort.

Don’t get the wrong idea from that. What instructors do has an enormous impact. Teaching and learning require concerted efforts by both students and instructors. That effort works best with human interaction, though. That was the message that Wright delivered again and again: that in a technology-fueled world, the human elements of education are more important than ever.

“The most important way we can be human is to teach,” Wright said.

Wright’s keynote address and workshops she led later in the morning tied into the summit’s theme, Teaching the Whole Student. That theme evolved from recent research suggesting that a holistic approach to education helps students succeed. We can’t just teach content. Nor can we throw students into that content and expect them to learn on their own. Rather, instructors and universities must engage students in education and help them gain a sense of belonging; support them in their educational endeavors and help them overcome barriers; and provide mentoring from staff members, faculty members and students’ peers.

Wright takes a question from Candan Tamerler, professor of mechanical engineering.

After the summit, Wright said that her message would not have been well received just a few years ago. Even now, critics berate universities for coddling students and encouraging hypersensitivity rather than pushing them to harden themselves for an unforgiving world. Wright steered clear of the political hyperbole, grounding her arguments in science, history, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Even so, she acknowledged her role as provocateur as she made a case for what education is and what it could be.

Naysayers have tried to displace in-person education for centuries, she said. The first known correspondence course – one for shorthand – was offered in 1728. In 1906, a correspondence degree program in Pennsylvania attracted a million people but had a graduation rate of 2.6 percent, about the same as today’s massive open online courses. Thomas Edison promoted the phonograph as a great educational tool. Broadcasters did the same with radio and then television. MOOC creators promised a revolution – one that fizzled before it barely started.

Despite all these other opportunities and all the new technological tools that have emerged, we still have in-person education. Furthermore, Wright said, 90 percent of the world’s population can read and write. More and more of that population has access to the Internet and its vast universe of information, meaning that people can learn just about anything and anywhere on their own. And yet year after year, students and instructors still gather in classrooms to learn.

Why? she asked, quickly providing her own answer: Because the way we learn hasn’t changed since the days when people gathered around campfires, shared stories, and helped each other understand the world.

“Our brains are still the same as they were 6,000 years ago,” Wright said. “We still learn in the same way, the same basic way. That has not changed at all.”

Teaching to hundreds of brains

Wright explained the importance of brain chemistry and the role that stress, emotion, and sleep play in our ability to learn. She touched on social theory as a means of explaining learning, and the way that such factors as pedagogy, classroom climate, focus, motivation and metacognition influence individual performance. Our growing understanding of those factors continues to improve teaching.

“The challenge, though,” she said, “is how do you teach a whole class about mitosis when you have 400 different brains you have to interact with?”

That is, the same strategy doesn’t work for everyone.

“People look at things in different ways because their brains are different,” Wright said.

That’s where the human aspects of teaching must take over.

“We have to consider the whole person as a living, breathing, complicated, annoying, wonderful human being,” Wright said.

To emphasize that, Wright told of a high school teacher who once told her she was a good writer. Decades later, Wright still remembers that praise fondly, and she urged attendees to make the most of human interaction with their students.

“If you can do one thing to improve the effectiveness of your teaching and your learning, it’s to give people a chance to interact,” Wright said.

Adding a human touch to education also helps shape the future, she said.

“Being able to put your arm around a student and say, ‘You are really, really good at biology. I think you could have a career in it.’  That has enormous, enormous impact,” Wright said.

That doesn’t mean we should shy away from technology. Not at all. We should use it to its full potential to personalize teaching and learning, she said. In the end, though, the future of education lies in its humanity.

“There’s power in you as a living human being interacting with other human beings,” Wright said.

That power has kept education alive for millennia. And if Wright’s vision is correct, it will propel higher education into the future.


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.

By Doug Ward

On a recent trip to Amherst, Mass., I strolled through the University of Massachusetts campus looking for a bookstore.

There was not a book to be found, at least outside the 30-story library. A technology shop, yes. A natural foods store, yes. A pastry counter, yes. A university apparel store, of course. But a bookstore? For that, you have to travel a mile or so to the Amherst town center.

UMass got rid of its physical campus bookstore three years ago. Instead, it has a wall of lockers and a desk staffed by Amazon. As part of a five-year contract the university signed with Amazon, students and faculty can buy textbooks online and have them shipped free to campus and nearby ZIP codes in a day, according to the university news service. (At least the contract was supposed to last five years. More about that shortly.)

Jessica Ruscello, via Unsplash

The decision to eliminate a physical bookstore wasn’t popular among many students and faculty members, the Greenfield Recorder reported. Some students complained about Amazon’s business practices. Some instructors didn’t like submitting their textbook selections to Amazon rather than to a campus bookstore. And Amazon is never popular among local merchants.

A few other colleges and universities have also eliminated their campus stores, including Purdue, Stony Brook, and Queens College. Others have kept their stores but allowed Amazon to install storefronts with lockers for one-day delivery. Amazon has pickup sites at 30 colleges and universities.

One of the advantages universities cite for these arrangements is lower costs to students. At least that’s the plan. The university doesn’t have to devote storage space to books, and Amazon’s enormous size allows it to provide the benefit of scale and convenience. Amazon also pays the universities a commission on sales or rent for campus space. Amazon guaranteed UMass commissions of $1.45 million over three years, according to the Greenfield Recorder.

Cost is no trivial matter as state support keeps declining and the individual costs of college keeps rising. UMass said its deal with Amazon was expected to save students $380 a year on textbook purchases, although the The Massachusetts Daily Collegian said students found that the savings were considerably less, especially because the free shipping did not apply to used books.

Those arrangements also don’t take into account the efforts that campus bookstores make to assist students. The KU Bookstore, for instance, has created an online price comparison tool to help students make decisions. It also works with KU Libraries, faculty and staff members to make open educational resources more readily available. And it sends all its profits back to KU through donations to campus programs and organizations.

Each campus bookstore has a different business model, but the money that Amazon promises to universities is increasingly difficult to pass up. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laurent Heller, the vice chancellor for finance and administration cited decreased state funding as one reason the university found a deal with Amazon attractive, according to The Daily Cardinal.

“We need to find creative ways to gain revenue that goes along with our mission,” Heller was quoted as saying.

Those revenues don’t come without risk, though. At UMass, Amazon is ending its five-year contract after three years, according to the Recorder. That has left the university scrambling to find a book supplier for its bookstoreless campus starting next year.

I have mixed feelings about all this. I’m not anti-Amazon, and I certainly understand the trend toward electronic course materials and the delivery of books. Libraries have been moving in the same direction, repurposing stacks as collaborative space for students and moving many physical books to remote sites. (This isn’t always a smooth process either.) The growth of digital resources also reduces the need for physical space.

I’m certainly part of this trend. I do most of my reading electronically these days. With an e-book reader and a tablet, I read much more than I did before. The digital devices also make life easier. I can take and store notes without the need for physical filing cabinets, and retrieve them much more easily and accurately than if they were in paper form. The digital format also reduces space and makes large amounts of information much more portable.

Campuses definitely lose an important element when a bookstore goes away, though. As I walked through the UMass campus, the lack of a college bookstore felt disorienting. It was as if something vital had been removed. Without it, there was no physical location for getting a feel for the intellectual life of the campus, no single place for perusing course titles or picking up new ideas from interesting classes and books that instructors had chosen. Without a bookstore, the campus felt somehow more remote, more inaccessible.

I’ve written before about universities’ shift toward consumerism, about the way they have diminished the importance of learning by promoting themselves as carefree places with endless conveniences, cheering sports fans, and smiling students who seem to have little to do but stroll together across leafy campuses. The loss of campus bookstores fits into that trend, further hiding the intellectual life – the soul of higher education – behind the gloss of consumer appeal.

If we are to preserve that intellectual core, we need to work harder at making it more visible, especially for potential students and for the public. Otherwise, a campus becomes just a collection of buildings — buildings that at a growing number of universities lack a bookstore.

Briefly …

Fort Hays State University is taking a non-Amazon approach to remaking its bookstore. The university has entered into partnerships with Akademos, a company that provides an online portal for textbook sales; and indiCo, an arm of the National Association of College Stores that will handle general merchandise for the store. … A University of Maryland study supports the idea of using virtual reality for learning, with researchers finding that participants had better recall of information from a virtual environment than from a desktop computer, Campus Technology reports. … A survey by the New America Foundation finds that support for higher education may not be as politically divided as surveys last year suggested, Inside Higher Ed reports. Even so, respondents were much more supportive of colleges and universities near them than they were of higher education in general.


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.

Collin Bruey and Laura Phillips check out posters at the Service Showcase. Bruey and Phillips created their own poster about work at the Center for Community Outreach.

By Doug Ward

I’m frequently awed by the creative, even life-changing, work that students engage in.

The annual Service Showcase sponsored by the Center for Service Learning, provides an impressive display of that work. This year’s Showcase took place last week. As a judge for the Showcase over the past two years, I’ve learned how deeply some students have become involved in the community. Here’s a sample of their work:

  • Improving a sense of community among residents of a local senior center
  • Documenting the risk of poverty on individuals’ health
  • Building a more sustainable community through community gardens, litter pickups and presentations
  • Creating support networks and building leadership skills among underrepresented youths
  • Tutoring of juvenile offenders at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex
  • Teaching U.S. citizenship to refugees
  • Promoting discussion about inequality in Kansas City, Kan.
  • Raising awareness about the lack of food that many KU students face
  • Increasing physical activity among guests at the Lawrence Community Shelter

John Augusto, who directed the Center for Service Learning until early this year, said in an earlier interview that the annual poster event provided recognition for both students and community partners.

“We want to make sure that students understand that it’s OK to feel good about the work, but that what’s as important is that the community organization is getting a direct benefit from that work,” Augusto said. “It’s not just that I go in and I feel good about what I do but then the community organization has to clean up after my work. There really has to be a mutually beneficial relationship.”

He added: “I think what it teaches the students is that when they leave KU and they are in an environment in their professional life that’s different from what they’re used to, they need to learn to listen. A lot of times students tell us that when they’re doing this service work, and reflecting on it, they learn how to listen.”

This year’s winners were:

  • Tina Lai, graduate student
  • Razan Mansour, undergraduate individual student award
  • Jasmine Brown and Cierra Smallwood, undergraduate student group award

Short tenures vs. long-term thinking

As KU begins a search for a new provost, here’s something to keep in mind: Most provosts don’t stay in their jobs long.

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources says the median tenure for provosts across the country is only three years. That’s the lowest among all types of administrators the organization surveyed.

Presidents and chief executives of universities stay in their jobs at a median rate of five years, about the same as leaders of human resources and student affairs.

From the website of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources

Jackie Bichsel, director of research for the association, is quoted as saying: “It’s not surprising that administrators overall have a relatively short median tenure. Given that those with many years of tenure do not make considerably greater salaries, their best chance of a raise may be to find a new position.”

Unfortunately, that’s the case in most jobs, both inside and outside academia. Employees sometimes talk about the “loyalty penalty,” meaning that those of us who stay at an institution for many years never get the bump in pay and other benefits that those who jump from job to job get. That becomes especially frustrating when considering that faculty salaries at KU rank near the bottom of the university’s peers.

I don’t begrudge anyone opportunities for higher pay or greater challenges. Bringing in new leaders can infuse a university with new energy and new ideas. And top leaders also feel squeezed from many sides as they take on everything from shaky budgets, rising college costs and flagging trust in higher education to polarized students and faculty, concerns about campus safety, small incidents blowing up on social media and in some cases, the survival of a university. There’s no doubt that university leaders have difficult jobs.

When those leaders change so frequently, though, a campus can easily shift to a short-term mentality. Administrators know they probably won’t stay on the job long, so they push for quick results that don’t necessarily serve the institution in the long term. Universities need to change, as I’ve written about frequently, but real change takes time, and the pressure to produce quick results makes it difficult to focus on much-needed systemic change. Quick turnover also makes it difficult to know whether leaders’ initiatives are really in a university’s best interests or whether they are simply meant to pad resumes for the next job search.

Further clouding the picture, many administrators push small initiatives but take a “wait and see” approach on innovation, preferring to let others experiment with new ideas, approaches, and technology rather than budgeting for experimentation. (Experimentation takes time, after all.) That’s one place where KU shines, at least in terms of teaching. The provost’s office has provided thousands of dollars in course transformation grants over the past few years, putting the university on the cutting edge in classroom innovations that help improve student learning. (Many of those innovations will be on display on Friday at CTE’s annual Celebration of Teaching.)

Choosing new leaders is a difficult task, as anyone who has served on a search committee can attest to. One thing seems clear, though: A university can’t rely on a single leader, or even a few leaders, to chart a path into the future. It must build a strong cohort of leaders around the university to keep the institution moving forward even as top leaders rotate in and out quickly.

Reclassifying STEM

Here’s a silly question: What is STEM?

If you said science, technology, engineering, and math, you’d be right, of course. You’d then have to explain what you mean by science, technology, engineering, and math, though.

Need help? Let’s consult the federal government.

The Department of Homeland Security says that STEM includes math, engineering, the biological sciences, the physical sciences and “fields involving research, innovation, or development of new technologies using engineering, mathematics, computer science, or natural sciences (including physical, biological, and agricultural sciences).”

That’s such a broad definition that it could theoretically apply to about anything. And that’s exactly what some universities hope to capitalize on as they try to attract more international students to the United States.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that universities have put such programs as economics, information science, journalism, classical art, archaeology, and applied psychology under the STEM umbrella. (Whether that will pass muster with the government remains to be seen.)

Why? Because international students who graduate in STEM fields are allowed to remain in the United States longer than those who receive non-STEM degrees, The Chronicle says. STEM graduates can work for three years in the U.S. after graduation, compared with one year for non-STEM grads.

International students, who generally pay full out-of-state tuition, have drawn increasing interest from public universities, which have struggled to make up for declining state funding. The number of international students has declined over the past couple of years, though. Nationally, there were 7 percent fewer international students in 2017-18 than in 2016-17, Inside Higher Ed reports. The largest declines were at universities in the Plains states (down 16 percent) and a region that encompasses Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana (down 20 percent). At KU, the number of international students has declined 5.5 percent since a peak in 2016, according to university data.

I’ve heard of no moves to expand the STEM classification at KU, but some other universities have given themselves wide license to reclassify programs. In other words, STEM isn’t just about science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s also about marketing.

Worth repeating

“Good teaching is emotional work, requiring reserves of patience and ingenuity that are all-too-often depleted in overworked faculty members.”

—David Gooblar of the University of Iowa, writing about faculty burnout for The Chronicle of Higher Education


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.

By Doug Ward

The criticism of liberal education often carries a vicious sting. For instance, listen to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor:

“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great. It’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A.’”

Examples of posters created during the workshop.

Or Gov. Matthew Bevin of Kentucky as he describes his budget priorities for higher education:

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than to French literature majors. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so. They are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer like engineers.”

Those sorts of disparaging comments certainly demonstrate an ignorance of higher education, but they also reflect the use of higher education as a political foil as the cost of college – and student debt – rises. Those simplistic characterizations have power. They stick in people’s minds and play into stereotypes of academia as an ivory tower separate from society at large and out of touch with the vast majority of Americans. They also reflect a growing emphasis on college as a job factory rather than a place to help citizens learn to think more deeply and more critically, and to expand their understanding of a complex and ever-changing world.

Higher education has done a poor job of pushing back against those criticisms, as I wrote earlier this week. Faculty members and administrators are eager to do better, though, as I found last week in a workshop I led at the annual meeting of the Association of American College and Universities in Washington. I gave participants a handout in which I had categorized common criticisms of liberal education and provided examples like the ones above. After a brief discussion, I asked them to identify an audience and create their own messages to address one or more of the criticisms. The results were excellent, showing a steely resolve to reclaim the reputation of higher education.

Categorizing criticisms

I generally see six types of criticisms of liberal education. Most come from outside the academy, but some come from inside. There are overlapping aspects among all of them, and no doubt there are others. (For instance, one workshop participant pointed out the complaint that the liberal arts focuses heavily on the ideas of long-dead white men.) These are the common ones that I’ve identified, though, and that I shared in the workshop:

  • College costs too much to waste on “impractical” subjects
  • The study of the liberal arts has become an anachronism
  • Liberal education is out of touch with the “real world”
  • Liberal education isn’t keeping up with a changing world
  • Liberal education has lost its meaning
  • Identity consciousness has tainted liberal education

I asked workshop participants to work in pairs or groups, choose one or more of those criticisms, and create both a soundbite and more substantial messages that highlight the strengths of liberal education. Some rejected the idea of soundbites. That’s understandable. Matching soundbite to soundbite can easily devolve into the equivalent of a playground brawl rather than a meaningful conversation. Nonetheless, I think it is important that we distill the importance of liberal education into key elements to use when talking with students, parents, donors, community members, politicians, and even colleagues.

Here are examples of how workshop participants rose to that challenge:

  • Change is a constant. Liberal education provides the means to create and navigate that change.
  • Liberal education is a pedagogy and an ethos, not a set of disciplines.
  • Finding a path and a voice in the world.
  • Your life is better when we think better together.
  • Get a career, get a purpose, get a life, get a college education.
  • Build a team that knows how to think.
  • Liberal arts will get your promotion.
  • Pivot for your next opportunity.
  • Invest in the long run.
  • We teach essential skills for living fully and freely, everything you need for citizenship and prosperity, self-fulfillment and self-determination.

Two groups focused specifically on Republican donors, drawing on the language of business to make a connection:

  • Liberal education builds workplace skills: adaptability, flexibility, communication skills, evaluation and analytical skills, interpersonal skills in diverse populations. It also instills ethics and fosters curiosity.
  • The liberal arts yields effective communication skills in multiple modes, which is core to successful messaging, interaction, negotiation, innovation, collaboration, creative problem-solving, sales and marketing, global perspective, diverse audiences and cultures.

As I said, there are dangers in trying to compress the complexities of liberal education into soundbites or even more substantial talking points. We will never do it justice. By thinking in those terms, though, we can better identify the components of higher education we want to emphasize and better prepare ourselves for conversations with a broad range of constituencies.

So let’s keep talking.


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.

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.

By Doug Ward

A provision in the tax bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday has the potential to upend graduate education.

The bill would force graduate students to pay taxes on tuition waivers they routinely receive as part of their appointments. That would raise the cost of graduate education substantially and could easily drive away potential students.

Erin Rousseau, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated that she would pay an additional $10,000 in taxes if the House bill became law. The cost would certainly be lower for students at a public university like KU, but a change in the tax law would add a few thousand dollars a year in expenses. Low pay and the costs of insurance, health care and housing already make graduate education a struggle for many students. Additional costs could certainly put graduate education out of reach for many others.

In a column in The New York Times, Rousseau wrote:

“It would make meeting living expenses nearly impossible, barring all but the wealthiest students from pursuing a Ph.D.”

The number of graduate students at public universities grew 17 percent between 2000 and 2010 but has remained relatively unchanged since then, according the National Center for Education Statistics. That could easily change, though, if the cost of degrees becomes too burdensome.

American students are already shying away from graduate degrees in STEM fields, largely because they can get good jobs with just a bachelor’s degree, The Times reports. International students have filled the void, but immigration restrictions and the political storm surrounding them have created unease among international graduate students and pushed many of them away.

The House tax plan could be yet another blow to graduate education. Let’s hope that more a thoughtful plan prevails as the Senate debates tax legislation.

Another challenge to education in Wisconsin

Wisconsin continued its throttling of higher education last week as the state’s regents voted to merge the state’s 13 two-year colleges with its seven universities, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. The change will take place in the summer.

Under the plan, the two-year colleges will become branches of the universities, although students will continue to pay lower tuition rates at the two-year institutions. The regents said the plan would save money and would eventually result in job cuts, though they provided no specifics. The regents president, Ray Cross, said the initiative was not “a fully developed plan with all the details worked out,” according to the State Journal.

The regents pushed the plan forward with little consultation of the colleges or universities involved. Seven former college leaders implored the regents to reconsider the plan, saying it was being shoved through so hastily that the ramifications had not been considered. They expressed concern about the financial model – or lack of one – and said the plan could threaten the future of the two-year colleges. Two experts interviewed by the State Journal said the move was a politically inspired plan to consolidate a top-down power structure.

The consolidation vote was the latest move in a political battle that has left the university system severely diminished. The Wisconsin governor and legislature have been at odds with the universities for years, weakening tenure, cutting funding, and even restricting protests on campus.

Education Dive, a publication that reports on higher education, said the actions in Wisconsin should be a warning to other states. “Letting lawmakers know that a lack of stability could have a potentially negative long-term impact on enrollment rates, making it harder for the system to thrive, is key,” Education Dive says.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that other university systems could be brought to their knees as easily as Wisconsin’s has.


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.

By Doug Ward

The amount of debt that colleges and universities are taking on is rising even as the number of students in higher education is declining, The Hechinger Report says. It offered these sobering statistics:

Public universities have taken on 18 percent more debt in the last five years, and now owe a collective $145 billion. When you add in private universities, the amount rises to $240 billion. On average, 9 percent of college and university budgets go toward debt payments. At public universities, that amounts to $750 per student. At private universities, $1,289 per student. 

KU has certainly followed this borrowing trend. Since 2012, the university has issued $467 million in bond debt, according to Moody’s, the financial ratings company. That includes $350 million in 2015 for work on the Lawrence campus. According to the university budget office, KU paid $22,250,321 toward principal and interest on its outstanding bonds during the last fiscal year. That amounts to $782.17 for every student on the Lawrence, Edwards and medical center campuses, or 4.3 percent more than the average for public universities.

Graphic by Dave McHenry, The Hechinger Report, with data from Thomson Reuters

I’ve had a difficult time finding measures comparable to those that Hechinger cited, but budget office figures show that debt service accounted for 2.5 percent to 3 percent of total expenditures at KU in Fiscal 2016.  

Debt isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. When used for construction, it becomes a bet on the future, much as investment in a house is. KU desperately needed to update its science facilities and some of its aging residence halls. It still desperately needs to modernize hundreds of classrooms and create additional spaces for collaborative learning. The sad reality is that it’s easier to raise money for new buildings than it is to raise money to renovate existing ones. 

Hechinger’s point is that increased borrowing has put some universities on shaky financial ground, especially as the number of students enrolled in college has fallen by 2.4 million since 2011. Rising levels of debt increase overall expenses, often contributing to higher tuition rates.  

Universities face a conundrum, though. States have drastically cut back on the amount they have contributed to universities and have done a poor job of providing adequate money for upkeep of existing buildings. At the same time, universities feel pressure to keep up with their peers, especially at a time when recruiting students often involves wowing them with campus amenities. This is all part of a commercialization of higher education, with the product and image of education overshadowing the importance of learning.

Moody’s has raised concern about KU’s accumulation of debt, listing the university’s outlook as negative for the last two years. That means the university’s bond rating could be downgraded, raising the cost of borrowing. Moody’s said the “negative outlook reflects the challenge of growing revenue and cash flow to support increasing operating and capital expenses associated with a large campus expansion.”

Whether that expansion will pay off, either financially or in terms of learning, remains to be seen.

Alternative credentials gain momentum

The approach makes sense even if the names don’t.  

EdSurge reports that EdX, which offers massive open online courses from Harvard and MIT, has begun what it calls “micromasters” degrees. These involve five courses that cover about 30 percent of a traditional degree. It received a $900,000 grant last year from the Lumia Foundation to develop 30 such programs. Another MOOC provider, Udacity, has created what it calls “nanodegrees” in mostly technology-related areas, EdSurge says.

The names are certainly a marketing ploy, but the move to offer alternative credentials follows a growing trend. If colleges and universities are truly about lifelong education, they need to do better at providing options beyond traditional degrees. Many, including KU, have been increasing the number of certificates they offer, and some organizations have been experimenting with badges. Demand for education at the master’s level has been growing, generating much-needed revenue for universities. 

EdSurge quotes Michael DiPietro, chief marketing officer of ExtensionEngine, which creates online course components. He says educators need to move beyond the idea of shifting in-person classes online and start thinking of microcredentials as a business venture. He says: 

“Start with a business plan—one that outlines the market, learner personas, competition, revenue and cost projections, team and operational resources, ecommerce, positioning, differentiators, and more. Your product — the program, course, certificate, or degree — has to be unique and very specific to what your market wants.”

The idea of a degree or certificate as a business plan is certainly off-putting to those of us who see education as a public service, but he’s right that education must change as the needs of potential students change. That doesn’t diminish the importance of a liberal education. It just means we need to think in new ways about the types of courses, degrees and certificates we offer. 

Briefly …

Drexel University gave incoming students backpacks made with a new fabric that can store digital information, CBS News reports. Students used the backpacks and an accompanying app to share their social media profiles at the beginning of the school year. … University instructors have become so paranoid about cheating that they are hampering learning, Bruce Macfarlane argues in Times Higher Education. … The New York Times Magazine delves into the causes and implications of an epidemic of anxiety afflicting students in high school and college.


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.

 

By Doug Ward

Add another lock to the ivory tower.

A majority of college students say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker they disagree with, and 20 percent accept the idea of resorting to violence to keep an undesirable speaker from campus, a poll from the Brookings Institution finds.

John Villasenor, a senior fellow at Brookings, conducted the poll to gauge students’ understanding of the First Amendment. The survey contained responses from 1,500 students in 49 states and the District of Columbia. It has a margin of error of 2 to 6 percentage points.

elements of bill of rights on a tablet screen
The Blue Diamond Gallery

The results are disturbing, although not surprising given the recent campus reactions to controversial speakers:

  • More than 40 percent of students say that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. (It does.) Women (49 percent) are considerably more likely than men (38 percent) to believe that.
  • Male students (57 percent) are considerably more likely than female students (47 percent) to say that shouting down a speaker is acceptable. Democrats (62 percent) are far more likely than Republicans (39 percent) to agree.
  • Men (30 percent) are more likely than women (10 percent) to say that violence is acceptable to keep a speaker away from campus.
  • Nearly two-thirds of students say that the First Amendment requires that a campus provide an opposing view to a controversial speaker. (It doesn’t.)
  • A majority of students (53 percent) say they would prefer a campus environment that prohibits offensive viewpoints to one that exposes them to many different viewpoints, including offensive ones. Democrats (61 percent) are more likely than Republicans (49 percent) to choose the prohibitive environment.

Villasenor issues a pessimistic assessment of the results.

“Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses,” he wrote.

Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, sees this as part of a fraying of liberal education, which he says isn’t vigorously promoting the idea of discussion and dissent to hone thinking.

“Our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices, but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds,” he said in a recent speech.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, sees this lack of willingness to engage with opposing viewpoints as part of a “rise of identity consciousness.” A movement that started in the 1980s has led to a “pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities,” he writes.

Lilla says this approach has been helpful in improving inclusiveness on campuses and on exploring ideas of neglected groups. “But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins,” he says, “so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present — a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.”

Any discussion of how to rekindle the ability to engage in reasoned debate and dissent must include an understanding of the First Amendment. That understanding needs to start in middle school and high school, Villasenor argues. At colleges and universities, he said, professors and administrators need to do a better job of creating an environment that values free and open speech. He was pessimistic about that, though, saying he thought faculty responses to his survey would probably be similar to students’.

Students’ ignorance of the First Amendment not only diminishes an open airing of ideas, he said, but foreshadows changes in society as students’ understanding of free speech will “inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”

In other words, we need to help students learn to listen to many views and embrace disagreement as a natural process of improving themselves and society. It we don’t, they will find that an ivory tower isn’t just a place of safety. It can easily become a place of intellectual imprisonment.

Budget cuts and the imperilment of public universities

State budget cuts and reductions in federal funding have clouded the future of public research universities, especially those in the Midwest, Jon Marcus writes in Washington Monthly.

Not only have university budgets become shaky, he says, but many faculty members have left Midwestern universities for better jobs, public research universities in the Midwest have fallen in national rankings, and spending on research and development has fallen. These universities are “experiencing a pattern of relative decline,” Marcus writes. (He uses a definition of “Midwest” that encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.)

He cites some startling statistics that put his premise into context:

“The endowments of the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois and Ohio State, which together enroll nearly 190,000 students, add up to about $11 billion—less than a third of Harvard’s $37.6 billion. Together, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, which enroll about 50,000 students combined, have more than $73 billion in the bank to help during lean times.”

Additionally, a decline in federal research spending comes at a time when other countries have put additional money into research activities at their universities.

“This ominous reality could widen economic inequality,” he says, in part because students with higher degrees who stay in a state after receiving their degrees bolster that state’s economy. It could also threaten communities in which universities are the primary employer and ultimately threaten the national economy, he says.

The tone of the article seems overly alarmist at times, but the financial challenges at public research universities is very real.

“These schools are desperately needed to diversify economies that rely disproportionately on manufacturing and agriculture and lack the wealthy private institutions that fuel the knowledge industries found in Silicon Valley or along Boston’s 128/I-95 corridor,” he says.


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.