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As students in the 21st century, we don’t know a world where we advance our education without technology. For most of us, we learned keyboarding in middle school, created powerpoints all throughout high school, and have our laptops propped open during college lectures. Technology is a part of our daily lives, but now it seems as if the pandemic has enclosed us in our homes and made it difficult to go a day without constantly staring at your laptop and phone.
For a student like me, that has become my reality. In-person classes gave me the option of looking at my laptop screen while the professor lectured or staring at the chalkboard behind him/her writing out mathematical equations. My eyes weren’t strained trying to learn. Now, it seems that Zoom sessions for my economics lectures and countless hours trying to learn the material on my laptop change the situation. I’m accustomed to spending a few hours a day on my laptop cranking out papers, submitting my MyMathLab homework, and sending countless emails and LinkedIn requests to make sure I network as much as I can.
I’ve become concerned with my increased screen time during these past two months of quarantine, and so have optometrists. Students this past semester who have attended colleges and universities have to worry about the shock that comes with different learning environments and with that comes constant eye strain. From my personal experience, I spent about 5-6 hours on my laptop and phone for educational purposes. Now, I recorded about 10-11 hours staring at my laptop screen trying to complete homework and studying for exams. Printing out isn’t an option since textbooks aren’t exactly known for a low page count.
Compromising my eye health during this quarantine is not an effect I’ve wanted to experience, but it’s inevitable for me as a college student.
Like the rest of the world, colleges are formulating their fall plans with imperfect information. But the set schedule of campus life, with students readying for classes in the late summer or fall, means they have a firmer deadline than most big institutions when it comes to figuring out how to navigate the pandemic era. Just as research universities are supplying global leadership in the development of treatments and vaccines, they must lead the way when it comes to basic operations in the new reality. The choices they make and the mistakes they inevitably suffer will help guide governments and businesses of all kinds in restarting our economy safely, effectively, and ethically.
My own campus is a great case in point. The University of North Carolina system is led by Dr. William Roper, a distinguished physician and former head of the CDC. Our Chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, is a scientist and a MacArthur Award winner. Our Gillings School of Public Health is internationally respected, and multiple schools and departments at the university are engaged in intensive research on virus treatment. A UNC lab did much of the foundational work on Remdesivir, one of the few drugs that have shown real promise in COVID treatment.
UNC is far from unique. The country’s research and land grant universities--with their enormous human and scientific resources--are in an advantageous position to develop an operating plan for the fall. Moreover, these schools have a long history of open collaboration, so they’re in touch with one another on a daily basis as they figure out how to protect students, faculty, and staff while reopening their doors. Assuming conditions permit, how should schools in a position to open proceed when there is still so much unknown? The best approach is to think of the fall more as a careful series of tests than a firm plan. A few things to consider:
Disclosure. Students, faculty, and staff should understand that there are many unknowns associated with the fall semester, and absolutely no guarantee that events will go as planned. Another round of closures and a transition to all online classes is a distinct possibility.
Opt-Out. For some students and their families, the unknowns associated with returning to school are a bridge too far. They should be allowed to opt-out of the fall semester without penalty and continue their studies in the spring or the next fall. Alternatively, they should be allowed to elect an all online 2020 fall semester. Given the regular accommodations that universities make for students with disabilities or family emergencies, providing this assurance for at-risk or simply cautious students is only reasonable.
Student Participation. Surveys suggest that most students want to return to campus. They deserve to know in advance what campus life will be like. What social distancing protocols will be in place, how will living arrangements change, what kinds of activities and services will be put on hold? Will virus tests be widely available? Will officials be tracking student movements, something that a few campuses already do to gather data for academic interventions. Full disclosure will allow students to make an informed decision about whether to return, go online, or take a semester off.
Faculty and Staff. Accommodations must be made for at-risk faculty and staff. No member of the community should be placed unnecessarily at risk, and different people will make different judgments about that, given all the unknowns. This almost certainly means no classes or other gatherings over 50 people. Large classes should be held online regardless of whether students are in residence or studying remotely.
Research. As worrisome as this sounds, campuses need to approach the fall with all the rigor they’d bring to any other research project. With the right data tracking and analysis, colleges can provide invaluable insight on how to continue operations while containing the virus. Appoint the equivalent of a principal investigator to coordinate the research arm of the endeavor and commit to sharing the findings regularly and publicly. It will build credibility with students and families, and serve as a genuine public service to other organizations as they find their footing.
For most colleges and universities, decisions about the fall are a complex balance of community health and economic survival. For major research universities, canceling the fall semester should not be an option. They have a responsibility to marshal their extraordinary financial and human resources and lead the way on a nation-wide restart premised on fact-based decision-making and continuous improvement. As we take on the greatest challenge in most of our lifetimes, we can do it in a way that lives up to the values of rigor and truth we have so long proclaimed.
Last week I heard the CEO of a leading Edtech company predict 25% of US colleges and universities would declare bankruptcy in the next year. At the time I thought that was an exaggeration but in the last five days other higher education leaders confirmed they were hearing the same thing. Unfortunately, universities that are among the most enduring institutions in our society are particularly ill-suited to deal with the immediate and existential crisis. The very structures that make them enduring make rapid changes with imperfect information problematic. Universities are built upon consensus and crisis management is antithetical to deliberate decision making.
For less than 100 of the most selective and well-endowed colleges and universities in the US, the next three months will be a difficult logistical and financial challenge. Already they are working through alternative scenarios regarding when to start classes, the mix between online and on-campus, guidelines for gap years, the nature of sporting events, and measures to ensure the safety of students and faculty. Hiring freezes, spending cuts, reduced budgets, and in some cases, layoffs have already been put in place. For these schools, the doors will reopen in the Fall, and the changes that have been predicted will all take place at a rapid rate. In a matter of months, these schools will evolve at a rate that would otherwise have taken years or even decades.
For most institutions, the challenges will be more daunting and the stakes much higher. On top of the problems I outlined above, several thousand US colleges and universities will be battling for their very existence. Higher education was in trouble before Covid 19. Declining enrollment, reductions in government funding, burdensome student debt, changing demographics, and new technologies have created a perfect storm. To begin with, half the schools in the country are operating with an unsustainable financial model. As I write this, realistic administrators of traditional four-year institutions expect at least 20% of their student body will not return for the fall semester. In addition, the first-year class will be dramatically smaller than expected and ongoing support from government and income from the endowment will both be reduced. Hopefully, emergency federal funds will be forthcoming to provide some relief, but radical, unpopular measures will be required to keep the doors open for even a year. When the dust clears time will have expired for unsustainable operations.
What is a college president and its Board of Trustees to do when faced with the unthinkable? First, let me say God bless you. You did not sign up to lead in such dire times and, no matter what you do, you may not succeed. You may even successfully chart a path through the land mines and still lose your job. What follows are some suggestions for navigating the next few months and beyond.
A Return to the Status Quo is Not an Option. Your job is not to map a return to a BC (before COVID-19) world. BC will not return and, chances are, BC wasn’t working even before COVID-19. Take business as usual off the table and begin planning for AD (after disease). This is a challenge but also an opportunity to reimagine an institution that can best achieve its mission for the remainder of the 21st century.
An Imperfect Plan is Better Than No Plan at All. The impact of COVID-19 on virtually every aspect of American life has been more profound than any of us could have imagined, and we are far from done. There is no “right” plan. Every institution is different and so is every leader. What is important is to develop a plan that bravely faces reality and creates a sustainable competitive advantage. Merely copying larger and better-endowed institutions will not work anymore.
Get Started Now. Most colleges have already started the process of planning for reopening on some basis in the fall and under normal circumstances that would fill the plate of any leadership team. Unfortunately, that is not good enough. By the beginning of the fall semester, a plan for life in an AD world must be in place largely because your plans for fall will be shaped by your vision of the future. Do not wait for better information. We are all flying blind. Your plan can be revised as conditions change.
Build a Small High-Performing Team to Help You. This is not a time for committees or endless discussions. What is required is a diverse and highly motivated team that is empowered to be bold without regard to the short-term internal and external politics. It is the job of the President in consultation with the Board of Trustees to provide vision and strong leadership and to sell the plan once it has been developed. Empower your Deans and other leaders to implement the plan with the knowledge that they have your support in making decisions that will inevitably be criticized.
Make Hard Decisions. Difficult decisions do not get made by consensus or by a team. Even your most able team members should not be called upon to bet their careers on a plan that can make or break an institution. That is the job of the President. At the end of the day, you must have the courage to do what you think is right whatever the consequences. No good turn will go unpunished.
Tell the Truth and Over Communicate. This is the most difficult challenge you face. You must balance realism and optimism so that the magnitude of the problem is understood but there is a belief that the community can get through it. If you downplay the gravity of the situation it will be hard to sell the measures that are required. If you are too pessimistic, faculty and students will become disheartened and may look elsewhere. Rely on your leadership team to help with small discussions and one on one conversations with key influencers. Do not neglect to pick up the phone and talk to people directly.
Some of the suggestions I have made may seem antithetical to principals of shared governance and academic freedom that make colleges and universities unique. Negotiating the balance between the ideals these concepts embody and the realities higher education currently faces is yet another challenge to leadership in these perilous times. No matter how good your intentions and careful planning, not all institutions will survive, and any realistic plan will come under heavy and often unfair criticism. But the more realistic you are about the threat and the bolder you are in your planning the more likely it is that your institution will come through this crisis in a way that will make your students, faculty, and alumni proud.
I’m deeply disappointed by Kenan-Flagler’s decision to reinstate a letter grading policy for the summer term notwithstanding the pass/fail policy adopted by the other schools on campus. I’m even more frustrated by the rationale given for this decision.
Kenan-Flagler followed the guidance of the rest of the university of the spring semester, moving all classes online and giving students the option to pass/fail classes within the professional school. I have appreciated the Undergraduate Business Program’s (UBP) willingness to communicate directly with students throughout the semester, until I received the following email from April 22nd.
The email explained that Kenan-Flagler stands by its decision to reinstate a letter grading system for the summer term. The UBP leadership explained, “hearing from both professors and students, we understand that this disruption has led to a lack of motivation” followed by, “returning to the traditional grading system for summer classes...will help ensure that the limited seats in summer courses are allocated to those who truly need these courses and are making the effort necessary to master the material.”
I was upset when I first heard about the policy change, yes, but I was even more disappointed by the rationale behind the decision. Sure, I’m lacking motivation, but it’s not because of a lack of letter grades. It’s because tens of thousands of Americans are dying and the president has suggested that we try injecting ourselves with disinfectant as a result. I live in an unending news vortex of death and triage and minimizing economic impact- or is it lives lost? These uncertain conditions are only compounded by the issues of access and disruption that thousands of students face at a flagship public school designed to educate students from all backgrounds.
I’m luckier than many of my fellow students in that I have a safe, comfortable, home environment in which to work, and no one I know has contracted COVID-19 (yet). Still, I’m overwhelmed by the deaths and depressed about the inability to leave my house. There’s something about my omnipresent fear for the future that makes it a little hard to think about marketing strategy. Our world is in turmoil and the grade I receive in BUSI 406 is the last thing I’m worried about. Kenan-Flagler should reinstate its pass/fail grading for the summer term to demonstrate its willingness to help students from all backgrounds succeed in conditions that seem determined to prevent them from doing so. I’m sure a continued pass/fail grading policy won’t decrease my motivation.
I knew that studying abroad was supposed to be an experience, but not this kind of experience. I sit here typing this as I finish my two-week self-quarantine after returning from a shortened semester abroad in Singapore. Just getting to this point has been nothing short of a nightmare. In mid-March, I started receiving email after email from my study abroad advisor and the US embassy in Singapore regarding the uncertainty of the global situation. Then, I received the email from my study abroad advisor notifying me that all study abroad programs had been cancelled. However, at the time, Singapore had a much better grip on the virus than the U.S., so I made the decision to stay. However, the next day, when the CDC made all international travel level 4 and more airlines started cancelling flights, I knew I had to return home as soon as possible. Within the next 48 hours, I still had to turn in assignments, take quizzes, pack all my belongings, check out of my dorm, and say my goodbyes. One night before I had to leave, my airlines cancelled all their flights, forcing me to buy another set of tickets while frantically calling my parents at midnight. I finally made it home after much stress.
As this global pandemic keeps developing and stay-at-home measures keep me indoors and isolated, I’ve found I am devoting more time than ever to academics and my workload has increased. Exams turned into several papers, and homework assignments turned into additional mandatory readings.
In addition to more work, the time differences place me in an awkward situation. My exchange university--the National University of Singapore--is 12 hours ahead. So every time I have to attend a recitation, I have to open my laptop and log into Zoom on their time. I’ve had classes at 8 pm, 11 pm, and even 4 am, I’ve had to meet group project members at 10 pm, I’ve been tutored at 11 pm because of conflicting time zones. If you’re wondering if making classes online has turned students into lazy, ungrateful individuals, here’s one that isn’t.
A little over a week ago, I wrote that hundreds of thousands of teachers and learners were engaged in online education, most for the first time. In a week, the unthinkable has become thinkable, and 1.5 billion teachers and learners have begun participating in the largest beta test in the history of education. I learned about the actual size of this tectonic shift at an online summit on higher education that included, among others, Eric Yuan, the CEO of Zoom; Saul Khan, the founder of Khan Academy; and Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education. By the end of the conversation I couldn’t help but wonder: after so many false starts, will digital learning finally begin to fulfill its promise of increased access and lower costs? I took these key data points away from the online summit:
The sheer number of online teachers and learners, combined with the incredibly low incremental costs associated with serving them, suggests that digital learning might actually increase access and decrease costs up and down the educational continuum. But three weeks out, there are still more questions than answers. Fortunately, best practices for addressing these questions are emerging and, if continued, may lead to profound changes in our society at the very time we need them most.
Some of the most interesting questions about digital learning revolve around a troubling development reported on my own campus where virtually all of the courses taught during the spring semester are now online. Kelly Hogan, a nationally recognized leader in the use of technology to create an inclusive classroom, reports that in her large biology class only around 4% of students have not reconnected since she has gone exclusively online. Four percent is a great number but it comes in a class I would expect to lead the pack in terms of student participation. Anecdotally, the expectation is that the average dropout rates in all classes will be closer to 10%. Aggressive efforts are underway to identify and contact these dropouts, but we are all interested in learning more.
To begin with, is the dropout number closer to 4% or 10%? Will the dropout number partially correct itself later on in the semester? Is this drop-out rate at UNC aberrational or typical of schools considered peers? Is this level of participation similar for different kinds of schools such as small privates and less select publics? What are the socioeconomic characteristics of those who drop? Are non-participants disproportionately less privileged and caught on the wrong side of the digital divide? Are classes that have clearly defined and graded deliverables due throughout the semester less likely to have low participation and drop rates than those with just one exam at the end of the semester? Are synchronous or asynchronous classes better attended? By the end of the semester, colleges across the country will begin to have answers to these questions.
Learning from the involuntary beta test of the spring is more critical than I realized in my last blog, where I predicted the fall semester would involve a process of attempting to return to normal. That is not going to happen. A survey of college presidents taken in late March found that 36% believe there will be serious disruption in the fall. Absent the development of a vaccine in record time, some form of social distancing will be part of campus life for some time to come and some level of online classes will be required.
Best practices for online learning on the fly can be characterized in two words: bottom-up. The classes themselves are what innovation professors like me call Minimally Viable Products (MVPs) that are a first iteration designed to get the job done but also to start learning about how to do things better. In most cases, the classes were designed in a week and will evolve over the semester based on real-time experience and feedback. Such an approach is generally unheard of in academia where course planning often begins a semester or year in advance, and all of the sessions are carefully orchestrated long before they begin. That’s fine for polishing the apple but it doesn’t work when rapid innovation is required. So prototype, listen, test, listen and keep testing and listening is the order of the day as far as course design is concerned.
Equally important are the voices at the table when decisions about online learning are being made—and they will be made often in the coming months. It is critical that those on the front lines with deep experience not only participate but assume leadership as institutional policies governing digital learning are being established. By front line, I mean faculty who are experienced Zoom users and those that have employed technology to teach large classes in innovative ways. It is also important to have voices at the table that advocate for students who might otherwise be marginalized or unintentionally disadvantaged by otherwise good-intentioned policies. Innovative teaching is not necessarily the route to top administrative positions at most colleges and universities, so it will take an intentional effort to include the right people if good decisions about online classes are made.
Getting this right has never been more critical. If digital learning can, in fact, fulfill the promise of increasing access while decreasing costs, then post-secondary education for a much larger portion of our population can become a reality. My colleague, Eric Johnson and I are exploring the dimensions of that opportunity in light of the groundbreaking new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Stay tuned for more on our work on that subject.
If you’d asked me a month ago what it would take to get all faculty on my campus teaching an online course, I would have glibly answered, “An act of God.” I imagine a lot of administrators across the country would have felt the same.
But an epic disruption in the form of Covid-19 has changed everything. Virtually every college professor and graduate TA across the country is voluntarily or involuntarily teaching online. At my school, more than 97% of course offerings went online in March, mirroring a rapid migration to distance learning all over the country. The short notice and all-hands-on-deck effort will result in many glitches, and there’s no question the quality of instruction will vary widely. But by the end of the semester, tens of thousands of professors and hundreds of thousands of students will have taken multiple online courses for credit toward a degree, accelerating a trend that had already been in the works for more than a decade.
What are the implications of virtually all of higher education going online for at least half a semester? No one quite knows. In the short run, this massive response to a pandemic may mean very little. Chaos will rule the day as schools try to open for the fall semester. Applications and acceptances will probably be down significantly for all but the most elite schools, as K-12 districts and individual families deal with the fallout of a prolonged shock to the economy. Admissions officers will be struggling with lower yields and figuring out how to process a large number of applicants who weren’t able to take the SAT or ACT. Many schools already struggling with enrollment will be pushed over the edge and will either merge or shut down.
In the long run, the outcome of this unprecedented online experiment may prove considerably less grim. Tens of thousands of professors who believed online education was unthinkable will, at the very least, understand it is possible and in some cases desirable. Certainly, many of these academics will welcome a return to the old ways. But for others, especially in the arts and humanities where online learning has traditionally been rejected, the curiosity that drew them to academia in the first place will push them to look anew at how they teach. It will open new possibilities, new innovations that are hard to predict right now.
For most students, distance learning will not be totally new. Even if they haven’t taken an online course for college credit, as many already have, they have been learning online using Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia since elementary school. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, there will be no going back. This will mean some students will receive all or most of their post-secondary education online. For others, it will mean a mix of online and in-person learning as a regular part of the undergraduate experience. Many more courses may include both online and in-person components as instructors learn how to integrate technology into the curriculum.
The next few months will also change how the broader public looks at education. With a majority of K-12 schools shut down, parents have been forced to embrace online learning as an alternative and entire school systems are sprinting to provide a substitute to the traditional classroom experience. Efforts are being made to provide computers and internet access to those without these tools. For the average American, the timeworn conception of classroom teaching and learning may suddenly look outdated.
This massive shift on the part of professors, students and the public at large comes at a time when the challenges facing American higher education were already stark. In my own state of North Carolina, we have established a goal of 2 million citizens with postsecondary credentials by the year 2030. Other states have similarly ambitious plans. None of them will succeed without structural change that uses technology to lower the absolute cost of college. The changing demographics of post-secondary students, and the challenging financial picture for so many families, demands a variety of models in addition to the traditional classroom experience.
Even before the pandemic, there were harbingers of change. The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges announced a partnership with the online giant Southern New Hampshire University to create a smooth transition toward a four-year degree. The dramatically lower cost of an online degree, easy transfer of credits and a flexible academic calendar made that partnership with an out-of-state provider the most sensible option for Pennsylvania. SNHU was more attractive than the in-state alternatives, even though those schools need and would love to have their home-state students.
At this moment, a spirit of open-minded determination rules at America’s colleges as faculty and staff work to get through the semester and give students the best possible learning experience. For those of us on the front lines, thoughts of the future are largely confined to tomorrow’s lesson or maybe end-of-semester plans. Like everyone else, we’re barely keeping track of what day it is.
But when the dust settles, it will be clear that the pandemic accelerated something profound. Innovations born in crisis have a way of outlasting their circumstances, and it’s neither likely nor desirable that American higher education will go back to its pre-crisis ways.
When any of us, or those we care about, are diagnosed with a rare disease we naturally turn to an expert for help. Providing such expert advice is at the heart of a long-standing partnership between America and its colleges and universities. As this is written, a rare disease (COVID-19) has emerged on a global scale. Successfully confronting it will take a set of experts, most of them based at our country’s great research universities
Lost amid the public furor about the politicization of the novel coronavirus is the fact that American science is particularly suited to tackle this emerging pandemic; in this country, scientific research is not controlled by any central authority. Instead, it is outsourced to research universities and the research itself is curiosity-driven, not hierarchically mandated. Said another way, there is no fixed research agenda and no government entity speaks for American science. This almost invisible organizational structure is little known, but its existence provides an opportunity for immediate expert crisis intervention. The world is in need of expert medical care and research universities are in a position to provide it.
Understanding this invisible organizational chart requires a bit of a history lesson. Toward the end of World War II, a scientific advisor to Franklin Roosevelt named Vannevar Bush submitted a proposal called Science: The Endless Frontier which created the foundation for a federally funded research enterprise. The document provided that individual scientists or academic teams would set their own research agendas, resisting the establishment of any formal arm to evaluate, dictate or disseminate scientific research. Bush justified this structure as a way to keep politics out of science, and his approach became embedded in American research universities where professors and their graduate students are given wide latitude to pursue new scientific knowledge. As a result, academic scientists are able to assemble laboratories funded by governmental and non-governmental sources that are larger than anywhere else in the world. Other governmental policies mandate the transfer of government-funded technology to the best vehicle for its commercialization. This creates a set of powerful public-private partnerships that speeds up the time it takes for scientific breakthroughs to reach the public.
Bush was heavily influenced by the success of the Manhattan Project, where an enormous multi-disciplinary team was assembled from American research universities and scientists fleeing the Nazis. The result was an atomic bomb that quickly ended World War II. A similar effort between 1957 and 1969 put a man on the moon. Now, the first pandemic in modern times presents another enormous challenge to the scientific community, most of which are housed in American research universities.
The response illustrates the virtues of curiosity-driven research. As it turns out, scientists throughout the country have been working on many of the issues associated with the threat of a pandemic notwithstanding the fact that such a threat has not become a critical political priority until recently. For example, the University of Nebraska established a special bio-containment unit after 9/11 that was first used during the Ebola epidemic. It became the first place to turn to when COVID-19 came to the U.S.
At a secret location on the campus of the University of North Carolina, a little-known laboratory that has been studying coronaviruses for over thirty years received samples of SARS-CoV-2 in early February. Thus began an around-the-clock effort aimed at creating a short term fix to slow the spread or ease the symptoms of the virus. Other labs at the University of Maryland and Vanderbilt University, to name only a few, have joined in the effort; as this is being written, over 100 promising approaches are being analyzed and tested. One approach is already in the field in hard-hit areas of China with preliminary results expected by April. Officials at the Federal level explain that the strategy is to head down parallel paths with multiple approaches until both immediate and longer-term solutions emerge.
Beyond these specific examples, the decision to make American scientific research curiosity-driven by outsourcing it largely to research universities is paying huge dividends. An avalanche of research ranging from the impact of travel bans on the spread of the disease to an analysis of the molecular structure of the disease is pouring in. To date, 261 papers have already been published in journals and another 283 papers have appeared in what is called preprint repositories, a mechanism to get research vetted on a preliminary basis and out to the public even before they have been submitted for peer review. Two of the major preprint repositories are each receiving an average of 10 papers a day on some aspect of the novel coronavirus.
When the dust finally settles and novel coronavirus is no longer so novel, perhaps more Americans will understand why scientific research matters and why they, as taxpayers, receive a great return on their investment in science.
One of the first systematic analyses of free expression on college campuses in the era of social media was released on February 5 at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professors Jennifer Larson, Mark McNeilly, and Timothy J. Ryan surveyed almost 1,100 students on issues related to free expression and whether the university fosters open dialogue on the important issues of the day.
The results yet again suggest a serious problem—but not the one that is typically described by the pundits. As it turns out, students at this center-left campus feel relatively free to express their opinions in the classroom without fear of retribution from their professors, and there is little evidence of professors using the classroom as a platform for their own political views. But there is another, more subtle impediment to free expression that emerged in the data: two-thirds of the respondents reported they self-censored to avoid hurting their standing among peers. Conservatives reported the highest concern about peer judgment, but the percentages were above 50% among both liberals and moderates.
Student self-censorship is worrisome but not surprising to those of us who work on college campuses. Professors have been engaged in the same behavior for some time, with young professors advised by their mentors to avoid political controversy at least until they receive tenure. One senior UNC professor with conservative views recently told me there is no upside to a faculty member advertising right-leaning political views inside or outside the classroom.
The relatively new concept of psychological safety has also raised a host of new constraints. What has traditionally been considered healthy debate—arguably the foundation of university education is now viewed by a minority of students as creating an “unsafe” learning environment. A notable minority of students believe certain topics should be avoided if they cause intense discomfort. Professors can reasonably decide that the rewards for raising controversial topics in the classroom are simply not worth the risk of unintended fallout. In such a situation, the avoidance of controversial topics is completely understandable.
Another finding of the UNC free expression survey at least partially explains the root of the problem—lack of empathy. Twenty-two percent of liberal students and 14% of conservatives think the campus would be better off without their political opposites, a startling expression of political intolerance. More than 25% of students endorse blocking a speaker they disagree with, at least under certain circumstances. Political differences are no longer just intellectual; they’ve become intensely personal.
The impact of social media was outside the scope of the UNC study but obviously merits further inquiry. My suspicion is self-censorship among students and controversy avoidance among faculty has become more prevalent since it has become possible for anyone to express anonymously contrary and often hostile views to an extraordinarily broad audience—to take the debate out of the protected space of the classroom and onto the rougher terrain of the internet.
There is no silver bullet to address the subtle barriers to campus self-expression or the societal forces that encourage them. The UNC survey must be viewed as the beginning of a data-driven conversation across all of higher ed on how to encourage open and unfettered dialogue in a society that is trending in the opposite direction. Hard data on faculty censorship of classroom conversation is needed to complement the work already done with students.
My colleague, Professor Eric Mueller, suggests the best solutions to change the climate for students will probably come from the students themselves. They should be encouraged to own this problem and come up with initiatives that balance the competing needs for free expression and psychological safety in the environment in which they live and learn.
Similarly, faculty must acknowledge the pressure to avoid classroom controversy that is increasingly part of the culture on many college campuses. They should also acknowledge the slippery slope created by the concept of psychological safety. Squaring a broad conception of safety with open and robust conversations on difficult issues is a thankless but necessary task. Finally, empathy must be added to the equation. At the heart of any great university is the democratic art of agreeable disagreement. Modeling such behavior both inside and outside the classroom may be the best antidote of all to student and faculty self-censorship.
Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of Half the Sky, share the untold story of rural America in their new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for New Hope. Kristoff and WuDunn refer to the American higher education system as “an inequality machine,” before they go on to say:
College entrance may be based on metrics that seem meritocratic, like board scores and grades, but consider that 77% of kids in the top quartile of incomes graduate from college, compared to 9% of kids in the bottom quartile. This matters hugely for life outcomes and social mobility: a college degree on average is worth an additional $800,000 in lifetime earnings.
For those of you who are higher education insiders, this is no surprise. For those who find this shocking, welcome to the reality of American higher education. Historical context and hard data are often in short supply when analyzing this problem and others like it. The result is a conversation long on politics and short on analytics. I love the term Inequality Machine as a way of elevating the public consciousness of college access and completion issues. However, it is worth considering what we know and what we still need to know before addressing the challenges the term suggests.
Arguably, higher education has been an Inequality Machine since the founding of the first university in Bologna, Italy in 1088. The students hired and fired their own professors, meaning only those who could afford to pay for professors could become students. Harvard University was granted its charter and tax-exempt status 400 years later, with the mission of providing a learned-ministry to the colonies.
The tax-exempt status created the fundamental template for US Higher Education: government support in exchange for educating the elite. Subsequent expansion of government support through the creation of land grant universities and the GI Bill (1944) expanded access to higher education. With the advent of the Pell Grant in 1965, government aid was explicitly targeted to reduce inequality. For a variety of reasons, including a rapid rise in the cost of attendance, reduction in government support, and the changing demographics of the pool of college-age students, Pell Grants alone will no longer get the job done.
If Pell Grants do not solve the Inequality Machine, how can we proceed? I suggest considering the contours of a research agenda that will inform decision-makers. What do we need to know, that we don’t already know, that would help schools address The Inequality Machine? I’m curious about the following:
Will test-optional or no test admissions policies increase application numbers and ultimately admissions from students in the bottom quartile of incomes or will the policy merely increase opportunities for affluent parents to game the system? There is conflicting data on this question, but related experiments are beginning across the country. Northern Michigan University just abolished the use of testing in admissions and financial aid while the State of California considers a test-optional policy.
Will substantial reductions in the cost of college, or even transitioning to a free college program, increase applications and graduation rates? All but the most selective institutions are cutting prices in order to attract students. Early results from three colleges in North Carolina that cut tuition to $1,000 a year for in-state students and $5,000 for out-of-state students are promising. One administrator described the impact as “like a booster rocket”. More hard data on the impact of low or no tuition is critical to the national conversation on the subject.
Is going to the “best” college you can get into the right choice for all students? This has been the conventional wisdom for years; the scores of books and articles on the college admissions process seem to take this as an established fact. Some scholars are pushing back, however, with Jennifer Morton leading the charge in Moving Up Without Losing your Way. Morton’s interviews with first-generation college students suggest that the immeasurable costs to identity, family, and community may outweigh the benefits of going to an elite school. We need to learn more.
Do improvements in campus climate and classroom instruction result in an increased success rate for underrepresented students? Visionary work on inclusive teaching is being done by such professors as Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy. Almost all campuses are attempting to adapt to a changing student demographic, but we are far from fully understanding the effectiveness of these efforts.
What else do we need to know to address the Inequality Machine? Let me know what you think. My colleagues and I at UNC-Chapel Hill are in the midst of developing a research agenda, and we want to include these issues in our thinking.
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