Once again we find ourselves nearing the end of another calendar year. And as certain as the sounds of Christmas classics in shopping malls, so too come the multitudes of articles and blog posts offering year-in-review perspectives and retrospectives. As a blogger, I feel an obligation to join this herd. As a blogger in the niche of higher ed marketing, I feel an obligation to focus on that topic. So here are five big things that happened in higher education in 2015 and my thoughts on what they might mean for academia in the coming year:
For the first time since the ’60s and early ’70s, protest movements were once again a presence on college campuses. Forty or 50 years ago, civil rights and the Vietnam War were the subjects of campus protests. In 2015, it was racial tension and underlying concerns about academia’s ability to be an agent of change for diversity and accessibility.
From a debate on Halloween costumes at Yale to racial tensions at Ithaca College that have led to calls for the president’s ouster to widely publicized demonstrations over racial tensions at the University of Missouri-Columbia — protests that resulted in the resignations of that campus’s chancellor and the UM System president — the 2015 protest movement, fueled by social media, rose to a fever pitch in the fall. The protest movement of 2015 brought unprecedented attention to issues of microaggression, systemic racism, power and culture, and freedom of speech on college campuses. The protests have gotten administrators’ attention; many have announced plans to address inequality and racism in their institutions.
The protests also have fueled a formidable backlash. Conservative commentator George F. Will opined in a Washington Post column about the “behavior-beyond-satire” on college campuses, while another commentator characterized the situation as academia “held hostage by crybullies.” Academicians, too, joined the fray — most notably Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, who posted an open letter to the protests — This is not a Day Care. It’s a university! — on his university blog. “Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a ‘safe place,’ but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others,” Piper wrote.
Meanwhile, months before all of this boiled over from college campuses into the social and mainstream mediasphere, a couple of academics published a paper that should be read by higher education leaders everywhere. “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” was published in 2014 in the journal Comparative Sociology. The paper formed the basis of an insightful read in The Atlantic called “Microaggressions and the Rise of Victimhood Culture.” It’s a brilliant summary of the paper and an exposition of its lessons for our times. And it, too, was published before any of the crazy media feeding frenzy occurred. Lest anyone think that sociology is one of those worthless academic pursuits politicians rant on about (discussed below), I would encourage politicians to take the time to read that Atlantic article and perhaps gain some perspective into the situation we find ourselves in today.
As for what the future holds: Get used to hearing the terms “microaggression” and “victimization” bandied around in discussions about higher education. They may sometimes be used interchangably, but it’s important to understand what they mean, and to understand the differences.
2. Yik Yak yuck
The social media platform Yik Yak, hated by college administrators everywhere, became a hotbed for hate speech in 2015. College students, emboldened by their delusions that the so-called “anonymous” app veiled their identities, pushed campus tensions to the breaking point by posting racist, sexist and homophobic remarks. Some crossed the line into the realm of terrorist threats.
Campuses are taking action. Recently, Colorado College suspended a student for six months for a Yik Yak post he made that violated the college’s code of conduct.
Don’t look for Yik Yak to go away in 2016. But let’s hope that its popularity wanes and that its users learn to temper free speech online with responsible speech.
3. A big test for crowdfunding
Last March, the leadership of Sweet Briar College announced they were shutting down the school due to “insurmountable financial challenges.” Alumnae rallied by creating a crowdfunding campaign to raise $20 million — a much bigger chunk of change than usual for crowdfunding campaigns, as I wrote in Can crowdfunding #SaveSweetBriar?
It was a risky and desperate measure, but it seems to have worked. In June, a deal was reached to keep the campus open if supporters could deliver $2.5 million in donations by July 2. Supporters delivered the funds ahead of schedule and are continuing to raise private support for the campus.
Crowdfunding alone may not #SaveSweetBriar, but the success to date should give fundraisers hope about more modest crowdfunding efforts. The key, it seems, is to find the cause that strikes the right chord with donors.
4. Scorecard redux
Last September, the Obama administration announced a reboot of the College Scorecard. Touted as a tool “to help students and parents identify which schools provide the biggest bang for your buck,” the scorecard replaced the version Obama unveiled in 2013 with much fanfare — and with opposition from those who thought the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of ranking colleges and universities. The 2015 model abandons the idea of college rankings and focuses instead on providing data related to cost, graduation rates and starting salaries.
Even though the Obama administration shied away from creating a rankings system, that didn’t stop news media outlets from sifting through the College Scorecard data to create rankings of their own. The new system also faced news rounds of criticism — for being misleading in the way it presents student financial aid information and for a bias against conservative colleges.
The takeaway: Rankings aren’t going away and the College Scorecard, in the eyes of some, will be as controversial as third-party college rankings. But a focus on outcomes, via the Scorecard and third-party groups like PayScale, may eventually shift the rankings emphasis away from the silliness of reputation-based ratings toward more data-driven, outcomes-based ratings systems.
5. Politics (as usual)
Every election cycle, higher education becomes a talking point for political candidates, from the Oval Office on down. Politicians everywhere talk about the need for a more affordable system, express concern about student loan debt and unveil strategies to “make America competitive again.” In 2015, as the presidential campaign heated up, we heard Bernie Sanders propose a free college education for all Americans, while Donald Trump has called for the U.S. Department of Education to be “cut … way, way, way down.”
Marco Rubio says he wants to be the vocational education president. In a November GOP debate, Rubio quipped: “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” The statement was wrong on two counts: Grammatically (that would be fewer philosophers, Mr. Rubio, not less) and factually.
What to expect in 2016? As wacky as this year has been, there seems to be no presidential candidate who has embraced higher education or who appeals to young college-age voters as Barack Obama did in 2008 (less so in 2012). Furthermore, no candidate seems to be trying to gain the college vote, which was a key to Obama’s success in 2008. The issues of higher education — affordability, student debt, funding for research — will likely continue to take a back seat in 2016. It will be politics as usual.
P.S. – Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate this day.