Can we rebuild trust in higher ed?

June 7, 2024
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Higher education is going through a difficult period.

My fellow Inside Higher Ed blogger Steven Mintz recently laid out the depth and scope of higher ed’s “trust deficit,” and seeing these problems aggregated into a single piece makes them seem truly daunting probably because they are truly daunting.

If anything, as significant as these challenges are, I think it’s possible that the post still possibly understates the depth of challenge. The post concludes with a list of concrete action items for individual institutions in order to renew atmospheres that, “promote open debate and dialogue, and model civility and mutual respect, teach conflict resolution skills, and foster a culture of inclusion and belonging.”

I think everything in the list is worth doing for the reason that it is the kind of work higher education institutions should do, but I also think it’s likely to make little difference at the vast majority of institutions. I also think the list would find little favor at many institutions among institutional leadership. Mintz’s list is working from a place where there is a vision of “higher education” that can be returned to, a reclaiming of a better past.

I believe differently. I think, as I explored last year, that we are looking at the higher ed that Mintz is seeking to revivify in the rearview mirror. I take no pleasure in this view. In fact, it is very much the opposite. At the end, Mintz states that “Evasion is not an option; The only appropriate response must be proactive, strategic and collaborative.”

I agree, but I also think that it is an act of evasion to not admit that higher education has largely already failed.

In that previous post, I explored a quote from former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust who said, “Education is about making people different, making them greater versions of themselves, providing them with capacity. Universities are also about discovering new knowledge, sharing new knowledge. How do we make the world better? We want to make people better through education. We want to make the world better through research. That’s what universities are about. And so how can they spread that message in the most effective way?”

I explained that I agreed, but that it was hard to square this vision with the reality of activities on the ground like West Virginia University and the University of Florida explicitly being given over to consultants to be shaped into a fully corporatized future. Since that post, we’ve seen myriad other examples, such as university leaders calling in militarized riot police to shut down what have been overwhelmingly peaceful protests.

No, there is no past to return to. There is only moving forward. Moving forward does not necessarily mean the movement is toward improvement. That will be determined by the choices made by institutions. What I do mean is that every institution will have to undergo some change because, again, there is no going back.

I think the dominant principle governing whatever is next in higher education is “scarcity.”

Elite institutions have become battlegrounds for primacy with proxy battles over protests and diversity suggesting that institutions are not capacious enough to provide opportunities for all. Nonelite institutions have experienced a series of various hollowing outs, as the drive to realize revenue for operations has pulled them further and further away from their purported missions, leaving them vulnerable to political and cultural contestation.

(This is the thesis of my book, Sustainable, Resilient, Free: The Future of Public Higher Education.)

No matter what individual steps are taken on campus in the interests of rebuilding trust, the narrative of higher education as being something like what Drew Gilpin Faust articulates has been permanently broken. There is no amount of collaboration or sharing of views that are going to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

In some cases—like Florida’s New College, or the University of West Virginia—the breaking of the institution seems rather purposeful. It is difficult not to look at what’s happened at Columbia University and make the same conclusion. Each of these institutions have been visited by varying forms of scarcity, and have emerged as very different places because of it. At New College, the political leadership in the state has decided that resources should not be spent on a college that fosters views different from those of those political leaders. The upending of New College is, frankly, textbook authoritarianism in its denial of the value of difference.

West Virginia has decided that vast swaths of humanistic study as part of a higher education institution are simply not relevant to the goals of their state’s flagship and acted accordingly, a full and unabashed corporatization of the university.

As dire as it sounds, these are institutions that are moving forward, not in the directions I would personally favor, but then these are not institutions in which I have a stake.

Arizona State University is another institution that, well ahead of others, saw the writing on the wall and moved forward, essentially to become massive as a guard against scarcity. This has led to the disfavoring of certain classes of laborer inside the institution and an embrace of increasingly tech-mediated experiences in order to make up for those trade-offs predicated on the challenge of scarcity.

It is impossible to deny that ASU, in its way, is thriving. It is immaterial that I, personally, do not share the animating values of how the institution is managed. I think it would be a disaster for other institutions to try to model themselves after ASU—they got there first—but credit where it is due in zeroing in on your unique identity and following that vision.

Two stories represent different approaches to the problem of scarcity.

One is the story of the state of Colorado implementing a tax-credit program which will cover two years of college tuition and at any in-state public college for households making $90,000 or less per year. Estimates suggest this will result in an additional $40 million per year going toward higher education in the state.

There are some flaws and limits to the program—it is a last-dollar, rather than first-dollar program—but the stated goal is to “make college more affordable to as many students as possible in the state.”

This is a choice to combat scarcity by directing resources to those who may be most affected by the scarcity. State institutions should respond in kind.

The big-picture way forward for Colorado institutions is clear, to find a way to support the work of increased access. If I am a state institution in Colorado, rather than competing for out-of-state students, I’m figuring out how to attract and retain as many of my state’s citizens as possible. I’m trying to rebuild trust on the backs of the promise that if a student chooses my institution, they will get a good education (in every sense of that word). If my institution can do that, increased good feeling and trust will make even greater future support even more likely.

A different vision for moving forward can be found in Iowa where decreasing enrollment in higher education is paired with increased demand for workers in manufacturing set against a backdrop where state legislators have repeatedly accused higher ed of promoting a political agenda, and have made multiple attempts to roll back tenure. Manufacturers are so desperate for workers, they’re even attempting to recruit as early as grade school.

As stated by Eric Kelderman in his article at The Chronicle, “College officials are seeking to appeal to students and parents with programs that are career-focused and affordable. But in an environment where a middle-class job is available without a degree, they may also have to explain why a college education is about much more than a first job, and worth the time and cost.”

In response, the University of Northern Iowa is focused specifically on high-demand majors that can lead directly to jobs.

All signs continue to point to the long-term benefits of a degree when it comes to lifetime earnings, but it’s entirely possible that, as a state, Iowa is going down a different path than Colorado. Higher education may expand in some states and contract in others. We could be embarking on a great experiment in federalism.

After what has been several decades of pitched interstate competition to attract students and their tuition dollars, maybe higher ed, outside of the handful of elite universities, becomes more of an intrastate affair.

I have no idea how these different approaches will shake out, but I’m confident that focusing on what makes sense based on the specifics of an institution will be a superior way forward to trying to guide the herd of higher education writ large.

I should note that at least in terms of material resources, we should not be experiencing scarcity, given that the nation is wealthier than at any time in its existence. No, this is a problem of culture and society that goes much deeper, all the way to the roots or our democracy and current challenges to our pluralistic society.

Doing what you are asked and able to do inside your specific context is probably the best, maybe the only, way to rebuild trust. Over time, maybe that leads us toward a view that higher education can be a source of abundance for all.



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