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New Year’s Resolutions For Higher Ed

Could 2024 be the year our colleges and universities do more for Philadelphia students and for democracy? A long-time university president thinks it has to be

New Year’s Resolutions For Higher Ed

Could 2024 be the year our colleges and universities do more for Philadelphia students and for democracy? A long-time university president thinks it has to be

U.S. higher education has never been under more serious attack, from the right, from the left, from the general public, and from within.

The right wing threatens university autonomy in states like Florida, where politicians are determining what is taught and who is hired and fired. Their war on universities came to a head on December 5 in the kangaroo court orchestrated by Reps. Elise Stefanik (R, NY) and Virginia Foxx (R, NC), pushing the presidents of Penn, Harvard and MIT to declare their intent to punish calls for a Jewish “genocide,” a term actually not recorded on their campuses.

The university presidents equivocated, and, in speaking more like the academics they are than the political populists the forum required, fell into the trap the U.S. Representatives set for them. In the end, the university leaders unintentionally resembled the farthest-possible left-wing elitists — exactly how their right-wing inquisitors had portrayed them. The fallout helped lead to the resignation of two presidents, Claudine Gay of Harvard and Liz Magill of Penn.

Far-left progressives, while not as culpable as the far right, have chilled discourse with their demands to avoid uncomfortable language in published works and in the classroom, in defiance of the First Amendment and academic freedom. The general public deplores the political stridency and lack of straightforward commentary, resulting in a loss of faith in university leaders.

For the first time in my life, 2024 terrifies me. I hope that colleges and universities will make these New Year’s resolutions, drop old unproductive habits, and transform higher education to preserve democracy.

But now let’s talk about the enemy within. What can colleges and universities do to correct old habits and become the universities necessary to protect democracy in 2024? Change is possible, indeed necessary, across the nation and particularly in Philadelphia-area colleges and universities.

With help from the god Janus, looking backward and forward, here is a list of New Year’s resolutions for higher education:

Lead with intention

This year both Penn and Temple will be searching for new presidential leadership. (In September 2023, Temple University Acting President JoAnne Epps unexpectedly passed away.) The selection of new university presidents really matters because leadership matters.

Observe, for example, Paul LeBlanc, who has just retired after two decades as president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), where he protected his small, residential, liberal arts college (2,500 students) from closing, while at the same time developing a personalized approach to on-line education, bringing high quality instruction to over 170,000 students worldwide. According to Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education, “Paul has not just led, but has redefined what it means to be a true innovator in higher education.”

All higher education leaders, including the presidents soon to be recruited at Penn and Temple, should resolve to learn from President LeBlanc in always remembering that education is a human enterprise dependent on mutual respect and excellent communication.

Replace snobbery with partnership

Every Philadelphia-area college and university should resolve to establish or increase partnerships with the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) and suburban community colleges. That cooperation must go far beyond on-paper agreements, to active recruitment of community college students with appropriate financial aid support.

Equally important is the human touch, à la Paul LeBlanc. That would entail community college and university advisors working together to illuminate seamless four-year pathways from community college to university graduation, as well as collegial planning meetings for university and community college faculty and staff.

The Philadelphia area would benefit from an overall increase in inter-institutional cooperation. Our region is strong in a broad variety of colleges and universities, private and public, large and small, specialized and general. The region would gain enormously from better communication and cooperation among these institutions. The goal should be for students to find and thrive with the right higher education choice for them. Highly selective, elite universities like Penn would do well to assist regional public universities, like Cheyney University, for example, that educate large numbers of diverse undergraduates.

As Inquirer columnist Will Bunch points out, “only 0.4% of U. S. undergrads attend the eight Ivy League schools, while public, 4-year schools … educate nearly half (48%).” Yet Pennsylvania public higher education is threatened by serious underfunding. The state should address this problem, but wealthy universities like Penn could also help by establishing educational and financial partnerships with public colleges and universities.

Better prepare and recruit local public school students

Nonprofit universities like Penn are exempt from property taxes and instead invest in significant local projects. It’s appropriate to insist that universities support their communities in lieu of taxes. The term PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) is often used to identify these investments. At times, these payments do great things for Philadelphia, as in the 2020 example of then-Penn President Amy Gutmann’s investment of $100 million dollars in the renovation and rebuilding of Philadelphia public schools. Penn and other universities, especially those publicly supported and non-taxpaying like Temple, can do more — much more.

Penn now partners with Penn Alexander and the Lea School in West Philadelphia. The next step would be for Penn, Temple, Drexel and other Philadelphia universities to adopt neighborhood high schools, making it possible for students to get quality secondary education close to home without competing in the lottery for magnet schools like Masterman.

Partnership with local high schools like Bartram High (my alma mater) would mean university-sponsored activities and programs, starting in the ninth grade and earlier. The Penn Netter Center has done great work with West Philadelphia’s Paul Robeson High School (former home of Integrity Icon winner Principal Richard Gordon). These efforts should be widely expanded.

Improve preparation of teachers, principals, and substitute teachers

A key method for fulfilling this resolution would be for colleges and universities to generously support in-building mentors, who would work with student teachers, new teachers and substitutes onsite, making each classroom a laboratory for further development. Novices deserve the support of hands-on mentors available during the school day. Universities should participate in the adequate compensation of these mentors, who would also contribute to the university’s curriculum design for future and in-service teachers. Universities and colleges also prepare principals, who can make or break the success of a school. Higher education should draw on the expertise of successful principals to improve educational programs for these school leaders.

Emphasize civil debate and listening as hallmarks in a democracy

Fulfilling this resolution requires faculty and administration to rethink the curriculum and co-curriculum to promote respect for others’ views, starting with first-year orientation and moving through every feature of university life. Through experience and example, students must learn to lower the volume and to study various evidence-based points of view.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall) about Eboo Patel’s Congressional testimony — not so well known as that of the presidents of Penn, Harvard and MIT, but certainly more productive. “Patel says that the best way for colleges to respond to the divisions on their campuses — and in society — is to model a commitment to pluralism and then ensure that students are taught the skills to live and work in our diverse nation.”

Nothing in higher education is more important than reestablishing the campus as a safe place to debate controversial subjects, without recourse to threats and name-calling.

Communication can be perilous with vast opportunities for confusion and anger. Most college students are required to take a first-year course in composition. Scholars in this field urge instructors to emphasize finding an individual voice and expressing views in a wide variety of situations. Sometimes sophisticated, technical communication is called for and other times clear, plainspoken responses are necessary. Too often academics revert to communication that is certain to be misunderstood by the general public — or by a Congressional committee.

Universities must do a better job in educating for communicating. That begins in freshman composition, which should be taught by full-time teacher-researchers who are prepared to help students navigate this treacherous area. Oh, and by the way, these scholar-teachers are not distracted by supposed threats from ChatGPT. They know how to incorporate artificial intelligence into instruction to help students analyze the situation and find their own voice.

Actively support voter registration and voting

Many universities include voter registration with course registration. Students can be trained as voter registrars. Encouragement of voting is nonpartisan. Faculty and staff must make sure it stays that way. It is difficult for me to understand how anyone privileged to study on a U.S. campus would neglect to vote.

Universities must improve education in civics, teaching why voting matters, what the issues are, and how to develop evidence-based opinions. The success of civic education is measured, at least in part, by voter turnout but also by ongoing, civil campus conversations.

A final word: I’m generally a pragmatic optimist, always believing that education can cure just about anything. For the first time in my life, 2024 terrifies me. I hope that colleges and universities will make these New Year’s resolutions, drop old unproductive habits, and transform higher education to preserve democracy.

Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on X / Twitter.


Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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