There’s plenty of noise coming from higher education these days. What used to be an unremarkable sector—news-wise, at least—isn’t that way now. And the news is troubling. The range of issues, including scandal, is too wide to ignore.
If you talk with people who worked in higher education for an extended period, odds are they’ll tell you they could see it coming. I’m among them.
Years ago, an administrative colleague and I had a lunch conversation that was a “What if the public knew?” talk—about how upside-down things had gotten in higher education. “Higher education has lost its way,” I said. My friend put it colorfully: “It’s FUBAR!”
We weren’t referencing individual transgressions. We were talking about an institutional affliction. Academic work—the ‘stuff’ of higher education and its treasure—had become rhetorical fodder for those running America’s schools. The really important stuff—what presidents/chancellors and boards give attention to—include things like moving up the rankings, getting significant donations from wealthy alumni, winning athletic championships, and rolling out branding campaigns—things that have literally nothing to do higher education’s core business and, in fact, can get in its way.
It was only a matter of time, we thought, before the erosion of fundamental purpose would exact a cost. And when that day came, we predicted, it would reveal higher education’s underbelly.
It wouldn’t be a one-off, we conjectured, here today and gone tomorrow after one, big splash. The Catholic Church offered a reasonable comparison. Revelations of rampant child abuse are anything but the single issue facing the Church. Financial shenanigans, all the way up to the Vatican, became public. Nuns organized and told how priests had abused them sexually and in other ways. #NunsToo
We whiffed on a critical feature of the malaise, that is, the epicenter’s location—major schools—with money, action, and nooks and crannies to hide things. It’s where ‘gamers’ play and get into trouble when avarice, the abdication of core values, and situational ethics prevail.
A few weeks ago, my colleague and I reconnected for a reunion lunch. Much of what we had predicted has come true, but we also admitted to whiffing on a critical feature of the malaise, that is, the epicenter’s location—major schools—with money, action, and nooks and crannies to hide things. It’s where ‘gamers’ play and get into trouble when avarice, the abdication of core values, and situational ethics prevail.
The problem isn’t in the past tense, either. It’s happening. Higher education took a left turn, made headlines, but didn’t make public amends. Rather than pausing, pivoting, and focusing on redeeming itself, it kept moving straight ahead—either oblivious to or unfazed by missteps. We asked: Is higher education incapable of getting back on track? Or is it just trying to play the game better (that is, not get caught)?
Particularly troubling is when investigative reporting uncovers actions that compromise higher education’s fundamental leitmotif—Veritas!—that is, truth. It comes by way of not revealing fully, if at all, what’s going on in conjunction with circumstances relevant to university activity. Just this week, for example, media found that University of Houston administrators knew—but did nothing in response—when learning that some women had experienced a severe health risk (rhabdomyolysis) in conjunction with UH’s athletic training program.
Last year, an investigative reporter revealed that Michigan State University’s record-breaking incoming student enrollment was only part of the story. The rest of the story was how the university had achieved the record. The reporter discovered that the university achieved the record during a time when it had experienced a significant decline in student applications. That finding led to further probing, which revealed that the record came primarily by boosting the acceptance rate to nearly 80%.
Duplicitous behavior—through a bait-and-switch or deceptiveness—is another compromise of Veritas. And that’s what The Buffalo News found at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The News, which has published numerous critiques of university activities and decision making, has focused significant attention on the university’s foundation. In one analysis, reporters revealed that while university officials were trumping SUNY Buffalo as a national leader in climate-change research and environmental sustainability, its foundation was investing its resources in oil and gas extraction, including fracking—an activity banned in New York State. The foundation, which is a private, independent organization established when Buffalo was a private university, did not reveal information about its investment practices—despite receiving repeated requests to do so by the newspaper, faculty, and students.
There’s more. It happens when universities act more like corporations than social institutions. Here are two examples.
Last week, The Los Angeles Times published a front-page story about the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work. USC administrators sought to make the school a profit-center (mind you, we’re talking about social work) by establishing an online master’s program and growing the school’s enrollment significantly. The growth objective came to pass—enrollment grew from 900 to 3500 in just six years—and USC’s school became the largest in the world. But today the school is reeling.
What happened? Reporters Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton describe it this way. “Hiring teachers and administrators for the online program proved costly. Fees for the company that runs the digital learning platform ate up more than half of the online tuition revenue. Other, less costly programs came on the market. And the push to fill online classes led to the admission of less qualified students, a decision many on the faculty say damaged the learning experience and the school’s reputation.”
Those are ‘what’ elements of the story. ‘Why’ elements tell much more, and it’s not a story unique to USC—a president imposing a ‘vision,’ administrators seeking to make a big splash, a corporate partnership backfiring, and a place getting too big for its britches.
The USC story isn’t just an initiative that went sour. It’s a product of intentionality. Here’s another example.
“Florida State University is privatizing its athletics department, shielding it from public-records requests,” reported Iliana Limón Romero last week in the Orlando Sentinel. FSU will “treat it like a corporation rather than a traditional state university department,” she wrote.
Among other things, FSU intends to remove athletics from sunshine protocols that apply to other university units, state agencies, and state-administered programs. The university endorsed the move in the name of ‘efficiencies’ and ‘integrating booster activities programmatically.’ That’s bullshit, of course. It’s about keeping athletic decisions private—a domain riffled with issues—and out of public view.
When institutions engage in the behaviors described here, it’s the result of executive foolishness and games-playing. That happens when the intersection of Wall Street and Madison Avenue come to campus green. Higher education then runs more like a private equity firm than an institution dedicated to serving the public good. In a nutshell, that is what corrupted higher education. And it corrupts it still.
Are better days ahead? Without repentance—mea culpa ringing across the sector—followed by a shift to socially progressive leadership, an approach that embraces authenticity, transparency, and genuineness as leadership ethic—there’s no hope for change.
Serving the public good should never go out of style. But, sadly, it has, replaced by a leadership style unbecoming the word ‘academic.’
Expect more headlines.