June 18, 2018

Higher Ed’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good Year: Let’s Help Make 2018 Better | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAmerican higher education came under attack in 2017 as the political, cultural, and social divisions in our society widened. It stood accused of forcing liberal politics on students, hampering free speech on campus, and fostering an environment of incivility in and beyond the classroom. Academic librarians could help lead our institutions to regain their status as our society’s bastion of free speech.

Leadership change in Washington, DC was accompanied by an acceleration of attacks and assaults on American higher education in 2017. With an upswing in the number of small institutions closing their doors for good or merging for survival, a dismal forecast from Moody’s for higher education’s stability in 2018, renewed support for private for-profit colleges, a growing distrust of educational technology, and the uncertain impact of new tax laws among a host of challenges facing colleges and universities, the higher education industry was susceptible to attack from denigrators. But the big higher education story of 2017 was diminished support for free speech and an increase of incivility on multiple campuses. The strategic deployment of controversial and hateful personalities to campuses nationwide by hate groups was a key contributing factor. The academic library, in its role as a force for social, intellectual, and cultural stimulation on campus, could provide leadership, or at least support, in finding better ways to discuss and debate controversial issues of the day.

Has higher ed hit bottom?

Let’s face it. 2017 was a bad year for higher education. While the public still sees higher education as the primary path to career and financial success, in 2017 increasing numbers questioned whether it is working as well as it should. There is a growing lack of confidence in higher education; the majority of conservative-minded Americans believe higher education has a negative impact on the country. Though usually supportive of American higher education, despite questioning its support for learners from low-income families, Frank Bruni believes that 2017 was “higher ed’s low moment.” Like many media op-ed pieces on higher education it’s a broad generalization, but what Bruni gets right is the need for higher ed to repair and improve its damaged public image. College presidents must do better in 2018 to improve access, keep tuition in check, and work aggressively to counter the notion that their institutions are elitist, out of touch, and out of control. Looking ahead to 2018, expect higher ed leaders to seek better balance between supporting free speech and civil debate while defending student and faculty rights to protest and resist conservative forces, or when appropriate, support their conservative students.

Or is it just messy and messed up?

The college president’s current conundrum is that no matter what action taken, it’s going to be a no-win for their institution. If they appease students by shutting down the Milos, Anne Coulters, and Richard Spencers, it’s quickly followed by accusations of silencing free speech. If they allow these speakers to appear and students or outside agitators stage violent or disrespectful protests, college leaders are quickly condemned for suppressing free speech and allowing students to run amok. What exactly do people expect higher education administrators to do, especially when some individuals organizing hateful speakers are not even current students or when public universities are forced by courts to allow these events? All of us in higher education need to contribute to the solution. We’ve got to figure out how to bring controversial voices to campus without it turning into a circus or devolving into violence. After Charlottesville, a situation that the University of Virginia mismanaged, we’ve got to do better, but by no means should we tolerate white supremacists and neo-Nazis speaking or holding rallies. In those situations where it is forced on us by the constitution or courts, we must find civil means of protest to demonstrate the community’s disgust and opposition. After what’s been learned in 2017, colleges and universities will better prepare so that we hopefully avoid a repeat of Charlottesville. In response, academic libraries could mobilize to offer a place for students and faculty to peacefully gather in the pursuit of education and awareness in the face of hatred and ignorance.

Action for the year ahead

On at least two fronts, conservative attacks on higher education and controversial speakers on campus, we know to expect more of the same in 2018. I would like to see both higher education and academic library leaders identify concrete strategies we can engage with to proactively address these issues. That includes working with faculty and students to find more constructive ways to respond to controversial speakers. That might involve any of the following possibilities:

  • Work directly with faculty and administrators to develop programming to address free speech issues and responses to controversial speakers as part of the library’s cultural event programming;
  • Connect with student government leaders to identify strategies to engage students with academic librarians to create opportunities for displays, art installations, special research projects and other activities that allow students to self-explore how to best maintain civility on campus;
  • Equip students with skills and strategies to identify misleading and intentionally false news so that they can avoid it and conduct research more like fact finders seeking the truth;
  • Offer pop-up workshops and information sessions to teach students how to effectively research controversial speakers so they can learn the facts for themselves and then develop an appropriate response based on research rather than hearsay.

A better year

Hosting talks by controversial speakers is hardly a new development in higher education. Nor are tumultuous student protests. This past year was different. In 2017 political divisiveness, fomented by a presidential administration seeking to divide people rather than unite them, contributed to campus unrest that spiraled out of control. It’s likely 2018 will be a year of struggle and uncertainty in higher education, both for academic libraries and in the broader scheme of things. As we head into this new year I hope we can do so with positive thoughts and a vision in which we continue to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we work and serve. Academic librarianship has its own set of challenges to confront, but we must also pay attention to and contribute to the myriad challenges our institutions face, individually and collectively. We can help to make 2018 a better year in higher education.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Messed up is putting is mildly. The Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying attacks at Evergreen State College are prime examples of students run amok. Evergreen quickly settled for $500,000 with Weinstein and Heying. These weren’t extreme conservatives, but professors who dared question decisions and ask if there was a better way to support diversity and inclusion.

  2. Richard Dawkins being cancelled from Berkeley doesn’t fit into the narrative above. The problem is deeper than right/wing – left/wing speech

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