Leadership For a New Era of Student ActivismDoes the “Occupy” movement signal a new era of student activism? And if so, how can college leaders respond appropriately and effectively?
When “Occupy”-style protests spilled over to public university campuses this past fall, one consequence was that it put university leaders under a public spotlight. In November, for example, after campus police at the University of California at Davis squirted a line of sitting protestors with pepper spray and video of the incident quickly went viral, the media was awash with images of Chancellor Linda Katehi rejecting calls that she resign. In early December, Bay Area media ran pictures and video of Robert Corrigan, president of San Francisco State University (SFSU), attempting to engage clamorous Occupy protestors on his campus in a dialogue about relevant issues.
No one can predict the future of the Occupy movement. Nonetheless, universities today are seeing protests that in their passion, stridency and even tactics echo those of the 1960s. And regardless of how long Occupy’s activism lasts, or what form it might ultimately take, student activists all along the political spectrum are likely to be energized by 2012’s presidential election.
Let us assume that the new student activism does continue—and perhaps even expand. What are the implications for colleges and universities? How can university leaders meet the complex challenges that student protests bring?
Making the Case for BothLeaders say workforce needs and liberal arts education ARE compatible
Are college and universities meant to crank out workers? Or should they be elevating the collective mind and spirit? Should they prepare students for productive lives that help build a vibrant economy? Or inspire them beyond the marketplace with civic-minded commitment to the good of humankind?
Perhaps all of the above.
Feeding the Economy
As anyone who has spent time on a college campus knows, the reasons for attending school vary widely, but many students expect to prepare themselves for a lifetime of productive work.
This concept, underscored now as the economy continues to falter and job prospects become more elusive, is not lost on policymakers. The ideas of “workforce readiness” and “job creation” are often key to the discussion among state lawmakers facing a still-faltering economy and scrutinizing education budgets to make the most of what funding is available.
Some have embraced a business-first model for higher education. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott grabbed headlines—and outraged many academics—when he suggested that science, technology, engineering and math (the STEM disciplines) should get more funding than the liberal arts. “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.
. . . Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
Re-Imagining Undergraduate EducationAASCU’s Red Balloon Project represents an opportunity for AASCU institutions to work together to address the dramatic educational challenges of the 21st century.
AASCU’s Red Balloon Project, launched in the summer of 2010, challenges colleges and universities to re-imagine undergraduate education. Our institutions face a difficult future, with declining state support, rising expectations and rapidly changing technology. The financial condition of the states, exacerbated by the great recession, has led to dramatic declines in public funding, and a concomitant rise in tuition. Some experts worry that further tuition increases will meet increasing resistance from students, parents and policymakers. Yet ironically, at this time of disinvestment in public higher education, expectations for greater numbers of graduates is rising, noted in President Obama’s call for the U.S. to be first in the world in college graduation, and in the Lumina Foundation’s goal that by 2025, 60 percent of American adults will have high-quality degrees and credentials.
But looming larger than either declining funding or rising expectations are the profound changes that technology is creating. Industry after industry—music, publishing, newspapers, to name a few—has been disrupted, indeed completely re-shaped, by changes in technology; universities are now in that process of technology transformation. Technology has produced a rapid growth in online education, fueled the rise of for-profit universities and has led to the unbundling of the entire higher education enterprise. But technology does more. In its ability to change the discovery, aggregation and dissemination of information, technology has begun to challenge the most basic elements of the university: the nature of a course, the concept of the individual learner, the role of a faculty member and, indeed, the nature of expertise.
Empowering InnovationPresidents and Practices
A common complaint heard about strategic plans is that after expending effort and resources to develop them, they often sit on a shelf gathering dust. The aversion to cultural change is not unique to higher education.
However, a strategic plan can serve as a dynamic blueprint for change. Below are ideas I have used successfully at my previous presidency at Fairmont State (W. Va.) and in my current role at Indiana State.
- Involve everyone in the creation of the plan. The plan should develop from the grassroots level. This needs to be reinforced every step of the way. Remember to always reference the documents as the “university’s plan” or “our plan,” rather than “my plan” or the “president’s plan.”
- Establish data benchmarks against which progress will be measured. Having measurable goals is critical to maintaining forward momentum. Goals should be aggressive enough to be challenging without crossing into the realm where they are readily dismissed as unrealistic.