NOAA offers a pithy description of the earth’s tectonic plates as shifting landscapes that make up the earth’s crust. 250 million years ago, the earth was one mass called Pangaea with one ocean, Panthalassa. Heat broke it all apart. Now, the plates shift at the annual rate of toenail growth (I know, gross, right?), but sometimes, as in California, they move at a rate four times faster than the rest of the planet. “At the “seams” where tectonic plates come in contact, the crustal rocks may grind violently against each other, causing earthquakes and volcano eruptions.”
That is a great description of what is happening on the higher education landscape these days. We don’t have to look back millions of years for the origins, of course. Let’s just go back to pre-World War II when the overwhelming majority of college students and professors were wealthy white Christian men who engaged in athletics, drank too much in fraternal organizations, and sought sexual companionship in secret until they finally married a “proper girl” and went to law or medical school or followed in their father’s footsteps. (Pardon the hyperbolic stereotyping!)
Then everything started falling apart when the sociopolitical order of our world shifted during World War II. Since the 1940’s, colleges and universities have been incentivized to diversify the student population, first via the GI bill, and then through other state and federal funding. Since then, students have been complaining that colleges don’t offer a sense of community – because they can’t. It is, thank God, no longer one community of white Christian men, but a gathering of many individuals, each of whom is trying to figure out where they belong, not only on campus, but in the world. (That’s why I think colleges need to focus on teaching students how to build their own communities.)
Meanwhile, colleges ramped up their administration to deal with increased numbers of applications and students on financial aid.
Student development and activities personnel were hired to organize programs and initiatives for the many student needs.
High-ranking staff joined the rolls to diversify the professoriate.
General counsel offices were staffed up to anticipate liabilities and defend the institution against all manner of threats.
Highly trained Title IX deputies came along to handle the up-until-now sub rosa sexual assault that has run rampant on campuses since the very beginning.
Academic and career advising became a global profession to offer students and their parents sounding boards so that they make the right choices for themselves, their families, and their communities.
Mental and physical health is no longer dealt with by the family physician. Campuses employ scads of mental and physical health specialists to treat the ever-increasing numbers of students who pursue a diploma while dealing with minor and major issues.
Colleges can’t hire disabilities specialists fast enough to ensure campuses accommodate differently abled students.
It goes on and on.
Then Trump arrives and the tectonic plates start shifting more at the rate of California’s.
Trumpists are thrusting into relief the fact that most colleges are woefully lacking in diversity of political opinions and openly hostile to right-leaning colleagues. Colleges are getting their comeuppance now.
Monies from the NEA, NEH, Americorps and others are being threatened. Development offices are desperately trying to hire people who can raise money from within a profession that is notoriously transient. Those fundraisers are putting every more pressure on alumni to keep institutions afloat.
Since the infamous Executive Order on immigration, the finance and enrollment management teams are scrambling to figure out how to deal with the inevitably lower number of international students who will join us in the fall. They were the reliable cash cows of many institutions, since almost all of them paid full freight. Yup, they were plunking down $40-70K a year in our colleges and countless more in our college towns.
Trump will deregulate for-profit colleges where students underperform, graduate at lower rates than ever before, and leave with crushing debt and without the much-coveted diploma.
In an effort to protect the individuals accused of sexual assault, advances for the victims will be rolled back.
Activists will continue to roil college campuses, but to what end? Rallies and marches and all of the concomitant screaming and chanting aren’t going to get us anywhere. It may make people feel good to walk in groups with pink hats on, but the Trumpists are laughing all the way to their dungeons of evil.
If they have their way, higher education’s landscape will be one big Pangaea again where the wealthy white Christian males will get a degree and move off to a certain future. For the rest of us, the future is much less certain.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.