The President, #MeToo, and College Closings

What kinds of Google alerts do you use?  For the longest time, the only alert I had setup was for my name.  I was pleased because other than a few random attorney notifications (there is a lawyer named Jeff Borden in Chicago) and a pastor in Colorado Springs who seems to post something on occasion, my name’s alerts were usually about me. 

(The one weird notification was when someone named Jeff Borden died and his obituary was listed in my feed. That particular subject line did cause a slight bit of panic…)

Technology was expanding while also deepening silos in 2014

Technology was expanding while also deepening silos in 2014

But around 2013, I started using Google alerts for other things.  When I was the Chief Innovation Officer at Saint Leo, I used the alerts for the hyper-connected, learning ecosystem we created (Lion’s SHARE).  I also had an alert setup for [learning or education] + innovation.  Not to mention feeds for ed tech as well as Wired or Educause or IHE + university or college. 

When I headed back home to Colorado and started working as the Campus Chief Academic Officer, while also heading up the Institute, I broadened my search feeds quite a lot.  I started to watch specific outlets like the Times or the Post or The Chronicle + various terms like portal, mobile app, connections, learning, and more.  In all, I think I now have honed it to a dozen different emails full of links, filling my inbox every day.

This weekend, I happened to be rooting around in my older files and I came across a word doc with a group of articles / blogs that I had saved back in 2014.  I didn’t think much of it as I opened the file, until I looked at the titles of the links and started clicking through others.  I was genuinely surprised by what I saw…or probably better stated by what I didn’t see. 

The page of 2014 links had stories and articles with titles like, “The Myth of the Digital Native” or “An Online Program Shapes Doctors' Minds—and Hearts.”  The list certainly contained conflict and controversy with Bryan Alexander’s story about whether or not Higher Education had “peaked”.  (@BryanAlexander seems to be timeless…), but also contained stories about Bill Gates work in education starting to shift as he learned more about the sector, plenty of MOOC lamenting, and really started to see questions raised by the public about whether or not college was “worth it.” 

But none of that was surprising. 

What surprised me was the lack of certain topics.  Almost nowhere in the higher education reporting was the President mentioned (past or current).  Nothing about former-cabinet members being banned from university campuses following (or leading to) petitions or walk-outs; nothing about crass or overtly attacking language being aimed by politicians at educators or students and vice-versa; nothing about the peeling back of decades old rules and processes to be replaced with odd or seemingly incomplete new ones. 

There were very few articles about sexual conduct as well.  In fact, a quick search of articles from 2014 shows many more articles about female high-school teachers and young male students than just about any other story of a physical nature.  Long before the #MeToo movement, you might look at 2014 as the calm before the storm.

CollegeClosings.jpg

There was not nearly as much talk about college or university closings or mergers either.  While 2014 saw a handful of institutions close their doors, it was just on the backside of the zenith of existing, accredited schools.  The tipping point had just begun for many of the for-profit colleges closing, merging, or changing their status.  The articles did not include failing schools nearly to the degree we see today. 

So what does this all mean?  I don’t know…

I wish I had some pithy or witty statement to make here, but I think I’m still drinking in the differences.  It was just fascinating to me to see how quickly the landscape of education reporting changed.  Sure, there were bad things being reported in 2014, but the weight seemed…different.  The ire wasn’t present in the reporting nor in the content of the stories.  The conversations and reports generally seemed civil, even when contentious.  But I think it is fair to say that has shifted.  Instead of people disagreeing, they now call one another stupid.  Instead of arguing with reason, credibility, and passion, arguments are fallacious and knee-jerk.  Instead of people looking for solutions, people just seem mad.  Professors are mad, students are mad, administrators are mad, politicians are mad, parents are mad….

Is it all change for the worse?  No, it is not that black and white.  For example, as the father of a little girl, I’m hopeful that the changes around male/female working conditions will benefit my daughter.  As the layers of that onion are peeled back and so many brave people step forward to call foul, it is my genuine hope that it will translate to a better tomorrow.  Education is filled with people and all people can be tempted, even enticed by any manner of desire or power.  Power, even within the confines of education, can easily lead to corruption whether the output is financial or sexual.  I can remember being in grad school and hearing rumors of professors sleeping with students, so this is nothing new.  But I am hopeful that the national (international) dialogue leading to policy and even legal changes will lessen those kinds of experiences tremendously.  So some discomfort is beneficial.

But the rhetoric and discourse do often lead to a furrowing of the brow, no?  Extremism seems to be met with one-upmanship, leading to bigger, stronger, more gregarious actions and words.  It seems the extremes are getting more extreme and the wall of polarization is being built higher and higher (pun intended).  There is as much talk of racism as there is diversity.  There is as much talk of fear as there is of triumph.  There is more talk of failure than there is of success. 

I guess what ultimately strikes me here is that our industry – the business of educating people – has plenty to deal with aside from the politics, the gender issues, the anger, and the frustration.  Yet that is what appears to be top of mind today.  I also believe that while the journalists, bloggers, and reporters are not creating the news, they might be appropriately viewed as a barometer of the current status.  Yes, for the last several decades all reporting seems to focus more on the extremes than anything else, but that is true everywhere.  Yet, the tenner has absolutely changed in higher education.  Which ultimately, from my vantage point, means that our main priority – namely learning – will have an increasingly difficult time sitting in the front seat, as we focus on things that are parallel, if not tangential to our mission.  When sexual conduct, financial misappropriation, name calling, mud-slinging, unilateral policy decisions, and more take the spotlight, learning fades into the background.  People hunker down and just do what they have always done until the storm blows over.  Yet the storm rages on.

At the start of this year, Forbes surveyed Americans about culture.  The most telling statement from the article (to me) was about language and fatigue: 

Each year there’s an irresistible "dilly dilly" catchphrase that becomes a meme of the moment. But this year Americans seem fatigued from the lack of respect and discord in society and are seeking out deeper hashtags for 2018.

I don’t think we achieved what we hoped we would in 2018.  But as it took 4 years to get here, perhaps we should look at another 4 years to steer back toward our mission. After all, we know more about learning than ever before in our history.  We know more about the brain, more about learning science, more about motivation, persuasion, communication…yet our focus is elsewhere.  Let’s see what we can do before 2022 to re-prioritize learning and success.  A lot can happen in 4 years.  Let’s see if we can help forge that path instead of being dragged down it. 

Good luck and good learning.