I’m going to depart from my reviews today to talk about a different part of my life. I’ve spent my working life in collegiate ministry on college and university campuses. My current position involves leading an effort to support emerging scholars who are followers of Christ in navigating the pathway of their calling. I cannot think of a more challenging time for colleges and universities and for those who would pursue their calling in these institutions. I wanted to write today particularly for those who don’t work in higher education to foster understanding of the challenges the campus is facing. Here are ten that come to mind. Each has merited whole books. I’ll give them at most a few sentences.
- Mission. Despite the myriad of verbiage you may hear in public pronouncements and on websites and admissions materials, there is a crisis in understanding what a university is for. I hear everything from educating for citizenship to training people for the high tech jobs of the future. Businesses, governmental entities and social advocacy groups all are trying to shape that mission to their own ends.
- A Crisis of Epistemology. The irony is that the relativism of the post-modernism of the 1980’s and 1990’s, with its suspicion of truth and how it may be known and its analysis that truth is defined by whoever is in power, has spread to our whole society. Truth is whatever my tribal group says and the facts be damned! Scholarly work is now on the receiving end where peer-reviewed research is scorned in preference to the latest internet post with any tone of authority.
- Cancel Culture rather than Scholarship that Pursues Truth Where it Leads. This flows from the previous point. In recent years, speakers with points of view (usually conservative) were shouted down or prevented from speaking. Research that questioned accepted norms of a discipline would often be refused publication or the researcher denounced. Now conservatives are having their day, passing laws in state legislatures about what must be taught and not taught, often in response to university administrations who issued similar dictates to their faculty. None of it fosters a spirit of fearless inquiry.
- The Exodus of Faculty and the Crisis of Adjunctification. The COVID pandemic has facilitated the departure of faculty who find their lifestyle unsustainable with increased demands of in-person and online instruction and the increased presence of alienated or emotionally struggling students. Faculty of color are leaving at higher rates. Colleges continue to ask faculty to do more and replace tenure track positions with adjunct faculty or contracted lecturers. Increasingly, I recommend that most graduate students ought to have some other work aspiration than academic work in a university. But this leaves serious questions to be asked about the quality of education, the future of academic research, and what will happen when enough people decide to withhold their labor.
- College Costs. I think as a society we ought to be moving toward the support of some form of post-secondary education for all of our citizens. But this means getting a handle on the costs of education. What I will argue is that university faculty are not the problem. Many have invested at least a dozen years beyond secondary education in their training. Many could earn far more in industry. And the cost of their salaries is not the big issue. On many campuses, if one studies the directories of non-academic units, one will be surprised at the number of people employed in these positions and how bloated many administrations are with very high salaried people. Some of these positions exist because of unfunded government mandates.
- Equity in Admissions. Addressing college costs and funding is significant and under our current system, many of lower and medium income families will either conclude that it is not worth it, or carry debts that often take the first half of their working careers to liquidate and often delay home purchases and other major financial commitments. I don’t think everyone should go to college but one’s race or socioeconomic background should not be the deciding factor but rather aptitudes, gifts, and passions.
- The Demographic Cliff. After 2026, high school graduations will drop by ten percent due to declining birth rates. The pandemic has sped up that curve for many institutions where enrollments have already dropped significantly, especially at two-year institutions. This may actually be an opportunity for some institutions to streamline themselves and also to work on recruiting and retaining and offering financial aid for students who might not otherwise attend.
- The Student Mental Health Crisis. One university counseling center director told me they anticipated they would need to increase their staff by 50 percent to respond to student mental health needs. He discovered that they should have increased their staff by 100 percent and said that he had received similar reports from university mental health professionals across the country. The major concerns are anxiety and depression. This has been a growing crisis, even before the pandemic, which has made it much worse. Often university faculty are the first to encounter a student with these struggles.
- The Sexualized Campus. Beyond the sexual politics around orientation and sexual identity and the outcry about abortion rights lies the reality of a campus that is a highly sexualized place. The abuse scandals with student athletes is the most visible tip of the iceberg. Colleges are deeply conflicted around the question of consent and what constitutes it and how, in an atmosphere that normalizes both recreational sex and alcohol and substance use, consent is supposed to work.
- Fostering Robust Diversity with Civility. Campuses are incredibly diverse places with people of color and internationals from throughout the world. You have every political party and faith and sexual orientation and gender identity. It is our society in microcosm. Often it is a weak or brittle diversity as is true in most of our country–comfortable only with one’s own tribe. The challenge is to foster a climate, not of guarded and careful niceness that mutes distinctiveness, nor one of belligerence, but rather of both forthrightness about one’s own ideas and values and curiosity rather than judgment about those of others. Actually, I’ve often witnessed students rise admirably to this, often better than faculty and administration. Learning, and where it is needed, enforcing the practices of a principled civility, would seem vital for the development of future leaders.
It is a challenging time in higher education. Challenges can call out not only the worst but the best in human beings. I hope those outside the university will not use this as a chance to rail at higher education. The problems here mirror those in our society. If you are a person of faith, pray for those who lead universities, perhaps using this as a list of things to pray for. There are many Christians working in these universities in positions on faculty, in administration, on staff, or in support services. Two of my friends are presidents of major universities. They love God, they love the campus, they love what they teach and research, they love and seek the common good and they do this amid these challenges.
10 thoughts on “Ten Challenges Facing Higher Education”
Thank you for this most helpful overview
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Very insightful. Would love your thoughts on the fact that fewer young men are pursuing higher education and the impact on demographics. And just a little personal insight: My daughter is a Resident Assistant at a Big 10 school. She would tell you alcohol abuse is a MAJOR problem on campus. As you say, the normalization of excessive drinking causes serious problems around sexual consent. She also sees evidence it exacerbates issues with mental health. Her dorm is an all-freshman dorm, so all of her residents are underage. Yet she deals with the fallout of excessive drinking virtually every day. It’s a serious problem that I honestly don’t think universities do enough to address.
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I am concerned about our young men as well. I can only speculate, but I wonder if there is a lack of men who are role models young men respect who affirm the importance of higher education. Also, there have been a number of male figures who have been contemptuous of higher education and I wonder if this plays a role. BTW, your daughter’s RA experience confirms what I hear from others. And I suspect she has to tread carefully in discussing this to not fall into “victim blaming.”
Bob, nicely summarized. I would add: progressive voices on campus often go beyond tribal epistemology to embrace the “absolute truth” of progressive causes. This feels like a change to me from the former postmodern denial of truth that arose in the 80s and 90s and sustained itself for three decades. Not to say that it’s over completely. But the new universal truth that applies to all people (not just to one’s tribe) is a secular justice defined by and expounded by progressive activism. Nor is this version of justice (around gender, sexuality, ethnicity, identity, the economy) “up for discussion” with dissenting voices. Hence the cancel culture you mention. Quite a change from the university as a free marketplace of ideas that I seem to remember from a long time ago.
May I recommend: “Religion in the University” by Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolsterstorff, which touches on a number of the themes in your post. He speaks, for example, about “dialogic pluralism,” where “participants don’t just offer reasons to each other but also listen to reasons, listen to them with an open mind.” (p83)
You reviewed this book in 2019 here: ;https://bobonbooks.com/2019/08/23/review-religion-in-the-university/
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Thank you, Bob, for an engaging, informative and sobering post!
I’ll indulge in many more words than you on only one of the points. For mission statement of an institution of higher learning, I vote firmly for educating over training.
Not having to make the tough decisions involved in shaping the culture and the curriculum, I can afford the idealism of “educating for citizenship” at colleges and universities (also, and even more so, at the secondary level): a populace that is technically capable or financially successful but is not fluent in civility is on the road to ruin. This touches on some of your other points: diversity, tolerance in the best sense, common cause.
Having supported “educating for citizenship”, I might as well oppose “training people for the jobs of the future”, as an academic mission. University graduates should show that they know how to think and to learn. But the skills needed in the next generation (or the next decade!) should be learned on the job, not at the academy.
At the same time, it behooves institutions of higher learning to offer courses of study that generally prepare graduates to start a career. So by all means, offer robust STEM courses and concentrations, along with the humanities. But take the long view.
I am speaking here of universities and colleges. Technical institutes should be promoted and supported at the same time for training a workforce, bringing together a learning community and actual employers.
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This post was definitely an interesting read. As a Christian , I am hopeful to work in higher education one day. This post thoroughly summarized various factors to consider. Thank you!
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Shaunda, I’m glad you found it helpful!
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Brandon. Thanks for linking to my post on higher ed challenges. May I suggest two edits? One would be to include the image source information from my post since you use the same image. The other is to put the quote from my post in quotation marks, and give proper attribution: “Bob Trube, at Bob on Books” This is copyrighted material.
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