This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on December 29, 2015.
The recent rash of campus protests has caught the national eye, causing some to ask, “What exactly are students taught in college today?” and “What are senior university administrators doing to enforce—or not enforce—rigorous instruction, the instruction needed to ensure that American college graduates are able to survive in the intensely competitive, 21st-century world marketplace?”
However, a new report suggests that universities are focusing on a different question: “How will our school’s response to the campus unrest affect our annual fundraising?” This is the thrust of an article that informs its readers, “As colleges grapple with issues of race and diversity, they face questions from alumni and donors—not all of whom are pleased with new campus efforts.”
It is not difficult to understand why schools should be so concerned about their alumni’s and other donors’ reactions to both the student protests and, more important, to how the administration reacts to them. After all, national polling results show that, even before the recent spate of protests, large segments of the American people have been concerned over tuition hyperinflation and crushing student-loan debt.
Polling also shows equal concern on the part of the public that schools are not adequately preparing students for the rigors of the world of work. The fourth annualGallup-Lumina Foundation poll finds that only 13 percent of Americans strongly agree that “college graduates in this country are well-prepared for success in the workplace.” This number is down from 19 percent three years ago.
More troubling, those surveyed who possess college degrees are much more skeptical of higher education than those who do not. Eighteen percent of those with bachelor’s degrees are “much less likely to strongly agree” that college graduates “are ready for the workforce,” whereas six percent of those without degrees hold this view.
Given this backdrop of general apprehension about American higher education, university fundraisers are right to worry about the path going forward. They likely are looking at, for example, the recent survey of Missouri voters conducted in the aftermath of the University of Missouri protests, which forced both the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, and the System’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, to resign their offices.
Pollsters asked Missouri voters if they “agree or disagree with the University of Missouri student protesters’ actions in the past week?” By more than a three-to-one margin (62 percent to 20 percent), voters disagreed with the student protesters’ actions.
But the protesters were not the only recipients of voters’ displeasure. The survey asked whether “these recent events affected your view of the University of Missouri football team, and if so has that affect been positive or negative?” The football team, supported by its coach, had vowed not to play its next game unless President Wolfe resigned. Although this tack succeeded on campus, respondents to the statewide poll weighed in by more than a two-to-one margin (48 percent to 22 percent) to report that their view of the team had been negatively affected.
The university’s leadership fared still worse in the poll. When voters were asked, “Have these recent events affected your view of the University of Missouri Administration, and if so has that affect been positive or negative?” a strong majority reported that its view of the school had been affected negatively. Fifty-eight percent reported a negative response. Only 11 percent voiced a positive response, while 31 percent answered “no change/unsure.”
Will these negative perceptions harm the future prospects of Mizzou and, by extension, other protest-plagued schools? This was the focus of the poll question, “Would you encourage your children to attend the University of Missouri?” By a ten-point margin (45 percent to 35 percent), those answering “no” outnumbered those responding with “yes.” Twenty percent of respondents indicated that they were “unsure.”
The poll also had bad news regarding Missouri voters’ willingness to part with more of their tax dollars to support the state’s public universities. By a ten-point margin (48 percent to 38 percent), respondents rejected the suggestion that an increase in the state’s cigarette tax should be enacted to fund additional public university scholarships.
Finally—and somewhat surprisingly, given the country’s heightened political polarization—the polling data reveal less of the usual conservative-liberal, Republican-Democrat divide on the issue. A question asking whether voters agree with the protestors’ view of racial inequality at Mizzou showed the usual ideological cleft—75 percent of self-identified Republicans disagree with the protestors, while 22 percent of Democrats agree with them. By a smaller margin, 52 percent of whites disagree, while 40 percent of blacks agree. However, those who indicated that they were “non-partisan,” when asked to identify their political party, disagree with the protestors four times more than they agree (58 percent to 14 percent).
Although the Missouri poll may tempt some to expect that similar sentiments are sweeping the nation, it is far too soon to tell. Polls come and go; the voters’ negative reactions to the Mizzou protests may not last and, if they do, they may not translate into action that threatens university funding. Indeed, such inertia on the part of alumni has long been a source of frustration for would-be higher-education reformers. Too often, alumni have responded to criticisms of their alma mater with a circle-the-wagons defensiveness.
This instinct toward self-protectiveness is somewhat understandable: “Alma mater” means “nourishing”—and thus, “dear”—“Mother.” Now, if you choose to criticize someone’s mother, being correct in your critique is often not enough. School spirit can trump the political-party identification, and even the political philosophy, of alumni. Consider the fact that, in the year following the Penn State University football team’s child-molestation scandal, fundraising for the school was nonetheless robust. Indeed, it has been reported that, one year after the Sandusky scandal, “the school earned $208.7 million in donations—the second-highest annual amount in school history.”
However, if it is premature to offer forecasts about the ultimate effect of the protests on future university fundraising as well as state-legislative support, it might also be a mistake simply to assume that this, too, will pass, and that university life will continue as before. As Medicaid expansion and K-12 funding take up increasing portions of state budgets, legislators already have to look hard to find additional financing for public higher education. Although legislative critics of the universities’ responses to the protests may not push to cut public higher-education financing outright, it could incline them not to look as hard as before for additional funding.
As for future support from alumni and other donors, we should consider the fact that growing numbers of Americans now deem college costs to have exceeded the value of a bachelor’s degree. If campus unrest spreads, and administrators show themselves to be unable or unwilling to restore a rigorous learning environment on campus, how long will already-skeptical supporters continue to donate?
Some in the universities are now beginning to ask this question. The answer might come to change the face of American higher education.