This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on July 21, 2015
For political reform to gather steam in a democracy, a sizable proportion of voters must first become aware of and indignant over the status quo. For the past several decades, higher education reformers have sought to awaken college-bound students and their parents to the broken system that is American higher education: tuition hyperinflation, crushing student-loan debt, rampant grade inflation and poor student learning. But due to the high esteem with which Americans have traditionally held higher education, most of these efforts have been in vain.
According to a new study from the Harvard Business School, “The Impact of Campus Scandals on College Applications,” by Michael Luca, Patrick Rooney and Jonathan Smith, “Scandals with a high level of media coverage significantly reduce applications.” The study finds that “a scandal covered in a long-form news article leads to a ten percent drop in applications the following year. This is roughly the same as the impact on applications of dropping ten spots in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings.” The Harvard study examined 124 public scandals that took place between 2001 and 2013 at the top 100 colleges and universities in this country. It found that if a campus scandal garnered more than five mentions in the The New York Times, there was a subsequent drop of 9% in applications the following academic year.
What can universities do about it?
The most-publicized campus scandal last year took place at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), which is working assiduously to restore its public image. Unfortunately, its efforts to right the ship suggest that its leaders are not focusing enough on answering the question, “Why did we receive such enrollment-killing bad press?”
Last fall at Mizzou, student protests over alleged racism led to the ousting of both the school’s president and chancellor. Infuriated by both the protests and the Mizzou administration’s feckless response, prospective students as well as donors decided to vote with their pocketbooks: Recent reports show that the school has suffered a 1500-student drop in enrollment for next year (about a quarter of its 2015 enrollment numbers). As a consequence, the university must now address a projected $32 million budget shortfall, the remedying of which has already led to a 5% cut in the budget for the next year, which is expected to recoup $20 of the $32 million, leaving $12 million in losses still needing to be recovered.
Worse for the school, the Missouri House proposed, and its Senate subsequently approved, a $1 million cut in the school’s state funding for the next year. Mizzou’s relationship with the state legislature was inflamed when a journalism professor, Melissa Click, was shown on videotape violating the free-press rights of a student journalist who was attempting to cover the protests. Click was subsequently fired for, in the words of the University Board of Curators, acting as if she were “entitled to interfere with the rights of others, to confront members of law enforcement [and] to encourage potential physical intimidation against a student.”
The school is now working to shore up its sagging enrollments. Interim Chancellor Hank Foley emailed the university community to announce that the school will increase its number of “out-of-state recruiters.” Additionally, it will be “reaching out to admitted students who have not yet enrolled and to their parents with phone calls, Skype calls, videos and a text campaign – all of which involve current students, faculty and administrators throughout the university.” Finally, Foley assured the university community that “we are redesigning all our Admissions materials to ensure they meet the expectations and needs of prospective students.”
The school’s efforts are understandable, of course. But higher education reformers worry that Mizzou’s new focus on Skype calls, text messages and redesigned admissions materials shows that the university’s leadership has understood little to nothing about its own role in crafting the crisis in which it now finds itself. Mizzou appears to be approaching this primarily as a public relations issue. Having fired one very visible, out-of-control professor, does the school now hope that the rest of its problems can be solved by “better press”?
Mizzou—and not merely Mizzou—has far more than a media problem. Rather than blame, and then try to influence, media coverage, American higher education needs to understand that the existential threat it faces comes not from the media’s messengers but from the message schools convey to the public through the increasingly politicized character of college education. The Mizzou debacle was not about the press. It was instead about putting into practice (through the protests) the increasingly ideological agenda taught on campuses like Mizzou.
Mizzou should not look to scapegoat the media for doing its job. The source of Mizzou’s “press problem” is Mizzou, and the source of “bad press” for universities in general is the university culture.
Parents send their children to college primarily to equip them for the job market. They also hope that, while their children are in college, they will grow intellectually through free debate over life’s big questions (e.g., “Who am I?” and “What is my relation to society?”), the examination of which is the noblest purpose of higher education.
Forget all that now. Free debate is increasingly stifled on campus due to the demands of political correctness. According to the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), “an overwhelming majority of colleges and universities across the country deny students the rights they are granted under the First Amendment or institutional promises.” This denial of student rights, as well as the ideological slant that universities teach and by which they seek to justify these denials, is having its effect on the hearts and minds of today’s students. Pew survey findings demonstrate that higher education is inclining students away from devotion to individual freedom and toward censorship: “40 percent of millennials” today approve of censorship, far more than Gen Xers (27%), Boomers (24%) and Silents (12%).
Bad press is not higher education’s problem. An anti-freedom, anti-intellect, pro-censorship regime is. As Mizzou demonstrates, students, their parents and donors are finally shouting, “Enough.”