Turning 57 in the year 2024

Earlier this month I had a birthday, which I prefer to think of as “completing another solar orbit.” Today I’ll continue with this blog’s tradition of birthdayblogging: a bit of reflection, some memoir, and a touch of futuring. (previously: 2023, 202220212019201820182017)

This isn’t easy to write about.

Turning 57 is an odd milestone.  It feels like… nothing in many ways.  The number doesn’t trigger any events. There’s no symbolism around the non-event, nothing in the culture, nothing in policy nor law.  Instead, the non-milestone makes me look ahead to the major events, like 60 and 65.  Those dates loom large, but 57?  It’s a big shrug.

Maybe it’s better instead to consider the date as a time to look hard at myself.

Bryan at 57 in his office

At my office desk.

As a kid I didn’t imagine my 50s well.  Then, being 50 was just part of the general category of “old,” which meant “anyone over 30,” I think.  I supposed I would attain that age, among others. In my teen years I wasn’t sure I’d live that long, because I didn’t think most humans would, given the specter of thermonuclear annihilation.  Once I hit my 20s and nuclear war fell away with the USSR, I viewed being 50-odd as one more slot in a hopefully productive life to come.  Which it has turned out to be.

50s, 57: what did the last year mean, that foggy and numerically unremarkable solar tour?

It meant a lot of work, for starters.  My latest book, Universities on Fire, appeared in March 2023.  I’ve been doing in-person and virtual events in multiple nations to support it. I recently pitched another book proposal; with luck, you’ll hear about that soon. I taught four graduate classes, one in spring 2023, three in the fall.  I consulted, led workshops, gave talks, and facilitated meetings online and in person, again in several nations.  In fact, our consulting enterprise turned ten years old in 2023. Every week I led – well, produced, led, and did post-production for – the Future Trends Forum, which now has nearly 400 YouTube recordings and an audience just over 9,000 people.  Continuous research into higher education’s future appeared in the FTTE report, this blog, my presentations, consults, and across social media. I started up a Substack on AI and education’s future, and it’s going well, with 34 posts, 939 subscribers (some paying), and a decent amount of conversation attached.  Overall, I think I did some good work on higher education’s future.

Yet 2023 also meant death.  Too much death and near death.  My father died in June. My wife endured two heart attacks. (written about here and here) My friend John Lawler died. Another friend died after years of fighting cancer.

Every day it seems I think of a dead friend at different moments in the day. Tomak cheers me on when I lift weights, George (he sometimes preferred the spelling “geORge”) appears when I think about ebooks. Mike comes to mind when I’m teaching or designing games, Earle when I’m teaching or reading.  And my nearly-dead wife, well, I care for every day.  She’s doing much better, but the fundamental shock of two (2!) near-death experiences isn’t something you shed easily, and she’s doing a ton of work to keep herself away from another cardiac event.

There’s an online dimension to these deaths, too, which hits me harder every year.  I come across a blog post, YouTube video, podcast, article, etc. which I know would be perfect for a certain friend and prepare to share it via email, Gchat, Telegram… only to realize that they’ve died. This feels like networking mourning, in a way.

All of these mortalities make me think of my own death, obviously. Memento mori. I’ve spent some time rereading Heidegger on death, because apparently that’s how I roll (I read a lot of existentialism back in the day).  I’ve ramped up my death cleaning, in case I die suddenly: reducing some physical possessions, reorganizing my digital footprint to make it easier to manage.  In case I die suddenly: this thought occurs daily, as I bike, walk, write at a keyboard, ride a train, cram myself into an airplane seat.  What happens next, to my family, my friends, my professional network, my body?

I still feel no religious stirring on this score at all, although I appreciate some writers who were or are religious.  I wasn’t raised in a faith. Years of studying religion didn’t draw me into one.

I don’t talk to most people about this growing awareness of death.  I don’t feel I can – that I’m not sure if what I’ll say will be useful for anyone, or if my experience is worth anything.  And many Americans think death distasteful, morbid, too depressing. So I usually stay silent.

This specter of death drives me to care for my own body to a level I’ve never previously attained. My health is doing very well, overall, actually.  Looking at myself, I still have my head of hair and my beard is something of note, although the forehead is gradually expanding. I can’t shrink my belly any further, no matter what I do, but I’ve been working on making it more muscled.  I have worn reading glasses for several years and appreciate them.

There’s professional evidence of my health improvements. At the last checkup a clinician told me I was fine: lab results for blood pressure, cholesterols, etc. all checked well. He had nothing to recommend me to do. Actually, he wanted to know my secret to good health.  I told him the secret is, apparently, eating a vegan diet, biking every other day, and weightlifting every other day, not to mention walking a lot and continuing to avoid alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. I’m straight edge, dear reader.  Which leads to a musical interlude:

Death goads me not just mentally and bodily, but professionally.  I feel like I’m running out of time to get things done, and feel so every day.  I condemn myself for wasting dwindling hours for doing certain things, or doing other things less efficiently than I could have.  I damn people for wasting my time with bad writing, useless meetings, or inserting stupid delays into my day.  Bad writing, popcorn fiction, long tv series with slight payoff, comfort fiction I try to avoid.

That concern for time is fierce.  It leads me to downplay what I’ve accomplished so far.  Achieving a terminal degree from a leading university, teaching at three institutions, creating and leading a successful business, publishing four books in various editions, winning awards, interviewed in leading venues, building an international audience – it’s not enough.  I don’t bask in what I’ve done so far. I want more life, like Roy Baty says, and in it I want to get more done. So I readily work 60, 65, 70 hour weeks.

I hear from other folks in their 50s that they look forward to ending work. Some are retiring. In contrast, I don’t feel like my life is slowing down, gliding serenely towards retirement, but speeding up to more and more activity.  Am I seriously supposed to be thinking of slack and rest? No.  It’s not in me now.

I also want more for my personal life. The chance of death makes me think of supporting my family, so I work more to provision them, but I also want to spend all the time in the universe with my amazing wife and children.  The same goes for my friends. I read that the very aged and people at death’s door tend to say what they value and miss the most is the company of loved ones, and I feel that intensely.

And there’s so much more to experience, too – books, games, food, travel. Once more, I don’t feel like slowing down here, but want to accelerate.

the number 57

I worry about the past and its potential to grab into my attention. In previous posts I’ve muttered about the lure of nostalgia, and that does leap up to catch me more often than I expected. I return with love to many books and movies of my youth, and do find myself disdaining present day efforts.  My dreams keep returning to my college days, to my teens, and even to my childhood, despite my trying to get them to look into the future.

So I try to push ahead. I discipline myself to listen to current music, watch new movies, read new books. I revise my syllabi to make sure they aren’t historical relics, but contain older material that’s especially resonant. As always, I keep working on emerging technology – lots of AI now, plus something I’ll write about soon.

Some people my age celebrate freeing themselves from the opinions of others. I think they see themselves as done, finished, incapable of amendment. Or they see themselves secure enough to not mind being negatively viewed. Or they’ve just grown tired of monitoring how others view them. I’m not there yet. As someone who makes stuff for others to consume, I’m always conscious of how I present. And as someone without institutional or other backing to rely on, I can’t afford to irk people unless it’s utterly necessary.

And I use that social environment to improve myself.  I’m always trying to develop, from teaching myself new languages (Spanish and Chinese now) to weight lifting, teaching and new technologies.

the number 57 on a street corner

Maybe it’s all too much, and this post comes across as the ranting of a workaholic.  I confess to trying to spend more time watching movies in theaters and reading some fiction which isn’t directly about my work. Maybe I should do more of that.  And try that un-American “vacation” thing.

Last note: I’ve heard some folks my age and older talk about the wisdom they’ve accumulated and how they should share it.  I’m not feeling that, myself.  Sure, I’ve seen some stuff.  I’ve read a lot and made a bunch of stuff, but I’m not sure what that means.  I try to make my books, presentations, facilitations, etc. as excellent as they can be, but it doesn’t feel like wisdom.

So what next?

More work.  I have a bunch of projects in various stages of inception, and will share if they emerge.  I think I’m teaching four classes this calendar year.  There are virtual and in-person events scheduled through November.  The Forum plunges into another year.  Memento mori.

I care for my family. I hope my wife keeps mending. Meanwhile, our children are adults, so we enjoy their flourishing and assist as we can. Memento mori.

More connections with friends, hopefully in person. Memento mori.

Continued care for my health. Hopefully I can boost my biking radius to 10 or 20 miles by December and crack limits on the local gym’s weight lifting machines. Memento mori.

What else should I be doing, as I ride along another solar orbit?  Besides thanking you all, dear readers, for following and writing back to me?

(57 in tiles photo by duncan cumming; 57 on a street corner by Rob Brewer)

Posted in personal | 5 Comments

Massachusetts removes college degree requirements from most state jobs

Over the past year at least a dozen American states have taken a very interesting step.  They have removed a college degree requirement for applicants to some or most state jobs.  It’s a way of helping people “break the paper ceiling,” of advancing without needing to have postsecondary education credentials.  Examples include Alaska, California, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania (and Philadelphia), South Dakota, Utah, Virginia.

Now Massachusetts has joined them. (alternative link)

Governor Maura Healey filed an executive order on Thursday to ensure most state government job listings do not include degree requirements and hiring managers use a “skills-based” approach when picking candidates to fill open positions.

Skills-based instead of credential-driven: that’s an important shift.

Healey announced this decision during a speech to Associated Industries of Massachusetts on Thursday, in part to spur companies to rethink their approaches to hiring. She noted that career success shouldn’t be limited to the portion of the state’s population — nearly half, per a recent census count — with a bachelor’s degree.

Did you catch that last point, about almost 50% of the state having a degree? In fact, Walletbub just determined that Massachusetts was the most educated state in America. And that state now set aside those educational requirements at scale.

I don’t want to overstate this decision. After all, Massachusetts employs fewer than 50,000 people (source) so we’re not overhauling the state’s labor force.  At the same time, nothing in the governor’s decision prevents people with degrees for applying to state positions.  Moreover, the states which have taken such steps number not even one third of the lot; a majority of American states still require postsecondary sheepskin for public jobs.  A powerful reason for those decisions is the currently low unemployment level; when that rises, perhaps these states will reverse their positions.

And yet I think this is noteworthy.  It stands opposed to the inherited “college for all idea,” instead viewing non-academic achievement as on par with college or university degrees.  It may encourage other organizations to do the same – other states, businesses, nonprofits – to similarly downgrade reliance on postsecondary attainment.  As word of these shifts gets out it might depress college enrollment to a degree.

Note, too, that this isn’t a partisan move.  Republicans and Democrats alike seem equally fond of the idea so far, even in our hyperpolarized times.  It’s easy to find examples of this, starting with how the state leaders who have taken this step are members of both parties. A bipartisan pair of governors urged others to reduce college requirements.  While the conservative National Review praised the strategy, so did Barack Obama:

Here’s an example of a smart policy that gets rid of unnecessary college degree requirements and reduces barriers to good paying jobs. I hope other states follow suit!

Let’s keep an eye on this trend.  As 2024’s elections ratchet up, this could become a partisan issue.  Or it might just continue with more governors deciding to open up public jobs beyond academic achievement.  Is the college for all consensus shattering?

 

Posted in future of education | 4 Comments

Did the decade-long enrollment decline turn around?

Greetings from February, which somehow occurred just as I was getting adjusted to December.  Over the past month I’ve been frantically teaching, traveling (US, Qatar), pitching a new book idea, managing the Future Trends Forum into autumn, arranging professional engagements through summer, caring for my wife… and while I’ve started a dozen blog posts here, I haven’t published them.  It’s time to get back into the bloghouse and posting seriously again.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoLet me begin with some important higher education data. The National Student Clearinghouse just issued the latest update on enrollments and I’d like to dig into it.

The big takeaway: for the first time in more than a decade enrollment didn’t decline.  It actually ticked up by 1.1% in fall 2023.

Let’s look at some details.

Undergraduate enrollment actually rose overall by 1.2% and across all institutional sectors, albeit unevenly.  Community colleges and for-profits saw the largest rises (2.6 and 3.8% respectively) while public and private 4-year institutions enjoyed a 0.6% increase.

enrollment undergrad 2019-2023 by sector_Clearinghouse 2024 Jan

Zoom in for details, as there’s a lot going on in this graph. “PAB” = Primarily Associate Degree Granting Baccalaureate Institution

Graduate school enrollment also rose by .6%, low enough to drag down the overall number.

Demographics: in terms of race, black, Latino, Asian populations enrolled in higher numbers, while white and Native American student numbers went down.  In terms of age there was some (0.8%) growth among teenagers, which seemed to be driven mostly by dual enrollments with high schools.

Geographically the south, midwest, and west saw increases.  The northeast differed by dipping down 0.4%.

The Clearinghouse also identified which courses of study enrolled how many students.  STEM fields and business led the pack, with computer science growing by 9.5% in four-year programs and more than 13% for graduate degrees.  Some allied health programs declined while others rose.

Some takeaways:

  • Community colleges and for-profits are the big winners here.  The Obama-Biden pressure on the latter group didn’t yield results this year, at least in terms of enrollment.  Quite the opposite. And dual enrollment (getting high school students into college classes) is the main reason community colleges pulled out of a long decline.  Dual enrollment seems to be a major driver for this overall enrollment change.
  • STEM and business majors continue to grow. That’s not a surprise, but constitutes a useful datapoint.
  • Some have said this reverses the pandemic decline, but that’s short-sighted.  The enrollment drop began in 2012.
  • For me, I’m intensely curious to see what this means for the past decade of enrollment decline. Does the new data mean that the shrinkage has ended, or is this a blip before classes dwindle again? Will the next years bring a growing population and a partial recovery of the academic population?  This Forbes piece celebrates the new enrollment numbers as “great news…. outstanding news.” That’s one view, upon which we could build a model. How long would it take for student numbers to build back up to 2012?  Remember that we’re deep in a hole – as Nathan Greenfield quotes Doug Shapiro, “there are still over a million empty seats on campuses today that were filled five years ago.”
  • Or do we see numbers return to the post-peak pattern of decline once more?  Demographics suggest yes.  Rising skepticism about higher education agrees, partially in response to as yet unreformed student debt. For-profits could suffer a collapse again, as they did starting with the Obama administration. My hunch is that if we see enrollment rise by 1+% each year we’ll still have an overbuilt ecosystem of colleges and universities for at least a couple of decades.

That’s all for now.  What do you make of this important data?

 

Posted in enrollment | 14 Comments

Losing faith in the value of college: an important Wall Street Journal article

(Greetings from a hectic month.  I’m writing this right after starting to teach a big class, participating in several professional events, and now traveling to Qatar.  Greetings from the Istanbul Airport.)

How are Americans turning away from higher education?

I’ve been writing about this for a decade, exploring enrollment declines, changing political attitudes, macroeconomic developments, and more. Recently I’ve offered the term “shattered consensus” to describe the end of popular belief on college for everyone.  Last week Doug Belkin (a fine Future Trends Forum guest) wrote a good Wall Street Journal article summing up explanations for that broken consensus.  I’d like to summarize it here and offer some reflections

Belkin starts off summarizing the consensus model neatly:

For three generations, the national aspiration to “college for all” shaped America’s economy and culture, as most high-school graduates took it for granted that they would earn a degree. That consensus is now collapsing in the face of massive student debt, underemployed degree-holders and political intolerance on campus.

What caused that collapse?

Belkin criticizes institutional governance as slow and conservative, not letting academics respond more quickly and effectively to a changing world.  He blames pre-college prep as insufficient and duns college teaching for not being up to the task.  Colleges and universities have hired larger proportions of undersupported adjuncts to do the teaching work; those temporary employees are also strongly incentivized to reduce instructional demands and inflate grades in order to win better evaluations.  On top of this, cheating seems to be widespread and growing.

The price paid to attend college has famously increased, due to familiar reasons: “state budget cuts, administrative bloat and runaway spending on campus amenities.”  Meanwhile, returns to degrees are not guaranteed:

Of 100 random freshmen enrolling in college today, 40 will not graduate. Of the remaining 60 that earn a degree in six years, 20 will end up chronically underemployed. In other words, for every five students who enroll in a four-year college, only two will graduate and find a job based on their degree.

And then there’s student loan debt.
University of student loans

Belkin adds that polling shows declining faith in higher ed, and argues that there’s deep interest in alternatives, such as apprenticeships.

This all maps onto what I’ve been seeing pretty well.  Adjunctification, rising prices (and costs), declining polling, hunts for alternatives, etc. all fit the picture.

I do want to offer a gentle commentary on a few points.

First, while colleges and universities can be very slow to change, it’s not true of all.  Small institutions, like small ships, have a tighter turning radius and have the potential to implement new ideas faster than their giant colleagues.  Private institutions also have the benefit of independence from a layer of state policy and observation.  Further, community colleges are laser-focused on their local community needs (hence the name!) and frequently adjust their offerings to better suit demand.

Belkin argues about enrollment that “As students abandoned the humanities and flooded fields like computer science, big data and engineering, schools failed to respond.” Actually, enrollment in STEM, allied health, and business has soared for more than a decade. Many colleges and universities have managed to offer classes and degrees to power those rising enrollment numbers.   I’ve actually heard from more than a few deans that they fear overdoing it and pushing supply past demand.  (Naturally, much depends on the specific situation of a given campus and the people it serves.)

Second, I would caution readers that Belkin tends to focus on one part of higher ed for most of the article.  Higher ranked four-year colleges and graduate program-offering universities are the main target.  For example, when he writes “Professors compete for tenure on the basis of the quality of their research and publishing track record. Teaching is mostly an afterthought” that leaves off liberal arts colleges and community colleges, among others.  The criticism of amenities arms races boosting costs also sets aside institutions with low numbers of residential students.

Al Akhawayn University

Al Akhawayn University

Third, I remain skeptical of many commentaries based on “administrative bloat.” The term is a tricky one, usually accounting for all staff at an institution who aren’t faculty or students who aren’t working on campus.  That means presidents to custodians, IT staff and librarians, deanlets and grants officers. Their numbers have grown for plenty of solid reasons: increased regulatory burdens, the expansion of IT, greater demand for student services (think of mental health, student life), and more.  Decreasing state support for public institutions has led some of those schools to hire more people for fundraising, from development offices to people charged with nurturing business partnerships.  Sure, there is excess staffing in some fields and outright featherbedding, like in many aspects of American life – but also plenty of overworked, underpaid, marginalized, or just plain ignored staff who badly need better support.

Fourth, and this might have more to do with the Wall Street Journal’s politics*, Belkin touches on American politics too quickly.  It’s important to tease out some details, like the large upsurge of academic skepticism and outright fury from Republicans.  It’s also worth digging into surveys to see different levels of support vs skepticism broken down by age, gender, academic attainment, race, and geography. In other words, politics play a big role in breaking up the college for all consensus, and it’s worth at least a whole article just making sense of it.

Summing up: this is an important article, for all the extra themes I wanted it to sound.  The shattered consensus seems to be breaking into reality.  How will academics respond?

*I’m referring to the WSJ’s investigative journalism wing, not its opinion pages.  The former does solid work, like cracking the Theranos story. In contast, the latter can be,… extreme.

Posted in future of education | 2 Comments

Positive notes on which to start 2024

Greetings 2024!

I’d like to greet you with optimism and a story of gifts.  You see, I ended 2023 with some grim posts (1, 2) and would like to balance those out with some of what cheers me up.

2023 did actually give us some good news. There have been a spate of fairly unremarked-upon medical advances, from birth control to RSV, AIDS to Alzheimer’s and applied CRISPR. (Here’s a quick summary)

Humanity’s exploration of space continued to grow in what I think of as space race 2.0. The United States and China lead the way with human and uncrewed missions to Earth orbit, the moon, and Mars.  American probes also visited numerous locations across the solar system, while the two Voyager missions keep hurtling into the interstellar void.  Meanwhile, other nations have lofted missions into space: India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and more.

My pro-private enterprise readers will applaud how the private exploration of space has surged into a peer position alongside governmental work – indeed, leads the American effort by far. My pro-labor readers will appreciate a series of organization drives and successful strikes: UAW, Hollywood.

I continue to be impressed by the rapid decriminalization of cannabis. Added to this are signs of a similar reduction in the war on psychedelics.  I am delighted to see real improvements in people’s lives as a result of increased access to cannabis, such as pain and anxiety relief. I’m also hopeful for new research into these substances and their uses, such as for mental health treatments, now that simply doing science on the stuff is less likely to land a researcher in jail (one example).

Readers know my focus on climate change, and there were some positive steps there, despite what I outlined in my grim post from last week.  Renewables keep growing is use and efficiency. The COP meeting did show some progress.  People are using the courts on climate issues around the world and getting some traction.  Ecuador voted against fossil fuel extraction.  And maybe the record-breaking heat of 2023 nudged more people into climate action.

Now let me share a positive story about the digital world.

Last week I came across a series of Mastodon posts which intrigued me there. They were a digital story, and I’ve been teaching and researching digital storytelling for twenty years.  The plot concerned a young person going to a university for the first time, which hits my higher ed interest.  And it takes place in a solarpunk world; solarpunk as an optimistic climate crisis design approach is right in my wheelhouse.

Mastodon Lex solarpunk university thread start including the whole server interface

Big screen grab.

I read the story and wanted to share it here, but couldn’t find a way to embed the posts here. I couldn’t even figure out how to like, comment on, or share the posts, since they lived on a different server than the one I use for Mastodon (here’s my account).

So instead I prepared to make some screen captures and to share links to individual post, but then Alan Levine got to work.  Alan, a great educational technologist, brilliant photographer, grand spirit, and good friend, was the one who originally introduced me to Lex’s unfolding narrative. He does that kind of thing, both from native generosity, but also from our shared love of the open web.

Alan went off to work on the issue.  Then he posted about what he did on his blog.

That post begins with a description of the issue I just summarized, then offers a solution.  I didn’t know this, but Mastodon has an embed button for each post:

Mastodon embed screenshot

Useful!  But not for this blog.  See, the Mastodon embed generates a bit of HTML within iframe tags, which WordPress, the engine behind the site you’re reading, doesn’t support.

No problem.  Because Alan is brilliant, experienced, a devotee of the open web, and loves to make stuff, he quickly rewrote a WordPress plugin and uploaded it to Github.  In the blog post – and in notes at Github – he clearly explained what it was and how to use it. I followed directions:

  1. Downloaded the plugin as a zip file.
  2. Uploaded and installed it to this very WordPress blog.
  3. Copied the Mastodon link and pasted it here.  Behold:

Yes!

This made me so excited I tried the thing again, adding more Mastodon posts from that thread:

And one more:

There are 21 posts in the story so far, but I’ll stop sharing ’em here and let you look and enjoy.

Not content with this act of creative assistance, Alan adds this:

And as a bonus, my Embed Extras gives you this one link embed option for content from Padlet, the Internet Archive, Vocaroo (audio), Sodaphonic Boombox (ditto), and Pixelfed.

So let me wrap up with two observations.

First, Lex’s story so far is very interesting.  The thread outlines classic solarpunk features: appropriate technology, high (robots, aerial wind turbines) and low (boats); agriculture; refurbishing and repurposing old (our) buildings; combining biology and silicon-based technology; solar power, of course.  What we’ve seen of teaching so far is hands-on student work in biology and technology.  There’s also that classic narrative of a person going to campus for the first time.  Intriguing!  I’d like to see more, please, Lex.

Formally, each post includes both text and an illustration.  The images aren’t sourced, but seem to come from across the web.  A couple are solarpunk classics, like one from Imperial Boy and a screenshot from that wild Chobani video.  They usually complement the text.

Second, bravo to Alan for taking the time to whip up a solution.  Bravo once more for sharing it on the open web, not just for me but for anyone who can ping a web browser.

It was a good learning experience for me, figuring out how to make the embed work. (I also learned, or learned again, how to interact with a Mastodon post on another server. You take the URL and paste it into your server’s search box, which is strange but works:

Mastodon search box with a URL crammed into it

Search box lives on the top left of my Mastodon Deck interface.  Mastodonodeck? Mastodeck?)

This is one example of how we make the digital world work well in 2024. People sharing and working together, in the open, so anyone else can play.  Who knows?  Maybe someone else will write another plugin or document their use of Alan’s. Someone else will share comments about Lex’s story or another person will write their own. That’s how this stuff can work.

Thank you for the gifts, Alan.  And happy new year, all!

 

 

Posted in climatechange, digitalstorytelling, technology | Tagged | 2 Comments

From 2023 to 2024: academia and climate change

2023 is almost through and we prepare ourselves for 2024. Today I’ll continue my reflections on the two years with an emphasis on one topic.  (Here’s my previous post.)

The past year has been the hottest on record, which is pretty widely known around the world, as so many people experienced heat waves, not to mention fires and storms worsened by global warming. Climate change has become more real for a lot of people.  As Bill McKibben writes:

the most important thing that happened this year was the heat. By far. It was hotter than it has been in at least 125,000 years on this planet. Every month since May was the hottest ever recorded. Ocean temperatures set a new all-time mark, over 100 degrees. Canada burned, filling the air above our cities with smoke.

There are other climate developments we can point to, like the recent COP meeting in the United Arab Emirates.  This managed to conclude with some progressive language, although was arguably kneecapped by being dominated by the fossil fuel industry.  Leaders of the United States and China met and agreed to more climate collaboration.  Decarbonization proceeded around the world, albeit unevenly.  Leading climate scientist James Hansen co-authored a controversial paper arguing that the climate was more sensitive to stresses than expected, which might indicate global warming is accelerating.

As a 2023 state of the climate report put it:

Life on planet Earth is under siege. We are now in an uncharted territory. For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, time is up.

More:

We are seeing the manifestation of those predictions as an alarming and unprecedented succession of climate records are broken, causing profoundly distressing scenes of suffering to unfold. We are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity.

It’s not hard to find observations like this, pitched to varying degrees of intensity.

And yet the world has responded with what McKibben refers to as… an odd silence.  We’re experiencing a storytelling and mental mapping failure.

(In geological terms, we’re warming at hellish pace; but that’s not how the 24/7 news cycle works.) It’s been record-global-hot every day for months now: the first few of those days got some coverage, but at a certain point editors, and then readers, begin to tune out. We’re programmed—by evolution, doubtless, and in the case of journalism by counting clicks—to look for novelty and for conflict. Climate change seems inexorable, which is the opposite of how we think about news.

In higher education, the subject of my futures work, we’ve seen something similar. Overall, academia considered the climate crisis in 2023 and… blinked.

I traveled a good amount in 2023 after Universities on Fire appeared, visiting campuses and all kinds of academic meetings: for president, campus planners, societies, technologists, etc. I follow discussions amount faculty and staff through various social media platforms, scholarly publications, in-person conferences, and virtual academic meetings. Generally, climate change was not a priority for us this year.

Oh yes, there are climate activists dotted across the higher education landscape.  I follow, learn from, and work with these rare individuals who try energetically to educate and mobilize their peers.  At Society for College and University Planning (the delightfully acronymed “SCUP“) meetings I found campus architects, sustainability officers, planners, and maintenance staff soberly aware of global warming and building it into their plans.  A handful of colleges and universities have taken some steps, setting up new programs and initiatives – independent of financial resources. Cornell University has a campus-community climate group names after my climate book, Cornell on Fire.  Elsewhere in New York a climate campus was announcedTwo campuses changed their electrical power sources and altered buildings. They were all outliers in 2023.

We can think of them according to Rogers’ classic scheme for innovation adoption.  A new idea, like actively responding to the climate crisis, at first only engages a small section of a population, the early adopters:

Rogers diffusion graph

It takes time and quite a few processes for the new thing to cross over into the majorities.

Right now climate is still in that first slice of the academic pie.

Why?  I’ve been asking myself this for years, once I started working on the future of climate change and higher education. I was shocked by how mentioning global warming would kill conversations stone dead most of the time, how rarely the topic appeared in academic discourse.  I’ve barely encountered academics openly resisting the idea – just a few deniers – but instead keep finding the silence Bill McKibben talks about.  Being an extrovert and also someone who learns by asking people stuff, I’ve made a pest of myself and asked academics why climate hasn’t set their hair on fire.

The answers are instructive.  At the top of the academic food chain most presidents assure me that while they are concerned about global warming, they see it as bad campus politics.  They see few upsides and plenty of risk, both to their administrations and also their institutions.  A good number have told me they’ve heard little to no climate interest from their faculty, as well, and don’t think they can push the topic forward without that support.

Faculty and staff usually tell me they don’t see what they could or should do. They feel burned out, for one, by the past decade, and various mixes of stresses: COVID-19, fears for their institution’s or department’s survival, dread about anti-academic attitudes in the population, anxiety about politics of all kinds. Some tell me they have very limited bandwidth for anything other than their immediate teaching, research, and service, and see other priorities for that limited resource.  Many have said they just don’t see what they can do, professionally, about the climate crisis.  Personally they might be a hybrid car, cut down on eating meat, etc., but they feel no traction in their teaching, research, and service.

There is also a sense of resignation.  Climate change is happening, the world will warm, the crisis will escalate, and I can’t do a thing about it as a grants officer/psychologist/assessment dean. (Related note: several professors told me to stop bothering higher ed, because it’s insignificant in the broader picture. Instead I should lobby governments and big corporations.) (Which is interesting, as the Indian government just told higher ed to teach more about climate while American and Chinese leaders assigned their respective academies one global warming task) I’ve heard this attitude from non-academics as well.  Global warming is just baked in now and we’ll deal with it as it comes.  It probably won’t impact us so much as some other people.  Maybe we should buy some insurance to be safe.

Again I say: this isn’t everyone, just most of the ones I’ve heard from and spoken to.

There are some unsurprising differences by age.  Traditional-age students are much more interested in climate.  I’ve had fascinating conversations with 18-24-year-olds about how they see their careers in terms of climate change.  They agonized over having children, dreading to send them into an overheated world. Some have come to me to think about the professions they seek, weighing climate impact and action.  The youngest staff members – again, in their 20s – tend to be climate interested.  Several times A/V workers have sought me out after I’ve given speeches in order to talk about global warming.  It’s young students, after all, who asked their states attorneys general to take action against fossil fuel companies.

On the flip side I’ve heard some odd or depressing comments from people in their 60s on up. One professional researcher told me she was retiring to the Florida coast anyway, even knowing what climate change was going to do to it.  Several have confessed – in private – that they thought climate was a problem for their successors, not for themselves.  The age differences among these academics map well onto polls and surveys of broader populations, which reliably show global warming interest spiking among people under 30.

Where does this leave us?  Possibly academics will gradually come to terms with the climate crisis along the lines I laid out in this blog and in my book on the topic.  The keyword there is “gradually,” as the Millennials and Zers age up through staff and faculty ranks into higher positions of authority.  This might be the work of a decade or two.

Or maybe the change will occur faster than that. For one, humanity as a whole appears to be taking the crisis more seriously every year.  While some climate activists tend to be younger (think of the students hurling paint at artwork, or of Greta Thunberg) their elders have turned the wheels of global power in their direction, albeit slowly.  Decarbonization is picking up speed. National climate goals are now in place for many countries. Climate fiction is starting to appear in print (for example), computer games, movies, and television (for example).

In Rogers’ framework the crucial step for widespread adoption is when those majorities change their minds and adopt the innovation.  They don’t do so for fun or intellectual excitement, like the early adopters.  Instead they come to see a new thing as giving them some enhancement to their lives, often an incremental one, or that the novelty will help them deal with some problems, also incrementally.  Most importantly, they don’t listen to early adopters, but to each other.  Mainstream adoption requires mainstream examples.

Perhaps that’s the route for higher education to grapple with the climate crisis.  It won’t be the Earth scientist or journalist ablaze with climate stories, but the biologist who realizes that the biomes they study are increasingly under threat, or the political scientist who thinks they can better connect with ever-younger students by including climate in their comparative politics classes.  The librarians who start planning how to protect their collections as wet bulb temperatures look to be dangerous in ten years link up with the technologists who fear deploying some new applications because of their carbon footprint. These majoritarians will hear stories like this and this and realize they strike people like themselves.

Or maybe colleges and universities will respond to their (traditional-age) students. Administrators and department chairs may bet that expanding climate-related classes and offering climate programs will find responsive and numerous audiences.  Some academics will want to meet the Greta Thunberg generation where they are and to start researching global warming in their disciplines, bringing that work to class. And maybe some want to get ahead of the political curve, to offer climate opportunities before student protests break out.

Sign on a window: "Eat the rich, not beef"

Sign on a university residence hall window.

…You’ll note that I started this post writing about 2023 and I’ve already become unmoored in time, drifting into the future.  It’s a professional habit, I fear, but one that I hope is useful.  As we peer together around the corner into 2024, I’m going to look for those signs of change, those rising generations, the mainstream mind changes.

Some developments I’ll monitor, based on 2023:

  • Governments at any scale taking actions aimed at higher education
  • Student protests
  • Campuses declaring climate emergencies (although the late 2023 story of campus reactions to the Gaza war suggest senior administrators might prefer silence)
  • Environmental disasters striking physical campuses
  • Vendors of all kinds, from food service to ed tech and publishing, changing or offering new goods and services along climate lines

I’m also looking for campus diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) activists to extend their reach to climate justice.

And meanwhile the early adopters will keep doing their outrageously underappreciated work of researching, teaching, planning, doing service, taking community action, performing public scholarship, organizing, and more.  Some leading campuses will launch or expand climate programs.  Bravo to you all.  May you inspire more.

Let me know what you see as your part of academic confronts the climate crisis.  Together we can make a difference in the face of this epochal challenge.

 

Posted in climatechange, future of education | 12 Comments

From 2023 to 2024: a growing academic civil war

2023 is nearly done, for which many people are no doubt thankful. In several blog posts I’d like to look back at the year before it’s over to identify some trends which look likely to shape 2024.

Today’s topic is what I’ve been quietly calling an academic civil war.   Political struggles within higher education loomed large and are likely to persist in 2024.  Academia is also an object for external political struggle.

DALL·E 2023-12-27 21.50.28 - A futuristic vision of the year 2024, with a bustling cityscape and advanced technology like flying cars and holographic displays. The architecture is

(By this term I mean to shock, appropriately, because we’ve seen some damage to academia over the past year, and we’d be wise to anticipate more in the next.  I also intend the term to indicate complex, messy conflict playing out differently across the sector and beyond.  Is the term too violent for the reality it seeks to describe?  Oh, I certainly hope so. As someone who’s actually spent time in a real civil war (Bosnia and Croatia, 1995) I don’t want to overstate the term’s meaning here, although we’ve already suffered some violent deaths in political clashes (for example).  But perhaps things will worsen. See below.)

To recap from 2023: struggles have occurred across numerous colleges and universities over diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Off-campus, state and federal officials have played major roles in this fights, notably in legislative actions.   Donors have also played a role.  Some DEI advocates see themselves as doing badly overdue antiracist work, while their opponents view their actions as stopping a pernicious ideology.

Related struggles took place over gender identity, similarly involving multiple actors within and adjacent to campuses. Academic reactions to the Israel-Gaza war constitute another example of this trend, at times to a higher intensity.  The states which restricted abortion access following the Dobbs decision have seen some degree of protest on their campuses, along with some number of students withdrawing their interest and faculty and staff leaving.

Free speech and academic freedom (which are not identical) became leading sites of contestation, as we say.  Debates over the two concepts’ meaning and applications raged across and beyond academia, ranging from detailed discussions of legal and policy language to clumsy virtue signaling and media posturing. We held several Future Trends Forum sessions on the topic this year with a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter and the authors of PEN America’s guide to academic freedom, plus two events late in 2022, one with a FIRE researcher and the other with professors Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth.

Interesting to me is how rarely climate change played such a role in campus politics, at least in the United States.

These struggles took place against a social background of declining faith in higher education. We’ve seen that measured by a series of 2023 polls, such as from Gallup or like this Wall Street Journal one:

Political partisanship has played a role here, with Republicans especially likely to hold negative views of higher education.  We saw many incidents of GOP politicians from Trump on down hitting colleges and universities for the usual reasons: teaching outrageous ideologies, tenuring outrageous radicals, wasting money, suborning national security, etc.

Looking for 2024, it seems to me that all of these developments and attitudes will still be in play, at least for the next few months.  The Gaza war is still raging, as of this writing.  Trans people are not going away, nor are their opponents.  The desire to do DEI work on campuses, and its opposite, appear to be firmly in place in academic institutions and general politics.

I am concerned that we may see the intensity of such struggles escalate. The 2024 state and national elections are already revving up, since America made the idiotic decision to have presidential campaigns last two or more years. Given how leading Republicans have been acting towards academics, we should expect the rhetoric of criticizing colleges and universities to heat up.  Given how elected officials have sought to pass, or succeeded in implementing, laws about antiracism, Israel, gender identity, academic freedom, curricular content, and more over the past year, it seems likely we’ll see more of those interventions aired or successfully passed into law and policy.

Will things get worse?  Blog readers know I have been forecasting the possibility of American political violence for some time (for example).  Others have as well – coming up this spring is a movie about a titular civil war.

We have largely avoided such chaos so far, but the conditions for at least low-level violence remain: huge numbers of weapons held by citizens, some very angry activists, a significant number of people open to violence.  A bitter election season holds out many opportunities for armed conflict.  Hyperconnected devices make it easy to spread documentation (true or faked) and commentary on outrages.  Political polarization looks to be entrenched and intense.

Could political violence hit our campuses?  It’s not hard to imagine.  Historically, the 1960s saw plenty of cases, from riots to bombings.  In the present day students, faculty, and staff can access weapons, depending on their situation.  Those academics are also plugged into digital networks, which can bring non-academic incidents to campus life through personalized media.

I’m speaking in a kind of binary, violence/no-violence, but that’s only the start.  Should America or its campuses cross that divide into wounding and killing, a cycle of more of the same can begin.  Those who feel linked to the injured may seek revenge. People not physically connected to where an act occurred may feel moved to descend there to play a role.   Modern Ireland and Italy experienced examples of such chronic cycles, and the United States may not prove immune.

Let me emphasize the complexity of the problem.  All too often I see politicians, journalists, and – worse – academics pick one elite campus to stand for all of higher ed. They focus on a few people from that campus as voices for the whole.  Yet America has roughly 4,000 academic institutions. They take all kinds of shapes and forms, from community colleges to research universities, small liberal arts colleges to vast state schools and mostly online enterprises, for-profit, non-profit, and public. These campuses exist across the vast geographical range of the United States and enjoy some degree of autonomy from each other and governments. What inflames one may leave another cold, in other words.

Meanwhile, recall the different populations involved.  When I say “academic” I have a broad sense of the word. For me academics include faculty, students, and staff.  Each has very different places within the academic, with varying responsibilities, rights, powers, expectations. And there are wild differences within each.  Faculty, for example, include adjuncts and full professors holding endowed chairs.  Staff range from system chancellors to custodians.

Some hold different part time positions within academia, like board members, whose roles can be decisive or quiescent, as we have seen in many stories this year. And that’s just within the academy proper.  Other populations are what I call “academically adjacent,” people who work and think with and about academy, albeit in other social milieux. Think of state officials, who sometimes pay attention to higher ed, or those working within businesses providing campuses with goods and services, from scholarly publishing to food preparation.   Then there are donors, who can try to leverage their gifts to change academic structures and behavior.

Beyond them are employers. Businesses, nonprofits, and governments hire college graduates and they certainly have views about job applicants.  This year we’ve seen some law and investment firms threaten not to hire graduates from certain schools

My point is: that’s a huge amount of people plugged into academia in many different ways. The politics of 2023 activated various students, donors, presidents, legislators, professors, etc., each acting from their position within the academic world.  Hence the diversity of forms activism has taken, from demonstrations and petitions to laws, syllabi, and the naming of buildings.  Looking to a potentially even more fraught 2024, we should expect a similar range of actions across these multiple social configurations.  Some may take the form of violence.

We may also see the creation or reformation of institutions along partisan lines.  We’ve seen signs of this in 2023, with Florida’s governor remaking one small college along conservative lines, while other campuses celebrate their deeply progressive identity. There’s a long American tradition of energetic people setting up new colleges and universities to express their religious and political beliefs.  Perhaps the University of Austin is just the first of a series to come.

Such creation and reformation might more easily take place online, given that primarily online institutions not only lack pesky physical plants but also – usually – contain mostly adjunct faculty. Imagine a pro-Palestinian, pro-trans, pro-DEI progressive counter to Liberty University.

How far might such new academic projects go?  Would professional organizations schisms over members’ political stances? Would an accreditation agency take an openly political stance, validating or punishing campuses for their stances on numerous issues?  Imagine a group giving its imprimatur to a college or university for supporting (some certain values of) human rights.

Let me turn back to the 2024 elections (are you sick of them already?) to draw some of these threads together. The 2020 election saw then-president Trump and his allies openly trying to break the electoral system, from threatening state officials to sending “alternative” electors to staging the Capitol riot. It’s possible 2024 might not see anything so dramatic. For example, perhaps Trump’s star will flare out through prison, illness, or death. If not…

We might see something like a strategy of tension aimed at election mechanisms and staff across the country, especially in battleground states.  Legal challenges to Trump could lead to protests and clashes with opponents, which the Republicans could turn to their own account, dunning progressives as hooligans, portraying themselves as the party of law and order.  Counterprotests might not manage to maintain the discipline of nonviolence.  Moreover, if Trump sees himself falling behind in polls, would he consider dangerous stunts to boost his fortunes and secure the presidency?

There are other possibilities for the election, of course, and some turn to civil unrest. Imagine if president Biden is incapacitated or dies, leading vice president Harris to run for the presidency. How might that stoke activity among the white supremacist and sexist right?  Would the Democratic party united behind Harris?  Other factors could lead to a contested convention, which could turn ugly.

Technology may play various roles.  The combination of mobile devices and social media mean that stories and documents of all kinds are created and shared extremely quickly, as we’ve learned. AI may give disinformation and misinformation a big boost. We may also see political argument take place on gaming platforms to a higher degree; I’m thinking of the hybrid games/virtual worlds, like Minecraft and Roblox, as well as the use of game engines to produce visual content.  And if Apple’s April launch of VisualPro gives mixed reality a shot in the arm, we may anticipate political content appeared in mixed, augmented, and virtual realities.

All of these possibilities may intersect with academia. Imagine a donor threatening to withdraw a major gift if their university fails to denounce protestors on campus. A state government might decide to discipline its universities should it find links between some of their academics and political actions. A politician might decide to attack the richest institutions directly, as one commentator suggests, citing an interesting historical precedent. Conversely, politicians might work with donors to set up institutes within institutions, as we’ve seen with the University of Texas. Statements from academics will readily circulate, stirring up anger and support: a professor saying something objectionable to one population, a student government passing a resolution outraging another.

Faculty and administrators might urge accreditors to support peers at other institutions whom they view as threatened. Colleges might revisit speech codes in order to control what administrators and/or faculty deem to be harmful expressions in a flammable year.  Academic departments could scrutinize members’ statements for comments deemed contrary to their mission.  From off campus, how many individuals will seek to threaten or attack colleges which they see as bastions of Marxism, transgenderism, neoliberalism, globalism, capitalism, elitism, or just hatred?  Will “academics are the enemy of the people” become a phrase?

Thinking of other facets of the year 2023 in higher education, I wonder how academics will treat living in a contested state, like Pennsylvania or Georgia. Will some faculty and staff decide to leave?  Will incidents and chaos – again, circulating widely – depress job and student applications? More broadly, will students, faculty, and staff sort themselves politically by aiming their applications for red or blue colleges and universities?  If civil unrest breaks out, that seems likely to depress international enrollment.

At the same time American higher education has other ways to respond.  Certain disciplines will research the year’s events: political science, government, American studies, media studies, area studies, and so on. That research can appear in various forms: peer-reviewed scholarship, preprint articles, public scholarship.  Similarly, 2024 can provide fodder for teaching, either designed as such by faculty or supplied by students.  Faculty and administrators may respond programmatically, offering talks, convening discussions about the year’s events. Those interested in civil discourse may weigh in in many ways.

Let me close with one big caveat. It’s possible that American society will back away from chaos in the next year. I mentioned above one way it could happen, but there are others. GOP pressure on the election infrastructure might just fail, as it did in 2020. Republicans and Democrats alike could draw back from high octane rhetoric and politicking. The American public might tune out from the election to a higher degree than usual. A national threat or emergency might produce moments of unity.

I haven’t build these observations and extrapolations into a scenario, although perhaps I should.  Right now they are an inchoate set of ideas and questions.  What do you think?

(thanks to many people for conversations, including Dahn Shaulis, Mark DeFusco, Chris Rice)

Posted in future of education, politics | 6 Comments

Preparing my gaming and education class for spring 2024

Next month I’m starting one of my favorite classes, and I wanted to share the draft syllabus with you all.  It’s the gaming and higher education seminar for Georgetown University’s Learning, Design, and Technology program and I’m very excited about it.

The focus is, as you might expect, on the productive intersection of gaming with colleges and universities.  The semester explores this connection through a range of gaming types, including tabletop, role playing, and digital games.  I encourage each student to bring their individual and professional interests to the class, applying them to shape research and a final project.

Structurally, the seminar is a mix of discussion, mini-lectures, and hands-on work during sessions, plus scholarly readings, Canvas writing, and project work in between classes. Every week students play at least one game, read and discuss scholarly writing, and try their hand at making some gaming for education content.

Historical games, seen at the Strong National Museum of Play

An exhibit at the Strong National Museum of Play

Students play a major role in cocreating the seminar, as with most of my classes. Discussion is key, of course, since its a seminar. Their experience of playing games is important material for learning. They get to determine one week’s topic. And I’ll shape presentations and lead discussions with an eye towards their individual interests.

I have some questions about refining this class design over the next month:

  • Is the amount of reading too much?  I usually err on the side of too much reading.
  • Which tabletop game or games should we use? I’ve tried Terraforming Mars in the past, but it seemed a bit much for the class, either the science fiction theme or the complexity. I’d like something which shows some tabletop mechanics and also fits the educational theme.  Perhaps CO2?
  • Which version of Twine is best for taking the branching narrative game further than Storyboard: Chapbook, Harlowe, Snowman, or SugarCube?
  • I’m thinking of having each student present a game to the class, reflecting on its educational potential. Would this overload them?

SYLLABUS

Winter break reading: James Paul Gee, “Learning about learning from a video game: Rise of nations”. (Feel free to find a free demo of the game online or buy the full game on Steam.)

January 16, 2024 – Introductions and into the magic circle

  • The idea and practice of the class
  • Our individual experiences with gaming
  • History of gaming
  • Game: The Thing From the Future
  • Technology: download and install Steam
  • writing in Canvas:
    1. student self-description character sheets
    2. what is your game persona’s D&D alignment? (This quiz might help.)
    3. starting to explore our shared keywords document (Google Doc)

January 23, 2024 – Tabletop gaming

January 30, 2024 – Role Playing Games

  • Canvas discussion writing
  • Introductory presentation
  • Readings: Fuist, “The Agentic Imagination – Tabletop Role-playing Games as a Cultural Tool”; Garcia, “Privilege, Power, and D&D” 
  • Games: so1um or Year Zero (copy this character sheet)
  • Design exercise: RPG for a higher education class

February 6, 2024 – Computer Gaming, I

February 13, 2024 – Computer Gaming, II

(analysis of one game due February 20; no class )

February 27, 2024 – Education and Gaming, I

(Spring break March 5, 2024)

March 12, 2024- Education and Gaming, II

  • Canvas discussion writing
  • Reading: James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (71-219).
  • Games:
    1. Computer games, science and humanities: BondbreakerWaterworks!
    2. Role playing games: Reacting to the Past

March 19, 2024 – Gamification

March 26, 2024 – Design for gaming and education, I

March 29 – Plan for final project due

April 2, 2024 – Design for gaming and education, II

April 9, 2024 – Storytelling and games

  • Canvas discussion writing
  • Storytelling introduction (on Slideshare)
  • Readings:  Gordon Civic Creativity and Role-Playing Games in Deliberative Process; Alexander, “Gaming: Storytelling on a Small Scale” and “Gaming: Storytelling on a Large Scale”, from The New Digital Storytelling, pp 97-127
  • Games: The Thing From the Future September 7th, 2020
  • Quick survey: which generative AI tools have you used, and how?

April 16, 2024 – AI, gaming, and education

April 23, 2024 – students determine topic

  • Canvas discussion writing
  • Readings: TBA
  • Games: TBA

April 30, 2024 – final project presentations

  • Invite us to play and garner feedback
Posted in classes and teaching, gaming, teaching | 2 Comments

Leading DEI work on campus during a nationwide backlash

Last week we hosted University of Texas senior vice provost, dean, and professor Richard J. Reddick on the Future Trends Forum.  He’s the author of the recent book Restorative Resistance in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press).

We discussed how to do diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work on campuses, especially amidst backlash. Our conversation went so well that participants and I wanted to share it here, complete with excerpts from an active chat.

To begin with, you can find the whole recording here, or embedded below:

The chat was energetic.  Rather than slap the whole thing here, I’ve drawn out the key parts of the discussion, anonymizing chatters and organizing it thematically.  Passages in quotes are directly from the transcript or lightly edited:

On what can be done “Things we can do to make a difference in the shape our world is taking: Mentoring, Critical thinking, Critical assessment, Listening across assumptions and borders, Storytelling & creation.”

On the Wisconsin DEI struggle A major university system board switch.  And “The UW has caved in and made a deal with the legislature to take “the first step in what will be our continuing efforts to eliminate these cancerous DEI practices on UW campuses”. “And Oklahoma just banned DEI in all publics in the state.”

On “The Eyes of Texas” story Here’s the full report website.  “This reminds me of current conversations in which some communities say ‘apartheid in Gaza’ and other communities push back and say ‘that’s not what apartheid means, here let me educate you.’ How do we turn these into conversations instead of divisions? The discussion around the song seemed particularly effective at building that sense of collaboration.”  “Inquiry, conversation and reflectivity in academia!”  “I love that. ‘It’s okay to walk away without closure.’ As long as you’re listening and thinking beyond where you started”

On race and change in higher edI struggle to explain my position: growing up in LA I learned to appreciate many cultures as a child. A very different experience from most people I meet.” “I agree that change is often limited to individual people. However, when change occurs at an individual level, departments follow suit”.

I attended a really white college that offered full tuition, room & board to diversity applicants. It ended up at that time being a very divided community. I am white, and I didn’t stay, but one of my best friends there was Black, and it was made clear to them that they were not to have white friends. It’s complicated. There’s good reasons on both sides for why. It’s still tough.

Totally agree with that idea – industry partnerships, beyond that and/or related if that arguments is policy change like Promotion and Tenure”

More questionsI am curious about strategies for DEI organizational/institutional level change, from my research and experience successful change is often limited to programs/offices/individual people/groups.”

Wrapping up How to stay in touch with Dr. Reddick?  His podcast, Black Austin Matters, for one.  @thechroniclesofreddick on Instagram, for another.  And also on LinkedIn.   

A Forum program idea: “What Rich is saying reminds me of the Human Library. I’d love for a Human Library experience within this FF community. That would be so cool”

For those interested in thinking about the future of HE: “The 100 Year EdTech Project invites you to imagine the next 50 years of education at our 2024 Design Summit from February 28 – March 1, in Scottsdale, AZ.” 

Last silly note: I somehow managed to utter the phrase “behind the beard” and now that might become a t-shirt or a podcast title.

Question for readers: is this kind of thing useful, a combination of embedded video recording with chat transcript excerpts?

 

Posted in DEI, Future Trends Forum | 1 Comment

Some student loan holders begin payment, while others do not

Earlier this year the Biden administration ended a series of student loan repayment pauses and restarted the debt payment process.  How is it going so far?

Department of Education Home Room blog logo, a blue square with "Ed" written under a graduation hat.According to the Department of Education, 60% of debt holders have resumed or started paying down the amounts they owe.

This means 40%, or nearly 9 million people, have not resumed paying off the students loans they hold. Why not, and who are they?

The official DoE statement offers a first answer:

Millions more were not making payments prior to the payment pause because they were delinquent or obtained a deferment or forbearance….

Some are confused or overwhelmed about their options.

It doesn’t mention poverty, job stress, or political attitudes against student debt,  The article does go on to add relief programs which (it implies) might help that 40%.  There’s the SAVE program,Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and Fresh Start.*  Also, “We are working with outside groups like Civic Nation and the NAACP through the SAVE on Student Debt Campaign.”  In addition, there’s an “onramp” which doesn’t seem to be a named program, but is nonetheless important:

To give borrowers breathing room while they work student loan payments back into their monthly budgets, we created the 12-month on-ramp period. Until next September, borrowers will be protected from the harshest consequences of missed payments, such as delinquency, default, and mandatory collections.

That’s September 2024, I infer.  I’m not sure how the DoE will make that protection happen, but hope they do.

Yahoo Finance has a useful article which adds a key aspect to the problem.  Some loan servicers are screwing up, as “some borrowers are experiencing delays and seeing billing errors from student loan servicers.”  Also “some borrowers who were supposed to have their loans discharged were erroneously placed into repayment.”

“Common issues that occur with a change of servicer include errors in the loan balance and interest rate, incorrect payment status reported to credit bureaus, missing payments in the borrower’s payment history, and changes in due dates,” Mark Kantrowitz, student loans expert and author, previously told Yahoo Finance.

The New York Times agrees with Yahoo Finance, then adds one more reason:

Borrowers and consumer advocates say the reasons so many people aren’t paying run the gamut from administrative delays — typically caused by backlogs at the four loan servicers hired by the government to collect payments and guide borrowers through their repayment options — to an inability to afford the bill.

What might this snapshot of American student debt mean for higher education’s future?

It’s possible that we’re experiencing a snafu as the complicated machinery of debt payment staggers back to life. We might see some of these problems as procedural, and they’ll improve over time, especially as the federal government works at it.  And we might also see more incremental forgiveness make life easier for some holders.  Some of those who pay might be realizing a net financial gain in careers and/or achieving a desired career – i.e., some of the system working as it’s supposed to.

Is it possible that by this time in 2024 we’ll see the student loan system improved over where it was in 2019?  If so, how much more work remains?

And yet.  Let’s say energetic administrative work gets the non-paying population down below 40%.  Perhaps 30%, or 25%. That yields a serious problem for the system and an enormous amount of pain for several million people.

We should also be open to the possibility that the number doesn’t drop much below 40%. History shows that administrative excellent is not something we can rely upon. Economic problems may draw some payers into the non-paying camp.  And we might see tuition and fees rise for a substantial number of institutions as campuses (and states) deal with inflation plus lower enrollment.

Meanwhile, even if all of the beneficial actions succeed, the overarching problem of American student debt remains largely in place.  The Biden administration’s forgiveness effort failed and it seems unlikely this president will try it again, especially with the intense election ahead. Perhaps a second Biden-Harris team would try again, although this will take some years.  A second Trump administration seems, ah, unlikely to offer an alternative.  The financialization and privatization of one of the world’s greatest higher education systems looks likely to persist for the short- and medium-term futures, with all of its attendant costs and miseries.

That’s me as an analyst and futurist.  As a person, I wish the Department of Education well and hope they receive more resources.  Ditto for the nonprofits and good firms working in this space.

One last note: I was struck by the language in the DoE’s statement, “The Department has also worked tirelessly to fix broken loan forgiveness programs…” Broken is pretty strong word choice.  Personally, I agree, but haven’t seen many in authority use that term.

*I had to find and add those hyperlinks because the official Department of Education post didn’t have them.  Why do people still avoid URLs in 2023?

Posted in economics | 1 Comment