For Earth Day 2024

Today is the 54th Earth Day, a holiday generally aimed at raising global ecological consciousness.

It began in 1970 as a UNESCO project and I can’t help but hear Earth as system and Spaceship Earth from that origin then. earthday.org is the organizer now, and declared this year’s theme to be “Planet vs. Plastics.”  They explain what that’s about:

Earth by NASA Goddard

advocat[ing] for widespread awareness on the health risk of plastics, rapidly phase out all single use plastics, urgently push for a strong UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, and demand an end to fast fashion. Join us as we build a plastic-free planet for generations to come!

American Climate Corps logoPresident Biden chose this day to launch two things.  His American Climate Corps opened up for applications.  He also announced more solar power grants.

Great environmental journalist and activist Bill McKibben used the day to share nothing but good climate change stories.

Elsewhere, there’s been a flurry of news articles and opinion pieces.  There are some holiday-themed sales (a feature on technology price savings was the first hit on the New York Times).  I haven’t seen too  much in the higher ed space, at least from Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.  One fine exception is in upstate New York, where Cornell University and Ithaca College people are seeking to reclaim Earth Day.

As a futurist who’s been working on climate change and higher education for several years, I find the day a good one to step back and think about the bigger picture at a larger time scale, at a larger social level.  This year what comes to mind is… being unsettled.

I don’t mean the anxieties about global warming, at its worst wrecking the Earth and trashing civilization, although readers know this is something which gnaws at me daily, as it does many people.  Instead, I’m thinking about the fading of one human attitude towards the Earth and how something new is succeeding it gradually.

In 2016 Amitav Ghosh argued that western society grew used to a benign, controlled sense of nature.  It started with the industrial revolution – in a later book, I think Ghosh backdates this to the rise of colonialism – and came from the practical achievements of science and modernity. We gradually fought back a lot of nature’s cruelties, from diseases to weather.  This yielded a sense of the Earth as a resource for us to use or steward, not a terrifying place of danger.  The Earth became not a roaring landscape red in tooth and claw, but a manicured lawn or industrial farming.  Compare, say, the raw and fearsome nature seen in Beowulf with the nature in Jane Austen’s novels.

Climate change undoes this sensibility. That benign world is now capable of lashing back at us. The resources are problematic. Our controlling efforts have backfired. The Earth is no longer the lovely garden but a source of escalating chaos.

The late Bruno Latour developed this into a political theory in his later works, like Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018). That changing sense of our relationship to the Earth leaves us unmoored and adrift. “All forms of belonging are undergoing a metamorphosis.” (16) We are then vulnerable to authoritarian politics, as seen in Europe and the United States.

I’m not sure where the rest of us stand, if we refuse the authoritarians and still feel the Earth sliding away under our feet… which might be precisely the point.  If the Earth is no longer the trustworthy resource pool we thought we’d achieved, what is it?  What is our relationship to it?  Exploring that question is one function of climate fiction.  I think of those works as shards from emergent futures.  We can also see that new relationship arrive democratically, through folkways.

Yet how does academia change in response to this unsettlement?

To a significant extent we helped make the benign nature model Ghosh describes happen.  We did that through our research and teaching in the natural sciences, as well as how we developed generations of professionals from finance to psychology who implemented that vision.  To what extent is academic research and teaching developing the new relationship?

Our campus grounds, of course, literally represent that old model. Our lovely lawns and quads, our stately or simply official buildings, the carefully controlled watercourses show nature as firmly under human control.   How might the physical domain of a college or university change as the unmoored Earth relationship takes hold?

These are my thoughts tonight as I look at the orbital vision of the planet on Earth Day. There’s a lot more to say, but I’m running out of time.  Still: a planet so solid, and yet so uncertain once we consider what we’ve done to it.  What civilization will appear next to rethink its Earth?

(Earth photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Posted in climatechange | 5 Comments

One gaming design exercise in a seminar

Last week I tried a new exercise in my gaming seminar, and wanted to post about it because it went well and might be useful.  I’d also like to build on the exercise.

To recap: at this point in the class we’re explored a range of gaming forms.  We started with tabletop games, moved on to role-playing games, then jumped to the digital world, and followed up with gamification.  Throughout we’ve explored the higher education implications for each via practice (playing games), scholarship (reading research), and design (making stuff). Now students are working on their final game projects, a process taking weeks and a lot of iterative work.

At this point I wanted to try synthesizing the class contents.  One of my goals was to make sure they can bring the entire semester’s work to bear on their projects.  Even if they’re producing a game in one format (say, tabletop) they can apply many design and pedagogical lessons from the others.  A second goal was to firm up their understanding of gaming and education overall, so they have a better chance of taking that away from the semester’s experience.

Other thoughts went into my planning.  The event should be creative, focused on design. It should encourage them to dive into their memories and class work. It should also be light enough that we could do it in one class session without bogging down their project processes.  It should also not focus on a topic we’ve already dwelled on (for example, storytelling, historical or science simulation).  Theoretically, it’s a constructivist effort, as they can make meaning and understanding through making and producing stuff.

So I gradually came up with an exercise and tried it out.  The pitch: I told the class “I’d like you to design a game representing a national election.”  I didn’t specify which nation. I didn’t give them educational parameters or constraints (i.e., curriculum, budget); I wanted them to surface those dimensions themselves. One requirement: they had to make their game a role playing game.  In designing, they should bear in mind key themes from our class to date: information restrictions, empathy, randomness, the balance of simulation with playability, storytelling, etc. etc.

One contextual detail: electoral politics hadn’t appeared in class conversation to date, nor had any student described seriously studying government or political science.  I chose the topic because it would be fresh and unfamiliar, hopefully spurring new reflections.  Further, no student would dominate discussion based on academic credentials, so they should all feel equal before the problem.

Additionally, I didn’t specify a nation because I wanted to keep their imaginations open.  Also, it was a very international class, and I hoped students would raise details from different nations.

Materially, it was a whole group exercise, with the in-person students seated together at shared tables.  Several remote learners Zoomed in, projected on two big screens and also available by chat through individual computers. I didn’t bring any physical props or tools because I wanted this to be discussion-oriented.  I did write up notes on a projected/ shared Google Doc.

So how did things play out?  To begin with, students wrestled with the challenge admirably.  They raised a lot of good questions.  Whom would players play: candidates, government officials, the average voter, constituent groups? What would go into a character sheet: persuasive capacity, government experience, finances? What could the game master simulate and represent: votes, polling, regional interest groups?

DALL·E imagines a university classroom setting showing students and a professor engaged in a simulation design exercise. The room is equipped with computers and large

DALL·E imagines “a university classroom setting showing students and a professor engaged in a simulation design exercise. The room is equipped with computers and large…”

Should the game be more competitive or collaborative?  How many pre-election political features could appear in-game?  Some students suggested random events, such as scandals, marriages within character families, and endorsements.  Others thought about non-player characters (NPCs) and how many to set up ahead of time.  More questions cropped up, like: can we simulate an electoral mandate to set up governing?  How to structure electoral coalitions as well as corruption?  Can we allow candidates to challenge vote counts?

Once the class surfaced a significant body of ideas, I switched things up: “Now, how would you design a tabletop game to simulate a national election?” I reminded them of the games we had played together and the scholarship we read, as well as the fact that some of them were building up tabletop games.

Students gradually built up some ideas, again, often in the form of questions.  Should the game represent a specific election (real world or hypothetical) or an abstract one?  As with the RPG, should players play candidates or voters? What should be on a board, a geographical map or representations of metrics?  (I showed images of this US election game). Some students explored using a map to represent campaigning. One raised the idea of only representing swing states. We discussed ways of including regional states, with examples from India and the United States.  Folks aired different metrics to display, such as polling and campaign finance.  There was some discussion of using multiple cards to create resource or action combinations.

Once that discussion progressed to a good point, I switched things again, over to computer games.   How might a video game simulate a national election?  At this point I think things became a bit repetitious, as we had a lot of ideas on the table already, and it became a question of how to translate them to digital formats. Students did suggest ways of locating election strategies within a branching narrative structure.  One way of doing that would be for the player to answer questions, and ultimately learn if they won the election.  Other students thought about pre-generating a suite of candidates, or randomly generating them for each game.

Next, I turned discussion over to gamification.  How would they gamify a national election?  Some started by talking about rewards for voting, like stickers, but making them more desirable through a limited release, or even the possibility of adding weight to early voters.  At this point I wrapped up the exercise and moved the class on to other topics, namely gaming and storytelling.

Overall, I was happy with how it worked.  Students dug into their learning and turned it into design ideas.  They tested out their understanding of different game types.  They thought about educational uses.  It was a good review process.

Things to do next time, if I repeat the exercise: I might make stuff available for students to work with, such as drawing paper and writing implements, blank game materials, or toys, like Legos. Expanded digital materials might be good, too, such as involving all students in writing the Google Doc, or using some other tool, such as Miro.

I’m still thinking about the surprise nature of the exercise.  I liked the way it made people think quickly, but would it have better to announce this in the syllabus from day one, so students could prepare for it?  I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure what to do about the length of the exercise, once it started becoming repetitious.  Should I hold this event earlier in the semester, perhaps as a kind of mid-term assessment, when they have less gaming to bear in mind?  Or should I keep it at this late time in the semester, but somehow change things up to spur more ideation?

As a blended class, remote and in-person students participated equally.  The Google Doc being virtual I think helped online learners feel equal access.

Building on the exercise, I wonder if there’s a generic name for this sort of thing.  I’ve done a similar session in my technology seminar, asking students to creatively apply their seminar learning so far in a creative, live activity. What should we call this, a synthetic design exercise?  A synoptic design activity?  Surely someone else has done things like this and theorized about it.

My thanks to the brilliant LDT students for working hard and constructively with me.

 

Posted in gaming, teaching | Tagged | 3 Comments

Heading to ASU-GSV 2024

Greetings from airportland.  I write this waiting to board a United Flight to San Diego, where I’m scheduled to participate in the ASU-GSV conference.

ASU-GSV logoIt’s my first time there, in fact. Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the hype and the critique for years. I’m looking forward to the event for a few reasons, starting with researching the flows of capital around education and technology, followed by checking out emerging ed tech projects.  AI is very much in the air and I plan to scope out how financial groups are trying to wrangle the fast-moving technology.

I’m also speaking at their AIRshow Monday morning (Pacific time) with my friend and Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Ian Wilhelm.  It’s going to be a conversation based on our respective research.  The title is “Gen AI in Higher Ed: Moving Ahead or Milling With the Herd?”  Here’s the session’s description:

In an era marked by the rapid evolution of generative AI, higher education stands at a pivotal juncture, grappling with its potential as both an innovative tool and a disruptive force. This session delves into the complex perspectives revealed in a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, highlighting the dual nature of generative AI as an opportunity for enhancing educational practices and a perceived threat necessitating cautious engagement. Join Bryan Alexander, a visionary futurist and senior scholar, in a compelling keynote interview with Ian Wilhelm of The Chronicle. Together, they will explore the strategic decisions facing academic institutions: whether to pioneer the integration of AI technologies with all their inherent risks and rewards or to navigate a more conservative path forward. This discussion promises insightful revelations on the future of education in the AI-driven world, offering valuable guidance for educators across all levels.

I’d be delighted to meet with any readers who’ll be in San Diego for the event.

Best travel wishes for all others heading in that direction.

Posted in travel | 2 Comments

Watching _Civil War_: impressions and disappointment

We just saw the new movie Civil War. Afterwards the audience filed out in silence, perhaps stunned.  Our group talked about it energetically, then hit the internet for more, and hence this post.

This post also assumed you’ve seen the movie, so if you haven’t, I hereby raise spoiler shields.  In fact, I’ll use the movie poster as a spacer before I get going:

Civil_War_2024_film_poster

Nice image, but never seen in the film. Reminds me of the cover art for the 1976 SPI game Invasion: America.

Onward.

I know what I’m about to say is a minority view (check ratings here), but I found it overall to be an uneven mix of a movie, and ultimately disappointing.  To begin with, it’s not really about an American civil war.  Yes, that’s the background and a good deal of the film’s fabric, but civil war isn’t really the point.  To explain, we begin with an unnamed American president preparing to give a speech.  He tries out several sentences and phrases, rearranging and pronouncing them in different ways, and then cut away.  Crucially, that scene begins out of focus, the camera pointed the wrong way; our unidentified viewer corrects the lens.

That’s really what Civil War is about: photographing a civil war.  And it’s not about amateurs.  First and foremost, above all else, this is a movie about journalism – photojournalism, really, and doing that work in danger zones.  The film takes us through the profession’s ethics, practical tips on practicing it, its competitive nature, and jokes about writers. Photojournalism is where the main plot lies, where most of the time is, who the main characters are.  I mentioned the opening shooting of a president, which the final scene recapitulates in an additional sense. We never learn that character’s politics, policies, or even party.  That president is barely a character at all.  His presidency is not important material for the film; photographing the president is.

That’s because the main characters are journalists: an older photographer, a younger one, and two writers.  Their arcs outweigh by far the rest of the story.  We see the older photojournalist cope with bitterness, being burned out, being famous, and finally getting shaken, while the younger comes into her own. The writers are less important professionally (we don’t see or hear anything they produce) but they play key roles in helping the photographers along.  Throughout the movie we see, presumably, their work, or the output of others, as director Garland inserts still images into action scenes, pausing to remind us of what’s really, well, in focus.

That’s the primary emphasis of the movie.  Its secondary purpose is to be a road movie in the classic American tradition.  That is entirely the plot, our characters hitting the road by car.  It all begins with journalists starting a daring trip to score an unlikely interview. When the road trip ends, the movie stops.  Civil War really treats the road movie genre seriously, hitting beats familiar to anyone who’s watched examples of hat modern American picaresque. Our characters check out scenic bits of the US, sometimes ironically.  They have to make driving decisions, such as getting gas from one station, picking up new riders, avoiding danger, figuring out whom to trust.  They experience sweetness and disaster.

There is really nothing else in the film beyond the journalists’ road trip.  We only see what  they see and hear the rumors they pick up. We never cut to, say, a tv news broadcast, a military headquarters, or the White House.  Garland and the actors do a terrific job of grounding us in the journalists’ world.  There’s a fine scene when they stumble into a sniper duel, and one writer’s desire to learn more than the basic gun vs gun is played for laughs, and we never discover more about that microcosm, including whose side each fighter was on. At one point the older and younger photojournalists press themselves to the ground, waiting for a resolution, and each stares at blossoms emerging from the grass.  We’re locked in with Lee and crew, making the point of view the movie’s point.

In contrast, he titular civil war is almost completely empty of content. It’s ending as the movie begins, and there’s no doubt about the outcome.  We learn nothing about the nature of the opposing forces.  What caused the conflict and how it proceeded are matters on which Civil War is coy.  As I said, we see what our journalists see, and even then, most of it is vague.  We can’t tell who’s fighting whom in most of the scenes, as uniforms seem optional and flags scarce, and the journalists prefer just to capture what they see.

There’s an anti-civil war theme which the trailers loudly proclaimed.  It appears starkly in a clunker of a scene, when the weary older photojournalist tells the weary old writer that she wanted to warn people not to have civil wars.  I can accept this theme, having spent two weeks in one (Yugoslavia in the 1990s), and the movie tries to make sure you can’t miss the point as it shows a lot of people being killed without chances for surrender or mercy. War is bad is deeply unsurprising and general theme of war movies, yet the journalism point of view makes this dubious.  The film wants us to cheer on the characters for getting great shots. There’s no space for the younger photojournalist to bow out and choose another career – indeed, the final scene, where she captures the downfall of the president, is her apotheosis. I’m reminded as ever of Truffault’s line about there not being any truly antiwar movie.  War is bad, says Civil War, especially a cryptically civil one like this; now marvel at the lovely footage and exciting set pieces.

And the movie is truly marvelous to watch. Garland offers powerful scenes: people hanging for some apparent crime; a fire seeing a character to death; a cruel confrontation between soldiers and civilians; claustrophobic firefights; an epic vision of one army marching on Washington.  The film blends sound and visuals well, pulling back audio to let images and characters’ reactions carry the emotional burden, or hitting us HARD with sudden bursts of noise.  Editing is fast, with scenes ending and jumping suddenly into the next.  As I said, the actors are very fine.

Perhaps there’s a genre problem with the movie.  It’s definitely a thriller, with explosions, daring rescues, multi-car hijinks, and plenty of shooting.  I do wonder how many watched it just for that purpose. It’s definitely a road movie. It’s sort of a war film, although that’s the background, as I’ve said.  It’s also science fiction, taking place in some near term future at least a decade away, although there are no signs of any changes to technology, social organization, or culture.  Ultimately, it’s a journalism movie.  Not My Girl Friday, but more like Welcome to Sarajevo, being about people covering a conflict rather than the war itself (although technically more impressive).

Civil War is also about the succession of generations.  Age versus youth is one of the oldest story tropes, and we see it here in the clash between Lee and Jessie.  Lee’s a hero, well established, and Jessie is, classically, just a kid.  We see Lee get weathered and degraded by the trip, eventually cracking up under fire, while Jessie loses her innocence in stages and grows as a photographer.  Ultimately Lee literally takes a bullet for Jessie, and the latter shoots the event several times.  Thankfully, the movie stops short of using generational shorthand for the two, although it can’t resist the younger one preferring a film camera to a digital one, developing photos by hand.

We don’t get such a generational dynamic for writing, which doesn’t really exist in the film, as noted.  More, we don’t have a sense of such a socially grounded passage of time in the titular war.  Since we don’t know what it’s about beyond secession (and if that was the idea, why invade Washington? and what happened to Florida’s friends?) we can’t see which order passes away and what new order arises in its place.   The movie’s conclusion is military, with tanks crashing around DC and driving hard for the White House (for me, echoing North Vietnam’s capture of Saigon), and a squad takes out the president. We don’t know what happened.

Is this a commentary on the limitations of photojournalism?  I don’t think so.  It feels instead like a case of foreground and background, with the title confusing the two.

Readers know I’ve been modeling how civil unrest or even war might break out in America (for example).  I’m certainly looking for fictional representations of this.  Garland’s Civil War gives me some fine visuals, and a very narrow focus on one profession in such a conflict, but nothing more.

Posted in movies, sf | 1 Comment

How will the FAFSA debacle impact colleges and universities this fall?

Over the past year the United States federal government has been revising its FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) system.  Unfortunately, its rollout over the past few months has been chaotic.  Delays, errors, more delays, having to redo applications, and other problems have beset the effort.

My question today is, how will FAFSA problems impact student enrollment this fall semester?

“a rolling catastrophe,” according to Ted Mitchell of ACE

A botched FAFSA rollout from DALL-E

Naturally DALL-E had a hard time spelling the name.

To quickly summarize: the key problem is that financial aid information is working its way through a complex system whose well-intentioned redesign is far behind schedule.  A good number of students, especially poorer ones, can’t commit to a college without getting aid awards.  Similarly, currently enrolled students might not know their financial aid supply for the upcoming year.  Remember than, ironically, Congress launched the current FAFSA iteration to be easier to use.

As a result, the number of completed FAFSA forms from high school students is down 27.1% compared to last year, according to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN).  The Department of Education advised states to delay budgeting their financial aid funds, given the system’s slowdown.

For more information, I recommend Liz Willen’s typically sharp article at Hechinger, Rose Horowitch’s Atlantic column, this New York Times overview, or this PBS short video:

What might this debacle mean?

First, there’s the human cost of growing stress, added to a population already historically burdened with mental health issues.  One source of that stress is the possibility of missing college. Along with this is the pressure suffered by campus financial aid staff, along with staff and faculty who work in advising.

Next, what happens to enrollment?  That is, how many students with choose not to attend college this year as a result?  This is a question of time, as Horowitch observes:

[E]ven if schools change their deadlines and the department gets through its FAFSA backlog, that still leaves 2.6 million fewer students who have submitted applications compared with this time last year. Education experts are skeptical that all or even most of them will fill out the FAFSA in time to start college this fall, although technically there’s still time. The biggest worry is the 600,000 high-school seniors who have never applied for aid before. Kevin Carey, Laitinen’s colleague at New America, points out that most young people aren’t on a fixed path to college. They’re weighing whether to go to school or take a job. “If you don’t even know what the cost is in your cost-benefit analysis, you just go with the benefit” of getting a job, Carey told me.

Some number of students may decide to put off college for a year.  Remember that the labor market beckons, sweetened by the excellent 3.8% unemployment rate.

Third, how many institutions will suffer financially as a result?  Fitch Ratings called this problem last month:

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE)’s delayed processing of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) data for the fall 2024 enrollment cycle is the latest blow to colleges that rely heavily on low-income and minority enrollment. The delay is forcing most colleges to postpone sending financial aid packages to students until late March or April at the earliest. This puts colleges at risk of losing admitted students to competitors with lower sticker prices or to colleges that can afford to commit financial aid or merit funds to students before knowing FAFSA results.

Additionally,

In turn, deposit rates are down as some students postpone college decisions pending receipt of their aid offers, while some may consider foregoing college altogether. For colleges that are almost solely dependent on student-generated revenues, this enrollment uncertainty is wreaking havoc on their already tight budget planning for the upcoming fiscal year.

Again, it’s the logic of modern American higher education, which depends fundamentally on student fees to sustain itself.  Fewer incoming students pressures that system.

Yet perhaps this will fizzle.  I haven’t said enough good words about the hard-working Department of Education staff, who’ve been striving mightily – and arguably without sufficient resources – to fix FAFSA.  The percentage of students who haven’t returned the form has been declining incrementally over the past few weeks.  Maybe we’ll see a last-minute flood of forms as the system corrects.

Looking further out, I want to add some more thoughts.

Start with what a mess this FAFSA update has been.  It’s not a good look for academic institutions trying to build trust and belonging with students. Moreover, it’s a real problem for the Biden administration, especially as it has made expanding government operations a keystone of its record.  It’s harder to make the case to increased public services when one of those services is badly botched.

Unfortunately, we should anticipate this becoming an election issue.  It’s easy to see Republicans attacking Democrats for incompetence. We could also see the FAFSA story as a stick with which to beat higher education as a whole.  Think of the arguments and memes.  “Democrats can’t even get paperwork right!” “Universities lock students into lifetimes of soul-crushing debt and somehow manage to mangle the process!”  “Pointy-headed bureaucrats in government/college can’t get basic jobs done!”

Moving on to enrollment: after more than a decade of decline, student numbers actually ticked up 1% last fall (2023). I know a lot of people are invested in an enrollment rebound. Might the FAFSA story quash that reality?  And, if enrollment ticks down, will many  blame the form fiasco rather than other forces?

Right now I wouldn’t be surprised to see total US post-secondary enrollment down 1-2% in fall 2024.

My heart goes out to the students and their families, trying to work through this.  And my sympathies for every professional working in financial aid, trying to right this wreck.

What are you seeing of FAFSA in your world?  What’s your estimate of its impact?

 

Posted in enrollment | 9 Comments

Universities on Fire, one year later: glimpsing the present and a hopeful future

One year ago Johns Hopkins University Press published my book on the future of higher education and the climate crisis, Universities on Fire.  Today I wanted to look back on the book’s progress in the world, how academics and others have responded, and what I think I’ve learned.

Copies of the book on sale at Colorado College, where I gave a talk.

How do you measure a book’s fate?  Sales is a typical metric, and they have been good, higher than anticipated, according to my excellent editor.  That’s especially positive for a scholarly book published by a scholarly press, too (that means less marketing reach than a trade book).  I hope for more this year, especially from classes, so we can nudge forward paperback, audio, and second editions (so get yours now!).

What’s more important for me is that the book seems to have succeeded in stirring up some conversations.  I can see evidence for that from reviews (mostly positive) and articles, to begin with.  For example, Inside Higher Ed hosted a series of columns referencing Universities on Fire, as Josh Kim called on higher ed to act now on climate change.

Beyond articles, a good number of academics have written me with questions and support.  Some have invited me to give virtual presentations to classes, workshops, and conferences.  Various podcasts and other programs interviewed me about the book. (Let me know if you’d like me to Zoom, Skype, Teams, etc. into your event of choice.)

Some conversations are also what I’ve seen when giving talks in person.  From California to Qatar, Michigan to Virginia, I’ve traveled to present, speak, lead workshops, be in meetings, and to sign and sell books, all the while talking up the vital importance of the climate crisis for academia’s future and present. As a result there have been many discussions in conference rooms, hallways, bars, restaurants, vendor booths, and lines. (Let me know if you’d like me to visit your event.)

Meanwhile, while I’ve been traveling around, giving virtual presentations, and being interviewed for the past year, around us the climate crisis continued to ratchet up by all kinds of measures.  Global temperatures continued to rise.  Here’s the latest from the European Union’s Copernicus program:

Sea temperatures also rose to the highest level on record.  Here’s from the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer:

global water temperatures Maine Climate Reanalyzer 2024 March 31

See the thick black line on the top left?

Meanwhile, we’re had a run of various climate-influenced and -caused disasters.  Campuses have been hit, too,  in Canada (a terse campus communications sample: “A fire is burning near UBC Okanagan Campus. Evacuate.”), in California and Mexico. Smoke from those Canadian fires reached south as far as my family in Virginia. Some scientists saw climate warp or destroy their research subjects.  Desertification pressed on Mauritanian libraries. All of this should surely encourage public and academic attitudes to change, for actions to be taken, right?

Not exactly.  WWhile I’ve been stirring up conversations with my Universities on Fire tour, I have also experienced the opposite.  To be clear, I haven’t gotten much pushback this past year, and have yet to hear from a single academic climate denier. Instead, what I often encounter in public spaces is… silence.  Silence and resignation.

It’s easy to see when I give a talk on multiple trends facing higher ed, including demographics, technology, and climate change.  When I switch from AI to climate, audiences tend to become very still and quiet.  When questions follow at the end of the talk, they tend to avoid global warming in favor of other points from the presentation.  When I sign and sell copies of all of my books, people usually prefer the older ones.

In private, ah, I’ve had all kinds of fascinating discussions which expand on this silence.  College and university senior leaders (presidents, deans, chancellors) have told me that politics stops them from taking action or even making noises. They don’t see much interest from their faculty (none have yet mentioned students to me) and anticipate bad political risks.  I suspect the wave of controversies around Gaza protests since October solidified that attitude.

Faculty and staff give me other reasons for not acting, starting with being exhausted.  People will tell me they’re worn or burned out from the pandemic, from politics of various kinds, or from fear of institutional financial woes.  Some say they have very limited bandwidth and prefer to focus on topics which feel closer to their mission and for which they think they can have a greater effect: defending their profession from antiintellectualism, advocating for social justice, caring for their students.  A few told me that higher ed was too small or ineffectual to work with on the climate front, and that we’d be better off working with governments, businesses, or other nonprofits.

Across the board academics have told me they don’t see what they can do that would make a positive impact.  Many will mention things they’ve done in their personal lives which they see as small: switching from plastic to cloth bags, buying a hybrid or electric car, eating less meat. Beyond that they can’t identify any points of traction in their professional lives.  That’s where the resignation comes in.  Climate change is happening and we’ll have to bear it as we can.

That’s been the overall tenor of higher education, from what I’ve seen in my limited view as researcher. Personally, it’s been depressing at times.  There’s the frustration of spending years to craft a book and then see people deliberately turn from its message.  Widely circulating news of the worsening climate crisis heightens the frustration.

And yet.

The past year has also stirred my optimism.  For every ten academics who fall silent when the topic arises, one will tell me about what they’re thinking and doing.  Professors share what they’re teaching on the topic and discuss their pedagogical development. Grad students tell me about their studies and how climate impacts them – one told me they were rethinking their PhD work in light of its carbon footprint. Physical plant staff described how they are shifting power sources to renewables.  Food services staff and vendors outlined their shift towards plant-based offerings.  Grants officers told me about getting funds from governments, nonprofits, donors, and companies to pay for transitions. Librarians have pondered collection development and protection.  Some academic scientists have become more focused and more outspoken about global warming.  New York state started to set up a climate change university on Governor’s Island.  Harvard students and faculty protested a professor sitting on an oil company’s board.

A happy Universities on Fire reader

A happy Universities on Fire reader

Architects and campus planners have been the most energetic on this topic.  Builders are trying to figure out how to make structures succeed for decades and their eyes are focused on climate impact: CO2 emissions during construction and operation, materials, carbon capture, biophilic design, the impact of temperature changes, and more.  An Illinois university re-sourced its electric power away from carbon.  Bowdoin College is redoing buildings to reduce their CO2 footprint.

Meanwhile, students are far, far more passionate on this topic than anyone else in academia, overall. Many have told me about being disappointed with what their campuses have to offer – even colleges which already do a lot with classes, internships, and local farming.  Some ask me about climate careers, and how to get their institutions to support them in them.  Students at six campuses filed legal complaints with their respective states.  Students are various campuses pressed their administrations to divest from fossil fuel holdings (for example).

I’ve seen some formal campus coalitions starting to appear.  For example, a Cornell University group of faculty, students, staff, and community members has been organizing and holding events – their name a humbling homage to my book, Cornell on Fire.

Outside of academia, various institutions are taking steps which impact higher ed on climate.  The Indian government mandated climate classesHealth care organizations around the world called on governments to reduce carbon emissions and to take other steps; this clearly involves faculty, students, and staff who work in allied health.  Insurers have stopped writing new policies for danger-prone areas like California, which suggest rising insurance costs and/or other problems for campuses in those places. And the governments of the world’s most powerful nations, China and the United States, asked academics to work on the circular economy because of the climate crisis.

Some of these thoughts are practical, material, tactical, immediate.  How can we change a building’s renovation? What should we ask our food vendor about meal options?  Other considerations reach farther afield, pondering the larger issues of how academia and humanity as a whole can transform in response to this awful challenge.

What I think we’re seeing is this:

If you don’t recognize it, it’s one example of Everett Rogers‘ innovation diffusion model.  Read it from left to right.  Any new thing appears in a population first with people who are innovators and early adopters, curious folks who tend to like change.  Then it might progress into the early majority, people who will try something if it offers a chance at incrementally improving their lives.  Next up are the late majority, who’ll adopt the innovation if it keeps their work from getting harder or worse.  After them are the laggards, who make a point of defying everyone else.  It’s a good model.  Not universally applicable, not perfect, but very handy.  There’s a lot more going on – check Diffusion of innovations fifth edition, which I happily teach every year – but this graph is enough for today.

You might guess I think academia as a whole is in the innovators-early adopters stage, and you’d be right. It’s a small number, a statistical minority of outliers and odd people who get climate change and are trying to do things about it. This is more than I saw two years ago. I think it’s rising.

But it hasn’t hit those big majorities yet.  Remember that they change behavior for different reasons than the early folk.  In fact, there’s a big leap to make from the latter to the former.  One book calls it a chasm and that’s not bad as a term.  Staff, senior administrators, and faculty in that circa 70% middle will have to decide that climate action is a good and useful thing, that it’ll help their work in certain ways.

Will this happen soon?  I’m not sure.  I noted obstacles up above. More, the 2024 American election will probably make things worse in the United States and elsewhere, especially if it shambles into 2025.   A Trump insurgency/second administration/etc. would likely embolden climate deniers and also give we academics a political priority to work on.  Other geopolitical events can have similar results.  So I’m skeptical about the short term.

Yet I think of the students I’ve met and otherwise heard from. They are aging into being grad students and staff.  Greta Thunberg’s generation will gradually grow across colleges and universities worldwide. I suspect they’d push for climate changes in their institutions.  Next, they become administrators, presidents, trustees. What might they do with that power?  How will they look back on our work today?

…and there I’ll stop.  Happy birthday, Universities on Fire.  Thank you to everyone who hosted me, talked to me, shared plans, and generally thought and acted on the climate crisis.  May your seeds grow.

(Rogers’ diffusion curve image via Wayne W. LaMorte)

Posted in climatechange | 2 Comments

March is the cruelest month: more academic cuts and closures

Some days I feel like I’m live-blogging my new book across a bunch of web browser tabs.  That is, I’m working on Peak Higher Education in several web browsers across three machines, with tabs open to Google Docs, an RSS reader, a few pdfs, a library ebook, and more.  Meanwhile, other browser tabs provide grim updates about colleges and universities cutting programs, merging, cutting staff, facing bad financial problems, or shutting down.  I share these stories across still other browser tabs: social media platforms, email… and this blog.

I have other things to blog about (currently on deck: podcasting, demographics, video vs text, my great choice for the future idea) but these campus stories keep coming and I want to treat them both seriously and in a timely manner. I wrote one post on this topic a few weeks ago and thought it would surely cover cuts and closures for February and March. That post took some time to write as news kept coming.  After the post went up more stories appeared, shared with me privately and publicly, so I assembled those into another post.  Since then still more stories have crossed my radar, so many that Inside Higher Ed ran a column about how individual academics can prepare for being downsized.  It seems March isn’t done with academia yet, and so here we are.

Here’s the latest, organized by my earlier headers.

1. CLOSING CAMPUSES

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (public) will shut down its Waukesha campus in 2025.  The major reason? According to the official FAQ, “[e]nrollment declines have remained consistent at the Waukesha campus, even with additional investments to offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing, business, and psychology.”  One result: “most employees will receive nonrenewal or layoff notices,” including tenured professors.

In my first March 2024 closures/cuts post I mentioned Notre Dame College in Ohio (private, Catholic) was engaged in a merger process.  In a post comment Jason Siko noted that the deal fell through, and that Notre Dame College was going to close after the end of this semester.  As noted earlier, reasons include declining enrollment.

Further south, Birmingham-Southern College (private, liberal arts) will close in May of this year.  Explaining why involves a long story, but to sum up: the campus suffered from a spectacular financial… miscalculation.  Several administrations have tried to right the ship, and none succeeded.  BSC asked its city, county, and state governments for money; ultimately the Alabama legislature refused, motived in part by opposition from the state treasurer, the spectacularly named Young Jacob Boozer III.  BSC sued Boozer, but without funding to stay open any longer, the college’s board of trustees voted to shut the college down.

Christine McIntosh, "Friendly student Birmingham Southern College"

This one is a little personal to me.  I have fond memories of taking, leading, and helping with several workshops at BSC, dating back to the 1990s.  Heck, I think I ate at the famous Dreamlands BBQ nearby. A lovely campus and fine people, it’s listed as one of the colleges that change lives.  And in two months it will cease to exist.

2. CAMPUSES CUTTING PROGRAMS AND JOBS

Manhattan College (private, Catholic) has cut academic programs, including religious studies.  The administration also laid up apparently 25% of faculty, many of whom were tenured professors.  The reason is declining enrollments.  Faculty voted no confidence in the president.

The president of Kent State University (public, research university) announced that that institution faced a major financial problem. (ungated article) While the school enjoyed a budget surplus last year, it wasn’t enough to fill a hole created in part by the end of federal COVID-19 subsidies.

Accordingly, cuts are on the way.  While no specific programs have been named, the institution’s president was clear:

Some of those cuts will come from reorganizing leadership at Kent’s regional campuses, consolidating colleges and academic programs, and layoffs.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this. We will have to reduce the number of employees at Kent State,” Diacon said during his monthly webcast.

Note how open-ended the word “employees” is.  It could mean anything from student workers and adjunct faculty to senior administrators and tenured professors.

The University of Arizona (public research university) announced it would cut academic positions to save $27 million, but is not sharing details about the plan.  In a recent interview interim provost Ronald Marx mentioned two changes to the announced plan:

[Al]though ABOR wrote that the jobs were “permanently” eliminated, they were only “permanently in a sense” eliminated.

He added that in other budget years, the jobs could reappear.

Additionally, Marx stated that the UA was not going to share the information with the public because “some of the cuts are not from open positions.”

The positions being cut that are not open, he said, are positions where employees are retiring. Those retirements have not yet been publicly announced, he added.

In other words, the university might bring back some of these closed positions, and is also encouraging some faculty to take early retirement.  Next, the provost held back on giving more information to a newspaper or to campus faculty:

“Basically, you’re not going to be able to get that data,” Marx said.

In response, the Star has submitted a formal records request to the university for the data.

Leila Hudson, the chair of the Faculty Senate, told the Star that she had also recently requested the information. She, too, was denied.

3. BUDGET CRISES, NOT LAYING OFF PEOPLE YET

In North Carolina Saint Augustine’s University (private, historically black university) is facing horrendous conditions – seriously, just read that Wikipedia page on its history.  We’re talking accusations of unjust firing, hiring convicted murderers to work, abruptly toggling class online because of broken boilers, losing accreditation, problematic leadership turnover, not paying bills, not paying faculty and staff in a timely way, faculty refusing to teach unless they actually get paid, and more.

Now a group of alumni are calling on SAU’s board of trustees to resign.  This definitely sounds like a financial, even existential crisis for the university. No word on cuts yet.

Marquette University in Wisconsin (private, Catholic) is planning on budget cuts for upcoming years.  This is an interesting case, because the institution isn’t suffering financially at the present.  Instead, as the official statement puts it,

Although we are in a strong financial position, Marquette – like other universities – is facing increasing economic and demographic pressures. Fewer traditional students are attending college, and those who do attend often need more financial and other support…

It is becoming clear that we need to be creative and proactive to protect Marquette’s long-term viability. Indeed, the recent University Faculty Committee for Budgets and Financial Planning (UFCBFP) report recommends that we address our financial challenges now with a shared governance approach, rather than having our future decided for us by outside forces – and we wholeheartedly agree.

The plan is based on:

a goal of permanently reducing our annual operating budget by 2.5% ($11 million) in FY26 (which starts in July 2025), with a multi-year implementation plan moving us to a cumulative 7% ($31 million) reduction by FY31 as we realize savings over time.

No mergers this week.


What can we derive from these stories?

At the end of my first March post I shared some reflections.  I stand behind them now, and you can read them.  What to add now?

First, administrative decision-making transparency continues to be a problem.  On the one hand, many sources recommend being open about crises and involving all stakeholders and impacted parties (for example). On the other, stories keep appearing where senior campus leaders withhold information from their communities.  This is obviously not a new problem for colleges and universities and we should expect it to continue. I anticipate some now established variations on the theme, such as leaks and people sharing audio or video captures of meetings.

Second, there seems to be an emerging effort to cross the streams between private institutions and public authorities.  The Birmingham-Southern College story concerns a private campus seeking multiple levels of public assistance. We’ve seen several states, like Massachusetts and New Jersey, take policy steps to help ailing private institutions.  If more private colleges and universities experience such problems, perhaps we’ll see more state action.  I’m not sure if the federal government will take any steps, especially during an intense election year.

To conclude: please share your stories, either news of institutional developments or of your personal experience.  I hope I can provide a good platform for them.

(thanks to Thomas Beckett and Elliot Pruzan for links; BSC photo by Christine McIntosh)

Posted in economics | 4 Comments

John Oliver’s student loan crisis update

Nearly a decade ago the comedian John Oliver took on student loans on his remarkably pedagogical show.  It was a good, bracing overview of the problem as it stood then.

This week Oliver returned to the theme.  I wanted to share it here, then add some comments:

Oliver (and his writing, research team) hit on a good range of essential points.  The show starts with updated data: “over 43 million Americans have student loans, that’s about 13% of the U.S. population, for a total outstanding debt of $1.7 trillion.”  Then Oliver races ahead, sketching out: student loan history back to Sputnik, rising tuition (and net tuition, nice!), effectively privatizing higher ed, differential prices for in-state and out-of-state students, the amenities arms race, the pressure to get degrees, credential inflation, how repayment structure barely touches principal, Biden’s loan relief efforts, Republican opposition, borrowers’ economic and racial characteristics, and discharging through bankruptcy or service.

Oliver takes time to  criticize private mishandling of loan operations, from forgiveness to payment mechanics and customer services, before cheering on the Biden administration’s improvements (and helpfully pointing us to this website).  Some quotes are simply damning:

This entire system seems practically set up to drown people in debt… It’s really hard to feel the system isn’t rigged…. We’ve set up a system where we’ve created a barrier to entry for many jobs that can only be passed by taking on some of the most debilitating loans with the least protections, administered by some of the shittiest companies on Earth.

For solutions, Oliver is far more tentative.  He quickly raised the idea of cutting college prices as well as “putting colleges themselves on the hook for a portion of the debt when students default on their loans.” He also floated in passing increased government funding for higher education.

So far so good.  What’s not to like?

To begin with, some points misfired.  State funding cuts to public universities predate the Great Recession by decades, going back to the early 1980s if not earlier (cf the work of Chris Newfield).  The claim that campuses are investing lavishly on amenities (“Out of necessity or greed, universities basically started turning their campuses into resorts to jusitify taking money from students”) only applies to some schools; the LSU lazy river is now a badly worn cliche.  These are research errors.

Beyond questions of fact are problems of analysis. This show is a sequel to a first effort, as I mentioned, yet it doesn’t touch on crucial developments since. There’s no mention of student enrollment peak and fall therefrom – which we can see in part as an expression of the debt problem, and which makes college financing even harder, as the numbers of fee-paying students decline.

Moreover, Oliver focuses on relatively expensive public universities.  There is zero mention of community colleges in the program.  Remember that community colleges educate more students than any other segment of higher education and do so for the lowest prices (also with the least amount of attention and regard, as this show sadly demonstrates). And they don’t partake in the lazy river game.

Oliver’s description of reasons why students take out loans is also sorely lacking.  I’m partial to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s argument in Lower Ed, that the transformation of American society from circa 1975-1995 is largely to blame. We ended a historic period of (broadly) seeing higher ed as a public good to viewing it as a private benefit. This happened while we shifted into neoliberalism as our political economy’s organizing principle, reducing public/governmental support and placing the onus for one’s survival and thriving on the individual’s shoulders.  I would add to this the major financialization of the American economy, which made loans and debt ever more central to the macro picture and to individual lives. Taken together, this is the huge tide Biden is now trying to buck.

This is why Oliver’s jibe that “it feels pretty weird to suddenly draw a hard line at student debt” (as opposed to farm relief, etc) doesn’t really work.  Neoliberalism has meant a lot of hard lines like this.  His comment that “[t]he government spends money all the time on all sorts of things to benefit select individuals because we think there is a net societal benefit” is better suited to the 1970s than now.

I also disagree with the simplistic “Republicans are evil on student debt, Democrats are the sole saviors” framing.  A casual glance at state funding for higher ed over the past 40 years shows Democrats and Republicans alike reducing support.  Yes, some of the blue states have historically higher support than some of the red states. Yes, Democrat Biden is trying his best, but the same guy also did his best to make sure debt holders couldn’t dischange loans through bankruptcy.  Sure, the GOP opposed Biden’s efforts, yet we’ve also seen Bernie Sanders’ Vermont having some of the lowest public higher ed support in the nation, and hard-blue California doing its best to cut back the famous master plan.  Oliver mocks the GOP for mocking liberal arts degrees, yet some of us remember Obama making the very same crack.  We can note that Bush(1), Clinton, Bush(2), and Obama administrations each sought to expand student loans.  Or we can turn to the state of Michigan, often considered blue, or at least purplish-blue, whose entire population (as expressed in multiple, diverse focus groups) called for defunding public universities during a recession. To be clear, my intention here is not to play a both-sides game  – I’m not a Republican –  but to point out that the real world picture is more complex and nuanced than we see in Oliver’s simplistic presentation.

(This ties into an argument I’ve heard from a lot of academics and progressives, that the solution to higher ed’s issues is simply for government to spend more money. Among other problems, this line of thought ignores the truly bad politics such a call runs into.  As I’ve said elsewhere, state government have a lot of constituencies and line items which outplay public universities pretty handily: K-12 schools, police and criminal justice, senior services, health care, infrastructure.  Advocates for a return to mid-century funding need to offer a political strategy which accounts for this.  And at the federal level the problem is much larger, not to mention worsened by partisan gridlock.  “Just give us more dollars” is not a realistic argument at this time, unless the arguer goes into a lot more detail than normally appears.)

The notes on credentialism are also strangely slight. We get comments like this:

barriers to entry make sense for some things, like practicing medicine or gorilla enclosures, but requiring a degree for a job that can be done without one makes no sense at all.

Fair enough.   But where do those barriers come from?  Oliver’s show skips over this in a hurry, which is a problem (and perhaps should be the subject of another program). Briefly, we can see a few drivers behind what some call credentialism.  First, some economic actors – guilds, professional bodies – can ramp up credential requirements in order to tighten their numbers and improve their reputation, both of which can lead to higher compensation.  Second, there’s a big social issue at work.  Unmentioned in either of Oliver’s shows is the huge growth of American post-secondary enrollment over the past couple of generations.  That means we’ve seen a boom in folks with post-secondary degrees – associates, bachelor’s, masters, PhDs, etc. This gives employers (including governments) the opportunity to wave off job applications without said credentials, which increases people’s desire to get degrees, and so the cycle continues.  Third, also unmentioned, is higher education’s interest in generating more degrees. More desire for degrees means more students which means more tuition and fees… Colleges and universities have a clear incentive to boost credentialism.  Without taking credentialism seriously we can’t really grapple with the student debt which results.

Am I being unfair to a comedian?  I don’t think so.  To his credit Oliver devotes this program to serious issues, and I’m taking it seriously.  This particular topic is of huge importance to academia, where I work, and is a major problem for the United States.  We can start with the good stuff Oliver has done, point out where it falls short, as we try to actually solve student debt in the real world.

I’m glad John Oliver has kept a focus on student debt, using his high profile platform. Let’s keep this going.

(thanks to Ruben Puentedura, Keil Dumsch, Glen McGee for discussing this with me)

 

Posted in economics | 7 Comments

More academic cuts in early 2024

On March 1st I posted about a series of colleges and universities closing and merging, along with cuts to academic programs, faculty, and staff.

The post attracted some attention.  Publicly, people commented on the blog, commented on the Medium version, and responded across social media.  Several people also wrote me privately – which is a sign of just how difficult and stressful it can be to even discuss the topic openly.  Some of these responses (both public and private) shared additional stories of academic cuts, and I wanted to share them as part of my research.

Also, in the half-month since the last post on the topic more academic cut stories have appeared, and I’m going to share those here as well.

I’ll reprise the categories I used last time, except for one I couldn’t find stories for.

1 Closing colleges and universities

The University of Antelope Valley (for-profit, California) is shutting down.  As Wikipedia nearly summarizes:

As of early 2024, the university was in a state of collapse.[2] On February 29, 2024, the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education ordered the university to cease all operations by Friday, March 8, 2024 due to its “severe financial position.”[3][4]

The bureau specified three reasons: “The institution is not financially sound… Insufficient administration… Insufficient facilities.”

Northland College (private; Wisconsin) launched a desperate fundraising appeal.  I wrote “desperate” because they face imminent closure.  Don’t take my word for it.  Here’s the official statement:

Northland College has announced an urgent fundraising appeal to raise $12 million by April 3 to avoid closure and reimagine its future. A comprehensive review by the Board of Trustees and College Leadership confirmed the College does not have sufficient resources to continue current programs and operations beyond this academic year. Its operating model—which has evolved many times in the 132 years since its founding—is no longer sustainable.

Fontbonne University (private, Missouri; Catholic, high black enrollment) announced it would shut down in summer 2025Here’s the last president’s statement:

One big reason for that move is catastrophic enrollment collapse.  Wikipedia again:

In 2022, it was revealed that the huge drop in enrollment of students from 2,293 (in 2011) to 955 (in 2021) has caused the university to operate at a deficit for the past 10 years. [10]

By November, 2023 enrollment had dropped to 874 with a deficit of $5.2 million.

Washington University St. Louis is purchasing Fontbonne’s campus property as well as assisting with teaching out current students.

2 Institutions merging

Bay Path University (private; Massachusetts) will acquire nearby Cambridge College (private). “The acquisition will nearly double the number of students served by Bay Path and bring total enrollment to over 5,000 students.”  Why was Cambridge vulnerable?  Once more, enrollment.

Interesting twist: the state of New Jersey is calling for someone to buy partner with New Jersey City University (public).   What’s the problem with NJCU?  Let’s let Wikipedia summarize:

In June 2022, NJCU declared a financial emergency and sought a $10 million lifeline from the state government.[4][5][6] Henderson resigned as president of the university, effective July 1.[7][8][9] In August, Governor Phil Murphy called for an investigation into NJCU’s dramatic change in financial standing from a surplus of $108 million in 2013 to a deficit of $67 million amid plans to expand NJCU’s campus. It was later learned that there was never a surplus and those facts were misreported. The university did have a $22.7 million operating deficit.[6][10] The university announced a cut of 37% of its academic offerings. Campus expansion was curtailed.

3 Campuses cutting programs and jobs

Drake University

Drake University (private; Iowa) announced it would cut a series of programs and, as a result, some faculty members.  The former include:

Undergraduate Majors: Anthropology/Sociology (ANSO), Astronomy, Physics, Religion , Rhetoric, Health Care Administration

Undergraduate Minors:  Anthropology, Religion, Rhetoric, East Asian Studies

Graduate Majors: Master of Accountancy, Master of Public Administration

Graduate certificate Evidence-based Health Care

At the same time, Drake will direct resources to other programs.  Note them and the rationale:

While this work demands that we make difficult decisions, it also presents an opportunity to invest in academic innovation that aligns with institutional strengths and meets evolving needs of Drake students and the communities where they will engage. Earlier this week Drake launched an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program to address the national nursing shortage and growing demand for high-quality nursing education. We recently invested in other new programs, including artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. These programs exemplify the University’s commitment to create academic offerings built upon institutional strengths, address student interests and societal needs, and ensure Drake students are prepared to graduate ready to make a difference in the world.

The rationale isn’t an immediate crisis, but a deficit and concern over future stresses.

Valparaiso University (private; Indiana) announced it was examining nearly 30 academic programs for closure by fall 2024.  Most are undergrad majors:

Actuarial science major and minor
Astronomy major and minor
Bachelor of Music (all concentrations)
Complementary humanities major
Economics and computer analysis major
German major
Global studies majors (all concentrations)
International business and international business and global studies minor
International relations major and minor
Philosophy major and minor
Public and professional writing major and minor
Public health major
Spanish major
Statistics major and applied statistics minor
Supply chain and logistics management major and minor
Theology and ministry major and minor
Theology major and minor

These graduate programs are also up for potential axing:

Cybersecurity
Digital media
Educational and psychological foundations
English studies and communication
Initial licensure – elementary education
Nurse educator
Public health (global health)
Public health (no concentration)
Sports media
TESOL

How did they pick these programs?

“The programs were identified after careful examination of several factors, first and foremost low current enrollment and enrollment trends. Other metrics considered were Student Credit Hours per Full Time Equivalent Faculty (SCHs/FTE), Direct Contribution Margin (DCM) and market data both from peers and the government,” [Valparaiso University Provost Eric] Johnson stated. “We also looked closely at each program’s service to other Valpo programs, and how to maintain institutional offerings that would continue the tradition of being a comprehensive university, grounded in the liberal arts to the fullest extent possible.”

4 Budget crises, no program or people cuts announced yet

Central State University (public; HBCU; Ohio) is preparing cuts in response to a budget deficit (“a $4 million shortfall, about 6% of the total operating budget”).  Right now a bunch of expenses are stopped: “all spending will be halted, including office supplies, travel, and personnel services, such as consultants. Hiring is frozen except for grant programs and critical roles.”

Xavier University (private; Ohio) faces a $16 million deficit, and is bringing in consultants to analyze the problem.


So what do we make of this?

I wrote some reflections on a previous round of cuts, and will direct readers that way.  Today I’ll just add a few notes.

Note the geography.  Many of these stories come from the midwest as well as the northeast.  My readers know these are areas where demographics mean fewer high school students, not to mention fewer people overall.  This morning I heard one Ohio academic state that her institution was the only one growing in that state.  It seems to me we need to plan on this situation deepening through the medium term future, at least.

Note, too, the New Jersey story.  My impression is that state governments don’t want to close their public campuses, even while they enact policies which depress enrollment (cutting per-student funding, reducing degree requirements for public jobs, etc.). We might see more states take steps to manage their universities’ decline.

One more note: when I write and speak about academic cuts and closures, people reach out to me to share their stories and information privately.  Over emails, DMs in other platforms, hushed conversations in person academics and non-academics tell me about what they’re hearing and experiencing.  This insistence on privacy is important.  The higher education space isn’t very supportive about open conversations on such institutional crises, much less broader trends which exert pressure on our sector.

Some of this is very practical or tactical.  Institutional leaders fear – rightly – that publicly describing weaknesses may depress applications, continued enrollment, and investment. Faculty and staff might want to win a job elsewhere before their reputation is tarnished by having worked at a failed campus.  State leaders should be careful about making their higher education system appear in a negative light nationally – for my non-US readers, state universities charge out-of-state students much more for tuition, and hence don’t want to lose that enrollment.

I think some of this is also psychological in a historical/political way.  American higher education grew – boomed – from the early 1980s to around 2012.  To some degree we academics were shaped by that expansionary mode.  We’re now in a different era, trying to grapple with what I call post-peak higher ed.  It’s a hard shift to make, and perhaps an awkward, even embarrassing one to make. (In contrast, academics from the rare institutions which are actually growing boast to me about their numbers.) On the political side, some academics see themselves as locked in a struggle with anti-intellectuals, with populists who disdain expertise, with the extreme right wing. Discussing higher ed’s financial and structural struggles might seem like giving their opponents ammunition.

I’ll close with a plea for readers to attend to the human stories here.  While we talk about structures and trends, large statistics and policy shifts, we should remember that these sometimes macro, meso, or abstract developments are grounded in people’s lives.  We need to hear and support them more than we do.  Yes, this means I’m interested in hearing from you, if you have information to share or a story to tell.

(thanks to Karl Aho, Andy Anderson, Mo Pelzel, George Station, Robert Morgan; Drake photo by Daniel Hartwig)

Posted in economics | Tagged | 7 Comments

Four years of a vegan diet

What’s it like to eat a vegan diet for some years?

For most of my life I was a serious carnivore, eating lots of meat and animal products.  Yet in late 2019 I experimented with eating a partially vegan diet.  This turned out so well that in March 2020 I switched to eating solely plant-based foods and have done so for the following four years.

a bulb of garlic

The most delicious force in the universe.

tl;dr – veganism works very well for me on multiple levels and I’ll keep doing it.

I made the switch for two reasons.  First, as I was (and still am) researching climate change and finding a consensus that humans should eat less meat and fewer animals products, I thought I would learn about that change through doing it in my life.  Second, I was concerned about my health.  In 2019 I weighed over 255 pounds and was concerned about carrying that much weight into older ages.

Eating vegan answered both of those challenges.  I’ve learned a great deal more about food systems and cultures, as well as experiencing (albeit with an n of 1) the transition from lots of meat to none at all.

What’s it like in 2024?

My health has improved, with my weight down to the 210s, even with thrice-weekly weight lifting.  I feel better in my body, which I hadn’t expected.  Staff at the clinic I see admire my results, and one doctor asked me what my secret was.

My life has changed in some other ways.

Cooking 1-3 vegan meals a day (depending on if I’m home) has made me a more serious cook.  I shop for groceries more extensively and carefully, spending more time in produce section than ever, unsurprisingly, and hitting multiple shops for various ingredients (it’s a delight to be nearly multiple international groceries). I set up some meals a day in advance, to let garbanzo beans soak overnight, for example.  I leave comments on vegan websites and YouTube videos, sharing my experimental results and asking semi-informed questions.  When I travel I can ask better questions of professionals chefs and caterers. Somehow I now can make 50 different dishes for lunch or dinner, from Indian aloo gobi and channa masala to Thai drunken noodles, hen’s mane cumin mushrooms, mujadara, red beans and rice, and vegan general Tso.  I really do rely on Chinese and Indian traditions.

vegan meal prep

For example, here’s the menu of breakfast options I have in my kitchen:

Dal Braised tofu Breakfast burrito Breakfast patties Chickpea and sweet potato fritters Crispy fried tofu Curried mushroom and tofu scramble Dal: red lentil; yellow lentil Fajitas Fried potato bits Green-wrapped vegan “meat” Hash browns Mushroom scramble Mushrooms in corn tortillas Quinoa with garlic Sweet potato hash Sweet potato and kale fritters Tofu scramble

This diet changed my gardening, as I focus on growing edible plants and more of them.  I’m trying out all kinds of things, from setting up a fruit tree in the front yard to expanding our herb garden.  We add to the compost every day, and use all the results each spring.

My culinary tastes and practices come and go in waves.  I’ll be obsessed with hummus for weeks, then forget about it for months. Now I’m in the middle of a noodle craze.

veggie lo mein looking good

Veggie lo mein, one of my go-to lunches. Mushrooms, slice carrots, spinach, garlic, green onions, sprouts, noodles in a lovely sauce.

I rarely eat plant-based meats or animal products, like Impossible Burgers or various Cheezes. I like ’em well enough when I come across them, but I usually don’t think of them when I’m shopping or planning a meal. I think it’s because I’ve partitioned off meat and animal products so carefully in my mind that I don’t go looking for allowable versions of them.  Maybe I’ll return to them again.

Very rarely do I get memories of cravings for meat and animal products. Usually it’s  when I’m very hungry and a scent or visual which will remind me of older pleasures.  Fried chicken is the main culprit.  These are just momentary, though.  I can easily displace them with thoughts of vegan food I love and the memories slip away.

Perhaps this relative ease of staying on the vegan path is due to a lack of carnivorous family or cultural heritage.  As a child and teenager I ate a lot of meat and cheese, but that didn’t occur within a specific culinary tradition.  In that period of my life I have so many negative memories and associations with food and eating that it plays no positive influence in my subsequent eating practice. I started teaching myself how to cook in college, with the help of kind friends, and carved my own way from there.

Beyond the psychological dimension, technology plays a significant role in how I eat.  Today I rely on various digital tools for finding, learning about, and cooking vegan food.  The HappyCow app is my go-to when traveling anywhere, but sometimes I have to Google for very specific needs, like vegan options in a certain airport.   When planning meals and exploring, I Google all kinds of questions, from specific recipes to substitutions, national vegan traditions and health issues.  Individual web pages can be very useful, especially for recipe pages, once I skim down the introductory fluff to actual instructions.  YouTube is especially helpful, now that there are so many recipes carefully documenting preparation.  (Here’s my vegan how-to playlist.)

At the same time I rely on Google Docs to record and organize recipes.  This includes copying ideas from websites (which I link to), jotting down impressions and ideas, editing them for my purposes and tastes, adding some photos of the results.  I also post those photos of my cooking and eating to Instagram and Flickr; alas, neither gets much interest, and I’m not sure why.  Right now I have a few hundred Google Docs for vegan purposes.

I check out a new print cookbook every few months, usually from our community library system, for more inspiration and ideas.  I don’t use any recipe or other food mobile apps.

Four years of this… some things haven’t changed in my life since I started this thing.  I don’t evangelize veganism, so I haven’t made any converts that I know of, at least not any deliberate ones, although maybe my comments on the topic have played a role in some folks’ thinking.   I don’t get static from people who want to critique the vegan choice.  Now, when I professionally describe vegan diets as a climate change strategy, citing IPCC reports etc., I will hear some pushback, but it’s never personally directed at me.  It’s usually abstract, sometimes in the form of sociological and psychological arguments about changing food choices.  In presentations I will sometimes mention my vegan experience, again as an n of 1, in order to show that I walk the talk, but I don’t dwell on it.

My family still eats meat and animal products, as much as they used to, even as I live and cook with them, but I support their choices.  I grocery shop for them and often cook dinners accordingly without admonishing them or feeling guilt.  They will also gladly eat the veggies I make, notablu my roasted potatoes and garlic green beans, and are kind about sampling my vegan meals.

There are still challenges for being a vegan in 2024, at least for me (and please let me know what I’m doing wrong!).  First, sometimes it’s hard to find vegan food.  I’ve been trying to be better about bringing trail mix for such situations, but keep forgetting to make a good supply. This can be an issue in constrained environments, like airports or trains, as well as in communities with meat-centric food cultures.

Bryan with an orange in Orange County

Me with an orange in Orange County.

Second, while the diet keeps me healthy, I remain vulnerable to (vegan!) snack foods.  I try to stick to radishes, nuts, and roasted chickpeas, but chips etc. are too alluring.

Socially, veganism is still an extreme outlier.  In the United States, where I live, only around 4% of people do this, according to Statista, or just 1%, as per Gallup,  I enjoy meeting, talking with, and learning from vegetarians and other vegans.  One can find them anywhere.  That’s a nice bond to discover.  However, I do stand out from that population in many ways.  From what I’ve been able to research, vegans tend to be younger, female, less wealthy, and way skinnier than weightlifting me.

Looking ahead, I’m set in my vegan ways.  I’ll keep cooking and eating accordingly.  I’m excited about learning new recipes and ingredients.

I don’t plan on advocating for this diet, but am happy to share my experience. Maybe I should share recipes, too.

How about you, dear readers?  Do you have vegan questions or stories to share?

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