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Universities Face Enhanced Scrutiny, Converging Reputational Issues

February 22, 2024

Recent resignations by Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Liz Magill, and calls for the resignation of MIT’s Sally Kornbluth, have sent university leaders and boards across the U.S. scrambling to develop responses to recent events to protect their institutional reputations. Putting aside the very real questions of racism and sexism swirling around these calls for resignation, what’s core to this moment is the question of how universities should be responding to major geopolitical and societal issues. What is the role of university leadership at a time like this?

Higher education will undoubtedly continue facing enhanced scrutiny from a range of outspoken stakeholders, including elected officials and other politicians, powerful donors and high-profile alumni, all of whom yield considerable power in shaping the fabric of our institutions. And there is no easy answer—even though university leadership and communicators are looking for one.

2024 will bring no shortage of complex issues, with what will certainly be a contentious U.S. presidential election, political unrest and violence around the world, economic uncertainty tied to inflation and rising costs, and worsening humanitarian issues related to mass migration. As with 2023, universities will continue to be caught in the middle, with calls from both sides to speak out and equally aggressive urges to “do more” or “do less.” Issues related to freedom of speech on campuses will be more pervasive than ever before.

One tangible step is for university leadership to discuss these major global issues and align ahead of time—preferably with Board/Trustee input—on where/how they will and will not engage. You can’t plan for every moment, but some of these global issues have clear time stamps (such as the U.S. presidential election on November 5).

These global and national landscapes will also converge with very real, very difficult issues taking place on college campuses. Here are a few to watch in the coming year because they will almost certainly be further ignited by the overarching issues facing our world. University leadership should develop issues and communications platforms for each of these now.

      1. Politicization of Higher Education in Congress
        Higher education has never been more politicized than it is right now. Pundits on the left and the right have seized this moment to place universities in the spotlight for positive and negative contributions to society.
        Most dangerously, universities are currently caught in a fight about the place for DEI in our classrooms, specifically in states such as Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Some legislators have called into question key higher education values such as academic freedom and tenure as part of an effort to shrink diversity and inclusion initiatives on public campuses.
      2. Social Justice Push for Racial and Gender Equity
        Students on campuses across the U.S. will continue to push universities to prioritize DEI and social justice, encouraging university administrators to weave these concepts into the storied fabric of the institution.
      3. Academic Freedom and Free Speech on Campus
        Tied inextricably to the politicization of higher education, the so-called “war on free speech” has impacted many private and public universities in the past year or two. Similar issues used to cause brief flare ups on campuses, but now they make national news.
        Many universities hesitate to define what academic freedom means on their campus. This is a mistake. Universities that refuse to make their stance on academic freedom and overarching freedom of speech known will likely face critical calls to do so and will be challenged both politically and legally. As evidenced by the recent testimony on Capitol Hill, there needs to be a balance between communicating academic viewpoints and real human values.
      4. The Fairness of Admissions
        Last June, the Supreme Court made one of the most consequential decisions related to education in decades, overturning affirmative action for colleges across the U.S. This decision on the practice of affirmative action will have resounding ripple effects from K-12 through the corporate sector. Coupled with ongoing litigation around legacy admissions, this change will continue to impact the way universities, especially elite universities, recruit and retain talented students.
      5. Labor Unionization Efforts
        Graduate students at numerous prestigious institutions have voted for collective-bargaining units. Universities are in the throes of figuring out what this means for their institutions, with labor unionization efforts potentially calling into question what it means to be a student and what it means to be an employee.
      6. Decreased Enrollment and the Rising Cost of Education
        Is college worth it? This question has been reverberating in the halls of Congress and at kitchen tables across the country. Many universities are feeling this pressure in their enrollment numbers, and on average between 30-40 small colleges have closed each year since the beginning of the pandemic. Even larger, more competitive institutions are facing declines.

In this heated political climate, as detailed above, university leaders, especially those at public institutions, may find themselves stuck between their own inclusionary values, the pressures of their students and challenges from state governments, alumni and even faculty. Breaking down silos and aligning with stakeholders ahead of time can help mitigate some of this tension.

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