Opening Plenary Address, American Conference of American Deans

Presented during the Dean's Institute
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Thank you for that kind introduction and warm welcome. I'm honored to be here today as a former provost and now president of Wofford College. I've labored on both sides of the aisle you might say, and as such, my perspective carries experience with both inward- and outward-facing challenges and constituents. While I now deal with boards, alumni, foundations and building projects, I haven't forgotten the days of stinging calls from frustrated parents, faculty squabbles and technology glitches on registration day. Still, some things remain remarkably similar. Whether dean, provost or president, the faculty dining room gets a little quieter when the CAO or CEO walks in, and entertaining and collegial conversations about the best new shows on Netflix change to a discourse on faculty governance and collective bargaining even before we have time to settle into our seats. Thus is life on the dark side of college administration. 

While we could commiserate for the next hour about the day-to-day challenges, and of course opportunities, associated with the office of CAO, there's another, much more serious topic, that's worth the contemplation of the considerable brainpower and experience in this room. The society in which we live and in which our institutions of higher learning exist, is fraught with uncertainty, fear and a growing miasma of satisfied ignorance. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported back-to-back record-breaking years for hate crimes and extremist activity, even on college campuses. Financial Aid Officers regularly get calls from families of students wanting additional assistance because their circumstances have changed as a result of broken relationships or lost income. International students are afraid to go home because they may not be able to return to college.


The theme of this conference is "navigate, balance, connect," and it couldn't be more appropriate as we seek to do all three in an increasingly fractured community. In March, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Bill Bishop, co-author of "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart." Bishop writes that everything about modern life works against community and trust. Quoting Bishop: "Globalization and urbanization put people in touch with the different and the novel. Our economy rewards initiative over conformity, so that the weight of convention and tradition doesn't squelch the latest gizmo from coming to the attention of the next Bill Gates. Whereas parents in the 1920s said it was must important for their children to be obedient, that quality has declined in importance, replaced by a desire for independence and autonomy. Widespread education gives people the tools to make up their own minds. And technology offers everyone the chance to be one's own reporter, broadcaster and commentator." 

Bishop references Gallup polls of U.S. adults over the past 40 years to demonstrate the erosion of confidence that Americans now have in major institutions. In 1964, 75 percent of Americans trusted the government. By 1976 that number had dropped to 33 percent. Today, mistrust affects virtually every major institution. Trust in religious organizations has declined by 24 percent since the mid 1970s. Trust in banks has fallen by 33 percent. Public school trust is down 28 percent, organized labor is down 7 percent, and big business has dropped by 8 percent. Newspapers have plummeted by 31 percent, and trust in the Supreme Court is down by 15 percent. Trust in Congress has practically bottomed out at an all-time low, with only 9 percent of the American public claiming faith in our federally elected officials. One of the few organizations with rising public trust is the military, and our armed forces enjoy a confidence rating of 73 percent - that's telling as well.

This erosion of confidence has been going on since the Vietnam War and Watergate, but a recent Marist poll by National Public Radio shows a further decomposition of political civility since the presidential election in November 2016, with nearly half of independent voters saying that they lack confidence in the fairness of our electoral process. As you would expect, the winning side showed slightly more confidence, and the losing side far less. Unfortunately, this lack of confidence has extended to higher education.

A Pew Research Center poll finds that 58 percent of politically conservative voters think colleges and universities hurt our country. Yes, I said hurt! The majority of the conservative electorate believes higher education does more harm than good. And this fear, mistrust and decidedly anti-intellectual tone are threats to institutions of higher education, but more importantly, they put democracy in peril because educating tomorrow's citizens is paramount to society's future, and I believe at the core of our mission as college and university leaders.

Not so long ago, families looked to higher education as the path to social mobility, hope and the cultivation of the values of civility, engagement and respect - all of the things that help strengthen the social fabric. For example, Constantinos N. "Gus" Papadopoulos was born in 1931 in Kavala, Greece. He grew up through the turbulent decade of World War II and the Greek Civil War, immigrating to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and entering Wofford College in 1951. In those early days, his English was limited, but he learned quickly enough to graduate in three years and win the Howard Carlisle Award for public speaking his senior year. He was also elected president of the pre-medical society. After graduation from Wofford in 1954, Gus and his brother bought a second-hand automobile and toured the United States looking for the best growth areas. They settled on Texas, and Gus entered medical school at Baylor College of Medicine. As a young physician, he became a partner in the Pasadena, Texas, Anesthesiology Group and worked with Dr. Michael DeBakery in the development of revolutionary anesthesiology techniques for open heart and vascular transplant surgery. He developed a successful medical practice, started a financial and development company in Houston and gave generously to his colleges - both Wofford and Baylor - as well as his community. A building at Wofford bears his name and stands as a reminder of the ability of higher education to change the trajectory of individuals, families and society. From immigrant in a war-torn country to physician, businessman and philanthropist, Gus Papadopoulos and his story demonstrates both the individual benefits and the societal merits essential to a well-functioning, democratic community that higher education cultivates.

In stark contrast, Chronicle of Higher Education senior writer Scott Carlson talks about the reaction of the legislature at a recent town-hall meeting in Tucson, Arizona. Educators and business leaders attended the meeting to encourage state representatives to allocate more support to higher education. To the surprise of educators and business executives, legislators ignored their requests. One legislator reportedly said: "Those kids don't need college," speaking in a state where 60 percent of schoolchildren are Hispanic and the legislature is overwhelmingly white. In the article, Carlson showed U.S. Department of Education data going as far back as 1987 showing that statewide per-student funding in Arizona has dropped with the changing demographic moving into colleges and universities. There is a direct correlation between decreased funding for higher education and increased diversity in the entering classes. According to Carlson, and I quote: "As the student population has diversified, the language that many people use to define the value of a college degree has shifted, from a public good to an individual one. Is that merely a coincidence? It's a jarring question for a sector that sees itself as a great equalizer .... It seems that policy makers - with the encouragement or tacit acceptance of the public - have erected barriers to higher education based on race a class."


I know I'm preaching to the intellectual choir, but it is incredibly short sighted not to consider the public good of higher education. People who attend college are less likely to commit a crime and more likely to maintain a healthy lifestyle - both actions that remove a huge burden from society. Economically, a community with more college graduates means a community with adequate revenue from taxes, steady economic growth and market flexibility. College graduates are innovators and philanthropists, and they live longer, more fulfilling lives. A recent study from Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows this. Still, higher education remains a target of criticism and that criticism leads to a loss of resources, respect and the students who could benefit from the breadth of knowledge, experience and relationships that they find in college. 

What follows when colleges and universities are not trusted to do their job includes a society where contempt, heightened anger, polarization, growing nativism, chauvinism and bigotry reign. Sound familiar? Even national championship football rivals show more civility than we have seen since the most recent presidential election.

So why are we in this predicament? Why is nonprofit higher education experiencing the stigma of other institutions that have failed the American public? Surely it's not because we have failed as well … or is it?

Certainly for-profit universities that have scammed individuals and defrauded the government have not helped. By advising students to submit false information on the FAFSA, targeting students with limited resources and knowledge of the higher education system, and then producing notoriously low graduation rates, these institutions have further eroded public confidence. That there has been no real cry from the American public on this issue is an even bigger issue and a more telling statement of the low expectations many people have for higher education. 

In addition, higher education has suffered from a perception of elitism .... and frankly, we have not always done a good job of explaining our value and, unfortunately, sometimes have found it beneath us to do so. What follows naturally is a wave of anti-intellectual sentiment that disregards expert opinions and offers no censure for those who lie. Brexit, the rise of white nationalism in America, real-time fact checking during presidential debates - these are all phenomenon with roots in the anti-intellectual movement. Ironically enough, with that comes an enormous pile of hubris - an arrogance that says I'm entitled to my own facts, not just my own opinion. "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been," says Isaac Asimov, renowned science fiction author. "The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." 

Fueled by this culture, the accessibility of social media allows everyone to promote himself or herself as an expert with every post carrying an air of legitimacy. For example, a recent post on Facebook that has been shared more than a million times shows a graphic with the first day of every month beginning on a Sunday during 2018. It's the year of the Sunday, a day set aside for worship and rest in the Christian tradition. People marveled at the phenomenon when simply opening a 2018 calendar disproves the claim. By the way, in case you're interested, during 2018 the only months that actually begin on Sunday are April and July; this is consistent with previous years. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms are thriving in this environment. They require a short attention span; they celebrate the cliché and the one-liner, and maybe most appealing of all, they turn everyone - regardless of their resume - into an authority. In this sense, social media breeds conditions and expectations that are the polar opposite of those in higher education. 

Now this may come as a surprise to you, but I'm not on social media. As a matter of fact - and after this speech this will NOT come as a surprise to you - it would be impossible for me to condense my thoughts to 280 characters. Call me old-fashioned, but I still have a fondness for complete sentences, well-reasoned arguments, and verified facts. I still enjoy immersing myself in long articles - even books - and I firmly believe that the higher education system in the United States is distinctive and one of the great comparative advantages that we have in the world. In our current society, however, the pace of higher education seems to require a type of patience and delayed gratification for which many people no longer have the capacity. 

So where does that leave us? Within the past year, I've written more letters and encouraged more supporters of higher education to contact our elected representatives than ever before. I'm sure many of you have joined the American Association of Colleges and Universities in sharing higher education's concerns about the security of our international students or our dreamers. Most recently, I, and I'm sure many of you, shared concerns about the H.R.1 tax proposal. While we may all feel a different impact depending on the size of our endowments and the demographics of our student bodies, most of us have come out better than expected ... THIS TIME. But as Frank Bruni, journalist, Columbia University graduate and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in a Dec. 30, op-ed in the New York Times: "... that doesn't change the fact that those facets of the tax code, meant to promote and reward advanced learning, were up for debate. Or that our House of Representatives initially passed a bill that would have eliminated such incentives for the acquisition of bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. Or that the law ultimately did create new taxes on endowments of the richest schools."

The public doesn't understand that we are not all hedge funds with colleges attached to them, and even those universities with billion dollar plus endowments use the endowment resources at their disposal to do much good in the world - medical research, financial aid for undergraduates, support of art galleries and museums, start-up funds for entrepreneurs. Including these powerhouse endowments, the average endowment total for all colleges and universities is roughly $120 million, and we all know just how quickly the dividends from that seem to evaporate. 

Cost is certainly a concern, but too often people read the alarming headlines about how federal student loan debt has now topped $1.4 trillion and glance no further than colleges and universities to lay the blame. A deeper look, however, indicates that a fourth of students who graduated with a bachelor's degree from a four-year private college or university accrued no debt. Graduate students - primarily in medicine and the law - incur the greatest debt, and those who take on the loans believe that the personal return on their investment outweighs the burden. 

Some days I feel that we need to arm ourselves for battle. That's why it is more important than ever to our community of higher education that presidents and chief academic officers present a united front - pens at the ready, and yes, I believe that they are mightier than the sword.

What I'm about to propose as we prepare to conquer the hearts and strengthen the minds of our opponents is not novel. Books such as Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska elucidate some of the flaws in the higher education system while offering research-based recommendations to remedy the conditions. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Insider Higher Ed, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the AACU all have addressed this topic in different ways and with varied emphasis. And, frankly, if the solution were easy, as leaders of our intuitions, we could surely speak a solution into being with the immense academic power that we all know comes with great academic responsibility... 

I realize this sounds rudimentary, but first and foremost we need to do what we say we are doing. In other words, we need to take our missions seriously. Wofford College's mission, for example, is to provide superior liberal arts education that prepares its students for extraordinary and positive contributions to society. More specifically, the focus is on fostering commitment to excellence in character, performance, leadership, service to others and lifelong learning. We don't operate in a vacuum, and our students won't live in one once they graduate. That means if we do not provide opportunities for our students to engage in the world beyond the classroom, we fail, and if we do not deliver what we promise, we lose credibility. 

One of the first major projects that Mike Sosulski undertook after joining the Wofford community as provost a year and a half ago was to help several major donors realize the importance of co-curricular programming to the overall education of our students. The businessmen who he met with already understood the importance of professional development training and internships, but they were not convinced that community-based learning and study abroad added comparable marketable value to the degree. After several data-driven conversations and emails, however, both men have become spokesmen for the total liberal arts experience, including academic rigor, a breadth of knowledge and multiple options for experiential learning. Although the provost's job is often inward facing, it cannot be so exclusively, and Mike Sosulski gets that. We say it's important for our students to step out of their comfort zones and stretch themselves; sometimes presidents and chief academic officers must do the same for the greater good.

I challenge you to review your mission. Are you doing what you say you're doing and are you intentional in your quest for improvement? Are you delivering what you promise? Even if you're committed, recommit yourself. Reevaluate your methods and reengage with students, faculty and staff. Do whatever it takes to give yourself a booster shot of academic excitement. If we're not excited about educating the leaders of tomorrow then how can we expect them to be excited about what they're learning?

This leads to the second recommendation for recovering our credibility. How do we make the case for allocating scarce resources in the context of pressure to focus on what we might call technical fields, such as science, technology, math, even accounting and finance, to the disadvantage of our traditional breadth of humanities, social sciences and fine arts. This past November The New York Times debunked several myths about the choice of academic major and the employability of liberal arts graduates. A 2017 Harvard University study found that jobs requiring both soft skills and thinking skills have seen the largest growth in employment and pay in the past three decades. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than one-third of the country's labor force changes jobs annually. Estimates indicate that by the time today's 22-year-old graduates reach the age of 40, they will have held 11 different jobs. We must help people understand that we prepare graduates for their 11th job as well as their first. Probably the most telling statistic is that each year more than 30 million Americans are employed in new jobs that did not exist in previous years, and the future if full of life opportunities and jobs that do not exist today. That means the purpose of higher education should be to help students develop into lifelong learners who can adapt to challenges and work with others to find solutions to problems, both small and large.

As I'm sure at each of your institutions, every Wofford College graduate must succeed in the study of cultures and peoples, English, fine arts, foreign languages, history, humanities, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, religion and wellness. English majors are not exempt from mathematics and science requirements, just as chemistry majors must spend time learning about philosophy and religion. Faculty who teach these courses challenge students. They teach, but they also mentor, advise, listen, question and expect students to stretch themselves. Wofford faculty are just as interested in the growth and development of students are they are in keeping up with the research and trends in their respective academic disciplines. This combination is essential when preparing students for the roles they will take upon graduation and throughout their lives. That's why having a CAO who fosters this type of breadth, depth and commitment to teaching as well as research and innovation is vital to fulfilling our mission.

Re-cultivating the public's respect for the balance between the private good and the public good associated with education is vital. Again, this isn't a new idea. Thousands of years ago Aristotle said, "Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation." And hundreds of years ago Benjamin Franklin said: "The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country." He also said, "A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one."

Higher education is absolutely about providing opportunities for students to develop various competencies, but it is also about offering students opportunities to find their purpose for the benefit of the greater community. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to both prepare students for what they will find in the world after graduation and for their unique contributions to society.

The fall issue of Wofford Today, the college's alumni magazine, featured a series of articles about Wofford graduates serving in the military. There was a story about a 1954 graduate and Air Force One pilot who flew James Earl Ray back to the United States after he fled the country following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Another story featured a veteran who founded a Shakespeare Company in Kentucky for other veterans affected by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. We have a graduate commanding The Old Guard in Washington, D.C., several ROTC and National Guard commanders and others just beginning their military careers. Every one of them talked about the breadth and depth of learning they received at Wofford and how it has given them mental agility and the ability to be adaptive leaders in a variety of circumstances. And their majors ... well, they vary from chemistry to religion to business economics to psychology to accounting to philosophy. They excel in demanding careers, but they also have families and serve on juries or school boards or arts councils. They take their children to museums and coach youth league athletics teams. They participate in religious communities and United Way fundraising campaigns. They tend gardens and pay taxes. They vote. It doesn't have to be one or the other - private good versus public good - and we as CAOs and CEOs have a responsibility to tell both sides of the story often and well.

A year ago I started a series of white papers called "Making an Informed Decision: a six part series on the importance of the liberal arts and Wofford College's role in preparing students for extraordinary and positive contributions to society." They have been well received and are part of the foundation for the college's upcoming capital campaign. Again, we know why I chose the white paper format - the title itself barely meets Twitter's character limit - but if you're better with 280 characters or less, then tweet the case. If you've got a voice like Barry White, create a podcast or produce a musical about higher education; instead of Hamilton, you could call it Humboldt for Alexander von Humboldt, the father of modern higher education. If you've got connections with The Wall Street Journal, write an op-ed. If you own a plane, try skywriting. As a CAO, you have a responsibility to promote the case for higher education, and you're probably the most qualified person in the room to do so.

Finally, we only fulfill the promises that we make and the promise of higher education if students graduate, and by graduate I place a heavy preference on graduation within four years.

In October, the National Center for Education Statistics released two new IPEDS components that document student outcomes. According to the report, an average of only 61 percent of full-time degree-seeking students at public four-year colleges or universities graduated within 8 years. At private, nonprofit four-year colleges, the average was only 67 percent within the same time frame. The numbers drop to 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively, within 6 years and further to 34 percent and 53 percent within 4 years. This is a travesty!

An ABC news financial fitness special in 2016 estimated the cost of delaying graduation by even one year at $155,244: $26,815 in additional tuition and interest on loans, $46,355 in lost income and $82,074 in compounded retirement savings. These figures act as a lead weight on the perceived rate of return on what is an increasingly costly endeavor. Therefore, if we don't complete students in a timely manner, we fail - and that's not a grade that most of us find acceptable in any context.

When it comes to first-generation college students or Pell-eligible students, our responsibility intensifies. In April 2017, Wofford College joined the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a national effort to substantially increase the number of talented low- and moderate- income students at the nation's top-performing undergraduate institutions with the highest graduation rates. Research shows that when high-achieving, lower-income students attend institutions that focus on student success and retention, they graduate at higher rates and are more likely to hold leadership positions and enjoy the connections and opportunities for advancement that will carry them beyond college into the workforce or graduate school. We will be learning from the best 67 colleges and universities in the nation and will contribute to research that will help other institutions expand opportunities. And these opportunities are important. A report of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities claims that 90 percent of adult children from the lowest income quartile moved to a higher income quartile after earning a college degree. Conversely, 39 percent of individuals without a college degree fell from the middle-income quartile. 

Please note that I advocate for access without apologizing for the cost of the service we provide. Decreasing cost for most of us is not and should not be an option. Instead, I believe it's vital to clarify what we do and demonstrate how the services we provide are worth the cost. And, again, I firmly support managing cost by managing completion. Still, we cannot deny the challenge of cost because cost is what ultimately affects students and parents. Therefore, we need to be prepared to defend what we do in the context of rising costs. During the 2006-07 academic year, the average net tuition and fee price paid by full-time students at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities was $14,900. In 2016-17, the average net tuition and fee price was actually lower at $14,190. While fees have increased during those same years, the amount students have paid has decreased across the board because the average grant aid and tax benefits have increased. Financial aid has been the true difference maker. Wofford College, for example, runs more than $50 million in student aid through its budget, and 93 percent of Wofford students receive some form of financial assistance.

Consider some other areas in which people complain about cost. Take postage, for example. For 49 cents, the United States Postal Service will fly my letter from Spartanburg, South Carolina to an alumnus in Los Angeles, California, within two days. Dozens of people will ensure its safe delivery. I'm not sure why I'm supposed to resent spending less than half a dollar for that service. The cost of airline travel is another service that suffers a great deal of criticism for its cost. Airplanes are big, complicated devices, though, and maybe it's just me, but I prefer to pay a little extra to ensure that they take off and land without incident. In-flight meals are another hot-button topic. Again, I have trouble understanding why people expect sea bass or caviar on a $99 commuter flight. 

Look at the issue another way. People buy $30,000, $60,000 and even $100,000 cars and do not think twice about the rate of return. Those cars depreciate as soon as a buyer drives them off the lot; a commitment to lifelong learning and the opportunities that arise from that learning never depreciates. If we think about higher education as an investment as opposed to as a sunk cost, we might think about the cost of tuition and use debt differently.

I realize as educators, we have a particular perspective on the value of higher education and its role in strengthening democracy and the social fabric. And we place a premium on the service because we know what providing that service entails - paying trained professionals and mentors who are leaders in their fields; offering a residential living-learning environment that includes on-campus health services, fitness facilities, laundromats, apartments, dining halls and public safety; planning and executing curricular and co-curricular programming; building and maintaining safe, efficient and attractive facilities; and, of course, making all of this accessible to students of every demographic. Doing what we do and doing it well requires resources, and there is definitely a danger in deeply discounting the price when it compromises quality.

Still, as chief academic officers and presidents we must come to terms with certain realities. We cannot deny the challenge of cost, so we must work together by whatever means necessary to keep the promises of our institutions, defend those promises with pen and keyboard, and ensure that we allocate the necessary resources so that people, programs and facilities are in place to ensure timely degree completion.

Much is at stake, and if we fail then the American public has every right to be skeptical. So let's prove our dissenters wrong and our supporters right. Let's recommit to our mission. Let's keep our promises. Let's figure out ways to share our stories, and let's send our students out into the world prepared after 4 - yes 4 - years.