Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Political intereference in the classroom is increasing, and that should disturb all of us

Reading this story about how a simple guest lecture almost led to this Texas professor's firing was unsettling, to say the least. Although I don't know Dr. Joy Alonzo's work, it appears that she's a respected expert on the opioid crisis in the US. The content of her lecture, at least from the PowerPoint slides available, suggest she had a matter-of-fact presentation of the opioid crisis, as well as policies that could mitigate or exacerbate the problem. She just happens to work in Texas, which has arguably managed to make that particular situation worse. Any expert who understands the impact of public policy is inevitably going to end up saying something when state or national policies are doing more harm than good. Politicians may not like that fact, nor may partisans of any stripe, but that is how professionals work. Her reward for offering her expertise to a class at another university was to end up on paid leave and investigated - and nearly fired. Why? Some of the content of the lecture might have offended the Lt. Governor of Texas. She managed to dodge a bullet, as no evidence of wrong-doing could be found, but I can only imagine that she regrets the day she joined the Texas A&M faculty. 

Let me step back for just a moment. I am in the behavioral and social sciences. When I started my first position at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, I quickly became friends with a then-junior faculty member in my department who was and probably is considerably more conservative than I am. We are still good friends although we each work in completely different locations now. One thing we shared in common was a belief that we both expressed often: social scientists are equal opportunity offenders. If we are doing our job right as educators and researchers, we're going to present evidence that will end up upsetting someone. That's not because we enjoy upsetting our intended audiences, but because facts can be inconvenient, depending on one's worldview. I also believe that since our research output can inform policymakers, we have an obligation to call them out when they are misunderstanding our work, misusing our work, or ignoring our findings at the expense of the greater social good. If these decision-makers are unhappy with our informed opinions, that's their problem. At least that's how it should be. I take the same view with students. Some course content will inevitably challenge beliefs and maybe that leads to some cognitive dissonance, or whatever. I can't just change the facts to please others. My job is to make the evidence available. What students choose to do with that information is up to them, and quite frankly, I have little interest in what they do with that information once the course is finished for the term. As a result, some semesters my course evaluations can look a bit bleak. Imagine a simple introductory course in Psychology that includes materials about research on gender that go against what a subset of students may have learned in Sunday School. I'll get flak for the simple fact that the information is in the textbook, and that I may have tested on that information. So it goes.

In mentioning all of this I do know that I am working during a difficult moment in higher education. The tendency for legislators, primarily in Republican-run states in my country, to micromanage our instruction and research is only intensifying. Texas and Florida are probably the most obvious examples, but any of us in the so-called "red states" are at risk of being cancelled. I expect things to get worse before they get better. I can hope that the tide turns back in favor of rational thought, defended with empirical evidence, and that this era of filtering all data and ideas through tribal grievances will end with minimal collateral damage to careers and to students' ability to function after college. Then again, I am well aware that hope and $1.50 might buy you a candy bar, and little else.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

America's Confidence in Higher Education is Dropping

You can read the article here. The article and the poll don't give much in the way of context for why Americans' confidence in higher education has dropped so precipitously. Apparently some measure of political party affiliation was used, so that helps a bit. Apparently, if you analyze the cross-tabs, you'll find that generally, those who identify as Democratic have had relatively higher amounts of confidence in higher education relative to those who identify as Republican or Independent, and that seems to be a consistent pattern across time. However, since 2015, confidence has dropped among all polled regardless of party affiliations. I suppose university and college administrators in blue states can take some consolation in the finding that as of 2022, more the half of Democrats were confident in higher education as an institution, but even that is a noticeable decline from 2015. 

I'll speak only anecdotally for the time being, as I don't have the time or energy to really do a deep dive into other data on the matter. I've noticed a tendency, usually political and deeply partisan, to attack colleges and universities. There was and still is a moral panic about not enough ideological conservatives being hired at institutions of higher education. I've seen that tired attack for as long as I've been an educator. I guess I don't see it at the sort of regional colleges and universities that would typically hire or at least interview me, and I've looked. There's definitely a moral panic over the content we teach in our courses, and I've seen so much fuss made about CRT and "wokeness"at colleges and universities that I'm pretty much numb to such attacks. There isn't much "woke" about means and standard deviations, folks. So it goes. I think I can understand how those who regularly rely on Fox News for their information my have changed their attitudes toward colleges and universities. I wonder if our colleges and universities are increasingly seen as not doing enough by at least some subsection of those who identify as Democratic. I'm pretty jaded about most DEI statements and offices at universities like mine. I wonder if that jadedness is shared. Then there is the ongoing problem about the increasing student loan burden that students and parents alike deal with in order to obtain degrees that, while leading to nominally middle-income careers, are not lucrative enough to pay back those loans. 

There's so much to unpack, and I think that particular article gives us only a minimal amount of information to go on. At least we know what the topline numbers are. We just don't entirely know what they mean. And we need to understand better what is going on behind those numbers in order to make sure we can as institutions defend ourselves in an increasingly difficult political and social environment.