American Council of Education 2017 Annual Meeting: Observations, Insights, and Reflections

The American Council of Education (ACE) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this week brought together presidents, provosts, and university and higher education leaders from around the world. On opening day, the attending presidents discussed such issues as academic freedom, alongside student freedom of speech, in a session titled “Navigating the tension between freedom of expression and campus inclusion.”

The related panelists and moderators, in turn, discussed the challenges we face as university leaders in educating for civility in dialogue, an essential and much-needed competency for today. This theme carried through the conference to the final plenary session, “The Competition of Political Ideas: Navigating the Left and Right for Successful Leaders,” with co-panelists Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour. The clear takeaway was that these are challenging times for higher education leaders and leadership.

The question, “What is really happening on Capitol Hill?” was another consistent theme. As such, Terry Hartle, ACE senior vice president for government relations and public affairs, provided a federal relations update and joined analyst David Winston to discuss “The American Voter, Politics, and Public Policy.” Conversations focused on the election, President Trump’s priorities and the challenges he faces on the Hill in addressing the repeal of Obamacare, regulatory relief, tax cuts and reform, immigration, and other priorities. Conversations also addressed the related implications of these priorities for ACE and the higher education community. For his part, Ornstein attributed the election result to “angered populism” and “partisan tribalism.”

It is clear that reflection, strategic thinking, and new imperatives are required of higher education today as the actions and appointments on the Hill unfold and we try to decipher the implications of the election for both higher education as a whole and for each sector thereof.

Another prevailing theme was the question of the relevance of higher education and as was pointed out in multiple sessions, the disconnect between the perceptions/beliefs of higher education leaders and those of the general public, especially the middle class. “Are we in higher education serving students well?” “Are we helping prospects and parents make a choice for higher education?” “How are we encouraging and supporting students to continue to make this choice?” Such questions were posed again and again throughout various sessions.

In addition, research was reported that when parents and prospective and current students were asked, “Why go to college?” they consistently responded that “it’s all about jobs.” Multiple times, the statement was reinforced regarding public belief that “you can get an education but it does not mean you will get the job you want!” and again that “colleges cost too much!” Clearly, university leadership perceptions are not aligned with those of the general public — a problematic issue we collectively need to acknowledge and address. Together, we need to address the question of the value of higher education, its relevance, and its affordability in a way that communicates effectively with the public. Together, we also need to review and evaluate the perceptions of the public and conduct self-reflection on what we need to change in higher education to speak to this perception, which for the public, as presented, is reality.

The dialogue and conversation at meal times, during breaks, and in sessions was respectful, even in areas of disagreement. However, I pondered whether all sides were equally represented in regard to presentations and speaker dispositions. I found myself asking, “How do we model the way for conflicting dialogue of right and left, of educating for diversity when we ourselves invite to the table and the platform those perspectives that lean in the ways the organization or the group of which we and/or I think?”

This is not a criticism as much as an observation, and a reminder to myself that in leading APUS how important it is to invite different perspectives to the table to dialogue in mutual respect, to model civility, and to determine ways in which we can and do live, work, and lead together in preparing students for leadership in a global society. An imperative of which I am reminded is that we must model the way in precisely this fashion for inclusion in dialogue and discourse, no matter how hard it is, no matter our personal biases and agendas. It is challenging and an essential ingredient in effecting change.

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