I’m staying in higher education. You should, too.

There’s been significant chatter of late from people who are choosing to leave higher education. In some cases, tenured faculty are heading for the exit. In many others, part-time adjuncts are choosing to throw in the towel. 

My academic department at Robert Morris University hasn’t been immune to this loss of talent. Two of my most experienced colleagues retired just before the start of the 2019-20 academic year, and a couple of adjuncts who had taught for the department for several years are no longer in the classroom.

I’m not attempting to sugarcoat reality: Abandoning higher education seems rational. Governors and legislators in too many states appear to relish refusing to mandate masks and cutting funding beyond common sense levels. There’s no doubt the financial picture doesn’t look good throughout higher education. The retirements or layoffs of long-time faculty colleagues contribute to a changing and less satisfactory work environment. And, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has crippled morale all over the country.

Because that vicious virus and its many variants continue to undermine whatever optimism might be evident on our college and university campuses, I admit the premise of this opinion piece is sure to be met with scorn by many people. Nevertheless, here it goes: Right now, there’s no better place to be than inside higher education. 

We’re in a transformative era; some changes have already taken place and others are on the horizon. Declining enrollment numbers, which are expected to continue, will limit what many colleges and universities can do. The pandemic has turned many “I’ll never teach online” faculty into proponents of online education. Meanwhile, the needs of the 21st century student continue to evolve. These three factors, and more could be added to the list, provide an incredible moment — and that moment is right now — to engage meaningfully, powerfully and persuasively in the new college and university experience that exists for faculty and students.

We should — and must — embrace the challenges that come with figuring out how we can do more with less, a mantra that’s repeated on campuses big and especially small across the country. In much the same way that we must adjust our family’s budget to ever-changing realities, we must accept the opportunity to define priorities, identify curricular needs and continue to create environments in which our students thrive.

Let’s look at each of those items in some depth.

Define priorities: The priorities for our family’s budget are obvious: Mortgage/rent payment, food, clothing and so on down the line. My wife is fond of saying that a family that has “all of what it needs and some of what it wants” is blessed. But what ought to be the priority needs and wants for higher education? 

We know institutions like to tout the combination of smaller class sizes, international study programs, sports, extracurricular activities, achievements in faculty (or faculty/student) research, individual attention and more as they recruit high school students, but can all those look-great-on-our-website claims remain extant in the new reality of higher education? Cuts across the board sound fair; however, if relevant research suggests a successful program will lose some of its prestige because of fewer dollars, then what? And what should we do with those signature programs on our campuses that are in desperate need of an upgrade, knowing those improvements will require precious resources?

What about athletics? As a former sports reporter and producer, I’ve seen more times than I can count how a winning football team generates lots of school spirit, but that spirit doesn’t automatically translate into dollars and cents. According to the NCAA, only 25 of the top 65 college football programs turned a profit in 2018-19. An investigation of that data by Best Colleges found that the median profit for those 25 programs was just under $8 million, while the median deficit was almost $16 million. Digging deeper, the report found that FCS programs (considered one level below the most elite FBS) “all reported a negative net generated revenue in 2019, with a median loss of $14.3 million per institution.”

And yet we know any effort at eliminating football, or any popular sport, will be met with significant push back from some combination of alumni, current students, high school coaches and the media. Their warning: You’re going to lose students if you make this decision. At least when it comes to football, university chancellors or presidents would be wise to remember what the Scholars Strategy Network reported a couple of years ago: “institutions that discontinue their football teams have not experienced reductions (or any changes) in the number of student applications they receive.” I’ll let you decide how that statement might be handled on your campus. As you do, take a look at what the elimination of football has meant to two prominent universities in Massachusetts.

Identify curricular needs: We know that the STEM fields, business and cybersecurity dominate the conversations on most campuses, but students remain interested in a host of other fields. In the smaller and leaner higher education sphere of today, which of those academic offerings will continue? 

Consider as just one example journalism, an industry in which I spent more than one-dozen years before becoming a university professor. The Pew Research Center’s annual State of the Media report is must reading for my fellow journalism educators, and we lament the constant drip-drip-drip news surrounding job cuts throughout the profession. The pandemic has led to even more cuts. The one question we hear from the parents of prospective students: “Is my kid going to get a job in this field after graduation?” The answer is more complicated than most people want to hear. When I address that question, I look at the students and ask three questions: Are you willing to hone your skills at student-run campus media from day one? Are you going to do at least one and preferably two internships? Will you forget the idea of being hired immediately to anchor SportsCenter and be realistic about your first couple of jobs? 

Regardless of the discipline, we in the faculty ranks must ensure the curriculum we’re offering is top notch. My colleagues and I at RMU completed the revamp of our communication program a few months ago, recognizing that the journalism, sport communication/media, public relations, advertising, corporate communication and strategic communication fields require constant upgrades. On the one hand, technological aptitude is critical for professional success; on the other, a student must consistently demonstrate professional-level writing, verbal and other communication skills.

The abundant reporting by Inside Higher Ed and other education-focused publications about the challenges facing the humanities reminds us that majors once untouchable might not be any longer. However, are we comfortable creating an atmosphere suggesting that only those disciplines that seem to promise a big payday upon graduation will dominate throughout the academy? 

Our institutions’ general education requirements also require vigilance. It’s incumbent upon the faculty to identify the critical themes that will permeate through the core. No course ought to remain just because “we’ve always taught that.” Rather, we need to consider how each general education course assists the twenty-first century student. But remember, we can’t shape that conversation, or any other, if we’re outside the tent.

Continue to create environments in which our students thrive: The pandemic has exposed two bitter realities. First, the technology divide is real; too many students rely on the computers and other technologies available in our college and university libraries to complete their academic requirements. (This technology gap also is evidenced in the K-12 environment.) I confess I was surprised how many of my students who seemed to be in healthy financial situations struggled to get their work done in the initial months of the pandemic. Little did I know once they had left campus and returned home that they lacked either a computer or the highest speeds of Internet in their homes. 

Second, the mental health challenges our students face in normal times have been exacerbated over the past 18 months. If you talk to anyone who works in your school’s counseling center, then you’ll hear the same message: We need more resources, more people and more time to devote to professional development. 

In the spring of 2020, shortly after RMU ordered students to go home at roughly the middle point of the spring semester, my wife and I began hosting a virtual weekly trivia night. What we thought was going to be a one-night, share-a-few-laughs event turned into something that many of our students (and a couple of faculty and recent graduates) asked us to continue. For them, the camaraderie with each other and the maintenance of their friendships mattered. For my wife, who at the time was an adjunct at RMU, and me, the trivia nights became a low-stakes way for us to “check on our kids.” Each week began or ended with one of us asking each student to give us a sense of how they were feeling and what they were doing. At times, we liked what we heard, and at other times we didn’t. We were honored that our “kids” trusted us enough to discuss the many issues — positive and negative — that they did. 

Neither my wife nor I would dare call ourselves counselors. Allies? Oh, yes. But allies can’t replace trained therapists or psychologists. Your students and mine need those professionals. For those of us who proudly remain in higher education, we need to be consistent advocates for the men and women in our counseling centers. 

Will meeting these three challenges (and others not listed here) be easy? No. However, and the risk of being accused of hyperbole, right now is our time to accept the call to be a change agent. Looking back to an era that has gone forever guarantees we’ll continue to be blindsided by today’s complex issues. I’m excited to be looking ahead. I hope you are, too.

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