One thing is for sure: 2018 will be remembered. I don’t know that I’ve ever lived through a year of quite so much tumultuous news (though 2017 was a doozy) on the national and global level. Even in higher education, 2018 was a rough year, with the explosion of sexual harassment and assault allegations against prominent academics, a Title IX overhaul, student mental health in the news and a growing reliance on underpaid, non-tenure track faculty. It’s clear to me, from the situation at my own university and talking to friends in academia, that we’re living in an unstable time. As states cut education funding, universities are tightening their budgets. Wages in academia, as in other fields, are stagnant. Tuition is high and students are in debt. The liberal arts and humanities are being minimized as tech takes over.
But the past year also provided some hopeful news in higher ed and beyond, especially for women. More graduate students and adjuncts unionized this year, women commencement speakers are on the rise and medical schools are taking steps to improve diversity. Not only that, women were elected to Congress in record numbers in 2018 – which means better representation for the interests of women across the country. And let us not forget that the raft of bad headlines on the #MeToo front, while disturbing and disheartening, also represents a shift in the status quo: sexual misconduct cases are drawing more attention, victims are being heard and universities (as well as other institutions) are being challenged to rethink their systems of power. Yes, 2018 will be remembered – hopefully not just as a garbage-fire of a year, but as time of upheaval begetting great change.
Read on for our list of the biggest stories this year in the landscape of higher education.
Lowlight / Highlight
#MeToo in Academia
It’s impossible to recap 2018 without mentioning the #MeToo movement, which has destabilized pretty much every sector of our society, higher education included. Even #MeToo’s biggest story of the year – the allegations of sexual assault brought against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford – was related to higher ed: not only is Ford herself a professor (at Palo Alto and Stanford Universities), but other accusations of assault surfaced from Kavanaugh’s days as a student at Yale University. The case resonated so deeply with those who work with sexual assault victims on college campuses that the Chronicle of Higher Ed published an article illustrating the parallels.
After #MeToo began last year by exposing Hollywood power players like Harvey Weinstein, it was clearly only a matter of time until prominent men (and yes, women too) in higher ed face allegations of their own, some of which had been covered up for years by their universities. Take Dartmouth College, against which seven former students have filed a $70 million lawsuit alleging that their complaints of harassment and assault by prominent male faculty members were ignored and resulted in lost career opportunities. Likewise in February, the Chronicle published an article in which 18 women accused a powerful Harvard professor, Jorge I. Dominguez, of sexual misconduct spanning 40 years. As in the case of Dartmouth, most upsetting of all was the fact that Harvard knowingly allowed it to continue, briefly sanctioning Dominguez but then promoting him up the ranks, where he held administrative positions and continued to teach. Those are just two of the many, many, many (many) allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent academics this year. On the one hand, it’s heartening and cathartic that these are coming to light and finally being taken seriously; on the other, it’s more obvious than ever that colleges and universities have to do better, that power has to be checked, that victims must be believed.
Graduate Students Unionize, Fight for Fair Pay
One true highlight this year in higher ed was the surge in graduate student organizing. In 2018, graduate research and teaching assistants at Brandeis University, who won the right to unionize two years ago, successfully negotiated for a 56% pay increase over three years as well as caps on workloads; Columbia and Brown graduate students won the right to unionize; and Emory University raised its minimum graduate assistant stipend to around $31,000 from $24,000. The Emory decision was prompted by a student campaign for $15 per hour, a movement growing in popularity on campuses across the country that mirrors the #Fightfor15 campaign waged in recent years by workers in minimum-wage jobs (grad students at Illinois State University and Loyola Chicago are also in the midst of #Fightfor15 campaigns). Joseph Verardo, vice president and chief operating officer of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, explained to Inside Higher Ed that stipends for funded students nationally range from only about $13,000 to $34,000 per year, noting that even for students in the higher range, it is “difficult to live on a $30,000 salary and cover living and academic-related expenses” like books and fees. It’s heartening that institutions are beginning to recognize how overworked and underpaid graduate students often are; here’s hoping for more victories in 2019.
Women Commencement Speakers Dominate
Twenty-eighteen was a banner year for women commencement speakers, as the Associated Press reported that last spring, women comprised nearly 60% of commencement speakers at the 25 schools with the largest endowments (these schools tend to draw the biggest names. “By contrast,” the AP reported, “women made up just a quarter of the speakers at those schools over the previous 19 years.” This trend has been attributed to the rise of women’s voice in the media due to the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March and the growing number of women in politics. Filmmaker Ava Duvernay spoke at Cornell University, Hillary Clinton at Yale, writer/actress Mindy Kaling at Dartmouth, journalist Andrea Mitchell at the University of Pennsylvania, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at MIT, and musician/actress Queen Latifah spoke at Rutgers, just to name a few. Strong, professional women sharing wisdom, expertise and inspiring future leaders? More of that in 2019, please.
Medical Schools Improve Diversity
In 2009, the accrediting body for medical schools issued a requirement that all schools enact policies targeted at attracting and retaining a more diverse student body; schools that failed to do so were at risk for citations and potential accreditation problems. Now nearly a decade later, researchers have found evidence that this strategy may be succeeding. The Journal of the American Medical Association published research in December showing an increase in diversity in enrollment since 2002, with significant gains since 2012 especially. They found that in 2017, 7.3% of new medical students identified as black (up from 6.8% in 2002), 50.4% as female (up from 49%), 8.9% as Hispanic (up from 5.4%) and 24.6% as Asian (up from 20.8%). According to an analysis in NPR, however, medical educators have expressed frustration that the rate of change is still too slow and more needs to be done, pointing out that in 2017, those identifying as white still comprised 58.9% of matriculants. Still, the rise in diversity is good news and demonstrates that concrete policies and requirements can in fact have an impact.
Record Number of Women Elected to Congress
While this, one of the biggest stories for women in 2018, is not directly connected to higher ed, more women in positions in power is good news for all women. Congress began a new session this month with 126 female members, comprising 23.6% – unfortunately not close enough to parity, but a definite sign of shifting attitudes toward women in politics. The 2018 midterm elections were also notable for more specific female firsts: Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first Native American women in Congress, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, both 29, are the youngest women ever elected. And as NPR noted in November, exit polls revealed a hopeful statistic: nearly 8 in 10 Americans said it's important to elect more women to public office. We happen to agree.
Nassar & Tyndall Cases Expose University Complicity in Sexual Abuse
The cases of Larry Nassar and George Tyndall rocked the world of higher ed in 2018 for good reason: these two men committed sexual assault for years under the cover of the medical profession, while university officials continually ignored victim complaints and protected the prominent doctors. Nassar’s case nearly brought down not only USA Gymnastics, for which he served as team doctor, but also Michigan State University. The university settled with 332 women, and its president, Lou Anna K. Simon, stepped down in January amid the scandal. She was charged last month with lying to investigators.
Similarly, George Tyndall is alleged to have sexually abused hundreds of patients over his three decades as a gynecologist in student health services at the University of Southern California. Despite an investigation that supported the veracity of many of the allegations, USC sat on its hands, failing to report Tyndall to the Medical Board of California. In May, after hundreds of faculty signed a letter supporting his departure, USC president C. L. Max Nikias agreed to step down.
It bears repeating: college and university officials must do better, listen to victims, and take action to prevent further abuse.
DeVos Announces Title IX Overhaul
This year brought more concerning headlines still in the area of sexual misconduct on college campuses. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in a move that seemed in direct opposition to recent conversation surrounding sexual misconduct, announced new rules governing Title IX on college campuses that would reduce university liability and strengthen defendants’ rights. Under the new rules, schools are required to hold live hearings in which accusers and the accused cross-examine one another, a process that many university officials note they are not equipped to carry out. Others have voiced concerns that these rules are meant to reduce reporting of sexual misconduct. The regulations are currently still in the 60-day public comment period, but if approved will go into effect this month.
Student Mental Health Concerns Grow
As I reviewed higher education news stories from 2018, one topic seemed to come up again and again: mental health among undergrads and graduate students. For a few years now, the mental health of “Generation Z” has been a prominent concern in the news media. Pair a generation more likely to suffer anxiety and depression with the limited mental health resources available for students on college campuses, and it starts to look like a crisis. A global study published this year by the American Psychological Association found that 35% of college freshmen reported a mental health disorder, and another study found a prevalence of depression and anxiety among graduate students. Talk of a mental health crisis has prompted universities to look for new solutions, including partnerships with health care providers and new technology. This issue is unfortunately not going away, and will provide more challenges in the years to come.
International Student Enrollment Declines
When Donald Trump – he of “America first,” the border wall and the travel ban – was elected president, it wasn’t difficult to foresee a negative impact on prospective and currents international students. For the 2017 school year, international student enrollment declined by 6.6%, while according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education, this fall saw another 1.5% drop. But while Trump’s policies have certainly not made the United States seem more welcoming, the Chronicle of Higher Ed traces the decline more directly to the rising cost of higher education, less government funding for students in places like Saudi Arabia and greater competition. Perhaps more troubling is the decline in well-being for the students who are already here: ABC News reported that President Trump’s nationalist rhetoric as well as his executive order restricting travel from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen, upheld early last year by the Supreme Court, are a major source of anxiety for students studying abroad in the United States.
The Adjunct Crisis
This one has been brewing for quite a few years now, but 2018 offered no better news on the issue of contingent faculty at institutions of higher ed in the United States. In an analysis of federal data released in October, the American Association of University Professors reported that in 2016 (the year the data was collected), around 73% of all faculty positions were non-tenure track. The report also noted disparities between four-year, research-based institutions and two-year colleges, which are less likely to offer tenure-track positions and more likely to rely on part-time adjuncts. While part-time positions comprise around half of all faculty at master’s and baccalaureate institutions, the AAUP found, a whopping 65% of positions at two-year institutions are part-time. “Tenure protects academic freedom by insulating faculty from the whims and biases of administrators, legislators, and donors, and provides the security that enables faculty to speak truth to power and contribute to the common good through teaching, research, and service activities,” the AAUP writes. “Today, the tenure system has shrunk, and the majority of faculty members are contingent workers who work without the protections of tenure. . . . This data snapshot concerns those who teach in higher education, in positions that may or may not also include research, professional development, and service.” This is a major issue for academia to grapple with in 2019, and it’s hard to see how our universities can continue to chip away at tenure without seriously compromising the quality of higher education in America.
What are your 2018 highlights and lowlights, and which higher ed issues matter most to you in 2019? Let us know in the comments here or on social media!