The 10 Most Important Higher Education Events of 2018

This year has been a turbulent one for higher education. From #MeToo to academic hoaxes, colleges and universities across the country have had to grapple with new problems that continue to shake individuals’ confidence in higher education.

Here are the ten events we think have been the most significant:

Jenna A. Robinson, President

1. Purdue University Launched “Purdue Global” after Purchasing For-Profit Kaplan University

In March, Purdue University purchased Kaplan University and officially relaunched it the next month as Purdue Global. The purchase marks a new direction for online education and innovation. In an April press release, Purdue president Mitch Daniels said,

It opens a new era for our institution, with the opportunity to expand our land-grant mission to millions of adult students around the country. That opportunity brings with it the responsibility to provide the highest quality online education, not only to our new adult learners, but to all residential and online Boilermaker students. Starting today, Purdue University hopes to take a leading role in online learning nationally.

The conversion of the for-profit Kaplan University into a new nonprofit may signal a change in online and nontraditional programs.


2. Three Scholars Hoaxed “Grievance Studies” Journals. Their Efforts Have Been Dubbed “Sokal Squared”

In October, news broke that a group of scholarly hoaxers had successfully placed seven pieces of fake research into academic journals that focus on “grievance studies.” Together, three higher education critics—Portland State University assistant professor of philosophy Peter Boghossian, mathematician James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose, the editor-in-chief of the current affairs magazine, Areo—penned 20 fake culture studies papers, seven of which were accepted by peer-reviewed academic journals. They varied from an argument for “fat bodybuilding” to an analysis of rape culture in dog parks. The hoax revealed what critics have been saying all along: too many academic disciplines are more focused on progressive political ideology than rigorous, testable scientific discovery.

The authors of the hoax explained their motives and methods in an article that appeared in Areo on October 2, entitled: “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship.” In it, they say:

We hope this will give people—especially those who believe in liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry, and social justice—a clear reason to look at the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left and say, “No, I will not go along with that. You do not speak for me.”


Jay Schalin, Director of Policy Analysis

3. Demographic Changes and Enrollment Declines Have Started to Affect Colleges and Universities

A trend receiving lots of notice this year is the shrinking enrollment numbers that started in 2010. According to estimates by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, total college enrollment dropped by 11.2 percent from 2010 to 2018. This is the first time higher education has seen a long-term pattern of declining enrollments since at least World War II.

But it may not be time to announce a great bursting of the “Higher Education Bubble.” This decline is not one story; it is many stories, each with their own explanation. You have to look closer to get the real picture.

To start, there was an enormous drop in attendance at for-profit schools: enrollment in 2018 is 43.5 percent less than it was in 2010. This is hardly surprising, given the intense campaign against for-profits conducted by the Obama administration.

Community colleges lost a lot of students as well, roughly a quarter of their enrollment. One reason is because, after the economic collapse in 2007-2008, laid-off workers rushed into community colleges looking to retool their skill sets. And now they are back in the workforce.

Enrollment at public universities held steady, with a drop of less than one percent. However, the dynamics may be different for flagships versus less-prestigious schools, with lower-tier public universities losing enrollment while more highly regarded schools gain or remain the same.

At four-year private colleges, enrollment actually rose 3 percent. The process is likely similar to the public schools—the more prestigious schools raise tuition to ridiculous levels without losing students, while other private colleges are struggling to keep their doors open.

There is something positive about this trend. The drop is apparently young people who are not academically inclined; they may be finally catching on that borrowing large sums of money and dropping out is not the best way to start adult life.


4. Spellings Resignation a Sign of the Times

The surprise resignation of Margaret Spellings from the University of North Carolina system presidency may be a sign of a major change in higher education governance, one of historic proportions. This is the re-emergence of governing boards as the rightful leaders of public university systems.

Power struggles were part of the mix right from the start of the Western university at the University of Paris in the 12th century: the faculty versus the local clergy; the Pope versus the king in Tudor England; the trustees versus the administration in Colonial America; and in the 19th century, trustees versus the faculty.

Since then, higher education has been run by a system of shared governance, with the faculty largely controlling the classroom and the administration running almost everything else.

Governing boards have confined themselves to raising funds and rubber-stamping the wishes of the administration and faculties.

But in the past few years, governing boards—who, in state university systems, should have the final say—are again flexing their muscles. The University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin have both witnessed a free-for-all between governing boards and administrators.

And in North Carolina, both Spellings and her predecessor, Thomas Ross, have left office due to—at least in part—contentious relations with the system’s Board of Governors. Ross was asked to leave, whereas Spellings only served three years of a five-year contract. In the last year, the board rejected her pick for the chancellorship on one of the UNC system’s 16 campuses and publicly objected to her handling of the Silent Sam controversy.

Governing boards becoming a strong force in university system governance is a positive trend. The old ways of doing things are no longer good enough; higher education suffers enormous problems, but the current leadership ignores them while persistently solving non-problems.


George Leef, Director of Editorial Content

5. Two Liberal Authors Expose the Rot in American Higher Education

Conservatives and libertarians have been writing books lamenting the state of higher education in America for many years, but the problem with such books is that they are almost always dismissed by defenders of the education establishment. “Of course they say those things–they’re right-wingers who have an axe to grind with our fine colleges,” they retort.

What has been mostly missing are books by liberals who see that our higher education system costs too much and isn’t delivering what it should. (Not completely missing, though: Derek Bok did write Our Underachieving Colleges in 2006.)

This year’s publication of The Coddling of the American Mind by New York University professor Jonathan Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff goes a long way toward evening out the balance of criticism. Both identify themselves as liberal, but see that our colleges and universities are doing students a terrible disservice.

That disservice is treating them as fragile children—intellectually. At many schools, the paramount concern of administrators is to make sure that students never feel “unsafe,” but that concern over safety has nothing to do with physical danger. Rather, it’s the imagined harm of having to deal with ideas that clash with their beliefs.

For pointing out that failing, Haidt and Lukianoff have taken lots of criticism from leftists, which highlights the service they’ve done.


6. Harvard Sued Over Admissions Discrimination

The latest legal battle over racial preferences in college admissions pitted a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard University. SFFA is composed of Asian-Americans who object to the fact that Harvard appears to limit the numbers of Asians to a quota, much as it did with Jewish students in the past.

But didn’t the Supreme Court recently rule in favor of preferential admissions to achieve more “diversity” among students? The Court’s 2016 decision in Fisher v. Texas did favor the university, but did not declare that racial preferences are always legal. The SFFA suit may fare better than did Fisher and earlier cases because it focused more attention on the inner workings of Harvard’s admissions policies than previous cases, and includes expert analysis by Duke economics professor Peter Arcidiacono.

Evidence presented by SFFA showed how Harvard uses highly subjective evaluations of applicants to kick out many Asians and boost many ”underrepresented” minority students. Harvard argued that it doesn’t exclude any student based on race and therefore does not violate the Civil Rights Act, but the legal question is whether it is unlawful discrimination to hold some students in some groups to higher standards than students in others.

Judge Burroughs will probably release her decision early next year, but appeal is certain either way she rules.


Anthony Hennen, Writer/Editor

7. Universities Have Started to Ban Greek Life after Hazing Deaths

Relations between Greek life and university administrators ebbs and flows, but 2018 has been a year of greater scrutiny and opposition from top officials toward fraternities and sororities alike. In 2017, four students died in hazing incidents and eight universities attracted national attention for punishing hazing, drinking, and sexual misconduct violations.

University presidents continued that trend in 2018. Baruch College extended its moratorium on Greek life recruitment for three years, West Virginia University president Gordon Gee continued his fight for more oversight, and East Carolina University awaits a report on Greek life after five fraternities and a sorority have been closed and suspended, respectively. An April meeting asking “What’s Next?” for Greek life, sponsored by Penn State University and the Universities of Iowa and Nebraska-Lincoln, brought leaders from 32 universities together to discuss the challenges and excesses that have come from on-campus fraternities in recent years.

As many college students expect their education to be a worthwhile economic investment, they also want it to be a fun social experience. Unsurprisingly, the “fun” part of college can harm its educational aspect, with fraternity and sorority involvement driving down student grades. Nor are lower grades the extent of negative Greek life influence: the #MeToo movement has highlighted Greek life-connected sexual assault cases, too.

However, university officials punishing fraternities and sororities walk a tightrope; Greek-affiliated alumni may also be big donors who won’t support a college president crusading against their old houses. Nor will well-organized national fraternities sit quiet as new restrictions are imposed on them. What is clear is that campus peace between the dean and Delta Tau Chi is no more.


8. Colleges and Students Have Started to Accept Campus Surveillance as “the New Normal”

Though Facebook and Amazon have drawn the ire of privacy advocates, colleges employ a similar level of invasive scrutiny in how they track and analyze their students. The University of Arizona, for instance, predicts how likely a student is to drop out by tracking their location—and is admired for it. Security cameras are now ubiquitous on campus and many students embrace monitoring speech to root out “offensive” students. This creeping, creepy status quo only seems to get questioned when universities launch an online dragnet of sorts on student activists.

While university officials have the responsibility to support and protect students, the continual erosion of student privacy would be abhorrent to college students of only a generation ago. Giving a university bureaucrat the ability to track student locations, see when they miss class, who they socialize with, know what their political beliefs are, and how they use university resources may help students succeed—or provide an unethical hire a near-tyrannical power on campus.

To be sure, some control resides within the hands of students to change how much personal information they share in an increasingly public society. But university officials don’t have an unblemished record for respecting privacy, nor should they be given the benefit of the doubt to increase their knowledge and power over students ad infinitum.


Shannon Watkins, Policy Associate

9. New and Innovative Colleges Have Emerged to Compete with Traditional Schools

More and more Americans question whether higher education—with its high costs and tendency toward politicization—is really worth students’ time and money.

Fortunately, innovative institutions have emerged to break the higher education mold and trailblaze a new path. Two recent examples can be found in North Carolina: the CreatEd Institute (est. 2016) and Thales College (to open in fall 2019). CreatEd and Thales are unique in a number of ways. First, both institutions are not currently accredited—and are hesitant to ever be so—because of the arbitrary criteria and conformity that accrediting agencies impose.

But the two institutions’ most noteworthy characteristics are their educational philosophies. To their founders, education shouldn’t be reduced to mere knowledge accumulation and career training. Instead, a true education forms the whole person: intellectually, personally, and professionally. To fulfill that mission, students at both institutions are exposed to rigorous coursework, such as a close study of the Great Books, that challenges their intellect and forms their moral and civic character.

Additionally, both entities recognize the importance of real-world work experience for students. At CreatEd, students can enroll in a two-semester vocational training program, participate in internships, and have professionals mentor them in their fields of interest. Similarly at Thales, professional development opportunities such as internships are built-in to students’ daily academic schedules.

Innovative models such as CreatEd and Thales College have demonstrated that there can be many paths to a college education. Hopefully, this coming year will see the emergence of even more innovative institutions that challenge the status quo.


10. Protesters Toppled the Confederate “Silent Sam” Statue at UNC-Chapel Hill

The drama surrounding the debacle of Silent Sam, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Confederate monument, has had ripple effects across the nation. From coast to coast, Americans have witnessed the unfolding saga—full of student and faculty protests—taking place at the flagship university’s front door.

Although there is no doubt that dark elements are embedded in the monument’s history, some have attempted to grapple with those elements by asking nuanced questions such as: If the statue was put up for primarily racist reasons, was it possible to distance oneself from that original intent by means of adding a plaque and other statues for historical context? Or, what should the criteria be for taking down historical monuments, and do those criteria apply to figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?

But after a riotous mob toppled Silent Sam in August, the philosophical debate went to the back burner. The unlawful demise of the monument brought questions as simple as: Should mob rule be tolerated? Or should the UNC-Chapel Hill administration be held accountable for stepping aside and allowing a violent violation of the law to occur before their very eyes?

The administration’s inaction should be of no surprise: It is evident that high-ranking officials, such as chancellor Carol Folt, are eager to have the memory of Silent Sam wiped from their campus. Folt has publicly said several times that she would prefer the statue be removed from campus.

Now, one can’t help but wonder whether the university’s recent proposal to build a brand-new $5.3 million building to house Sam is just a way for the administration to kick the issue down the road for as long as possible—even for years.

State and UNC system officials should be wary of any efforts by the UNC-Chapel Hill administration to prolong this issue for an interminable amount of time. After all, if the administration can’t lawfully remove the statue from campus, its second-best option would be to keep it safely stored away for as long as possible.