Wednesday, January 31, 2024

University Challenges

Seems like US universities have been in the news quite a bit recently. You'd think for the great academics and research. Alas, no.

I decided to make a list of the not so unrelated topics. The list got long and still from from complete.

  • Public perception of universities has been dropping
  • Enrollment: Up in 2023 for the first time since the pandemic. But still down 900,000 undergrads since five years ago and the demographic cliff is just a couple years away.
  • Fiscal Challenges even at Penn State and University of Chicago.
  • On the other hand are those with huge endowments.
  • Where have the men gone? While CS is still predominantly male, men make up only about 40% of undergrads on four-year colleges. The percentages are lower for African-American and Hispanic men.
  • The increase in teaching faculty over tenure-track. 
  • AI - How best to use it to help the educational process without letting students cheat, and where do you draw the line. 
  • State government exerting control. We are seeing a number of conservative states pushing back against DEI and the perceived liberal bias.
  • Affirmative Action - How do universities maintain a diverse student body in the wake the supreme court ruling last summer.
  • Admissions policies that favor the rich, notably legacy admissions and sports other than football and basketball, where wealthier kids have the time, training and equipment to succeed.
  • SAT - Most schools have eliminated the SAT exam but should they bring it back
  • College is seen more as a place to build career skills. STEM fields especially in computing have seen huge gains in enrollment while humanities and social sciences have been decimated. How should colleges respond?
  • Competition from certificate programs, online degrees, apprenticeships and boot camps.
  • Athletics - Chasing ever-increasing broadcast revenue has restructured conferences (Goodbye Pac-12). Name-Image-Likeness has made some college athletes, notably in football and basketball, significant money. Alumni collectives and easier transfer rules have turned college student athletes into free agents. Meanwhile some lower revenue sports are getting cut.
  • Colleges as a political football as college graduates trend democratic.

The Israel-Gaza-Hamas conflict alone has supercharged a number of issues.
  • When and how should universities take a stand on political issues. 
  • Congressional hearings into university policies
  • Free speech, especially when it creates disruption, makes people feel unsafe and leads to discrimination. Where do you draw the line?
  • Activist donors and boards. As universities rely more on "net-high worth individuals", these large donors can hold considerable sway, including pushing out presidents. 
So as a college professor or graduate student, how do you deal with all of the above? Best to ignore it all and focus on your research and teaching.


  1. These are indeed all difficult issues and it is admirable that you presented them in a neutral way. But is ignoring it all really a workable long term strategy? It reminds of the "inner emigration" strategy that intellectuals chose amidst other difficult times in the 20th century, esp. in Europe.

  2. (Bill) While these are all fine issues to discuss, recall that there are a lot of issues not being discussed that should be. I blogged about that