Inside/Outside

As a reporter, I covered higher education for years.  I always felt like I was peering through smoky glass at a strange world.  That world seemed hidebound by rules from another era, encased in proud traditions that made little sense.  Now that I’m inside the ivory tower, the tables are turned, somewhat.

As a reporter, one of my pet peeves was the low success rate at many colleges and universities.  At many schools, only 10 percent of students can be expected to graduate.  I found this fact a shocking waste of talent and money for students, for hard-pressed families, and for the governments that fronted the money for these half-finished degrees.  I pushed administrators hard to explain why they could not improve those numbers.  Many shrugged their shoulders and said, they could only do so much, that student’s lives and lack of preparation simply get in the way of their studies.

Now, I’m a college administrator.   Our university is facing a decline in enrollment, thanks in large part to demographics we cannot control.  At the same time, the state is pressuring us to improve outcomes, just the sort of thing this reporter wanted to see.  But to this college administrator, that laudable goal seems a lot further away.  We know the easiest way to ensure that more students stay in school and graduate is to raise our standards, and recruit students who are better prepared.  Doing that, however, might cut our enrollment, because many students would not have the grades qualify.   So we’d get more money for retention numbers, but then lose it on enrollment.  It turns out, there are only so many ways to squeeze the balloon before it pops.

This is an old story—reporter gets a real job, and learns life ain’t as simple as he thought.  But that doesn’t meant those questions I used to ask were unfair or off base.  Now, it’s my job to help fix the problem, no matter how hard it is.  And I hope some reporter is out there staring at the numbers and putting pressure on people in higher ed—including me—to do a better job.

Dean Larry Abramson

Reflections on DiverseU

I am a white, middle class woman from Salt Lake City, Utah, so I got a few doubtful looks when I told people I was coordinating a diversity event. After months of being immersed in diversity related issues, though, I’ve come to realize that diversity is more than a buzzword. Yes, I am a white middle class woman. However, not being Mormon in a state where Mormonism is the defining trait, I learned what being a minority feels like. I had friends whose parents didn’t like me because I wasn’t Mormon when I was only 8 years old. So my point to people who’ve asked me about why I coordinated DiverseU is that no matter who you are, you can be in the majority in one situation, and a minority in another. My overall goal for DiverseU was to help people understand their roles as both majorities and minorities.

It’s hard to tell if DiverseU accomplished this goal, though. We certainly had large crowds at some of our presentations, but this was often because teachers required their classes to go. Did students attend the presentations and then leave as quickly as possible, without actually hearing what the presenters said? Or, were they there originally for the grade, but left with a new perspective on diversity? Day of Dialogue, now DiverseU, is gearing up for its tenth year, so I know that it’s had enough of an impact to stick around. These conversations are important to have, but they are not as important as the action they should prompt.

Though I spoke of being both a majority and minority, I haven’t received racist comments like Native Americans have on our own campus. I certainly haven’t been bullied for being straight. I haven’t had to deal with accessibility issues in the snow. And I haven’t had to deal with PTSD while I take classes, like our veterans do.

In my opinion, the University of Montana has two issues: one, we don’t have a lot of diversity.    According to Forbes, 85% of the campus is white.  With a lack of diversity comes a lack of different perspectives, which worsens everyone’s learning experience. That said, our other issue is we don’t have the proper resources for those who do make our campus more diverse. The University of Montana has veterans, Native Americans, LGBTQI, and disabled students who contribute to our campus. I think that if we want to make the campus more diverse, we need to focus on improving the condition for those diverse groups who are already on campus.

Each of these groups need individual initiatives to improve their conditions and frankly, I’m not in the position to suggest what those initiatives should be. What campus needs to do is listen to these groups and their requests, and then do something about it. I may be biased, but I think DiverseU has the potential to be a venue for this; DiverseU is already a place for anyone to present his or her perspective on his or her own diversity related issue. The problem is that the administration, which has the power to make campus more inviting to all sorts of diverse groups, doesn’t attend these sessions. If we can start getting administration to listen to these perspectives, it would be better prepared to make changes on campus that would lead us to a truly diverse, welcoming community.

– Kathleen Stone, J-School student and one of the organizers of DiverseU

View from Wenatchee

Wilfred Woods and his son and Rufus run a family-owned newspaper.  The banner of The Wenatchee World proudly proclaims that it is “Published in the Apple Capital of the World and the Buckle of the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.”  Since 1907, the Woods family has owned and operated the paper out of a brick building on North Mission Street in Wenatchee, WA.   Like lots of newspapers in this country, the World hovers between opportunity and a sea of trouble.

Circulation is holding steady at 17,000 readers.  That’s a significant drop from the 30,000 souls who once bought the paper.  Online readership is growing, Rufus says, and he’s trying to make that trend pay.  He has put in place a hard pay wall: if you want to read more than a couple of paragraphs of any article, you have to subscribe.  Many print analysts would say, that strategy won’t fly, because it will cut off The Wenatchee World from new readers who are not ready to pay.   

Father Wilfred jokes that he made a shrewd deal when he handed over control of the paper to his son Rufus in 1997, just before the Internet buzzsaw started to chew up the profits of traditional media.   Rufus Woods is convinced that the paper can survive.  But he’s not looking solely to a pay wall or a digital product for salvation.  He says, journalists need to be part of the communities they used to cover from the outside.   He’s starting to sponsor local events, not for the money, but as part of an effort to bolster the paper’s role in the community.   He says it’s not enough any more to stand apart and write stories about the divisions in this town.  The paper has to be part of the effort to heal those rifts.

I’m not sure how that strategy can work without compromising the objectivity good journalism rests upon.  But one thing I like about this family’s approach is that they are not complaining about the challenges they face, and they’re not whining about the end of journalism.”  They are experimenting, ducking punches and taking a few as they try to keep this family paper in the fight.

J Dean Larry Abramson