Five Burning Questions is an Q&A series where The Collegian asks prominent professionals five questions that effect the University of Richmond.
Nick Anderson, a higher education reporter at The Washington Post, has been a journalist for more than 25 years. While studying at Stanford University, Anderson was “bitten by the journalism bug” while working for the Stanford Daily. “I had so much fun that I decided it would be a fun career to try after college and then it got even more fun,” he said. After school, Anderson freelanced in Mexico and worked for three California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, where he covered education and politics. While with the LA Times, Anderson moved to Washington to cover politics during the Clinton and Bush administrations. Anderson left the LA Times to work for the Washington Post in 2005, where he has covered and edited a range of education topics. I spoke with Anderson on several past and present issues colleges and universities face.
Jack Nicholson: What was the most important issue surrounding higher education when you became a higher education reporter for the Washington Post, and how has this issue evolved?
Nick Anderson: At the time, there was a lot of excitement and interest in technology and how that would affect colleges and how that might change the way colleges deliver courses to students. There’s a concept that, at the time, was starting to gain widespread attention called massive open online courses (MOOC). People were wondering, “well what are these MOOCs and how do they work? And how might they alter how the world views elite colleges?” This started with elite colleges – Harvard, MIT, Stanford and others that were putting their work online and letting the world take a take a look at it and engage with it for free. And so many people signed up that a given professor might find herself with 100,000 students. And that would be more students than the professor ever taught in her entire career. And so people were blown away by this, and they wondered, “Well what does this mean and how might this affect higher education?” Now at the University of Richmond, I don’t know how that’s affected your school, but I think it’s starting to affect a number of schools, because what’s happening is the schools are reaching out to wide audiences around the world to disseminate their educational offerings. These schools are also using these courses to help improve their own teaching on campus. And that’s kind of what’s interesting, that if you have students who are, on their own time, studying a topic online, then that frees them up when they come into class to spend more time on class working with their professors and working with their classmates solving problems, rather than just sitting around and listening to lectures. So that was the really dominant story in 2012. That story hasn’t gone away, but things have changed a little bit in the last couple years.
JN: What is, to you, the most pressing issue colleges and universities face today, and what needs to change?
NA: It’s hard to overstate the significance of the sexual assault story in higher education. I don’t want to say this is the most important story right now in colleges -- there might be other stories that I’m not aware of. There certainly are important issues dealing with graduation rates, financial aid, access to college, whether enough students are graduating from college, whether the degrees they get are helping them position the United States to have a topnotch workforce – all kinds of important issues there.
Having said that, sexual assault has really seized the attention of a lot of people. It’s very personal and painful, and it hits colleges in very difficult ways. These are private stories that at colleges sometimes become public stories and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a college will be noted in news coverage as being the subject of an inquiry into a sexual assault matter and the college itself won’t be able to talk very much about why it’s the subject of an inquiry. And that’s difficult for the college. Sometimes the students who have experienced an incident want to talk to the press and sometimes they don’t – very often they don’t, frankly. Also, students who are involved in an incident and believe that they have been unjustly accused of something, they don’t want publicity either. From your prospective, if you feel like you’ve been unjustly accused why would you want that to be published to the world?
So they’re very painful, difficult issues, and colleges are wrestling with them and having a hard time figuring out exactly how to respond. I think everybody can probably agree sexual assault is something that should not be a common occurrence on college campuses. It’s a very difficult, very painful crime. And yet, there’s evidence that it happens a lot. So the question is: how do colleges respond to it when it happens and how do they prevent it from happening?
JN: In your time as a higher education reporter and editor, how have you seen both the sexual assault problem and the way colleges and universities handle sexual assault cases change?
NA: I think colleges are racing to change. They want to change. Whether they are changing to the satisfaction of students who are experiencing problems is unknown.
Every college president that I talked to is keenly aware of this issue and wants to have their college get right on the topic. By that I mean they want to have robust procedures in place for response when a student reports an incident. And they also want to have fair investigative procedures and fair adjudications when there is an issue of one student saying something that transpired and another student saying it didn’t transpire.
Now, the colleges say they want to improve on all these things; whether they have or not is a little hard to tell. I think they are doing a lot of things.
JN: You recently wrote a story on how a sexual assault victim who graduated UCLA this spring became a leading activist against the sexual assault issue plaguing colleges and universities. Stories like this seem to frequent, but she has hope change is being made. “The revolution’s happening,” she said. Is a revolution indeed happening?
NA: I see evidence around the country that students are more active on this issue than ever before. There are groups popping up everywhere that are talking about it. Now that is some evidence that there is a significant movement on the issue. Is there a revolution? I don’t know. She, the student that you’re mentioning, she believes there is. And I believe a lot of people who track the issue believe there is. I think you also see evidence that a lot of university policies are changing. So yeah, I think they have a powerful argument to say there is a revolution happening.
But, it’s also important to remember those are simply policies and procedures and things that activists are saying and things that university presidents and their administrators are saying. When I think of revolution, I also think of what’s actually being done. There’s a difference between what’s being said and what’s being done, and it’s hard sometimes for journalists to measure that.
Any university in America can say, “Well we’re working hard on this issue and we’re paying a lot of attention to it.” But it’s quite possible that as they say that there are students and their families who are experiencing very difficult situations and feeling very alienated from the university. From their perspective there might not be any revolution at all.
JN: You recently wrote a story where Education Secretary Arne Duncan argued debt-free degrees are just part of a solution to improving higher education. Quoting your piece, “Sometimes, he said, “politicians focus too much on what college costs and not enough on what it delivers.” Where do you stand on this issue?
NA: I think he’s on to something, which is this: it is very difficult to tell exactly what the outcome of college in America is. We know how many degrees are awarded in a given year. We also know how many students who start college as freshmen finish college after four years or six years (that’s the graduation rate). But there’s wide gaps in our knowledge beyond that. It’s very difficult to know whether the degrees granted are helping students get into prosperous careers. It’s very difficult to know whether students who transfer or students who are not first-time students or students who are part-time students are having successful outcomes in college. The graduation rates that I have seen often don’t take into account those students who have had non-traditional paths through college. I think, as consumers, people ought to be interested not just in whether they can get into college but what they get out of college. It’s a very reasonable question. I think [Duncan] is highlighting that question, and that’s an interesting debate.
It’s also very important to note that the cost of college and the access to college are incredibly important issues. I think many of my readers and many folks at the University of Richmond care deeply about cost. University of Richmond is a private university with an excellent reputation, but I’m sure it’s trying to attract the best, most diverse class possible every year and how it does that is very important.
Contact editor-in-chief Jack Nicholson at email@example.com