Right or Wrong, Media Impressions Matter in Higher Education | From the Bell Tower

Those of us working at a college or university have a considerably different perspective on higher education than our fellow citizens who learn about it from the media. How might higher education deliver a better message?

Those of us working at a college or university have a considerably different perspective on higher education than our fellow citizens who learn about it from the media. How might higher education deliver a better message?

Negative portrayals of higher education in the mass media are hardly new. A resurgence in 2018 may be expected as the current ruling political party has a clear agenda to make a case against higher education and to support efforts to weaken it. When there’s a crisis at your own institution and you know the media, even in reporting the facts fairly, is doing considerable damage to the institutional reputation, it becomes more personal. Temple University, my place of work, is getting some firsthand experience with this. Disturbing news about intentionally falsified information for a major ranking of online MBA programs broke about two weeks ago. While it was initially reported that there were suspicions of wrongdoing months ago, which caused the Fox School of Business to lose its number one ranking position, just recently a letter to the campus from our president shared that results of an external review confirmed the cheating and deception. And then things got worse.

REPUTATION THREAT

It was more than just one program. The investigation revealed that multiple business school degree programs also altered data to achieve higher rankings. This fueled a growing firestorm of attention on Temple in the local and national media, including editorials, letters to the editor, and likely state and federal investigations into institutional practices, with possible claims of consumer fraud. Did I mention the lawsuit filed by students enrolled in these programs? This will all no doubt make a future case study on higher education ethics, law, and business practices. For now, there are growing concerns about the impact of this highly publicized scandal on the institution’s reputation and future enrollment. It’s encouraging that the administration is being open and transparent about its own investigation and efforts to correct the problems, but all that the public remembers is the scandal at the heart of the controversy.

PUBLIC IMPACT

While news outlets certainly do love a story featuring coverups, greed, and weaselly behavior at a business school, reinforcing the public’s view of business as a corrupt cesspool, it demonstrates the power of the press to influence public opinion. A new Pew Report indicates that a combination of news about high tuition, faculty with political agendas, and coddled students has the majority of Americans disapproving of the direction in which higher education is going. That an overwhelming majority of Republicans hold this view may be of little surprise, but even a slim majority of Democrats agree with them. Amazingly, the one thing that might unite liberals and conservatives in this country is their negative perceptions of higher ed. Where they differ is that Democrats, as opposed to Republicans, rarely think there’s an issue with faculty and students. Democrats are far more concerned about high tuition and student debt. Where they most agree is on free speech on campus. Significant majorities in both parties believe it is critical to allow all types of speakers on campus to expose students to controversial ideas. To what extent does media shape these attitudes with the way they portray college and university life?

IMAGE VS. REALITY

To higher education workers, it is clear that a few high-profile cases receive wide media coverage. That serves to amplify the significance of rarely occurring problems. As is happening now with the media in my own city, the avalanche of attention on a single bad actor buries all the other good work accomplished every day at my institution. To what extent it will warp the public’s perception is unknown, but the fear that it could have significant, lasting negative impact is all too real. Is it any wonder the Pew Report reflects dissatisfaction with higher education when what the media reports are the most extreme cases of debtfree speech abuse, and faculty expressing their outrage on social media? When high-ranking government officials spew their personal biases it only reinforces the worst stereotypes about college and students, and perpetuates media exaggerations that deepen negative opinions the public already holds.

ROLE FOR LIBRARIANS

American higher education is far from perfect. It is too costly, student debt remains a serious problem, and too many students still fail to persist to graduation. Still, given the tremendous benefits to society from research, launching adults into the workforce, and major contributions to art and culture, it’s hard to believe so many Americans, across the political spectrum, have lost faith in us. I grasp that it is the nature of mainstream media to report what’s newsworthy, the bad more often than the good, and to then sensationalize it for maximum eyeball attraction in a distracted world. It may be possible to change the negative perceptions reflected in the Pew Report, and our higher education industry will need to work hard to repair and improve the public’s image of who we are and the good things we achieve.

My takeaway is that academic librarians can best contribute to creating positive change through our educational work. We have the unique opportunity to help the next generation learn how to better question what the mass media delivers. In collaboration with our instructors and academic support colleagues, we can prepare our students for a world where they must critically question the information avalanche from both trusted and untrustworthy sources. Academic librarians have no way to predict how today’s news landscape will evolve. What we can do is take advantage of any opportunity we have to represent the best of what higher education has to offer, contribute to our students’ ability to recognize it, and leave our institutions ready for a world where media impressions matter. It certainly will help if our higher education leaders stop the self-damage. We can no longer afford to be our own worst enemy.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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