A feast for the mind, ITHAKA’s Next Wave 2019, our annual convening of our partners from the academic, scholarly communications, and museum communities, offered approximately 180 attendees the chance to hear from fellow leading thinkers about the major trends in technology and society that will shape research and learning. Topics included approaches to pluralism and learning; the central role of data in research and teaching; the importance of digital fluency; Facebook’s ongoing efforts to share data for scholarly research; and the outlook for U.S. higher education policy.

Below is a summary of the day’s discussions, with links to video for each session.

Welcome and opening remarks (video)

ITHAKA President Kevin Guthrie kicked off Next Wave 2019 by citing a host of outside influences impacting academia, as well as the steady decline in public perception of higher education. Georgetown University Senior Scholar and Future Trends Forum Host Bryan Alexander moderated Next Wave once again this year, reminding all participants to “interact, emit howls of outrage or share your support” for the discussions to come.

Interactivity is a key feature of Next Wave, as attendees respond to a series of questions posed throughout the day. For example, when asked to vote on the most significant challenge for higher education today, participants chose, in order:

  • Public perception of higher education (31%)
  • The ability for faculty and students to tell fact from fiction in a digital context (25%)
  • Federal, state and judicial decisions impacting higher education (24%)

As for the biggest challenge in higher ed five years from now, there were some signs of change as the top vote counts shifted to:

  • Federal, state and judicial decisions impacting higher education (36%)
  • Public perception of higher education (24%)
  • The ability for faculty and students to tell fact from fiction in a digital context (18%)
Pluralism and learning (video)

Ithaka S+R Managing Director Catharine Bond Hill set the scene: a decline in confidence across the political spectrum for higher ed; a rise in activism on campus; speakers prevented from speaking; and a perception that free inquiry is dead. Panelist Anthony Kronman, Yale Law School professor and author of The Assault on American Excellence, cited two pervasive forces “deforming the cultural life” of universities: groupthink and identity politics, plus an emphasis on feelings, with the need to protect students from “dignitary harms.” These forces, he added, are the unintended, unanticipated product of the ongoing campaign for greater diversity. Panelist Michael Reed, senior vice president for inclusion and diversity at Bowdoin College, pointed out that, “We don’t all share the same understanding when we talk about diversity. In actuality, it’s a continuum. Some institutions have pursued “compositional or representational diversity,” which is more a matter of metrics. But, he added, many aren’t prepared to move from metrics to full, true inclusion. Creating compositional diversity doesn’t mean the work is done.

Hill reminded that as campuses become more diverse, it is important to make sure that students can take advantage of all that they offer. “We do need to think about whether there are aspects of our institutions that exclude them from participating fully.”

After audience members voted on how administrators should respond to students inviting potentially controversial speakers to campus (top choices: attend and ask questions, let students protest), panelists agreed that canceling a speaker should be a last resort. “Do everything you can to turn the event into, as they say, a learning moment,” Kronman said.

Asked how to address the issue of students suppressing positions that are not the norm on their campuses, 46 percent of audience voters recommended creating norms of behavior that discourage students and faculty from shaming others. Creating standards of conduct was next with 35 percent, and 14 percent of respondents didn’t view this as an issue.

Leading change (video)

Kevin Guthrie sat down with Xiao-Li Meng for this year’s Leading Change discussion. Meng is Professor of Statistics at Harvard University and founding Editor-in-Chief of the recently launched Harvard Data Science Review. An edited version of the interview is available on the Scholarly Kitchen blog.

Guthrie and Meng had a wide-ranging discussion, touching on how data science is evolving, its growing presence across disciplines, and even how it offers a new common language for all of us. Asked about some of the emerging challenges, Meng put forward unexpected perspectives. On the question of the “brain drain” from higher education to private companies, Meng says it is not so bad. If you view the larger ecosystem, it’s better to have your students working in industry and government to help garner public support for the field. One Next Wave attendee wanted to know why, since data has been around forever, data science is different now. Meng noted that while yes, data has been around, today with machine learning and inquiry at scale, there is the opportunity for all of us to use data more effectively.

Working to gather data of his own, Meng wrapped the session with an audience poll about whether librarians would pay for the open access Harvard Data Science Review at $19.95 per issue (81 percent said no) and whether they should print copies (50 percent said that would be a waste of resources).

Truth, lies and digital fluency (video)

Doug Belshaw, founder and consultant with We are Open Co-op, made a compelling case for questioning the trustworthiness of digital information. He began with warnings about the impact of fake news, citing a timely example of the pending general election in the U.K., his home base. With “lots of misinformation swirling around,” especially during this pivotal moment, “Fake news is not something to laugh at it and put to one side. It’s the tip of the iceberg. This is something we should be teaching students. We need to be teaching this stuff because the future of democracy depends on it.”

Pointing to his doctoral work on the eight essential elements of digital literacies, Belshaw said, “Preparing both ourselves and others to participate fully in society should, to my mind, be the goal of literacies.”

Describing the companies whose sites enable information sharing with the words of Shoshana Zuboff as “surveillance capitalists,” Belshaw warned those of us who engage with digital information, “We are for sale, and I think we should be concerned.”

Moderator Bryan Alexander, citing the “anxiety around fake news,” asked Belshaw whether we should push for increased gatekeeping by the Facebooks and Googles of the world or for better digital literacy? Belshaw replied that private companies should never be censors in the public sphere.

“What about the role of libraries in digital literacy and in pushing digital literacy?” Alexander asked. Belshaw said that librarians and education technologists “have a really crucial role” to be able to fully support faculty and students. And asked how to engage them? Put students on your decision-making board or advisory panels, he suggested. Students have different approaches to privacy; it may be even more important to them.

Alexander asked Belshaw to describe digital literacy moves over the next 10 years, noting that Facebook is widely criticized and yet has 2.1 billion users. Where do we go from here? To WT.Social? Mastodon? Will we go back to blogging or give up Facebook? Belshaw replied that quitting Facebook is ridiculous: “It will never be a case of going back, but of knowing what we do now and moving forward. This is already starting to happen because there are different content moderation policies in different countries. A centralized system is not possible.”

Big data and research (video)
Chaya Nayak, head of Facebook’s Election Research Commission and data sharing efforts, spoke candidly about the latest efforts at Facebook to share data for scholarly research along with the challenges associated with doing this work.

Nayak described joining the company in 2016, “before the eruption of the elections,” bringing her experience and interest in data that can inform policy decisions. Governments used to hold key data and allow companies to access it, she reminded. Today, the private companies including Facebook, Twitter, and Google have the desirable data.

Facebook’s impact on society? “We don’t really know,” she said. “In April 2018, we announced we needed a front door to have academics study Facebook’s impact on elections and on society. An independent commission of academics, including a commission of 83 from Social Science One, will tell us what the academic community will need.”

Alexander asked the question many had in mind: “When will we be able to get information about it?” Although Facebook had promised that the first data set would be ready in July 2019, that proved overly ambitious. Nayak believes that in the next year we’ll likely start to see some research coming out, although after the 2020 U.S. presidential election. “Research takes time,” she reminded the crowd, admitting, “This is taking us way more time than I would have imagined.”

In addition, she said, “We didn’t realize we’d be dealing with these privacy issues.” Researchers need raw, user-level data to be able to understand patterns and trends, yet Facebook says that’s pretty much impossible to provide. The aggregated data won’t get to the level of detail that academics want. Regulators are freaked out about privacy. “It’s a tug of war, and we’re in the middle.” Alexander acknowledged the challenge of balancing research quality with privacy regulations.

Nayak described three data sets that Facebook is currently able to share with academics and the research community:

  1. CrowdTangle. Understanding conversations that are taking place in the public space
  2. Ad Library. Includes any (verified) and intraspace (e.g., about gun control, abortion, etc.) political ad on Facebook
  3. Information on all URLS since 2014 that people shared on Facebook that were external to the platform.

When an audience member asked, with preservation on her mind, how long Facebook will keep a particular data set, Nayak said that Facebook has settled on seven years. Ten years seemed like a long time to those who are in their 20s or 30s, she offered, and Facebook itself is only 10 years old. Facebook will fulfill that commitment, put it into a service like Dataverse, or release it publicly, she said.

True to form for a technology-oriented audience, those following the event via #ithakatnw19 could provide important contributions as well, offering questions and comments for speakers. For example, some asked whether advertisers have more access to Facebook data than researchers do. Nayak explained that advertisers don’t know who they are targeting, and aren’t handed a physical data set. Academics hit a roadblock because university legal offices won’t sign on to Facebook’s terms of service. “I’m hoping over the next year we can build-in terms for academics.”

Another audience question: How confident can the research community be that the data they receive is good data? Nayak said, “We know our data is not perfect,” a problem the company is going to have to continue to solve over the next few years.

Xiao-Li Meng told Nayak, “I don’t envy your job.” He questioned why it has been difficult for Facebook to bring the research into Facebook, to tackle the question of Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy, versus sending data out to be analyzed. Nayak didn’t rule out an eventual shift in the company’s approach, but mentioned that legal considerations need to be ironed out.

Policy and higher ed (video)

The final discussion of the day, guided by Erica Green, national education correspondent at The New York Times, featured two higher ed leaders in Brian Rosenberg, president in his 16th year at Macalester College, and Deborah Santiago, CEO and founder of Excelencia in Education.

Green asked panelists for a “gut check on state of higher ed” noting that in 2019: polls show diminished public confidence; there is ongoing demand for greater transparency; and we had a collection of scandals sprinkled in between.

Santiago began on an optimistic note: “Higher ed is ready for a next step. We have an opportunity to reframe and to reclaim the narrative from those who don’t get what higher ed is about.” She added, “And this is the time. They may not be drowning out other voices, but there are leaders ready to speak out.”

From Rosenberg: “In gentle terms, I say it’s interesting. Another way to describe it is vexed bordering on crisis for two reasons: 1. The business model is fundamentally unsustainable (i.e., how colleges pay their bills, how students pay for college). It’s the same level of precariousness as our healthcare system. 2. Demographics. Nathan Grawe’s book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, is a good reference. It’s a demographic cliff.” Rosenberg also cited public attitudes and public policies on higher ed. Policies, or the lack of, have not been helpful. We face a “pretty daunting array of challenges.” He sees 10 years of disruption ahead.

“How do you reclaim the narrative?” Green asked. “Are colleges just not doing a good job of claiming the narrative?”

Santiago responded that there are a lot of different narratives. For example, despite media coverage of large amounts of student debt, most students’ debt level is not $150K. Too much is written about the outliers. Some of the reclaiming involves a recalibration. Also, the student population does not meet the profile of the “traditional student,” but the discourse is still dominated by the 18-24 year old, first-time, residential student. “We keep talking about the most selective institutions and how students are not getting in,” Santiago noted, “but that’s not the experience of most students.”

Rosenberg agreed that too much attention is devoted to a small group of institutions in this country: “That is not American higher education. There aren’t a lot of levers for others to pull; not a lot for other schools to do that is easy to do. Higher ed needs to deliver a quality education at a lower cost. Change the amount that it costs. That’s the only way to change it long-term.”

He also pointed out that ours is not a culture that favors nuance, and, switching to her reporter role, Green then asked Rosenberg for “an example, so that I don’t perpetuate lack of nuance.” Rosenberg offered the example of borrowing: For the majority of those who need to borrow, the best investment is borrowing for college. Also, most students do not pay the “sticker price” because of discounts and financial aid.

Green said that when the government published data like on the College Scorecard, “a lot of colleges freaked out.” Santiago said she has yet to meet a student who makes a decision based on graduation rate. But Green noted that when it comes to debt load, applicants do. Santiago replied that those who are using the Scorecard data may be those who don’t care about cost because they know they’ll earn a lot after college. “It’s not that these data don’t matter, but we find students aren’t using them,” she said.

Rosenberg added that access to data is only good if the data are good: “The College Scorecard doesn’t necessarily tell you what you need to know. Five years out, your salary may not be great. Listening doesn’t appear to be one of the strengths of the Department of Education.”
Green moved next to policy related to access and equity, policies which “are going to be vital to the future.” Yet, policies such as DACA and affirmative action are likely to be rolled back.

Rosenberg called the rescinding of DACA “a terrible policy by terrible people” and added that the “repeal of affirmative action would be a mistake.” He suspects what will happen then is colleges will try to use economics as a proxy, which is not a perfect replacement. He expects a decline of some populations in U.S. higher ed in the short term, but “if colleges are to survive, we need to figure out how to find, admit, and keep these students.”

Santiago pointed out that affirmative action was never fully implemented the way it was intended: “maybe demography, the rise of Latinx and Asian/Pacific Islander populations, will make it a non-issue.” She stated that concerns about affirmative action are really not an issue at non-selective institutions, where you see a higher concentration of students of color.

Green polled a group of college presidents, and was surprised to hear how many believed that affirmative action deserves a second look by the Supreme Court. Next Wave attendees were asked to vote on the question: Should the Supreme Court take up the issue of affirmative action in college admissions? The results? 50 percent of voters chose no; 35 percent said yes, if other admissions policies such as those favoring legacies or athletes were also reconsidered, 6 percent said yes; 9 percent preferred to get rid of standardized testing requirements.

Next up: Green noted that efforts to issue guidance on Title IX and free speech by the Department of Education “have been defined as bringing some balance back to higher education.” Rosenberg described sexual assault as deeply difficult and deeply difficult to deal with: “What happens on our campuses happens in society. There is no harder job on a campus than a Title IX coordinator; they last about two years in the job. Rules that came out during Obama Administration, which were not really rules, weren’t clear either. Colleges have been left on their own to figure this out. Rules concern me a lot, if I understand what’s coming from DOE, e.g., the respondent can confront their accuser directly. Virtually no institution now gives the person the opportunity to confront the accuser. My fear is that we’ll go back to people not coming forward” with cases of sexual assault.

Santiago said that the Department of Education’s focus “says a lot about DeVos and her ignorance about higher ed.” DOE’s focus on these issues is helping with the polarization around higher education. “The Department of Education is not addressing the core issues in higher education. They are choosing to focus on things that don’t matter as much.”

Green noted that the higher ed “community has wanted some guidance on these things though. It took a young woman carrying a mattress on her back to get them to focus on Title IX. On free speech, it takes a really controversial protest. Colleges had no guidance on how to manage it. Does there need to be some kind of prescription or guidance from the federal government?”

Rosenberg replied, “On free speech, no. There is a dramatic difference between private and public institutions. UC-Berkeley’s issues are not like Macalester’s. We’re on private property. We want speakers who we believe will contribute to the education of our students. Colleges are in the business of curating speech, every day and almost every way. What speech on our campus makes sense to the education of our students? I do think we have a problem now on college campuses including my own where we have too narrow a definition of acceptable speech. Hate speech aside, we would do our students good by having more of a balance.”

Santiago’s view is that “we’ve had guidance for a long time and now they are going to require us.” She sees it as public policy encroachment on higher ed. “At a time when we’re getting less and less funds but there is more and more regulation, you have less control over your campus. That to me is the conversation we’re not having. We get more money in higher ed from the Department of Defense than the Department of Education.” Green remarked, “For someone who doesn’t like regulations, DeVos is trying to pass a lot of regulations.”

Green believes the Department of Justice’s investigation of National Association for College Admission Counseling enabling colleges to woo away early decision applicants with financial aid was “really big, but didn’t get much attention.” Describing it as another “terrible” development from the federal government, Rosenberg said this decision will benefit the most affluent. Santiago added that this move will continue to exacerbate inequity.

When Green asked about the proposals for free college, neither Santiago nor Rosenberg were fans. “Free college is not a good idea. Instead, we need to dramatically increase the size of the Pell grant.” The breakdown in Next Wave audience votes about free college: 28 percent said yes with another 31 percent saying yes for low-income students; 31 percent said no but offer an income-based loan repayment plan; 6 percent said no, and the remainder were not sure.

During the audience Q&A session, Kevin Guthrie pointed to ongoing public confusion regarding cost versus price: “The cost of delivery has gone up, so how does the institution go about lowering the cost of education?” Santiago noted that community colleges have done so, but asked: “Is that the outcome you want? More innovation there, too. We’re not talking about that group of schools.”

When asked about why the U.S. cannot offer free education as countries such as Norway does, Santiago replied, “We could do just about anything. The beauty and the beast is that we have decentralized higher ed in this country.” Rosenberg added, “Yes, we could do it, but we do have state control and state funding sources. Even the plans for free public college from presidential candidates assume contributions from states. Trying to get 50 different entities to agree is hard.”

Also, he said, the U.S. has very low taxes. Agreeing with the point that it would be good to provide free education, he reminded the audience that “we’ve decided not to provide all sorts of services we should provide, such as parental leave. Our healthcare system is in even worse shape. We spend more and get worse outcomes versus other countries. There’s what we as citizens are willing to pay for and there’s what our government will provide.”

Santiago underscored the point that the states are funding higher ed: “It’s not seen as a public good at the federal level. This is the agreement we made as a country. We need the recommitment to higher ed as a public good.”

Finally, Rosenberg said that in addition to the lack of investment from public sources, the cost of labor is driving up the cost of higher ed: “There’s a good explanation in Archibald and Feldman’s book, Why Does College Cost So Much? When your parents went to college, there was no Title IX office or counseling center. These are not just asked for, but demanded of colleges. In short, that’s the situation we’re in right now.”

It’s a wrap (video)

In his closing remarks, Alexander pointed to themes from the day’s in-person and online discussions:

  • Pluralism and learning
  • The cultural and political context, in the U.S. and overseas
  • Dealing with fake news
  • Digitization is proceeding rapidly
  • America’s un-nuanced, simplistic, bumper sticker discourse
  • An over-focus on elite schools
  • Student demographic shifts
  • Data: new uses and tools
  • Governments no longer the primary aggregators of data
  • Tension between accessing and sharing data
  • Pending changes to Title IX and DACA
  • Above all, the importance of working with libraries and with library educators in support of digital literacy

Next Wave 2019 left participants with an “interesting survey of the horizon, of where we are headed,” he said. In brief closing remarks, ITHAKA President Kevin Guthrie captured the crowd sentiment when he spoke of all that we learned in mere hours and all that we can look forward to.
See you at Next Wave 2020!

Further reading

Our Ithaka S+R team has written about several of the issues discussed during Next Wave 2019.