Monday, December 15, 2014

Lessons from Serial

As regular readers know, I’m a devotee of podcasts as a genre.  Like most podcast listeners, I’ve been captivated by Serial, the new spinoff from This American Life.  (The final episode of the first storyline will be posted this Thursday, but you can download from the beginning and catch up.  If you can, I recommend it.)  The current story being serialized is a murder case from Baltimore from 1999, in which a high school student was convicted of killing his girlfriend.  The reporter, Sarah Koenig, has done a wonderful job of walking through the story and raising questions.  With one episode left, I’m still not sure how it will end.

Through all of the episodes so far, though, one moment stood out for me.  In discussing the second trial -- the first was a mistrial -- Koenig notes that the defendant didn’t testify in his own defense, and the jury held that against him.  They weren’t supposed to, of course, but you can’t legislate people’s thoughts.  They assumed that if he were truly innocent, he would have given his side of the story.  In the absence of that, they assumed that his side must be sinister.

I’m thinking those of us in public higher education could learn from that.

Higher education stands accused in the court of public opinion of a great many crimes.  It’s self-referential and out of touch; it’s too expensive; it’s consumed with climbing walls and football; it’s racist and exclusionary; it’s politically correct and not exclusionary enough; pick your poison.  The astute reader will notice that some of the charges contradict each other, which, in fact, they do.  Some of them are also entirely inapplicable to much of the sector, but we all suffer guilt by association.  That isn’t supposed to happen, but it does.

In the case of Serial, testimony in his own defense might have helped.  Or it might not have, but at least he could have tried.  In our case, I’m thinking it’s time to testify in our own defense.

That might entail, say, spelling out for the public the connection between spending cuts and tuition increases.  That’s obvious to those of us in the trenches, but obscure at best to most voters.  They see some high-profile wastes of money and assume that tuition increases are just signs of either weak will or avarice.  They don’t make the connection to cost-shifting, having never heard the term.

Yesterday’s story about Amy Gutmann, the president of UPenn, joining a die-in generated some of the usual public reactions about ungrateful tenured yadda yadda.  Given the cost and profile of UPenn, it’s easy to make the “limousine liberal” charge stick.  Yes, UPenn is private, but much of the public doesn’t make the distinction.  As far as they’re concerned, higher ed is higher ed.  

The frustrating part is that many higher ed leaders are assiduous in their cultivation of elected representatives.  They just haven’t figured out yet how to take the message to the masses.

And the message is valid.  If you’re concerned about student loan levels, you should support healthy appropriations to community and state colleges.  They offer a lower-cost alternative, and if they’re good, they’re remarkable bargains.  The trick is figuring out how to reach the voters who pay more attention to other things.  

I know that in some states, community college funding derives from “millages,” or dedicated fractions of local property taxes.  Getting those passed is often an uphill battle, but some colleges seem to have cracked the code.  Those of us in states without millage systems would do well to find out how they’ve done it, even if the lessons are only applicable indirectly.  At some level, strong popular support will eventually translate into representatives behaving accordingly, even if it takes a while.  In the absence of that support, well, we know what happens.

My guess -- which will be proved right or wrong soon enough -- is that Serial will end in a muddle.  We in higher ed are well acquainted with muddles.  I’d like to see us instead bring some clarity.  At some level, that’s supposed to be what we’re about.