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2017: A look back in higher ed

What was in the news and on the minds of college leaders this past year
University Business, January 2018

In a year defined by on-campus and national controversy, higher ed institutions worked to become more nimble. Here, we reflect on the major events in 2017 that will continue to shape the higher ed landscape in 2018 and beyond.

Federal action and guidance

President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress brought change and a new philosophy to Washington. The Department of Education rescinded the Obama Administration’s Dear Colleague letter on Title IX and its accompanying guidance without offering new guidelines.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised to better protect the accused in sexual assault cases on campus, but many colleges continue to follow the previous guidance. There was speculation the department will also likely relax Obama-era regulations meant to protect students against predatory practices at for-profit institutions.


Sidebar: More issues and trends talked about in higher ed in 2017


Up for change is how student fraud is legally defined, and how much defrauded students can expect in loan refunds.

Other for-profit news included Purdue announcing its intended acquisition of Kaplan University in the spring. NewU will essentially operate as an online branch campus of the Indiana university when the deal is finalized early this year. Purdue officials said it was an attractive deal because of its technical infrastructure and scaling opportunities.

A federal travel ban had some states reporting lower international student enrollment. For example, Texas is suffering but Tennessee did not see a decline. Higher ed institutions strengthened recruiting efforts by coaching potential students through the visa application process and chatting on Skype to answer questions about changing American legislation.

The decision to let temporary protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expire drew ire from higher ed faculty and students. Universities have responded in a variety of ways, including offering pro-bono counseling and online information for students afraid to ask revealing questions about their or their families’ status.

However, some institutions stopped short of declaring themselves as sanctuary campuses, as the designation gives no federally recognized protection to undocumented individuals.

Campus unrest causes turmoil

In an undeniably divisive political landscape, the pressure mounted on campus administrators to more clearly define and preserve free speech on campus while protecting students and faculty. Unruly protests of speakers occurred at Middlebury College, University of Florida, Cal State Fullerton and elsewhere.

Security costs and fear of violence delayed or cancelled controversial speeches, causing more furor around the issue. Some alumni responded negatively to protests while speakers filed lawsuits: White nationalist Richard Spencer sued the University of Michigan for possibly preventing his appearance on campus.

University of Ohio and others formed free speech advisory boards while new laws were introduced in Nebraska and elsewhere to guarantee students’ right to speak out on campus. High-profile racial incidents muddied the issue further, forcing administrators to punish or rebuke students who came under the scrutiny of the media and internet.

The University of Hartford expelled an 18-year-old student after she bragged about defiling the belongings of her roommate, who is black, and referred to her in a derogatory way in an Instagram post. The student was arrested and faces felony charges.

More institutions, such as The University of Oklahoma, added required cultural training and diversity awareness as part of new student orientations.

Public institution shake-ups

The consolidation of public higher ed institutions continued in 2017. State systems are restructuring to better use resources, support students and minimize costs.

Georgia’s university system, which has been consolidating campuses since 2011, merged Georgia Southern University and Armstrong State University, as well as Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and Bainbridge State College—now going by Georgia Southern University and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.

The University of Wisconsin System plans to turn the state’s 13 two-year colleges into satellite campuses of its seven universities. In late 2017, Connecticut began exploring the consolidation of its community colleges.

Storms to weather

Some campuses each year must contend with natural disasters. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey battered Texas, and Irma left 6.2 million Floridians without power. Universities prepared for the storms by cancelling classes, evacuating campuses and blanketing social media channels with clear instructions.

Most tragically, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and left the U.S. island territory completely without electricity. Months later, many residences remained dark.

Colleges rallied around students and institutions in the affected regions:

New York University and Brown University announced offers to enroll about 50 displaced Puerto Rican students each, tuition-free, this spring semester.  

Cornell will sponsor a free spring semester for up to 58 students.

Tulane University is offering a free guest semester for all Puerto Rican students, after they apply and pay tuition to their home institution for the spring session.

Weapons on campus

Campus carry spread across the country, with a new law in Georgia and expanded rights in Arkansas, where only faculty and staff had previously been permitted to carry firearms.

Georgia House Bill 280 allows weapons in tailgating areas, and in Kansas, where permits are not required for concealed carry, students may bring weapons into their dorm rooms.

Three professors tried to sue The University of Texas at Austin over its 2015 campus carry legislation—but the case was thrown out due to lack of evidence that guns would have an effect on free speech in the classroom.

Campus police departments, as of this fall, once again could purchase surplus military equipment as needed. This includes discounts on armored vehicles and rifles, but experts predict the bulk of the purchases will consist of computers, night-vision goggles and clothing.

The Obama administration had previously restricted the surplus program over public concerns about the militarization of police.  


Stefanie Botelho, as newsletter editor of UB, spends time every day seeking out the top higher ed news stories to share in UB Daily.

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