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Insights from the William G. Bowen Colloquium on Higher Education Leadership

Last November, we held the inaugural William G. Bowen Colloquium on Higher Education Leadership. Named for our late, founding board chair and president emeritus of Princeton University and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the event brought together 50 higher education leaders and experts to discuss several contemporary challenges including diversity and inclusiveness, free speech and student activism, and the role of technology in higher education.

Today, Kevin Guthrie, Cappy Hill, and I are publishing three papers that were inspired by the wide-ranging discussion of the colloquium participants. We aim to provide more than just an overview of the topics— the papers suggest tangible next steps for college and university leaders who seek to uphold the principles of free speech and academic freedom, find ways to use technology to improve student learning while holding down costs, and increase access and affordability while creating inclusive environments for a more diverse student body.

Our paper on free speech, student activism, and social media recognizes and endorses the core mission of colleges and universities to advance knowledge through open inquiry, and the key role that protecting free expression plays in furthering that mission. At the same time, navigating the interests of different stakeholders—students, faculty, alumni, and the broader public—and maintaining a safe environment where those with different views can engage in intellectual discourse is growing ever more complex in our connected and polarized society. We discuss various strategies for developing content-neutral rules for invited speakers and counter-demonstrations, promoting a campus culture and curriculum that embraces difference of opinion while protecting stakeholders from harassment and discrimination, and sharing the financial burden of campus security.

In our paper on access and diversity, we discuss the great value of broadening postsecondary access and success to individuals, to colleges and universities, and to society, as well as the barriers that currently stand in the way of realizing those benefits. The challenges and possible solutions differ across different segments of higher education. For open-access institutions, meeting students’ basic needs and streamlining and improving student support services are critical, and a severe shortage of public resources greatly increases the degree of difficulty. For selective institutions, we focus on shifting admissions processes to a broader and more nuanced conception of talent, enhancing need-based financial aid, and expanding transfer pipelines.

Our paper on technology in higher education discusses the emerging and potential applications of network technology and artificial intelligence to complement and vastly expand the reach of current higher education offerings. While there are a number of ways in which technology can be incorporated to enhance effective pedagogy and student support in campus environments, perhaps instructional technology’s greatest promise is to offer access to postsecondary education to populations and in circumstances, in the US and globally, where few or no options currently exist. As the higher education community moves in this direction, other motives—cost-savings for their own sake, zero-sum competition—will loom, and it will be important to have the leadership and research grounding to stay focused on that goal of expanding opportunity.

As you read the papers, consider—in the dialectic, action-oriented spirit of the Colloquium and its namesake—how these issues play out on your campus, and how you can make a better future more likely. We invite you to share your ideas in the comments.

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