Much has been written and thought aloud over the past few years on the subject of expertise. The general consensus is that a growing segment of the population – though still a visible minority – are simply unwilling to believe the experts, those with the best information and the best ability to understand what this means. information.
An echo of this is swirling around higher education. Not in it, although that may also be true, but around it, for it. It is that some of us are unwilling or unable to accept what the people with the best information and the most experience are saying. Some people simply insist that they know better than those whose job it is to literally know. Besides being antithetical to the very premise of education, it is strange.
This trend has emerged recently in the response to this survey of college business officials. The point is not what the survey says, what the top business officials said – that’s pretty clear. They are generally quite positive about the stability and near future of their institutions. The thing is, for some reason, so many just don’t want to believe it.
The survey was conducted by an industry publication and was mostly reported there. The leading news coverage of the survey begins with all the reasons why these business officials would be concerned – “college and university financial leaders seem to have a lot to worry about,” it said. There are declining enrollments, which is true, but perhaps misunderstood. Inflation. Stock market and so on.
But when they asked business officers, the people who have the best and best information about their schools – “they are on balance optimistic about the financial stability of their institutions and mostly inclined to see the need for dramatic change in how they operate,” said news coverage of the survey.
And they are.
From the survey: “About two-thirds of business executives (65 percent) agree that their institution will be financially stable over the next decade.” And this, “Sixty-four percent of business officers say their institution is in better shape than it was in 2019, before the pandemic hit…” And this, “About three-quarters of business officers said that their institution was either very (54 percent) or somewhat (21 percent) likely to have ended the 2021–22 fiscal year with a positive operating margin.” And, “Seventy percent of business leaders agreed with the statement, ‘I am confident that my organization will be financially sustainable over the next five years.'”
This should be good news. If you care about our colleges and the young people they are educating, it must be a giant sigh of relief that the top business officers in our nation’s schools feel good about their future.
To be clear, confidence and the positive outlook are down from last year, perhaps because the federal recovery and stimulus funds are now either gone or significantly reduced. And because the record has not recovered yet, although it shows signs of doing so. But still – 65%, 64%, 75%, 70% – these are good numbers. That should be the title, right?
Keep in mind that the people who talk are the people who would know. They are the experts. They undoubtedly know more about the future and positioning of their institutions than anyone else – than I do, for example. When 75% of them say their book pages will end up with black ink instead of red, I believe them. I don’t know why they would lie about it.
And yet one need look no further than news coverage of the poll itself to find the disbelief.
Shortly after the survey findings were shared, a group of outside “experts” weighed in to say how wrong they are with the current balance sheets. One said business leaders “may be wearing rose-colored glasses.” Another said: “I don’t understand the general optimism.”
Let me say here that I am not sure that one is required to “get it”. Perhaps it is good enough that they accept the views of people who know things. If an airline pilot announces that he’s confident the flight will be smooth, I don’t look out the window and say, “I don’t get it.” I believe that she has better instruments and more experience than me and that there is no reason for her to deceive me.
That’s not to say the business leaders in this survey didn’t see risks ahead. They clearly do and said so. And there are dangers ahead. Usually there is.
However, the survey’s verbatim results are that, “Business officers unanimously agreed that their institutions are in better shape than they were before the pandemic, with a majority from every sector.” Being in better shape than before the pandemic – why, that’s great.
However, the report says, “Most higher education finance experts who reviewed the survey data believe that many colleges will need to think and behave differently if they are to thrive in an era of limited resources.”
So the current experts, the ones with the current information, with margins of 65%, 64%, 75%, 70% and more, say that things are stable, positive and better, with good prospects. However, some other “experts” with less information and/or worse information say that those people “need to think and behave differently”. Because, we must assume, those with less information must know better.
This is strange.
It’s weird to have people saying that real experts don’t get it and need to change. It’s strange to hear those voices, to have them appear so prominently – especially in what is a very easy development to understand.
The appearance of skeptics who claim to know better than the experts is doubly strange and equally troubling when it occurs in or about education itself. If the people of education cannot hear what education is, the actual experts must say – I don’t know. It doesn’t feel good.
In any case, perhaps those who care about our colleges and universities would be better off simply taking the knowledge of our bona fide experts for what they say, rather than guessing. They say they are in a better place financially than they were, that they are optimistic. This has to be more than good, it has to be more than good.