American University: Report Explores Priorities of College, University Leaders This Academic Year

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Center for University Excellence at American University (AU CUE) today released a new report, Academic Year 2021–2022: Are College Campuses Ready?, that explores preparation by US colleges and universities to support their students as they return to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic and rising national polarization. Based on a national survey of 140 senior college and university administrators that was conducted at the conclusion of the spring 2021 semester, the report reveals that campus leaders are directing resources toward supporting students’ well-being, financial needs, and mental health, while expressing comparatively less concern about the potential for campus unrest, protests, or confrontations.

The report found that administrators’ priorities are directed at a wide range of aspects of student success and retention, including diversity, equity, and inclusion. Despite millions of students spending 18 months studying online, or not at all, during nationwide protests for racial justice, a bitterly contested presidential election, an unprecedented global health crisis, and the attack on the US Capitol, a majority of the senior academic leaders who were surveyed (59%) held that conflicts between students of different ideological groups are either “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to occur. Just over 1% believed such confrontations to be “very likely,” and fewer than 1% of respondents were “very concerned” about potential confrontations on campus between student protesters and counter-protesters.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of senior administrators, including 4% who do not know, report that their campus is currently without formal policies for managing protests or other forms of collective action. Additionally, 57% reported they do not have policies in place for managing confrontations specifically involving protesters and counter-protesters, including 13% who were unsure of whether such policies exist on their campus. Just 24% of senior administrators reported that public safety officers at their institutions have had “robust” training in handling face-to-face confrontations between groups on campus; even fewer (16%) reported that student-affairs personnel have had this training.

“We hope campus leaders will use this report to reflect on the conversations that may or may not be happening on their campus,” said report coauthor Ashley Finley, vice president for research and senior advisor to the president at AAC&U. “Finding opportunities to invite civil dialogue will be far better for campus community building than being caught off guard.”

Asked to rank three broad challenges—student protests or other forms of collective action, student resource challenges and college affordability, and student support needs—senior administrators at private institutions ranked student support needs as their highest priority (51%), followed by student resource challenges, and college affordability (46%). Conversely, administrators at public institutions ranked student resource challenges and college affordability highest (48%), followed by student support needs (43%). Senior administrators at both public and private institutions ranked student protests and other forms of collective actions as the lowest of the three priority areas.

“This survey of senior campus leaders raises questions about institutional expectations and preparation for the multiple psychosocial and ideological dynamics that may play out in the coming year,” said Scott A. Bass, executive director of the Center of University Excellence at AU and a coauthor of the report. “It is critically important to look for larger national trends that may prove to be disruptive, anticipate their impact on campus, and prepare the campus community, even if these disruptions do not materialize.”

Finally, strengthening civic and democratic engagement, re-envisioning and supporting liberal arts majors, and addressing the responsibility of higher education to contest the spread of misinformation were ranked among the lowest priorities for senior administrators in the survey.

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