Transitions

In the 2016 election, Montanans voted nearly 2-to-1 for Donald J. Trump. In Flathead County, the proportion was even greater, with 64 percent of the vote going to DJT. (These figures come from the New York Times interactive electoral map.) I can only speculate on how the majority of locals feel about the Flathead Beacon’s September 7 report on the impact of a Trump administration proposal to end the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, but it’s instructive to hear the feedback of business owners who depend on the program to supply a quarter of the seasonal workforce. Last year, Montana was host to more than 2,700 international visitors ready to work in a variety of temporary occupations in exchange for the chance to “learn English and experience America.” Flathead County—gateway to Glacier National Park—could stand to lose up to 750 of its lodge and restaurant employees should the program be scrapped.

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South Korea joined a growing global trend this week when it was announced that universities there will soon impose an eight percent tuition increase on international students. 2017 has been a notable year for this particular cost-fighting measure—this fall marks the introduction of tuition for internationals at previously tuition-free institutions in Finland and the German state of Baden-Württemberg—and we can probably expect to see more of it. A good question is the calculus behind it, beyond the marginal-thinking one. Recent research seems to confirm a strong negative correlation between declining state appropriations and rising international enrollments at public universities, but that’s here in the U.S., whose pull effect for now remains second to none. In contrast, the UK had become a poster child for tuition backlash even before Brexit, and the introduction of differential fee structures resulted in pronounced drops in doctoral enrollments at Swedish HEIs a couple of years ago. Maybe some policymakers have grounds for believing that higher education has become a Giffen good, wherever you find it. Perhaps America’s newfound inhospitality makes it easier for other countries to justify their hikes. Or going full-cynic, some institutions may be persuaded that raising the price of admission may bring a corresponding rise in the socioeconomic profile (and by association, the quality) of the applicant. Or am I just projecting U.S.-style thinking onto what are probably, in most cases, painful decisions?

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What is it about the American college experience that strips us to our ids? And was it always thus? The Dartmouth library riot of 1817 celebrates its bicentennial in November; but in that situation, it was members of the faculty who stormed the student library, Jack Nicholson-style (it’s complicated). Mobs certainly greeted the integration of universities in the South, but as with any mob event, it’s impossible to say where student participation and extramural co-optation overlapped. Berkeley, et al., of course. And while perhaps still too fresh to understand, the Mizzou-Middlebury-Evergreen quakes have all the hallmarks of this country’s higher ed derangement syndrome, with all of its overdetermined, boundary-spanning drama. Higher ed wonks know that HEIs as a rule try to do too much to begin with—contracting research, angling for patents, incubating business start-ups, educating underprepared undergraduates with underpaid adjuncts—but no university, I think, ever sought the role of floating signifier. Donors, for one, like to know what their philanthropy is paying for, and the whole point of the administrative “mission statement” exercise is to affirm that the people at the top are in control of the narrative. Debates, say, over who committed what microaggression, or whether some stakeholders have anything to be offended about at all, could be symptomatic of the anti-intellectualism that will always surround—and sometimes breach—American college walls; alternatively, they could indicate how far we have to go to achieve the democratization of discourse.

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