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Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Conference

November 15, 2023 November 18, 2023

2023 Theme | Higher Ed Research: Purposes, Politics, & Practices

Written by: 2023 ASHE President Dr. Ana Martínez-Alemán

As we approach our 50th year as an association whose members study higher education, and as we move to enact our association’s strategic goals, it’s fitting to take time to examine the many political forces and authorities that bear upon contemporary higher education. Challenges to higher education by social, political, and economic forces have always been a staple feature of the history of higher education, and as researchers, we have made empirical how those politics have impacted the purposes and practices of higher education. 

Our membership has contributed research that made the case for the value of racial and ethnic diversity in our colleges and universities, as well as the ethics of deferred action for immigrant children. Our membership has provided evidence of the positive effects of federal and state funding for higher education, funding that has enabled economic growth in states, the expansion of entrepreneurship and technological breakthroughs, and national priorities. Research by our members has brought attention to the necessity for federal scrutiny of campus sexual violence, predatory for-profit institutions, and undergraduate student success. As higher education researchers, we have isolated and illuminated the impact of state legislative politics on academic freedom, neoliberalism’s pervasive sculpting of intercollegiate athletics, and how immigration and foreign policies impact international student and scholar mobility. 

I am reminded of a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “a song in the front yard,” in which she writes of her longing for life outside the safety of her front yard, even though that comes with implications, with danger, and with uncertainty. Brooks writes,

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.  
A girl gets sick of a rose.

Brooks’ poem is a reminder to me that part of being a social scientist is acknowledging and allowing the want to see something besides my well-tended roses ‘out front,’ the well-established, confining fences of my present and my past that keep me from the possibilities of a future unmapped.

The contemporary global and domestic politics that inform the purposes of higher education and their implications need our urgent attention as researchers. What needs our attention now?

The examples are countless but to illustrate the point, we can point to: State and federal elected officials have targeted public universities’ teaching of racial justice, Critical Race Theory, and diversity programs through legislative channels and by xenophobic rhetoric.  State lawmakers have targeted tenure to purge institutions of ‘woke’ faculty, and nationwide faculty have been dismissed for exercising academic freedom as well as their First Amendment rights to free speech. Equitable student access to higher education has been challenged on many fronts.  Globally, spending on private tertiary education has experienced considerable growth, and in the U.S., the politics that have fueled the stalemate on student loan debt-relief and the decline of state direct appropriations to students over four decades suggest that privilege and entitlement have trumped higher education’s purpose to serve as a public good.

At our 2023 annual conference, let’s consider, debate, and examine the many different ways in which political forces have and will engineer higher education’s purposes and practices. How can our empirical scrutiny address political forces that impact how we educate and serve students; or how we protect academic freedom or the livelihood of staff; or how we can inform legislation on access, affordability, and research integrity? And unquestionably, much, much more.

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