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The Hard Questions: Center Will Confront Pressing Issues in Higher Ed

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Woman and man seated at a table.
In the new Center for University Excellence, Cynthia Miller-Idriss is director of research and Scott Bass is executive director.

Last year, American University professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss was engaged in a brainstorming discussion at a meeting. Some participants talked about finding quick, measurable results—a common sentiment among nonprofit officials reliant on donors. But she had other ideas.

“They all wanted to reach for the low-hanging fruit,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Look, I want the high-hanging fruit.’ I’m a tenured professor. I’ve got the time. What are the big questions that need to be addressed?”

Fortuitously, a veteran academic and administrator at AU has been pondering those same seismic questions. Scott A. Bass, AU provost emeritus and now a professor in the School of Public Affairs, took a sabbatical to spend time at Stanford University, work on a book, and read extensively about the trends and challenges in today’s higher-education landscape. President Sylvia Burwell, with support from the Board of Trustees, has also expressed interest in enhancing AU’s voice in growing debates about higher education.

Bass and Miller-Idriss have now teamed up for an ambitious new project called the Center for University Excellence, a hub for national and global dialogue on pressing issues facing colleges and universities. Its stated mission is to “cultivate new knowledge that will improve higher education for the broader public good.”

“When I look at higher ed and institution-building, I look at the long term,” says Bass, who has some 40 years of experience in this field. “This was an opportunity to further dive into these pressing issues and contribute to work around the United States and internationally. And we envision a campus-wide center, cutting across all units and activities at AU.”


Consultations and Infrastructure

Bass is CUE’s executive director, and Miller-Idriss is the director of research. CUE will focus on three major issues: undergraduate student success and well-being; the effects of polarization and extremism in education; and information technology infrastructure on campuses.

On the infrastructure issue, they both share anecdotes about the tradition-bound approach that has long been a tendency at universities.

“I bought my house from my phone, basically. And I’m still wet signing all reimbursement and approval forms for students to take electives,” Miller-Idriss says. “Students email me about taking online classes, but still need a signature they can print.”

Bass is working on a book that grapples with such problems. He notes the culture clash of a generation raised on smartphones trying to navigate large bureaucratic institutions.

“Students are used to a level of customization, of personalization, of timeliness. And that is not the way we have traditionally done things at a university. We’re very deliberative, with committee processes,” he says.

In many ways, he says, this system has served universities well, particularly in setting high standards for faculty and research. But there’s also evidence that it’s impacting student success and well-being, another major CUE issue area. Learning the ins and outs of a university can be stressful, affecting student mental health and overall student retention.

Bass and Miller-Idriss have already consulted with knowledgeable sources, and they’re hoping to learn more from the private sector. Bass recounts a meeting they had with leaders at Marriott International. In addition to suggesting some apps and innovations to implement, the Marriott officials offered a revelatory insight.

“They said, ‘Scott, you don’t have a technology problem. You have a management problem.’ The hard work is dealing with those management sequences, relationships, fragmentation, and culture,” Bass says. “And when we talk about ‘management,’ it’s not people. It has to do with our systems that we inherited a very, very long time ago.”


How Colleges Confront Extremism

CUE is a research-based organization that will produce original scholarship. It will also hold events, work with other AU faculty, and possibly bring in post-doc students. Miller-Idriss will direct all research, but CUE will also utilize her considerable expertise in far-right extremism, white nationalism, and higher education. They’ve established a new Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), which will design and empirically-test interventions to prevent youth radicalization.

Miller-Idriss—who is fluent in German and has researched far-right youth culture in Germany—started studying these issues about 20 years ago. In the past couple years, the issue has taken on new relevance in the United States, Europe, and beyond. If studying fringe movements was once a fringe academic specialty, it’s unfortunately gone mainstream, and she’s more in demand. Miller-Idriss has done extensive outreach with the media and testified before Congress on the issue, but she’s adamant that universities must also confront this disturbing phenomenon.

“A few people said, ‘Why not have a separate center on extremism?’ But I actually think it’s really important to have this work be housed at the Center for University Excellence, as a signal about the critical role that higher education plays on this issue,” she says. “We should be thinking about higher ed’s obligation to respond to rising far-right extremism.”


Making the Case for Higher Ed

Bass explains how the Center for University Excellence can play to AU’s strengths as a hub for collaboration.

“What centers and institutes are designed to do—and why they’re part of the strategic plan—is to start bringing groups of people together,” says Bass. “That’s where we have to begin. ‘What are the bigger questions we should be addressing?’ And ‘how can this center bring people together at a larger scale?’”

In recent years, higher ed institutions have come under attack from media commentators, and extremist far-right groups have ridiculed even the concepts of knowledge and expertise. Bass and Miller-Idriss say they hope to not only address university challenges, but to defend and amplify the importance of higher education at the macro level.

“I would hope that the immediate legacy of this center is to make very clear to the public, policymakers, and the media, what kind of value higher education expertise can bring,” Miller-Idriss says.

“A college education is an investment, but a lot of the dialogue talks about it as an expenditure,” Bass adds. “It furthers benefits to the individual and benefits to society, because an educated citizenry is crucial to a democracy.”