CIC Presidents, New York Times Reporters Discuss Key Higher Ed Issues

​​Twenty-two CIC member presidents and New York Times journalists discussed current higher education topics such as access, cost, graduation rates, and free speech during the 14th annual CIC/New York Times Partnership Presidents Council meeting on October 10, 2017. Held at the Times office in New York City, this is the only such meeting between college and university presidents and Times journalists hosted by the paper.

New York Times reporter speaks to group of seated college presidents in front of a projector screen displaying a graph
CIC presidents engage with New York Times education reporter Stephanie Saul. 

During the luncheon meeting, Times Education Life editor Jane Karr and education reporter Stephanie Saul considered with CIC presidents the public’s perception of higher education, the strengths of small to mid-sized private colleges, graduation rates of underserved students, college costs, and free speech. Karr, a 20-year veteran higher education journalist who headed the Education Life section until it was discontinued this November, shared a historical analysis of issues the special section covered throughout her tenure. Many of those issues remain current, she noted. Saul, a first-generation graduate of the University of Mississippi, discussed the third annual Times College Access Index and its methodology. The index is purported to evaluate economic diversity in higher education by ranking colleges with a five-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent based on their commitment to economic diversity.

CIC presidents emphasized the strong graduation rates of CIC member institutions, particularly for first-generation and underserved student groups, and shared numerous stories of their success.

A few presidents highlighted the role of colleges in preparing students for civic participation. John I. Williams, president of Muhlenberg College (PA), commented, “It is core to the mission of Muhlenberg and other colleges to prepare citizens to be engaged as leaders in all dimensions of society…. We can focus on the nominal costs, but that’s not what students actually pay. The real phenomenal story is the return on investment to the economy and the long-term value and lifetime return on the investment in a college degree.”

In discussing issues of free speech on campus, Marjorie Hass, president of Rhodes College (TN), called attention to media coverage of controversial speakers and campus protests. “Are we seeing this primarily as a college and higher education problem? It strikes me as a national problem.” She said she understood that in the 1960s college students drove protest movements, but “today, those things are not caused by college students; they are rooted outside of the campuses. We are tasked with restoring a civic function that has been lost elsewhere.” Karr responded that “today’s protests and conflicts are mobilizing around the campuses, using the campuses as a jump-off point.” Saul added, “Colleges just happen to be a place that invite speakers, and these groups intentionally disrupt what is going on. If you look at where the money comes from, you can see that is not totally about free speech. It is not ground up, it is top down, agitating around these issues.”

After participants discussed the role of social media in protests and the spread of misinformation, Ekman said, “We are all concerned about ‘fake news,’ and the Washington Post and New York Times have been instrumental in culling out fake news and providing well-documented real news. But we know that most students on our campuses don’t get their news from these sources. What can we do to get past this?”

Karr responded that resources on the New York Times Learning Network, which offers lesson plans to educators and features for students ages 13 or older, may help, and that the network may expand to offer more resources for use in the college classroom in the future. She also pointed to the New York Times in Education website, which is designed to help college and university faculty teach current event topics.

Several presidents noted challenges related to the shifting demographics of students who have fewer resources to devote to college and often take time off to save money for the next term. David Kennett, interim president of Mount Saint Mary College (NY), likened the dilemma to families in China who build a house one story at a time, having to save to build the next story. “For our students, by and large the barrier is economic. Thirty percent of our students are commuters—they are literally piecing together finances from term to term.”

Bradley W. Bateman, president of Randolph College (VA), said, “By and large, the colleges represented [by CIC at the meeting] are not in the discourse the Times has about higher education. You have readers who want to send their kids to certain schools. We are not necessarily those schools. But we are filling a different niche in American higher education. If the threshold were 30 percent Pell-eligible students to qualify, the College Access Index would be different.”

Lewis Thayne, president of Lebanon Valley College (PA), said the Times College Access Index “brings into focus some questions that have not been talked about. This is a real contribution. The Index is a static tool in a dynamic process. The dynamic is regional, particularly for those who are Pell-eligible. If the tool can be used more dynamically, then it will be more useful.”

Saul noted that many small “non-controversial” institutions might not be on their radar screen. She asked participants to let her know of ways to improve the Index. She can be reached at

At the close of the meeting, John Knapp, president of Washington and Jefferson University (PA), was elected the 2018 chair of the CIC/New York Times Partnership Presidents Council. The next meeting of the Presidents Council will be October 16, 2018.

For more information about the CIC/New York Times Partnership, contact Kandace Rusnak, Times national education director, by phone (440-610-5285) or email (