Pecking Orders, Guns, Tracking and More from the NEJHE Beat

By John O. Harney

Pecking orders. Harvard and Cornell recently tied for the U.S. higher ed institutions that educate the most CEOs who run U.S. companies listed by Forbes in the top 100. We would often pore over such lists of where top CEOs went to college and meticulously note how many graduated from New England colleges. The predictable story was how many went to Harvard, Yale and MIT and how few went to New England’s public higher institutions. It was a picture of the pecking order. Hard to imagine such pedigree has standing in an age marked by higher ed disruption and the proliferation of new pathways and providers.

Still, such “listicles” do tell stories. The innovation-oriented local news platform BostInno listed the wealthiest tech executives in Massachusetts and found the richest woman—Mary Nadella, CEO of Continental Resources—to rank No. 72 among the 283 with a net worth of $10 million or more, including only 20 women total. Coincidentally, Massachusetts legislators this week were expected to vote on “An Act to Establish Equal Pay” to close a gap in which women in Massachusetts who work full-time, year-round earn on average only 82 cents on the dollar men earn.

Non-degree credentials. Perhaps no development threatens the old pecking order more than the rise of non-degree “credentials.” Millennial survey respondents prefer certifications to bachelor’s degrees, according to a study sponsored by (perhaps not surprisingly given funding biases) the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Penn State University and Acclaim, Pearson.

Credentials with justice? Bootcamps and coding will be among the concepts covered as NEBHE explores credentials at its upcoming summit on Talent 4.0: How Employable Are New England’s College Graduates and What Can Higher Education Do About It? And there’s still room for smart moves by revered HEIs. Exhibit A: MIT recently announced a weeklong intensive bootcamp on cryptocurrency concepts for women and under-represented people of color in August 2016.

Guns. It has puzzled me for a long time how the issue of gun violence could not be considered a top priority in higher education policy. The shooting massacres at Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College were national stories. The more recent attack on Dallas police brought gunfire to El Centro College. And the murders that precipitated it all exacerbate an overlooked but profound threat to higher education: the loss of future applicants. Meanwhile, several colleges have been beefing up the arsenals of their campus police departments. Three-quarters of America’s campus police forces were armed with some type of gun in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

As we wrote a dozen years ago in a piece about college presidents in NEJHE’s predecessor Connection, higher education remains sufficiently at the center of public life for college presidents to exercise their moral authority on a range of issues. “War comes to mind, for its gravity,” I suggested then, “but also for its potential to wreak havoc with applicant pools, particularly among the under-represented groups that colleges profess to want to reach. Same goes for issues related to AIDS, guns in the community and impoverished public schools.”

Along these lines, as organizations like NEBHE explore “talent pipelines” for crucial occupations, let’s not leave out police. They need more than sensitivity training to tame police brutality and avert the next racial crisis. The culture needs to change from punishment and power to something informed by understanding and … dare, I say … humanities?

Think tanks. The Connecticut Mirror, the excellent nonpartisan news outlet launched by the Connecticut News Project Inc., recently lamented that while the Land of Steady Habits has entities that do policy research, it does not have a central, general-purpose research center or “think tank.” NEJHE (Connection) made a similar lament but on a regional level. Our assertion at the time was that “New England’s public policy ‘think tanks’ will rise in stature as government responsibilities devolve from Washington, D.C., to state capitals.” Today, we list dozens of New England public policy research centers among resources at But it’s not always clear which fit the definition as a “central, general-purpose” think tank.

Early tracking. The Beverly (MA) Heritage Project ran a Facebook post on the “Home to the nation’s first school for ‘gypsy’ children” along with a photo and Associated Press caption, reading: “Members of a class of 12 gypsy children who are to attend in Beverly, Massachusetts, Jan. 26, 1937, what is believed to be the nation’s first school exclusively for gypsy children. The school board decided on the special class after hearing teachers’ reports that the children were so much below normal in education that they retarded other pupils in the regular classes.” An early interesting early example of the “tracking” and segregation that still dogs schools.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.

Painting of “A Glimpse of the Positive Divide” by Montserrat College professor Timothy Harney.


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