News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 32,  Number 1   //    January/February 2024

Dealing with Disgruntled Donors

In the wake of the Israel–Hamas war, some major donors have threatened to withdraw financial support from colleges and universities such as Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania. They have also criticized institutional leaders for “failing to condemn Hamas soon or forcefully enough” and called for their resignations for “allowing antisemitism to go unchecked on campus, particularly in relation to student protests and support for Palestinians,” according to Inside Higher Ed.1 And, in fact, backlash over congressional testimony by three university presidents, including Elizabeth Magill at the University of Pennsylvania, about the rise of antisemitic behavior on college campuses did lead to Magill’s departure.

“At the heart of those tensions lie a few questions,” the publication wrote. “How much influence do donors exert over the institutions they support? And what, if anything, do those institutions owe them?”2

A major Wharton alumni donor “led the call for other donors to pull their money over Magill’s lack of response to the latest Israel-Hamas war,” Higher Ed Dive reported.3 In addition, according to the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), that same donor then sent Penn’s trustees a letter appearing to request changes to instruction, faculty requirements, and campus speech. In response, Higher Ed Dive said, Penn’s faculty senate issued its own letter, which garnered more than 1,000 signatures, to the board arguing that “the current efforts of some members of the broader Penn community to reverse our longstanding governance structure threatens the freedom of the faculty to conduct independent and academically rigorous research and teaching.”4

Donors have become more influential than ever as colleges have become increasingly dependent on philanthropy. CNN cited a study by researchers at Indiana University that found that educational institutions are the largest recipients of donations after religious institutions in the United States.5 As a result, “A highly polarizing event like this one can leave them particularly vulnerable to efforts by wealthy individuals to shape campus speech,” Isaac Kamola, a Trinity College professor who researches donor influence in higher education, told Inside Higher Ed.6

How much of an effect will this “donor revolt,” as an article in Business Insider termed it, now have?7 In its piece, CNN quoted Lee Gardner, a writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, who said, “The impact is less likely to be immediate as potentially longer term on gifts or donations that may not have been in the works or would come to fruition for years.”8

The actions by large donors could also encourage smaller donors to no longer contribute, damage relations with alumni, and negatively impact college admissions, Sara Harberson, the founder of Application Nation, a private college counseling group, and former administrator at the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN. In addition, “smaller private and state flagship institutions could experience financial repercussions if donor backlash spreads,” the media outlet said.9

When asked by Inside Higher Ed if big donors should threaten to cut ties if institutions don’t act in ways they’d like, however, donor-relations experts said such expectations were “neither realistic nor appropriate.”10

“Most donors have no academic expertise,” Kamola observed. “As such, they should be free to fund general areas they have a personal interest in—medieval history or fighting cancer, for example—but should come nowhere near decisions about what gets taught or researched, what faculty are hired, and what programming takes place, much less the statements universities make or how they discipline their students.”11

As Higher Ed Dive reported, the AAUP was blunter, stating that any attempts along such lines “would constitute the most flagrant violations imaginable of the core principles of academic freedom and faculty governance. Those principles are not negotiable.”12


1. Josh Moody, “What Do Universities Owe Their Donors?” Inside Higher Ed, November 2, 2023,

2. Ibid.

3. Laura Spitalniak, “Penn Faculty Say Outside Groups Are Threatening Its Academic Freedom,” Higher Ed Dive, December 18, 2023,

4. Ibid.

5. Nathaniel Meyersohn, “Harvard and UPenn Donors Are Furious. It May Have a Financial Domino Effect,” CNN Business, October 19, 2023,

6. Moody, “What Do Universities Owe Their Donors?”

7. Sonam Sheth, “The Major Donor Revolt at the University of Pennsylvania Over Its Response to the Israel-Hamas War is Getting Worse,” Business Insider, October 18, 2023, See also Lila Corwin Berman and Benjamin Soskis, “The Dangers of Donor Revolt,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13, 2023,

8. Meyersohn, “Harvard and UPenn Donors Are Furious.”

9. Meyersohn, “Harvard and UPenn Donors Are Furious.”

10. Moody, “What Do Universities Owe Their Donors?”

11. Moody, “What Do Universities Owe Their Donors?”

12. Spitalniak, “Penn Faculty Say Outside Groups.”

A New Framework for Graduate Education

While much has been written about student debt, people are often unaware that graduate students, who make up just 17 percent of all students, hold more than half of that debt. According to Inside Higher Ed, as many as 60 percent of master’s degree holders and 48 percent of those with doctorates have student loan debt, which averages more than $60,000 and $100,000, respectively.1 And as an article published by CNBC has said, referencing a report by the U.S. Department of Education,2 “Alarmingly, as graduate school borrowing increases, wages for those with an advanced degree haven’t risen nearly as much”—which has made it even harder for graduate and professional school students to repay their loans.3

In an effort to tackle the issue, the Department of Education has developed a new Financial Value Transparency Framework that requires higher education institutions to report more data about their graduate-level programs, including total costs, enrollment, and students’ private and institutional borrowing. As Inside Higher Ed reported, the department will use that information to set benchmarks that allow people considering grad school to determine if they “can afford their debt payments and whether the investment would be worth their time and money.”4

Those benchmarks will allow potential students to identify programs that are “high debt burden” (if students’ annual loan payments are more than 20 percent of their discretionary income or eight percent of their annual income three years after completion) or “low earning” (if graduates make on average less than other people in their state who didn’t attend college). What’s more, before students can enroll, they must sign a form that says they’ve reviewed the data.

While the new framework won’t take effect until July 2024, L. Maren Wood, director and CEO of the Center for Graduate Career Success, predicted in an Inside Higher Ed opinion piece that it will have four major ramifications for graduate education:5

  • Being able to compare programs will “spell trouble” for those in which graduates don’t see a return on their investment.
  • Institutions that “encourage students to pursue postdocs will have dramatically lower financial outcomes than programs that provide career support so that students graduate and move directly to industry.”
  • Certificates and master’s degree programs will be less appealing. While still viewing bachelor’s degrees positively, “it is unclear how much employers will value graduate degrees in this new hypercompetitive environment.”
  • Graduate programs that thrive will be those that “invest heavily in career support for alumni.”


1. Katherine Knott, “Biden Administration Puts Grad Schools in the Hot Seat,” Inside Higher Ed, October 3, 2023, Biden administration puts grad schools on the hot seat (

2. Tomás Monarrez and Jordan Matsudaira, “Trends in Federal Student Loans for Graduate School,” U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Chief Economist, August 2023,

3. Annie Nova, “Biden Administration Report Warns Grad School Borrowing is ‘Cause for Concern,’” CNBC, August 15, 2023,

4. Knott, “Biden Administration Puts Grad Schools in the Hot Seat.”

5. L. Maren Wood, “New Regulations Will Impact Graduate Enrollment,” Inside Higher Ed, November 2, 2023,

Improving Student Mental Health and Wellness

Mental health and wellness continue to be major concerns and top priorities for higher education leaders. Various studies have found that growing numbers of young adults aged 18 to 25 regularly have anxiety and depression. In a Gallup survey last spring, 66 percent of students said they felt stressed, and 51 percent said they were worried.1 Moreover, 39 percent said they’d experienced loneliness, and the U.S. Surgeon General has been touring campuses around the country highlighting the growing problem.

In response, the American Council on Education (ACE) released a brief that offered recommendations for campus leaders, including:

  • Take a trauma-informed approach that recognizes the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Work with K-12 schools and counselors to identify the needs of future students.
  • Educate faculty and others on campus about referring students to mental health resources.
  • Make mental health resources “a seamless and integral part of the college experience.”
  • Assess the effectiveness of programs through data and research.2

The ACE report also encouraged higher education institutions to address the turnover of counseling-center professionals while recognizing that student mental health “is a campus-wide issue and higher education cannot hire its way out of it—there are not enough counselors and not enough funds.” Taking a long view, it recommended that institutional leaders help create “pathways and programs to encourage college students to contemplate counseling careers.”3

To combat loneliness in particular, experts interviewed for an article in Inside Higher Ed generally concluded that universities should expand “the range of activities or events that can help students connect.” One of the key causes cited for the growing sense of isolation was that students spend more time on their cellphones than with each other in person and often stay in touch with old friends from home rather than form new connections in college.4

But in an interview in the Washington Post, Sian Leah Beilock, president of Dartmouth College, argued, “Beating the mental health crisis will require meeting kids where they are: on their devices.” Beilock is also a cognitive scientist who has hired the university’s first chief health and wellness officer to create a new mental health strategic plan at the institution.

Students’ electronic devices “capture a tremendous amount of behavioral data,” she explained, and therefore, “instead of attempting to pry the smartphones out of our kids’ hands, we can instead deploy them to help uncover what exactly is making them so sad.” She continued, “we simply don’t have enough mental health professionals.” Beilock called on college leaders to use the power of technology to “understand, diagnose, and treat mental health issues.… Let’s make the choice to leverage these tools rather than condemn them.”5


1. Zach Hrynowski and Stephanie Marken, “College Students Experience High Levels of Worry and Stress,” Gallup, August 10, 2023,

2. Hollie M. Chessman, Armando Montero, and Tabatha Cruz, “Six Considerations for Student Mental Health in Higher Education for the 2023–24 Academic Year,” American Council on Education, October 25, 2023, Six-Considerations-Student-Mental-Health.pdf (

3. Chessman, Montero, and Cruz, “Six Considerations for Student Mental Health.”

4. Johanna Alonso, “The New Plague on Campus: Loneliness,” Inside Higher Ed, November 8, 2023,

5. Valerie Strauss and Sian Beilock, “Technology Fueled America’s Youth Mental Health Crisis, But It Can Help End It,” Washington Post, September 21, 2023,

Reclassifying Higher Ed

The American Council on Education (ACE) recently announced that it was taking the first step in revamping a classification system that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching developed 50 years ago to help researchers, policymakers, and others make sense of the nation’s cornucopia of colleges and universities—with widely varying missions, student populations, and financial resources. The federal government, foundations, accreditors, rankings organizations such as U.S. News & World Report, and other groups rely on the classifications, which ACE now works with Carnegie to administer.

The Carnegie Classifications have traditionally grouped higher education institutions according to the highest degree they award—such as doctoral, masters, or baccalaureate. Now that basic categorization of institutions is being changed in ways “that will simplify it in some ways and make it more nuanced and complex in others,” Ted Mitchell, president of ACE, said in Inside Higher Ed.1

Notably, the criteria for earning the highest research designation, or R1, will be collapsed from 10 elements to just two: whether an institution spends at least $50 million and awards 70 research doctorates or more. Institutions will also no longer have to award doctoral degrees in a wide range of disciplines, allowing those with narrower research focuses to be classified as R1 without having to add doctoral programs in areas that don’t support their core missions. In addition, a new category will designate institutions that spend $2.5 million or more on research, thus including liberal arts colleges that focus primarily on teaching but also conduct meaningful research.

Such a revision of the R1 classification “stands to disrupt what has long served as de facto college rankings,” as colleges often strive to reach it “because of the associated prestige,” Higher Ed Dive wrote. “Some institutions have even faced accusations of compromising their missions, and in turn the quality of undergraduate education, in pursuit of R1.”2

“It is a fairly big deal,” Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “because the R1 designation has so much power in the higher education industry.”3

The new categorizations won’t take effect until 2025, and the group of institutions that will be deemed R1 hasn’t been finalized yet. Today 146 universities are R1, and based on its current research, the Chronicle has projected 168 will make the list under the new classification system—perhaps including a historically Black college or university for the first time.

ACE and Carnegie will also present this spring what Inside Higher Ed said “could eventually be the most significant element of the new system: a plan to create a new classification that categorizes colleges and universities based on the degree of social and economic mobility they produce for their graduates.”4 When such a social mobility metric is added to the new R1 categorization, said Mushtaq Gunja, ACE senior vice president and executive director of the Carnegie Classifications systems, it will “provide a 360-degree view of an institution.”5


1. Doug Lederman, “A New Approach to Categorizing Colleges,” Inside Higher Ed, November 1, 2023,

2. Jeremy Bauer-Wolf, “ACE Debuts Revised Metrics for Achieving R1 Status,” Higher Ed Dive, November 1, 2023,

3. Francie Diep, “Carnegie Is Changing How It Classifies R1 Institutions. Will Your University Make the Cut?”, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 1, 2023,

4. Lederman, “A New Approach.”

5. Bauer-Wolf, “ACE Debuts Revised Metrics.”

Riding Herd on AI?

One of the hottest topics these days in the news media is artificial intelligence (AI), which in the words of the New York Times, “offers great promise—diagnosing diseases, predicting floods and other effects of climate change, improving safety in the air and sea—but also carries significant dangers.”1

Generative AI systems, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, have had profound impacts and created significant concerns in numerous sectors lately, not least in higher education. As frequently reported in news outlets, AI is widely transforming how colleges are designing and teaching educational content, performing research, and otherwise operating.

To help mitigate the dangers of AI and help meet its promise, President Biden recently signed an executive order focused on how to govern AI moving forward.2 An article in Scientific American enumerated some of the risks of AI that Biden’s executive order attempts to target, such as disinformation and threats to privacy and national security.3 While calling for protections, the order is also an effort to spur innovation in AI and increase U.S. competitiveness. For example, it directs government agencies to “ease barriers to high-skilled immigration amid a global battle for AI talent,” in the words of the Washington Post.4

In its coverage, the Post said that President Biden’s action “will have broad implications for almost every agency within the federal government, along with a host of Silicon Valley companies.”5 Among other things, the order calls on departments and agencies to “continuously monitor and evaluate deployed AI,” and “grapple with how the technology could disrupt sectors including education, health services, and defense.” It also tasks the U.S. Department of Commerce to develop guidance for content identification and watermarking to clearly label AI-generated content. And it mandates that AI developers share reports with the U.S. government before publicly releasing new or updated models, such as the next iteration of Open AI’s GPT.

While most experts praised the executive order as an important step, they stressed that legislative action is greatly needed as well. As California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, commented, Congress will have to “adequately fund our federal science agencies to be able to do the important research and standards development described in this executive order.”6

A big challenge in carrying out the executive order will be securing needed talent. Daniel Ho, a professor of law and political science at Stanford University who researches AI, said in Scientific American: “[I]f you don’t have the human capital and, particularly, forms of technical expertise, it may be difficult to get these kinds of requirements implemented consistently and expeditiously.” According to a 2023 Stanford report cited by Ho in the article, fewer than one percent of the people graduating with PhDs in AI enter government positions. Also, going forward, as Sarah Kreps, a professor at the Tech Policy Institute at Cornell University, told the New York Times, it will be difficult for government agencies to match the salaries that AI experts could make in the private sector.7


1. Cecilia Kang and David E. Sanger, “Biden Issues Executive Order to Create AI Safeguards,” New York Times, October 30, 2023,

2. The White House, “Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence,” October 30, 2023,

3. Lauren Leffer, “Biden’s Executive Order on AI is a Good Start, Experts Say, But Not Enough,” Scientific American, October 21, 2023,

4. Cristiano Lima and Cat Zakrewski, “Biden Signs AI Executive Order, the Most Expansive Regulatory Attempt Yet,” Washington Post, October 20, 2023,

5. Lima and Zakrewski, “Biden Signs AI Executive Order.”

6. Lima and Zakrewski. “Biden Signs AI Executive Order.”

7. Kang and Sanger, “Biden Issues Executive Order.”

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