September Cover
Volume 81 | Issue 5
September 2013

Executive Director's Column: Cultural Evolution

Marsha Herman-Betzen

For most of my life, September meant the start of school. Since 2001, we think of this month for a horrific tragedy and its fateful outcomes: the United States invading Iraq looking for “weapons of mass destruction,” the downfall of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and the invasion of Afghanistan. But if you asked Americans to name the most profound change as a result of 9/11, most would say: air travel. MHB

Bottled drinking water is now considered carry-on contraband. Long lines form to walk through full-body scanners. You might get a pat-down in front of hundreds of travelers for wearing an underwire bra. In short, this whole circus gives new meaning to “ghoulishness.”

Which made me do something a little over the top: I applied for Global Entry, a federal program through which frequent travelers are preapproved for expedited screening at airports. All applicants undergo a rigorous background check, including fingerprinting. I even had to fly to Detroit on my own dime for the clearance interview.

It was during this up-and-back day trip that I began to contemplate the colossal changes in the world since 9/11. Author Andy Crouch addressed this topic in his blog post for Q: Ideas for the Common Good about the “The 10 Most Significant Cultural Trends of the Last Decade.” I found a number of his trends worth highlighting because they transcend North American culture and mirror higher education, specifically the college union.

  • Connectivity – The increased number of mobile phones, tablets, and social media adopters has enhanced and extended our relationships. Unless you are a rock star, President Obama, or Tiger Woods, you have met your Facebook friends. The college union has embraced this connectivity not as a replacement for in-person interaction as some had feared, but as a supplement to boost and enrich the relationships made in the union’s high-touch environment.
  • The End of the Majority – Predominantly black neighborhoods became half-Hispanic. White rural communities saw dramatic immigration. Mercados and Asian food markets opened in the suburbs. As this trend continues and more non-white students attend college, it will be even more incumbent on the union to ensure everyone feels at home through the art displayed, the food served, and the programming provided.
  • Polarity – Homogenous subcultures became more prevalent, and the population self-divided rather convincingly between MSNBC and FOX. The college union must continue to be the place for debate, diverse points of view, speakers that represent the gamut of controversial topics, and the protection of free speech.

A few weeks ago, I received a wonderful email from past president J. William Johnston. As it has turned out, years ago Bill successfully predicted how societal changes would affect the union and the Association.

“As I wrote way back in the early ’90s when I chaired the College Union in the Year 2000 committee and in our Jossey-Bass book, what we, as a profession, were facing by way of changing demographics, outcome expectations, technological changes, etc. was not a short-term thing, but rather a completely different way of doing our work … [which] would challenge us to find new ways of looking at higher education and the world,” he wrote. “Hell, we didn’t even have any idea of social media and its consequences to our practice. You have overseen ACUI during an explosion of information technology and changing social values, and have done a wonderful job.The hard thing is to sit back and watch ideological and structural changes take place that alter how we lived it and did it, which you will find once you retire. However, what has evolved is what is valued by and important to our colleagues and the students they serve. ... And that is what we are supposed to do. ACUI remains the gateway to the practice of our profession, and that is both a challenge and a blessing. ... You and the boards have done a great job in a world that seems (at least to this 72-year-old) to change its mind every half hour.”

I found the sentiment he expressed especially apropos to this column, an exclamation mark if you will. And on behalf of the many volunteers and staff who were part of ACUI’s reinvention, Bill’s compliments were appreciated as well. I don’t know whether I can accurately forecast how our world will change in the decade after my retirement in 2015, but I’m confident higher education, college unions, and the Association will still have an important role to play.