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Gina Stafford

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I recently spent half a week in Washington, D.C.

For this student of history, consumer of headlines, and higher ed mouthpiece, it was like summer camp for grownups.

IMG_8889I was in town to attend the annual conference for senior communication professionals of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. I’ve been to Washington a few times, but this was my first AASCU conference, and I really enjoyed getting to know some of my colleagues from public universities across the country.

People who don’t work in higher ed may be unaware of the social, political and funding concerns universities face. Those of us who communicate and manage crises for universities are all too aware of the seemingly endless concerns. That’s the best part of gathering to share ideas with peers and experts. Who doesn’t love talking shop with people they’ve just met, yet who are so familiar with their unique challenges that conversation can go straight to shorthand, right from the beginning?

We shared stories of campus free speech concerns, sexual assault controversies, slashed budgets and university mergers–and that was just Tuesday. The next day began with a look at what current and future generations of college students think about the cost and necessity of higher ed. The insight came from one of the most highly regarded public opinion experts in the country, John Zogby of Zogby Research. If you recognize the name, it’s probably from hearing national network news anchors cite his company’s polling data.

Among his fascinating insights: Many of the country’s most-familiar establishments, institutions and agencies that have provided security, comfort and familiarity are undergoing a process of devaluation. Institutions once counted on to nurture our opportunities may be falling short and devalued to the point they’re no longer seen as requirements but impediments to growth.

He had a great example to illustrate perception gaps:

“To my generation, Mickey Mantle was the greatest. To my kids, he was a drunk.”

I can relate. As long as we’re talking baseball, my husband and I have an equally wide gap in our perceptions of Pete Rose. My husband is a fan, by the way, and I’ll leave it at that.

What’s important–if not alarming–is whether those of us in higher ed, along with churches, governmental and non-governmental institutions can maintain relevance as the social sands shift beneath our feet. As Zogby said, millennials have grown up in a world they can hold in their hands, accessible 24/7 via smart phones and connectivity. The challenge for higher ed and other longstanding, bureaucratic institutions is “running to catch up with empowered individuals.”

Later that day, we heard from Scott Jaschik, a founder and the editor of Inside Higher Ed, and Jennifer Ruark, an editor with The Chronicle of Higher Education, on how to succeed at submitting an opinion piece to their publications. News flash–your piece must express an opinion, not merely extol your university’s virtues. They represent the two most-prestigious national publications devoted strictly to higher ed. And for useful editorials, both suggested a few of the kinds of topics about which anyone in higher ed administration would have an opinion but could–very likely–be reluctant to express in public. Examples: Do gen ed and liberal arts survive at regional universities? Or, how college deepens inequality.

See? Life’s not easy up in The Ivory Tower. Probably because the Tower is under threat on multiple fronts. As Zogby also said, “Today’s elite is tomorrow’s irrelevant.”

I enjoyed meeting Jaschik on a visit to Inside Higher Ed during a 2007 conference, so between a visit there or to The Chronicle that AASCU set up for us as our last activity before leaving town, I opted to stop by The Chronicle.

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Liz McMillen, center, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It was great finally meeting Eric Kelderman, a reporter I’ve worked with a few times, along with reporter Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, and editor Liz McMillen, who made time out of what I’m sure is none. They invited the 10 of us from universities across the country to share “what keeps you up at night.” No one had to think too long to come up with a list.

It also was great walking through an actual, staffed newsroom, and seeing evidence of a process of designing, approving and printing actual pages on paper.

But it wasn’t all work and no play to make Gina a dull girl.

I made the most of a few fleeting moments the afternoon I got to town and in the evenings after our conference adjourned for the day. AASCU hosted the conference in its offices, about three blocks from my hotel, and both are in the heart of Washington. I walk a few miles every day, anyway, and it was great to have all of walkable, “monumental” Washington at my doorstep for three days.

img_88591.jpgAnyone who’s ever spent time there knows it’s impossible not to know you’re in the seat of our national government. Every kind of interest group–including AASCU–has a full-time presence.

Picketers, demonstrators and advocators are everywhere. Which I find kind of invigorating.

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In the space of three blocks, I passed AFL-CIO headquarters, the offices of the National Postal Workers Union, encountered a couple of panhandlers, was invited to join Amnesty International, and asked if I could contribute money to help Syrian refugees.

I took long walks from my hotel and back to see the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the relatively new World War II Memorial and the old, abiding national treasures that are the Smithsonian museums.

The Washington Post was on my block and the White House was only a half-mile away.

On past visits, I’ve been to the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

This time, I wanted to see the Hope Diamond. It’s in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

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I also took the first chance I had to see the recently completed portrait of former President Barack Obama–and all of his predecessors, in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

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Quite by accident, I ended up in an extremely posh neighborhood on my way home one evening.

Full of “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” retail such as Dior, Gucci and Prada–even a Tesla dealership in the heart of the city. I snapped my photos and hoped there wouldn’t somehow be a charge for that.

For my money, Washington’s best treasures are the national kind–the ones behind glass, or a velvet rope, for which the only cost to experience them is your time. I made the most of mine this trip, including time with AASCU member colleagues I look forward to keeping in touch with. It was fun doing both in a city that has so many interesting things to see, there are always more and new ones for next time.

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