The Chronicle of Higher Education Marks 50 Years of Covering Campus Trends

By Mark Walsh — December 13, 2016 3 min read
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I’m a bit late to the party (if there was one), but the Chronicle of Higher Education celebrated its 50th anniversary in November.

“Higher education was a major issue in Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the governorship of California, and his decisive victory is certain to have repercussions on campuses throughout the state,” the Chronicle wrote in the lead story of its first issue, dated Nov. 23, 1966. Indeed.

Other stories on Page One of that first edition were about higher education issues in Congress, an interview with the new president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a story about a report calling for a “national institutional grants program"—a dry policy piece that would become one hallmark of the generally super-serious Chronicle.

The Washington-based journal last month published a 124-page special section, as well as some web extras, that are short on self-reflection but filled with lots of timelines, poignant photos, and a “greatest hits” selection of its articles from the last half-century. (A PDF of the full print special section is available to anyone willing to give the Chronicle his or her name and an email address.)

In 1966, the new national newspaper about colleges and universities was “unprecedented because no newspaper had ever attempted to report exclusively on higher education,” Editor Liz McMillen writes in the special section. And the idea behind The Chronicle was “audacious because the thousands of disparate institutions that made up the sector didn’t have a national culture in common until The Chronicle helped to create it—through its regular presence, journalistic integrity, and uncompromising independence,” she adds.

The Chronicle was founded by Corbin Gwaltney and John A. Crowl under the umbrella of the non-profit Editorial Projects in Education. Ronald A. Wolk, a former editor of the alumni magazine at Johns Hopkins University, was among others who helped found the higher education journal. In 1978, the Chronicle was sold to its editors, while Editorial Projects continued as a separate organization. In 1981, Wolk and EPE would found Education Week.

One of the most fun features of the Chronicle’s anniversary package is the online “50 Years of Page Ones,” featuring one cover per year since 1966.

The covers chosen by the editors for the late 1960s and early 1970s reflect the turbulence of that era: “War, Political Frustration, Race Issues Presage Deeper Student Unrest,” a headline from September 1968 says.

Meanwhile, a 1971 cover reflects issues that could be found in the Chronicle’s pages today: attacks on faculty tenure, distance learning, and a story headlined “Federal Probes into Sex Discrimination Provoke Controversy on Campuses.”

Some college issues defy timelines: The Chronicle had a Page One special report in 1982 on “Higher Education’s Drinking Problem.” In 2014, the paper ran a special report on “Alcohol’s Hold on Campus.” Other stories reflect the paper’s deep coverage of faculty issues as well as its ability to find the higher education angle in most big general news stories.

The special report reprints many lengthy stories and essays from the past 50 years, along with, as I noted above, timelines and photos. (Remember the “streaking” craze of the 1970s? The campus trend is duly documented.)

There is one little anecdote from the Chronicle that has always stuck in my mind, partly because it spoke to campus mindsets. In the 1990s, the newspaper had a column of short items that were a mix of “news of the weird” and ironic little tales. (Perhaps it still has this.)

One such item described a university that had recently ramped up its recycling efforts, which included the placing of containers around the campus to collect scrap paper. The containers were marked “White Paper” and “Colored Paper,” in keeping with efforts to avoid mixing the two categories during reprocessing. On at least one of the pieces of paper for the latter category, someone had crossed out “Colored Paper” and wrote, “Paper of Color.” (This was also the time when the phrase “person of color” was gaining wide use.)

As the Chronicle item noted, this small act of graffiti prompted an angst-ridden memorandum from a university administrator. Was this just a joke, the administrator asked, or was the original “Colored Paper” tab a matter of serious offense? Did all the titles need to be changed? I don’t recall whether the item reflected whether the administrator got an answer, but this was the world the Chronicle covered.

In big and small ways over the last 50 years, the Chronicle of Higher Education has been capturing the stories, the ironies, and the essence of colleges and universities. Happy anniversary.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.