“Colleges Share the Blame for Assault on Democracy”

“Colleges Share the Blame for Assault on Democracy”

The following op-ed by President Patricia McGuire was published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Colleges Share the Blame for Assault on Democracy.

For four years, Trump unleashed a tsunami of lies. Higher education responded with silence.

by Patricia McGuire, January 8, 2021, Published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Indelible images of the insurrectionist mob invading the U.S. Capitol define the closing act of the Trump show, which has not been known for respecting American traditions and values. Indeed, disruption was a stated goal of the Trump administration from Day 1, a goal that quickly devolved into destruction. The insurrection failed, but the forensic investigation into the causes of the riot is just beginning.

College presidents, quick to issue lofty statements decrying the assault on our beloved democracy, must participate in the investigation, taking up a particularly painful question: How did so many of our graduates go so wrong? Higher education must own some responsibility for the moral failures that established the conditions that led to the January 6 insurrection.

We presidents love to boast about our graduates in high places. When it comes to securing plum appointments at the White House, cabinet agencies, or top congressional offices, it helps to have Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Duke, Penn, Georgetown, or other top universities on your résumé. As with prior administrations, there’s no shortage of academically elite pedigrees in the Trump administration, or in the halls of Congress.

Higher education should be the great counterweight to government, the reliable steward of truth and knowledge against the corrupting tendency of politics to manipulate facts and tell outright lies as a means to gain and secure public support. Truth was one of the earliest victims of the Trump administration, with the president racking up more than 20,000 documentable lies across four years, according to The Washington Post.

Silence is the enemy of truth, and yet few college presidents dared to challenge this tsunami of official lies. Whether about immigrants or climate change or white supremacy or the Covid-19 pandemic, the president and his allies lied with abandon, and higher education remained largely silent. So, in the face of the president’s acutely manipulative lies about the presidential election, it was no surprise that colleges remained on the sidelines, raising no voice in defense of democracy in a timely way, saying nothing about voter suppression, allowing the corrosive effects of the repeated lies to inflame those Americans who are especially susceptible to demagoguery. The mob gained its energy by coalescing around the lies.

In our silence, we have allowed an even more insidious force to spread through the body politic — the racial animus and embrace of white supremacy that give so much energy to the mob. The real cause of the January 6 insurrection is the pervasive fear in one part of American society that the white majority is diminishing as Black and brown Americans grow in numbers and political power. The Trump administration inflamed this fear through rhetoric intended to stoke racial hostility, along with repeated actions to overturn achievements of President Barack Obama. Attempting to destroy the legacy of America’s first and only Black president has been one of Trump’s major preoccupations, part of his effort to remain in power. Few college presidents have had anything to say about this. Even historically Black colleges seemed co-opted by a president whose rhetoric perversely sought to portray himself as their savior.

Racial inequality is a significant and pervasive problem in most of higher education. The elite institutions that educate so many of the nation’s top public officials have particularly disappointing track records on access for Black students. Public officials who never had to confront issues of racism and inequality in their formative educational years may have little concern for them in shaping public policy. The demographic composition of college campuses reflects the segregated society; colleges that fail to address the racism that undergirds so many of their policies and practices also fail to educate the future lawmakers about the kinds of policies a more just society should embrace.

College presidents rarely speak out on issues that they consider “too political,” for fear of alienating donors or governors or state legislators who might retaliate by withdrawing funding. This fear of making some powerful people angry — a fear of losing money — has debilitated not only the voice but also the real purpose of higher education, as the place where students should develop critical- and moral-reasoning habits that will serve them well in future positions of responsibility. If we presidents shrink from telling the truth out of a fear of alienating people whose favor we crave, what are we teaching our students?

If we presidents shrink from telling the truth out of a fear of alienating people whose favor we crave, what are we teaching our students?

In the vacuum of advocacy for the academy’s true purpose, others have stepped in to dictate less worthy, more utilitarian purposes for higher education, mostly related to filling jobs to satisfy the immediate demands of corporate interests. Today, some of the loudest voices telling Americans about the purpose of higher education encourage prospective students to look at the list of majors ranked by earnings, to choose to study only those fields with a lucrative payoff. Institutions, too, get ranked by wealth and earning power, not effective stewardship of truth and justice.

Far from resisting this perversion of purpose in higher education, too many institutional leaders play into it by touting rankings while failing to mention the plain fact that no ranking speaks to the actual effectiveness of teaching and learning at any given institution, the robust environment for critical and moral reasoning, or the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and political authority in order to serve the common good.

With a Biden administration on the horizon, higher education has an opportunity to redeem itself, to reset our sense of purpose and public responsibility to be more forceful advocates for the principles, policies, and processes that truly serve the common good in a free society. The first and most important thing we must do is to find our voice again, to be unafraid in speaking the truth in the face of every and all official lies and provocations.

We must also become more ardent and relentless advocates for racial justice, starting in our own institutions, but also insisting that our professional higher-education associations raise their voices and use their clout more effectively for racial justice. In recent years, our associations have been too silent on the most important issues of public life, tending to focus only on those issues that affect the financing of higher education. This is not only a missed opportunity; it’s the wrong approach to our purpose. Let the money follow the purpose, rather than having the purpose be dictated by the money.

January 6 was not about some mob of “other” people vandalizing the halls of Congress; the mob was part of us. But the mob has no life, no energy except for the incitement provided by leaders. We colleges educate the leaders who have the power to move the crowd to good purposes, or to inflame the mob for evil. In owning the educational failure that January 6 reflects, we must resolve to act more courageously to improve the ability of our graduates to be stewards of truth, leading this nation forward more affirmatively along the arc of justice.

Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University. Published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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