University on Fire
Following on my prior blog, I gave the talk below last week to the Conference on Higher Education Values, Belonging, Identity and Purpose:
The university is on fire. We are standing in stunned silence on the lawn watching the flames shoot from the high towers of Old Main. We smelled the smoke and thought it was popcorn burning in the microwave. We heard the fire bells and thought it was another sophomore prank. We saw the stranger carrying what looked like a gasoline can in through that always-open side door and we assumed security would stop them. As the ashes swirl around us, we shake our fists at the sky in anger and remorse wondering who could have stopped this devastation. The flames burn down to embers, the onlookers wander away, and we are left in the silence with nothing but memories and regrets about what we could have, should have done to prevent this catastrophe.
Is that too bleak an opening for a talk about the value of humanity in higher education? I don’t think so given today’s incessant headlines. Governors taking over universities, wiping out whole sections of curricula, dictating what should be taught, banning books, savaging DEI training and talking about ending tenure. Corporate leaders saying that college is not teaching the skills they need for the jobs they have open. Media pundits feasting on the rumors of an arrogant industry in decline. Seems like everyone with a college degree now hates college, and yet, they still vie to send their children to the most elite, most expensive, hardest to access universities on earth.
Out of all the smoke and noise, I want to focus today on two threads that I believe are among the most significant crises we face: the crisis of purpose, and the crisis of courage. They are clearly related. The crisis of purpose suffers from the deafening silence of higher education’s leadership in the face of so much criticism and active undermining of purpose.
Let met start with the crisis of purpose.
Sometimes it helps to go back to Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University to refresh our memories about what 19th century intellectuals thought about purpose at the dawn of the university age in America. Newman wrote of the whole of knowledge, disciplines integrated into it, with faculty members all representing the different subjects but collaborating to represent the whole of knowledge to their students.
“Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his [her] own case [s]he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He [the student] profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He [the student] apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he [they] otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his [their] education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom…a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.
“…I am asked what is the end of University Education, and of the Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge which I conceive it to impart: …Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.” (Newman, Idea of a University, 1852)
To a harried academic administrator in 2023, the idea of pursuing Knowledge as its own reward may sound very nice but utterly naïve. The notion that our primary purpose is to inculcate in our students “a philosophical habit” may sound ridiculous, or, in a kinder light, merely elitist. Who has time for philosophizing when our students are coping with serious mental health challenges, sometimes hunger and homelessness, or the stress of preparing for that big job interview with Google? Can we really tell students and their families that “knowledge is its own reward” when the college bill runs to tens of thousands of dollars, when debt loads soar to levels that feel crushing for too many graduates?
To which I say…. Yes….. but…. YES.
We have lost the idea of a truly “liberal” education in the best sense — we have allowed that word to be hijacked by political partisans — when, in fact, the word is rooted in the Latin word for “freedom.” A liberally educated mind is one that embraces, first and foremost, the idea of freedom — not the tacky, bastardized idea of freedom extolled by too many ideologues today to claim “rights” selfishly no matter how harmful to others, but rather, the idea of freedom as an essentially philosophical and even spiritual concept that honors the ability of the human mind to grow and learn and absorb knowledge and even create knowledge with research and discovery and expression. I believe our students need such freedom now, more than ever! This is the essential search for Truth, the outcome of higher learning that we have forgotten in our race to demonstrate fulfillment of regulatory expectations for student learning outcomes assessment. Based on what too many college graduates are doing on the national and local stage, I suggest we should give ourselves an “F” grade on student learning outcomes when it comes to the real purpose of a higher education.
Newman lists attributes of the liberally educated person —“equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom” — and once again we chuckle quietly, wondering which hiring partner at the local bank or law firm or tech company would score a candidate high on those attributes as opposed to acing the courses on securities regulation or macroeconomics or cybersecurity. Truth be told, however, a close reading of Newman tells us that he certainly expects students to be good at the knowledge they must learn, but the A in Tax Law is worthless if the future lawyer only uses that knowledge to help clients cheat on their taxes. What is that ace lawyer doing to change the tax code to be more fair, more just for all citizens, not just those with the means to hire clever lawyers?
In this conference you are contemplating the theme of Reimagining Higher Education as a place of belonging for all — and such a re-imagination demands that we understand and work to achieve the climate in which all can truly flourish, and that climate requires a deep devotion to the idea of human freedom as the bedrock of a truly liberal education. To teach freedom, we have to welcome without judgment, we have to be open to the experiences, the perspectives, the languages, the beliefs, the cultural customs of all whom we welcome — all must be free to be themselves. This is the “philosophical habit” we need to cultivate in ourselves and in our students. Such freedom requires a deep respect for the human person, a willingness to experience the challenge of other points of view previously unknown, and, ultimately, the ability to build a peaceful, productive community amid the diversity that freedom attracts like a magnet as the moral center of the human community.
Our ability to teach such freedom, to form the moral center around which we build the human community with a remarkably diverse complexion, this ability is at grave risk.
First, we certainly see and understand the grave risk posed by the rise of an authoritarianism that decrys “woke ideology” and claims that leftists are imposing intellectual conformity when, in fact, it is the authoritarian state that would impose one way of being, one way of knowing, a deeply constrained idea of the human experience premised on white European knowledge — “western civilization” — contemptuous of other experiences, other knowledge and ways of being. Contemptuous of the freedom of human beings to be themselves in all their glorious diversity. What Governor DeSantis is doing in Florida is a wholesale assault on the very idea of freedom in the academy, in what we teach and how we teach and who may learn from our teaching. His intimidation of college faculty and administrators, his rejection of Diversity-Equity-Inclusion programs, his manipulation of the African American Studies program, his demand that Florida colleges teach a “western civilization” curriculum whatever that may be these days, his outright assault on LGBTQ persons, his threats against teachers and librarians — his entire politically performative show is an audition for a presidential campaign at the expense of the whole Idea of the University.
The authoritarian attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion remind me of the great passage in Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize lecture: a blind old woman is contemplating the corruption of language for purposes of dominance and power. Morrison writes,
“The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower’s failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.” (Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Lecture, 1993)
Morrison’s message is clear: the diversity of human life and expression give life its meaning and joy. The attempts of the powerful to bleach out diversity, to impose uniformity are the basis of the collapse of our social architecture. We must build together, fully appreciating the many different languages, gifts and talents and perspectives and beliefs everyone brings to the creation of the human community. This is truly our work as leaders devoted to ensuring humanity in higher education.
We face other dimensions of the crisis of purpose. I could spend an entire talk on the corruption of purpose through big time collegiate athletics. That will have to wait for another audience. But I do want to mention one more aspect of the crisis: the corporate undermining of the real purpose of higher education, the questioning, even trashing of the humanities in favor of specific job training curricula. The U.S. Department of Education and many states are now playing right into this with their insatiable quest for data on how much money the graduates of various majors earn in their first decade out of college, whether the graduates work in the fields they studied, whether the salaries are the equivalent of the student loan burdens. Taken to its logical extreme, we would eliminate programs in counseling, social work, early childhood education, fine arts, English, History and many other humanities, liberal arts and social service disciplines.
Corporate leaders want workers to fuel the economic health of their companies and public officials want healthy economies. Fair enough, and we want our students to reap the benefits of the economic good health of the corporate sector. But Newman is tugging at our coattails, reminding us that getting good jobs is not really the ultimate purpose of a higher education — though certainly the ability to shape a fulfilling and productive lifelong career is a desired outcome. But the elevation of the merely utilitarian over the idea of acquiring and discovering knowledge, of pursuing Truth wherever the search may lead, undermines the true purpose of higher education and is a factor currently discouraging many students from even enrolling.
For the most part, our students will surely live most of their lives inside of corporate institutions beyond graduation day. Whether those corporations be private for-profit entities, or not-for-profit public service organizations, or partnerships or sole proprietor businesses, or governmental entities or military service, or international agencies the question for the academy is not simply whether our students can get good jobs in these places, but rather, how will our students influence, shape and change them for the better? Will our students be capable of being agents of disruption of the status quo, advocates for new forms of corporate life that better serve all people in the communities of the future?
Disruption of the status quo is, necessarily, a consequence of true freedom, and a result of a great higher education lived to its most effective level. We are not museum curators, hostages to past greatness, servants of the conventional wisdom. We are, at our best, revolutionaries, even radicals using our freedom for the sake of improving the human community around the globe.
And in this thought lies the other great crisis of higher education right now: the crisis of courage — or, better said, the lack thereof.
At its best, higher education is, and must be, a very disruptive place for the status quo in society. Our freedom must call us to challenge, contest, advocate and advance ideas that might threaten the comfortable, the powerful, the arrogant and the authoritarian. In particular, higher education — whether the institutions be public or private, no matter — higher education in a free society is and must be the great counterweight to government. Government’s natural instinct is self-protection, to amass and retain power, to maintain the status quo because change itself is disruptive of power. Government in a free society needs constant reminders that its purpose is limited to protect the welfare of the people in the least intrusive ways. Government in a democracy needs even more constant reminders that We the People are the real governors, that elected officials serve at our pleasure, that we will and we must exercise our power at the ballot box to change government officials when necessary.
But for higher education to fulfill its responsibility as the great counterweight to government, its leaders must exercise their voices on behalf of the freedom and other values of the academy. Where are those voices?
Where are the voices of higher education on the authoritarian mess in Florida?
Where are the voices of university leadership on the attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?
Where are the presidents of institutions and associations on the threats to academic freedom, the construction of the curriculum, the future of tenure?
I am astonished and dismayed by the silence of my fellow leaders in higher education. Why are they so reluctant to stand up for our values, for our very existence as free institutions?
The fire is rising all around us. An October 2022 op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education warned:
“… a host of disturbing recent events suggest that we must define and defend academic freedom much more expansively. The attacks on free speech constitute only one element of a far larger and tremendously dangerous campaign to undermine the autonomy of university and college governance more broadly. Many state legislators and governors are interested not just in restricting the content of research and teaching, but in preventing colleges and universities and their faculty and staff and students from making decisions about labor protections, academic policies, university structures, and higher education’s relationships to local communities.
This is the real struggle for academic freedom that we are facing — and it’s enormous. Those who focus only on defending free speech without also defending the very structures of higher education that house and govern it, may look up to find that they’ve lost their ability to control academic programs, contribute to faculty governance, and even their jobs. The Review | Opinion “The Real Fight for Academic Freedom” , Lisa Levenstein and Jennifer Mittelstadt October 7, 2022
But despite many warnings like this, despite the smell of smoke throughout our industry, I have been in debates where other presidents tell me flat out that I am wrong, that presidents “should not get involved in politics.” Wow. I have several answers to that position.
First, the values we must defend are not political — they are moral values about how we treat other people, about how we steward knowledge, about how we uphold the purpose of the academy. Racial equity, justice, defense of undocumented persons, upholding DEI initiatives — these are not political in their essence, they are moral issues. The politics comes when some politicians and others choose to hijack the language and turn a moral challenge into a merely political meme, effectively ending the discussion when a college president or association leader thinks that “politics” is not our business. Of course it’s our business if it is having a negative impact on our freedom to teach, on our students and faculty, on our very mission as free and independent places of learning, research and exploration.
Again, Morrison spoke of the political hijacking of language to preserve power: she spoke of “the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.” And she goes on: “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” (Morrison, Nobel Lecture ibid.)
We leaders in higher education are supposedly the stewards of the treasury of knowledge, practitioners of the language arts across the totality of human life and meaning. How can we stand idly by when political forces manipulate the meaning of language for their own selfish political ends, when they demean the values we cherish as merely political ploys.
Presidents and other higher education leaders have to be willing to risk our jobs for the sake of advocacy for what is right — this is the courage issue. So many presidents tell me that they agree with my positions, but would not dare say so in public. Prudence is, of course, prudent, but when prudence becomes a long and sullen silence, it becomes capitulation.
The renowned journalist Dan Rather recently wrote on his blog:
“DeSantis has focused his assaults on two of our society’s most traditionally marginalized groups: Black Americans and the LGBTQ community. While these populations have thus far felt the brunt of his targeting, we need to see clearly that his rhetoric is a threat to all who care about a democratic, peaceful, empathetic, and just America. Those of us with the greatest privilege should bear a special burden in rejecting this hate. …there is a great danger to framing this struggle primarily through the lens of electoral politics. This normalizes a discourse that should be rejected by society’s mainstream. Just as the outright bigotry of the past became socially unacceptable, so too should these latest attempts at divisiveness.”
We can and we must “reimagine” higher education as a place of humanity, a place that extols the virtues of human dignity in all of creation’s glorious diversity. We can only create communities of belonging for all if we recognize, teach and live with the principles of human freedom and justice every single day. We must be willing to risk criticism from those who would shrink our purpose to something small and cheap, expedient and even disposable for short-term economic purposes. We educate the workforce, yes, for their immediate employment and the needs of the economy; but in educating workers we must never forget the larger purpose of higher education in educating citizens who can shape and lead communities of hope and purpose, societies where all persons can live together productively, in safety and in peace.
The fire is raging; we can still quench the flames if we act quickly, boldly and courageously to save the true purpose of higher education for the sake of our students and the communities they will serve and shape for future generations.