Higher Education: Risk and Resilience

June 6, 2018

Published in the June 6, 2018 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

On April 20, I welcomed 20 faculty members from institutions around the globe who gathered at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values to attend an international colloquium on “Universities at Risk.” In my introductory remarks, I commented on some of the challenges facing universities today. I thought that my observations might interest alumni as well as the participants.— C.L.E.

We live in tumultuous times, and, as is often the case, colleges and universities are among the focal points of controversy. In the United States and abroad, higher education faces pressures related to, among other factors, economic inequality, globalization, technological change, demographic diversity, and immigration. The roles of science, learning, truth, academic freedom, and the freedom of speech are being contested.

In response, some have recommended that universities implement reforms tailored to appease critics or conduct publicity campaigns to change their minds. I was at a meeting earlier this week where a pollster suggested that we should rethink our use of the term “liberal arts education” because neither the word “liberal” nor the word “arts” were positive brands in today’s climate. I am not certain whether he was serious. I am certain that he was wrong, not about his “brand analysis”— though he might be wrong even about that—but about the prescription.

Those of us in colleges and universities need to know who we are and what we stand for, and we need to stick to our principles, whatever our poll numbers. We should pursue our mission steadfastly and tell our story as clearly as we can—even if portions of that mission are unpopular or controversial. We must maintain the commitment to fearless truth-seeking that lies at the heart of our mission, and we must defend the principles of academic freedom that are essential to our work.

Knowing who we are and what we stand for means taking criticism seriously and using it to improve how we pursue our mission. I agree, for example, with those who say that American colleges and universities could pursue our truth-seeking mission more effectively if conservative views were better represented on our campuses. I disagree strongly, however, with those who make the quite different claim that we should add particular voices to our campuses for the sake of sheer “balance” or to appease political critics. Universities are committed to truth-seeking debate, which is not the same thing as mirroring the balance of opinion in the country or the world.

As we stand for the ideals that define our institutions, we must remember that today’s challenges are by no means unprecedented. Indeed, a gathering entitled “Universities at Risk” might well begin by recognizing that higher education is inevitably and by design a risky business. Precisely because we seek to pursue truth rather than to mirror societal norms, we will often be focal points of dissent. And, likewise, precisely because we aim at longterm truths in a way that is unusual in the larger society, colleges and universities depend upon institutional mechanisms such as life tenure, perpetual endowments, and academic freedom that themselves will seem unusual or even strange by comparison to the organizational elements used elsewhere in society.

Academic values can and will sometimes be threatening to those in power, because scholarly inquiry is not and should not be beholden to any national political agenda. The same might be said of other fact-driven institutions, including journalism and the courts. But it is precisely this independence, and this commitment to engaging with all intellectual viewpoints, that make higher education and other critical institutions so valuable in free and democratic societies.

We must take current challenges seriously, but we should also take heart in the record of resilience that great universities have demonstrated. On days when I am feeling gloomy about political tempests and tweets, I remind myself that over nearly a millennium of operation, Oxford University and the University of Cambridge have weathered heavy storms but are today as vibrant and vital as ever. We should take heart, too, from the fact that in this country and elsewhere, we have many friends who recognize that when societies are strong enough to tolerate the long-term, dissonant perspective of free and thriving universities, they benefit tremendously from the learning that results. It is worth noting, for example, that with bi-partisan support from Republican and Democratic legislators, this year’s American budget bill significantly increased sponsored research funding and repudiated the executive branch’s proposal to eliminate allocations for the National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts.

Let me close by once again welcoming you to Princeton University, by thanking you for your own commitment to the ideals of scholarship and education, and by wishing you well as you take up questions that matter not only to those of us in the academy but to human rights, to the world’s prosperity, and to the free and democratic societies that we so cherish.