Institutions of higher education should lean into the idea that they are an arena for political debate, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty member argued in a lecture Tuesday, and in fact should serve as a crucible for the most intense of debates.
Instead of trying to stay out of the political fray, Julia Schleck, an associate professor of English, said colleges and universities should accept their campuses are inherently political spaces.
“The university is not outside of society and the complications of its big debates, but is deeply divided and deeply invested in the question of what constitutes the right way forward for our world as anybody else,” Schleck said.
The lecture, titled “America’s Uncertain Search for Truth and the Fate of Universities,” was part of the 2022-23 “Inquire” lecture series sponsored by the UNL College of Arts and Sciences.
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Schleck, the winner of the 2022 National Intellectual Freedom Award from the National Council of Teachers of English, said institutions like UNL should not shy away from the political controversies in which it has found itself in recent years.
Embracing political debates would also reframe the notion of the “common good” universities and higher education at large pursued as their mission for the last century as they have attempted to answer society’s biggest questions, Schleck said.
“If there’s one thing we know about the common good is that nobody agrees what it is, and they never have,” she said. “These days, debate over what is good for everyone has gotten more fractious, in part because ‘everyone’ is a much more expansive group.”
The discovery of a new subatomic particle might fall within many people’s vague idea of “common good,” Schleck said, while research uncovering the multigenerational impact of redlining on Black families in America might be viewed as the “common good” by only a segment of the population, even as it furthers knowledge of the human condition.
Because the definition of common good could fall on a range between what is too complex for most people to understand to something that agrees with an individual’s politics, Schleck said the university where those ideas are furthered and promoted should also be engaged in the political debate.
“No one provides as long or as detailed a set of arguments as we do,” she said. “No one takes more seriously every little aspect of the topic or researches it more thoroughly.”
While Americans may be engaged in a constant fight over politics or other issues big and small, universities “are more like a cage fight with hundreds of contenders in an all-against-all combat,” Schleck said.
Allowing debates to occur would embrace the letter and spirit of academic freedom, the idea that faculty members should have wide latitude to explore their fields of study without fear of reprisal that has been the bedrock of universities for a century.
It would also provide spaces for students to explore ideas, discuss or argue them with others, and emerge with a better understanding of the issues and themselves, she said.
Schleck noted that recent polling has shown a declining number of Americans have a positive view of higher education, as well as drops in the number of people who believe that colleges and universities are heading in the right direction.
A survey by New America found that the view that higher education had a positive impact on society declined from 69% in 2020 to 55% in 2022, Schleck said, while a poll from the Pew Research Center in 2019 found that only 38% believed universities were going in the right direction.
“The fact that, at best, only slightly over half of Americans feel that universities contribute positively to society should give us serious pause,” she said. “If the goal of university work and our classroom and research programs is to serve the public good, the public is clearly not feeling it.”
Some of those shifting perceptions are the result of questions about the benefits of a college education, or the ever-growing cost of tuition, Schleck said, while others reflect a loss of trust in higher education and other institutions in American life.
On Wednesday, for example, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released its 2022-23 College Free Speech Rankings, which scored 208 public and private colleges and universities on several aspects of free speech and inquiry.
UNL landed at 142nd overall, and 12th of the 14 schools in the Big Ten Conference based on students’ perceptions of their abilities to share ideas freely, their tolerance for speakers they disagree with, and their perceived support of the administrators in support of free speech.
The state’s flagship campus ranked 37th in allowing controversial speakers on campus, but 139th in students’ comfort in expressing ideas that others may disagree with.
The concerns come from both sides of the political aisle, according to the results shared by FIRE.
“If I say anything remotely Republican or Conservative, outside of those with my same views, I know I will be yelled at and ridiculed,” one student wrote.
Another student said they were “constantly conscious of what views the majority of people on campus lean toward because of the university’s region and what consequences could come if you were to go against that majority.”
Schleck argued that universities could rebuild trust and foster more productive conversations by shedding the notion that they are apolitical and embracing the philosophy that campuses are places where ideas will be freely and fairly debated, even if they delve into the political realm.
Even research into the best pesticide applications that will boost crop yields vs. studies showing their use results in a decline in certain insects and a negative impact on ecosystems are often political, she said.
“Let’s stop pretending that any of this is somehow above and outside politics,” Schleck said. “Let’s not only agree to disagree, but agree to have a damn good fight over these issues, to argue over them passionately and deeply, with all of our wit and intelligence and skill.”
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