“These are the times that try men’s souls.” American revolutionary Thomas Paine’s famous words only months after the Declaration of Independence. The fighting went on for seven years until the Treaty of Paris. Note, we celebrate from the day of intention, not realization, of independence. We are a country that never meets but strives for its ideals. That, I predict, will be for historians the United States’s lasting legacy.
We are at a meaningful juncture. The once somnolent electoral process is alive with interest. Its risks of loosening fear and bias are in measure with its possibilities of shaking established parties from their traditional supports and interests. Manageable today, no one should take these circumstances for granted. Righting the balance between crisis and opportunity must be achieved, not assumed. To do so forces engagement. What would appear at first glance to be the expression of opposites is our task. Listening is critical to this process. Trying to understand deeply what is being said is essential to marking out next steps. And yet so is standing up and stiffening the spine in the face of that which is patently illegal or profoundly ignorant. It is not simply a choice of one mode or the other. Reasonable people must do both.
What is higher education’s role in all of this flux? Not since the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights protests have colleges and universities enjoyed the chance to stand at the forefront. If ever our outreach or service missions held meaning it is in times such as these. Higher education must stand for both free speech and tolerance, expression of ideas and the protection of safe spaces. Moreover, it should demonstrate to U.S., if not global culture, how to accomplish this complex feat. Where better than colleges and universities to model the victory of enlightenment over ignorance? And in the process to show that this effort is neither easy nor without risks. People will thrash about and react. Unkind, thoughtless and even menacing remarks are par for the course. That means it’s touching something that needs to come out. And then be dealt with again, addressed in an on-going process of what it means to listen and understand and to speak.
Emory, North Carolina, Baylor are in the limelight this week. Trump and Sanders will continue to stir the pot while Clinton, for the most part, would appear to wish that they would not. Get out in front presidents and provosts of our esteemed schools, not about the results but to model how best to engage the process. Facilitate an ability to engage the vitality of this season and not fall prey to its bias and ignorance. Higher education will always be home to the pure, narrow research. Of course we must teach. But teach what and research for what? It would be wrong to hide higher education’s light under a bushel at this moment. We need instruction on how to accommodate volatility without sacrifice to the meaningfulness of the content or the importance of the process. To listen, to seek understanding, to speak and to act.
If ever in my adult lifetime I have felt the power of higher education’s potential for leadership, it is now. This country and our colleges and universities desperately require coaching on how to address the issues that currently beset us. Shine that light, existing and future leaders, in the name of our missions and for all of us.
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