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Lynn Pasquerella groups together a series of challenging subjects in her new book, What We Value: Public Health, Social Justice and Educating for Democracy (University of Virginia Press). Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, looks at public health and questions of life and death, along with issues of campus controversy and the things that higher education must do to rebuild public trust.

Pasquerella, formerly president of Mount Holyoke College and for many years a philosophy professor at the University of Rhode Island, draws on her wide experiences in higher education for this book. She responded to questions via email.

Q: You note the discomfort of many Americans with death and how we die. What, in terms of education, could help with that?

A: The reluctance on the part of many Americans—both patients and caregivers—to confront death has led to unnecessary suffering at the end of life, especially as technological advancements precede thoughtful reflection about the ethical, legal and social implications of the use of technology often designed to keep people alive at all costs. Such suffering can be reduced through enhanced communication and exercising moral courage by ensuring that patients’ wishes are respected. This requires that health-care providers receive more than a purely technical education and instead be taught to listen critically and with understanding, ask questions that will help discern the patient’s values, encourage patients and family members to tell their stories and share their worries and concerns around death and dying, and to identify their own values.

Beyond the transformation of medical education, engagement with liberal education in college classrooms and through public programming in communities can lessen anxieties and fears surrounding the end of life. When I co-taught courses on the politics of being mortal with my colleague Al Killilea [at the University of Rhode Island], he posited to our students that it is not death we fear as much as annihilation and the absurdity of a meaningless life, suggesting that it is only through a recognition and acceptance of human interdependence that meaning can be given to both death and life. Helping students find meaning and purpose while coming to understand the nature of human interdependence is at the core of a liberal education, which invites individuals to grapple with the most fundamental questions of human existence through the study of philosophy, religion, history, music and the arts.

Q: You discuss an incident in 1998 at the University of Rhode Island, where you were teaching at the time. Can you describe the incident and the lessons from it?

A: In 1998, when I was chair of the philosophy department at the University of Rhode Island, there was a series of campus protests related to allegations of racism under the guise of free speech, ultimately leading to a takeover of the administration building, Taft Hall. The protests were sparked by an incident that occurred just before the December final exam period, when the student newspaper, The Good Five Cent Cigar, ran a nationally syndicated editorial cartoon as a filler. Appearing without commentary, the cartoon depicted a Black man carrying books attempting to enter a classroom. The white professor, standing behind a podium bearing the words “UT Law School,” calls out, “If you’re the janitor, please wait until after class to empty the trash. If you’re one of our minority students, welcome!”

Two days after the appearance of the cartoon, student protestors from a Black activist group called the Brothers United for Action circulated a list of demands that included “a new campus newspaper that reflects a campus-wide commitment to ending racism, sexism, and homophobia, and promotes a vision of cultural empathy and understanding.” The managing editor of the paper responded by defending his selection and publication of the cartoon, maintaining that he “felt that the cartoon was clearly a worthwhile commentary in favor of affirmative action and minority rights.” He attributed anger over its content to confusion due to a lack of familiarity with the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas decision, in which four white students, who were rejected from the law school, successfully challenged the institution’s affirmative action policy in admissions on the grounds of equal protection—a decision many feared would lead to resegregation.

At the time, I happened to be teaching a mixed graduate-/undergraduate-level course entitled Race, Gender, and the Law, and my students were intimately acquainted with every aspect of the Hopwood case. Yet, many of them were either directly involved in the Brothers United protests or agreed with those who read the cartoon as conveying the message that students of color were neither welcome on campus nor deserving of a university education. They cited the lack of accompanying commentary and the timing of the cartoon’s publication, a full year after the circuit court’s decision, as evidence in support of their view.

The editor’s rejoinder was that “This is always a timely issue. It is not like the Texas courts did something, made a decision, and it went away: the repercussions continue.” Reacting to the concerns, the Cigar ran the cartoon again, this time with an editorial response to the protests, explaining that the intention of the satirical cartoon was to show support for affirmative action. Protestors were not satisfied, pointing to the fact that only a month earlier, a racist message had been left on the answering machine in the affirmative action office. Even more egregious, at a Midnight Madness event during the previous basketball season—a season in which a group of students chanted racial epithets at some of the Black players—a white student urinated on an African American disc jockey. In the aftermath of these actions, the decision to run the cartoon took on a different meaning, and the Student Senate Executive Committee proposed a resolution calling for a formal apology by the editors. This coincided with a freeze by the Student Senate on funds allocated to the paper, pending an investigation into their finances.

While the Senate leaders disavowed any connection between the funding freeze and the protests, the newspaper staff regarded the actions as not only retributive, but also as a violation of their First Amendment rights. Their adviser, a journalism professor, joined faculty from philosophy, sociology and politics in facilitating open forums centered on the questions of who gets to decide what constitutes racial offense and the circumstances, if any, whereby offense can serve as a legitimate liberty-limiting principle within the context of college campuses committed to the free exchange of ideas and to safeguarding the equality of educational opportunity.

I learned that taking direct aim at educational disparities and patterns of systemic disadvantage—especially those resulting from historical and contemporary effects of racism—and making equity a pervading focus of educational reform and innovation requires moving beyond the goals of access and compositional diversity to design and deliver experiences that support the success of all students. This, in turn, requires making colleges and universities places of welcome and belonging.

Several of the leaders of the 1998 student protests at URI are still in touch with me, and I have been struck by how many of them cite their protest experience as preparing them for leadership in their communities, in life and in their professions. As we look ahead, knowing that there will continue to be demonstrations, demands and debates, we should seek opportunities to encourage and guide our students in their activism, connecting the curriculum and co-curriculum through community-based learning and other high-impact practices.

Q: You note that, more recently, many colleges in 2020 made changes in response to Black students. While I know you support those changes, did colleges really help Black students?

A: The summer of 2020 constituted a moment of racial reckoning in the U.S., with many campus leaders engaging in dialogue across stakeholders. While these short-term tactics responded to an immediate crisis, they did little to help Black students in the absence of long-term initiatives aimed at strategic hiring and curriculum reform, as well as the broad interrogation of institutional practices and policies to identify and counter inequities. Campuses must be willing to engage in truth-telling conversations about the existence and persistence of inequities and affirm that equity goals need to be embedded within the strategic priorities of the institution, to acknowledge that racialized practices marginalizing students of color must be confronted directly, and to admit that preparation to address structural and systemic racism must be a core component of a liberal education.

Q: You discuss how liberal education should help us overcome our differences. How can it do that? What if one side of those debates doesn’t embrace liberal education?

A: Liberal education instills the habits of heart and mind that encourage individuals to consider the possibility that some of their most fundamentally held beliefs might actually be mistaken. It also engenders a sense of moral and sympathetic imagination as the foundations for empathy and tolerance. These capacities are more critical than ever in the face of a burgeoning economic and racial segregation, isolation and despair resulting from the worst global pandemic in more than a century, increasing polarization and partisanship, and rising authoritarianism. I cite Tony Carnevale’s research on liberal education and authoritarianism, which indicates that liberal education reduces individuals’ sensitivities to potential triggers by providing psychological protection in the form of self-esteem, personal security and autonomy, while fostering a level of interpersonal trust associated with lower inclinations toward expressing authoritarian attitudes and preferences. Exposure of liberal arts majors to diverse contexts, histories, ideas, lifestyles, religions, ways of life and cultures diminishes the likelihood that differing worldviews will trigger authoritarian responses and increases the chances of their being countered with evidence.

The fact that not everyone embraces liberal education means that we need to learn to speak across differences and find common ground by having colleges and universities serve as anchor institutions, illustrating that their success is inextricably linked to the psychological, social, educational and economic well-being of those in the communities in which they are located and those they seek to serve.

Q: You discuss how higher education is no longer seen (unfortunately) as a force for the public good. What can be done to change that?

A: To restore public trust in higher education and destabilize the cultural attitudes at the basis of proposals that both devalue liberal education and those who have rejected it, we need to reframe the narrative, highlighting the fact that in the global knowledge economy, employer demand for graduates with a liberal education is growing. At the same time, those of us in the academy need to take seriously the underlying concerns of our most ardent critics—that higher education is too expensive, too difficult to access and doesn’t teach people 21st-century skills.

This will require getting outside our own language game, drawing attention to the humanistic practices and endeavors people engage in daily, and demonstrating at the local level why our work matters to individual thriving in work, citizenship and life, and to the strength of our democracy.

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