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The University of Colorado Boulder campus with Flagstaff Mountain in the background.

In my five decades in higher education, never have I seen such divisive rhetoric and legislative action used to diminish public education—an institution as venerable as our democracy itself.

But one thing I have always believed is that America’s public universities are fundamental to a functioning democracy and a source of unlimited solutions. A strong democracy is associated with social mobility, civic engagement and a diverse, pluralistic society—all cornerstones of our country’s higher education system.

As the leader of Colorado’s flagship university and one of the nation’s leading research universities, I am committed to using my voice and to urging my fellow higher education leaders to do the same in the face of a wave of damaging actions and rhetoric that threaten free inquiry.

I am especially discouraged by the restrictions being proposed and imposed by state legislatures on educational institutions in places like Ohio, Florida and Texas. These restrictions chill discourse on campus and in the classroom, both places where dialogue is most crucial.

I am also troubled by the refusal of the Board of Trustees at my alma mater, Ohio State University, to appoint an interim president following the departure of former president Kristina Johnson in May, as good governance principles do not support having the trustees engaged in day-to-day operational oversight.

Adding to my concern is the rhetoric we hear on the national level from political candidates and elected officials who attack higher education and seek to strip institutions of tenure and academic freedom, both of which are essential to encouraging healthy debate, research and scholarship that is free from interference.

As public universities come under scrutiny on issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as tenure and academic freedom, we must redouble our efforts to show that our institutions are integral to our nation’s common good.

As university leaders, we must be unified in our commitment that the model university is a:

  • conduit for opportunity and social mobility;
  • cultural and scientific engine that promotes economic growth, technological advancement, and disruption of the status quo;
  • training ground for civic engagement;
  • convener of experts committed to solving problems; and a
  • force multiplier for activities promoting the public good.

The university’s purpose is not simply to prepare the nation’s workforce but, just as importantly, to graduate individuals equipped to participate in our democracy.

In my annual state of the campus speech in Boulder last fall, I addressed the issue of a university’s integral role in democracy head-on. I ascribe to the idea that public universities should embrace their role as a “house of conflict,” where differing perspectives are shared and debated in pursuit of greater understanding and better decision-making. This philosophy also recognizes that universities are long-term antidotes for confronting societal challenges, allowing the continuation of democracy—not instant gratification sites.

Privately, conversations I have had with my colleagues at other universities reflect our apprehension and uncertainties about the headwinds facing higher education. It would benefit us all to join together in taking a direct position against forces that seek to marginalize our missions and our positive influence in U.S. society.

Public universities are bellwethers for the health of our democracy. The hallmarks of our institutions are also the hallmarks of democracy. To see them eroded is to see American democracy eroded, which may very well start with a trickle of new legislation and end in changes that fundamentally alter the course of our society. And not for the better.

As we endure this already-tumultuous campaign season and gear up for another divisive presidential election, we university leaders must use our platforms to protect these houses of conflict and to preserve American democracy.

Philip DiStefano is chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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