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A group of four students, carrying backpacks, walk away from the camera down the hallway of a university building.

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The ongoing controversies over diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at American universities might be reframed more constructively as questions about how we should identify and assert the values of academic institutions. Understandably, both progressive and conservative activists seek to promote the values they hold dear. But this approach often descends into a raw power struggle, with both sides fighting to impose (or depose) their administrators of choice.

What’s more, this approach turns the declaration of academic values into a political exercise, at a time when there is a growing call for universities to remain politically neutral. If we hope to move past these controversies and regain public trust in higher education, we need to reframe the debate and reaffirm the values already embedded in the missions of our colleges and universities.

Most critics of DEI do not attack the values in question—they do not dispute that diversity, equity and inclusion are worth pursuing. Instead, they complain that the proponents of DEI have imposed a narrow and divisive ideology on university life. While these critics usually have their own ideological agendas, there is some truth to the complaint that outside political events have driven recent efforts to address inequities in academia. It is well-known that DEI programs expanded rapidly after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. This shocking and tragic event captured national attention and highlighted racial injustice. At the same time, it did not have an immediate and obvious connection to higher education. DEI programs have been adopted broadly across many organizations, not just universities.

Right-wing efforts to reshape higher education, notably in Florida and elsewhere, suffer from a comparable problem. Many conservatives want to ensure that “universities and colleges are grounded in the history and philosophy of Western civilization,” as Florida governor Ron DeSantis has affirmed. There is no denying the major influence of Western thinkers on the curriculum, structure and history of American universities. But why should higher education limit itself to teaching Western civ? What would a major university be without programs in Arabic, Chinese and Hindi, not to mention Islamic, East Asian and African studies? The modern university has grown; imposing a Western focus on it is also a politically motivated choice.

The challenge for universities, then, is how to assert their values—whether to students, donors or members of Congress—without simply picking a side in a raging culture war (or hiring a consultancy to generate values for them). This challenge is harder than it sounds. Values can’t just be magicked into existence. They need to resonate with the entire university community and its external stakeholders.

For this to happen, they must appear as the obvious and necessary corollaries of an institution’s core purpose. They must be so central to the institution that it could not function without them. To articulate the values of a university, then, we must begin with what the university itself is for.

At a most obvious level, a university is a place of learning. Some of the knowledge learned is old, in the sense that it is known to many; some of it is new and stems from a process of discovery. We typically distinguish these two forms of learning as teaching and research, but they both form part of the same enterprise. Learning itself is accordingly the first value that universities must defend and from which all others should follow. That it is better to know something than not and that learning benefits both individuals and society—those are the cornerstones of every school, college and university.

Second, learning requires an ability to distinguish between facts and fabrications. If I invent a country and its history, I may be writing fiction, but I am not learning anything about the past. Similarly, if I invent data for an experiment, I am not learning anything that will advance science. There can be no real learning without a commitment to the truth. Veritas, the motto of America’s oldest university, captures the essential condition of learning: it is not just the truth, but the virtue of truthfulness that we must uphold.

Integrity is thus a necessary value for the advancement of learning. Integrity implies honesty and not passing off fabricated data or false information as true. It demands that we properly acknowledge the work and words of others. But integrity also means accepting that the pursuit of truth is an ongoing process. For most of the important questions in life, we will never reach a single truth accepted by all. Integrity in learning, therefore, requires tolerating other viewpoints and conclusions that may conflict with our own. It begins with an acceptance of our own limited understanding. Socrates was wiser than others because he knew what he did not know.

Third, most of what we learn comes from others: our teachers, colleagues and peers, whom we encounter in classes, conversations or reading. A university is a place where learning takes place collectively. The word “university” is in fact a generic term for a corporation or guild (as is the word “college”). Pursuing the truth in a community of other learners is essential, because it is often hard to know what is true. We rely on the judgments, observations and criticisms of others. Recognizing their role in our own learning demands a degree of self-restraint or moderation on our part. None of us has a privileged access to the truth.

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed,” observed James Madison in Federalist 10. Since we cannot accomplish the goals of learning all on our own, we must restrain our needs so that others can express theirs. Self-restraint, in this regard, entails a respect for the rights of others.

Finally, one of the greatest threats for any community of learning is orthodoxy. “Scholastic” became a derogatory term after generations of “schoolmen” (i.e., university professors) taught and repeated the same ideas over and over. A vibrant community of learning should valorize risk-taking, initiative, even daring. New learning demands audacity, a willingness to question established doctrines, to try things that seem impossible. Audacity is not recklessness and must be accompanied by a commitment to excellence and truth. This is why vibrant communities of learning reward remarkable thinking that challenges the status quo. But a culture in which audacity is valued must itself be deeply pluralistic. Universities should accordingly defend free speech in its broadest sense to ensure that new ideas, no matter how controversial, receive a fair hearing—even if obnoxious and offensive viewpoints also benefit from this liberal regime.

There are a number of other values that one could add to this list. Some of them can be derived from those above: learning should lead to acting in a thoughtful or prudent manner, integrity requires epistemological humility and self-restraint supposes an equality among peers. Different institutions might add further values to this list as a way of distinguishing themselves. But there are benefits to keeping the number of core academic values to a minimum. Itemizing additional values can make their connection to the university appear more tenuous. It also makes them harder to hold on to when adverse events make virtuous action more challenging for us, as they inevitably will.

Progressives will note that the values of diversity, equity and inclusion can all be found in the above account, if not singled out as the only ones that matter at a university. Learning thrives on a diversity of perspectives, and for a university to be a genuine community of learners, it must be equitable and inclusive.

But conservatives will also appreciate that the values enumerated above are not any random assortment. These four values in fact correspond to the classical virtues identified since antiquity as the very pillars of morality. Learning privileges wisdom (sophia) or prudence (phronesis). Integrity is a form of fairness or justice (dikaiosyne). Moderation was once called temperance (sophrosyne). And audacity was known as courage (andreía). These four virtues provided the foundation of ethics from Plato to Cicero. They were seen as so essential that Christians adopted them as well, under their Latin names: sapientia/prudentia, iustitia, temperantia and fortitudo. Since universities were established in medieval times, it is perhaps not all that surprising that these classical academic values are embedded in their very core. There may be other values that universities should also uphold, but these four are venerable and certainly worth preserving. Most importantly, in their absence, a university cannot survive.

Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French and a professor, by courtesy, of history and political science at Stanford University. He also serves as the Christensen Faculty Director for Stanford Introductory Studies (which administers Stanford’s first-year requirement, COLLEGE) and is a Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education.

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