Recently, in an effort led by editors of The Boston Globe, more than 300 newspapers published editorials defending the role of a free press in our democracy. President Trump’s often-repeated characterization of the press as the “enemy” of the American people prompted the call. While the importance of a free press is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the core role of the news media in the free exchange of ideas extends far beyond its role in helping our political system function. Its role is complementary to that of higher education, whose primary focus is sometimes described as the preservation, transmission and creation of knowledge.
The mission of colleges and universities is grounded in the idea that the progress of mankind depends on both the preservation of and engagement with existing knowledge and the discovery and application of new knowledge. Discovery of new knowledge requires a forum in which the widest range of ideas can be openly questioned and explored, as well as institutions for whom that is their mission. Because of our missions, our colleges and universities -- all of the 4,000-plus institutions of higher education in the United States -- have an added responsibility to engage in the defense of a free and vibrant press. We share with the news media a belief in the idea that, imperfect as our institutions may sometimes be, everyone -- our democracy, our colleges and universities, our society, the human condition in a broader sense -- is better off when the press is supported in its role in the marketplace of ideas.
That is not to suggest that the approaches of the free press and of academe to describing and understanding the world are the same. What constitutes “news” and what academe considers “new knowledge” rarely overlap. But some of the recent editorials referred to the press as “truth tellers,” and that is exactly how some might describe academic scholars and professors and their institutions. We, too, are truth tellers, and that is where our worlds and missions intersect: truth, and the notion even that there is something that may be called “truth.”
Truth is so important to our mission at Grinnell College that our motto is “Veritas et Humanitas” (Truth and Humanity). And historically, our seal has included, in Greek, a quote from John 8:32: “The truth shall set you free.” As someone whose academic discipline was public policy, I am especially aware of the essential role the news media plays in informing scholarly thinking about the important public policy issues facing our society, the policies being proposed and implemented by government, the thinking that informs policy choices, and where our analytical and scholarly tools can help our government and our society make better decisions.
Commitment to telling the truth, alas, is not the only thing that the free press and academe share. Colleges and universities may be the only group of institutions less liked by Republicans than the news media. As noted in the Globe editorial, a recent Ipsos poll found 48 percent of Republicans (and 29 percent of the population overall) believes that the news media is the enemy of the American people. A Pew survey found that 58 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. Both sets of statistics should be cause for concern. Just as the free press is not perfect, teachers and scholars as well as colleges and universities are also fallible and are seen by some people as biased and intolerant of a broad range of ideas.
While my personal experience suggests that that concern is greatly exaggerated, we must be ever vigilant in looking critically at how our institutions promote or discourage the free exchange of ideas. Our reach may exceed our grasp but the reach is important. That criticism -- our failure sometimes to reach our goals as colleges and universities -- does not grant us a pass from engaging in this discussion and supporting the call for a vibrant free press.
And the press is not always considered to be exactly a friend of academe. President Trump cannot be the only president who has, in a moment of weakness prompted by a highly critical or inaccurate article, harbored bad thoughts about a journalist or a publication. Few colleges and universities have not felt the sting of aggressive investigation by journalists in recent years, and journalists sometimes get their stories about us wrong or appear to have a bias against some of our institutions.
But probing by the news media -- as painful as it is at times -- has prompted us to identify and address important problems in our community. The press has helped our community focus attention on a wide array of problems: sexual assault, access for disadvantaged students, the role of Greek organizations on our campuses, the treatment of student athletes, the quality of work life of adjunct faculty and the challenges of leadership, to name a few. We are better institutions because of the press.
At a time when academe appears to be in the political crosshairs, our leaders, especially at public institutions, may be hesitant to stake a position in this nasty fight between the president and the news media. But this is important. Some people have thought that the wave of editorials was self-serving and simply stated the obvious, and any statements by academic leaders may be similarly criticized. But maybe it’s time for leaders in higher education -- fellow truth tellers -- to state the obvious as well. The community of leaders and faculty members in higher education also believe in the importance of a vibrant free press. The press is not the enemy of the American people -- it is essential for a functioning democracy, and it complements our academic mission as tellers of truth.