The University: Agent of Change in a Changing Age

Even as we remain committed to principles of inclusiveness, accessibility, equity and justice, we must ensure that we are challenging our students -- and ourselves -- with difficult and controversial subjects, writes David V. Rosowsky.

August 30, 2019
 
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I have always regarded America’s top universities as agents of change. Social movements begin and come of age on our campuses and move out into our communities. Political and economic theories emerge from our lecture halls, and scientific revolutions are born in our laboratories. Our campuses are places where ideas are hatched, theories are examined, practices are studied and philosophies are debated. In our halls and on our grounds, young people are nurtured to be thinkers, skeptics, analysts and dreamers. Our universities are the breeders of ideas and ideologies, and they are places where the next generation takes its first steps.

American higher education has come under increasing criticism in the last decade for a variety of reasons. People debate and decry -- in living rooms, boardrooms and certainly in the news media -- the cost and value of higher education. They accuse higher education of becoming too politicized, too liberal or too ideological. And some feel our campuses have become too tolerant, too nurturing and too protective of students and their sensibilities. They contend that we coddle students and are creating generations of fragile intellectuals.

These are serious accusations, and some may have merit, but they are not new. American higher education has always had its critics, even from within the academy. Yet it remains a compelling model and powerful force, one that is still envied around the world, and one that continues to drive innovation, our economy, the arts, the discovery of new ideas, scientific and technological advances, and, yes, social movements.

We in higher education can’t just dismiss the criticisms, however. Even as we remain committed to principles of inclusiveness, accessibility, equity and justice, we must ensure that we are challenging our students -- and ourselves -- with difficult and controversial subjects, with opposing and inconsistent viewpoints, and with perspectives and even principles that differ from our own. Critical study, higher learning and ultimately deeper understanding come from debate and discourse. We must be made to feel uncomfortable, uneasy and uncertain at times. But we must also ensure that our students feel their classrooms and campuses are safe environments in which to examine difficult topics, debate polarizing issues or even hear from polarizing figures and criticize established as well as emergent theories. Tall orders, I would agree, but we are up to the challenge. Universities are remarkable institutions.

As the next U.S. presidential election season heats up, we naturally reflect on the last election and how our country has been changed as a result of what’s happened in Washington. The 2016 election seemed particularly partisan and divisive. It was one in which a spectrum of emotions was on display, angry rhetoric seemed more the norm and the frustrations and fears of many Americans came to the surface. It was not the best of times for our leaders, nor was it an easy time for our country. If anything, the partisanship, rhetoric, move to the extremes and resulting divisiveness all have increased in recent years. That is abundantly clear as the 2020 election season gets underway and positions, issues and candidacies are articulated.

In the days and weeks that followed the 2016 election, I made it a point to sit and speak quietly with students wherever I found them -- in our student center, walking across campus between classes and in the residence halls. We talked about the election season, the democratic process and even the outcome of the local elections in their home states. They shared conversations they had with their parents about the election. We talked about the privilege of being at a university, part of a diverse and supportive academic community, and having the opportunity to study, debate and learn -- from great faculty and from one another. In the end, I asked each student, “Where else would you rather be than at a university right now?”

If there are challenges to face, questions to ponder, processes to evaluate and outcomes to understand -- where else but at a university to do this?

As provost, I expressed my hope that ours would be a university that chooses not simply to be critical or dismissive, or worse yet, to disengage or separate from mainstream discussions, issues and needs. Rather, I asserted, we must be part of those discussions, help to lead and facilitate them and provide the knowledge, data, insight and perspectives necessary to ensure they are productive.

Our faculty stepped up and delivered. Courses were created, dialogue was facilitated, seminars were held, speakers invited, panel discussions led, class projects and opportunities for community engagement defined. Never has our calling as a flagship public university been so clear, our role so important or our place in the national discourse so profoundly needed. I was enormously proud of what was happening on our campus. But the work must continue.

For sure, we cannot back away from the study of issues we know to be timely and critical, such as climate change. Rather, universities must commit to knowledge discovery, integration and dissemination -- the science, the economics, the policy, the human and planetary impacts -- around climate change and adaptation.

But we can also use our place and time in American history to better understand the last presidential election and the dynamics of this new election season. We know, for example, that the 2016 election was the first presidential election in American history to split so clearly along lines of income, race, age, education and even urban versus rural population. Early indications are that the 2020 election will see similar patterns.

What will be our role, as universities, in addressing the issues that divide us? How will we seek to close the education gap or the income gap? How do we provide access to higher education to rural or historically underserved populations? How do we operationalize our role as institutions of higher learning to continue to reach and educate future generations of voters? How do we deal with the issues that are challenging and threatening our democracy, our values, our security, our global leadership -- and that seem to be further dividing us as a nation?

There is so much we can and must do. Following the last election, I asked our faculty to consider the audacity of this challenge in preparing syllabi, crafting courses, creating degree programs and -- most important -- engaging with our students. Once again, we are bearing witness to a remarkable time in history. And how our universities emerge in this time of both political uncertainty, social upheaval and mounting scrutiny of higher education in our country is up to us.

Bio

David V. Rosowsky is professor of engineering at the University of Vermont and served for six years as the university’s provost and senior vice president. These personal reflections are based on 15 years of experience leading organizational and institutional change in higher education. He previously served as dean of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and as head of the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Texas A&M University.

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