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Open academic culture, more crucial than ever, is in peril

Why campuses are becoming polarized — and what we can do about it.

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  • The narrowing of academic freedom is a major problem for institutions of higher education.
  • Social media, external pressures, and increasingly diverse student bodies — while providing some positives — create more opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication.
  • Reaffirming the value of and commitment to open debate ensures a more vibrant academic culture.

Polarization, which divides our country to a historic degree these days, is no stranger to academia. Many people on campuses nationwide, including professors, cite a feeling of walking on eggshells around students and colleagues. Academic freedom and a commitment to open inquiry and open discussion, long the mission of colleges and universities, is endangered.

While polling reveals universities continue to do better than other institutions as places to meet and discuss big ideas across divides, outrage mobs targeted at academics (sometimes by other academics) and recent instances of banning speakers suggests that the narrowing of academic freedom is a growing problem.

How academic freedom strengthens the bonds of accumulated knowledge

Several factors play into this trend. Social media is a blessing and a curse — a great way for up-and-coming scholars to quickly share their work but also an instantaneous vehicle for acrimony. External pressures, be they state budget cutbacks, enrollment fluctuations, or a desire to put on a good face for alumni and donors, squeeze our institutions with a new level of ferocity. Changes in funding can encourage administrations to view university resources as zero sum, pushing individuals into a defensive, rather than open, mindset. And, as institutions become more and more conscious of outsiders' perceptions, faculty with controversial opinions can be treated as liabilities.

Finally, the diversification of student bodies, a cause for celebration, can inadvertently create new challenges. The postwar period has seen more and more women, minorities, non-traditional students, and first-generation college attendees pursuing degrees. The value of increased access to college education is immense — for individuals, universities, and the country at large. Diversity enriches perspectives present on campus, but it can also lead to increased opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication across divides if not handled well at the expense of open debate.

Many of these pressures on open academic discourse are not unique to academia. Some, particularly the increasing range of Americans who can attend college, are great positives. But all point to an institution undergoing seismic change. When added to the many other opportunities and challenges universities face concerning access, quality, and equipping today's students for success, it is easy to lose sight of the important culture of openness that makes our universities special compared to any other institution.

Reaffirming the importance of an open academy

How can we ensure that our colleges and universities remain places where controversial ideas are openly discussed and differences in thought and opinion are not just expressed but listened to? Faculty must remain committed to a culture of open debate; no one else within the academy can be regularly relied upon to be advocates for these values.

This is not to suggest that administrators or presidents are hostile to free expression. Far from it. Many presidents, such as Mitch Daniels at Purdue or Robert Zimmerman at the University of Chicago have robustly and articulately defended the value of open discourse. But university leaders are not involved in the daily give-and-take of academic discourse. Professors are the linchpin of academic freedom, and they must lead the charge to open debate.

In reaffirming these values, it is important for faculty to incorporate them in their own work. This means welcoming other views and recognizing the value they add to the conversation. While the rest of the culture may be consumed by partisan rancor on social media, academics can and should aspire to be better. Creating a truly open conversation requires a willingness to be a little kinder to each other and to assume that others in the academic enterprise are acting with best intentions even when they might be wrong. It's faculty who most benefit from a university's commitment to open discourse; it is they who must become its most ardent defenders.

Faculty must become educators not only in their field but as advocates for open inquiry. As those who uphold and create a vibrant academic culture, professors are the ones who can educate others in that culture — students, administrators, donors and lawmakers. In much the same way that many media organizations look, as they deliver the news, to educate their readers about the importance of sourcing and fact-checking — core practices of reliable news gathering—faculty should emphasize how a culture of openness is critical to conducting their work. The goal should be to welcome and incorporate new voices while retaining a commitment to core university values.

How can we improve the quality of higher education?

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It's true that high-school calculus teachers torture their students with them, but it's also true that once some degree of mastery is in hand, mathematicians love a good — efficient, clever, and useful — formula.

These things aren't just for classrooms or advanced scientific applications, either. While it's amazing that formulas predict what will happen if we slingshot a spacecraft around some distant celestial body, they can also be part of our earthly lives calculating all sorts of everyday things.

In any event, for many math heads (carefully typed), slinging formulas together and inventing new calculators is just plain fun. Last week, for example, UK physicist Steven Wooding sent us the link to a calculator he and a friend constructed that predicts contactable alien civilizations. That was fun, but the site to which he directed us is nothing short of dazzling: It's called Omni Calculator, and it's a mind boggling repository of 1175 calculators whose purpose is to help everyone get to the right answers in their personal and professional lives.

A mathematical treasure chest

Image source: Alexey Godzenko/Shutterstock

Want to know exactly how many balloons it would take to send your house airborne, as in the Pixar's Up? No problem. Hate running unexpectedly out of toothpaste en route to bed? Live your best life. Ditto toilet paper.

Some of the calculators are pretty profound, too, such as the Every Second calculator that shows just how much happens in the world every 60th of a minute — it's an enthralling set of numbers.

Fun stuff aside, Omni Calculator is an absolutely staggering collection, an incredible resource for normal people and professionals from doctors to chemists to financial advisers to construction teams and more.

Who is Omni Calculator?

Image source: rawf8/Shutterstock

Omni Calculator is the project of a Polish startup of 24 people dedicated to helping people solve all of the small math problems in their daily lives. The company manifesto:

"In a surprisingly large part, our reality consists of calculable problems. Should I buy or rent? What's my ideal calorie intake? Can I afford to take this loan? How many lemonades do I need to sell in order to break even? Often times we don't solve these problems, because we lack knowledge, skills, time or willingness to calculate. And then we make bad, uninformed decisions?"
Omni Calculator is here to change all that — we are working on a technology that will turn every* calculation-based problem trivial to solve for anyone.

The asterisk says, "within reason."

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At some point Mateus changed his goal: "Instead of calculating one thing, we'll calculate all of them — for everybody." To serve this aim, all of Omni Calculator's calculators are free to use, developed by the company in collaboration with all sorts of experts.

Go spend some time looking around and bookmarking tools for your own use. You're pretty much guaranteed to find something that solves a problem with which you're struggling. At the very least you'll come across some amazing calculators that will get you thinking about unexpected things.

COVID Calculators

Omni Calculator provides a special set of calculators that allow you to crunch COVID-19 numbers for yourself, from a social distancing calculator to one that can predict when your next stimulus check should be due.

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