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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.
- 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?
Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.
- A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
- The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
- Previous studies show that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.
Just what we needed to know before walking into another spider web<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="vV8EYzwn" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="37004fd34a066f4eee06fa5feba6c111"> <div id="botr_vV8EYzwn_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/vV8EYzwn-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/vV8EYzwn-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/vV8EYzwn-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The study, published in the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jproteome.0c00086" target="_blank"><em>Journal of Proteome Research</em></a>, was carried out by Biochemical ecologist Mario Palma of the University of São Paulo State, their Ph.D. student Franciele Esteves, and their colleagues. They focused on the webs of the striking <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trichonephila_clavipes" target="_blank">T. clavipes</a><em>, also known as the Banana Spider.</em></p><p><em>These spiders are orb weavers, known for their complex and often large webs. They can have up to seven glands that produce silk for various </em><a href="https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/item/how-do-spiders-avoid-getting-tangled-in-their-own-webs/" target="_blank">purposes</a><em>, including catching prey, shielding themselves, protecting their eggs, mating rituals, and making webbing to walk on.</em><em></em></p><p>The researchers examined the spiders' various web producing glands. This revealed a spectrum of neurotoxin-like proteins not dissimilar to those found in the spider's venom present on the silk. On the web, these proteins are suspended in oily, fatty acids. <br> <br> Following up on this discovery, they tested the proteins' effectiveness on insects. Most of those test subjects were paralyzed less than a minute after exposure, and a few died. These experiences relied on the injection of the proteins rather than on absorption but did demonstrate their capacity. Further tests showed that the fatty acids the proteins reside in could allow them to enter the body of prey <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/spider-webs-me-be-more-than-just-a-trap-they-might-also-do-the-butchering" target="_blank">insects</a>. </p><p>Previous studies demonstrated that some spiders can add certain chemicals to their webs to repel larger insects which could cause the spider trouble. So, the idea that some spiders are adding another chemical, this time to cause paralysis, to the mix isn't too far-fetched. </p><p>However, some scientists aren't so sure about all <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/spiders-poisonous-webs-neuro-toxins-genes" target="_blank">this</a>. They call for further study into the mechanism of action to demonstrate that these proteins cause paralysis and rule out potential other applications.</p><p>So, those of you who like animal facts can take pride in knowing that spider webs sometimes have poison in them to stun their prey. Those of you who are terrified of spiders can fear the same information. Either way, walking into a spider web just got even less pleasant. </p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
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