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?

More From Mike Tolhurst
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