By Jeremi Suri, professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay originally appeared in the Dallas Morning-News.
Universities provided the fuel for American economic growth and global leadership in the last century. This is particularly true for public universities. They educated more businesspeople, governors, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and athletes than any other set of post-secondary institutions at home or abroad. Other countries can create workers to compete with Americans, but no one nurtures better thinkers and innovators.
That is why tens of thousands of the brightest children from other countries apply for admission to American universities each year.
However, America’s great public universities are in peril today. This is primarily because of the attacks they are suffering from both sides in our highly partisan politics. Activists on the left see universities as a forum for pushing their efforts to boycott Israel or demand reparations for past racial injustices. Activists on the right want universities to reaffirm American greatness and justify the use of American power at home and abroad. Critics on the left allege that wealthy donors and large corporations have “captured” universities. Critics on the right assert that leftist radicals, post-modernists and anti-Americans have corrupted university faculty, closing the doors to patriotic conservatives.
The political demands from the left and the right, and their accusations of bias within universities, are threatening the institutions they claim to champion. Fending off the finger-pointers distracts everyone from the facts, and from what universities really should be doing to help our society.
American universities have never existed to take a political stand for or against any set of policies. Even in war, universities have existed to offer space for critical evaluation of popular and unpopular positions. They are places for debate, for investigation, and for rigorous analysis. There are plenty of institutions in the United States and abroad that promote particular foreign and domestic policies. The purpose of the university is to test arguments and evidence. That is what distinguished our public universities, in particular, during the last century. They should be judged by the quality of debate on campus, not by litmus tests about whether they are sufficiently “liberal” or “conservative.” Universities exist to transcend those superficial labels.
The facts contradict claims about too much influence for wealthy donors or radical ideologues. Neither accusation stands up to the reality that anyone can see on a large university campus. The majority of faculty today are professionals, hired because of their research in a field of study — history, chemical engineering, neurobiology, law and countless others. To get hired in a very competitive job market, faculty have devoted most of their waking moments to specialized research, some teaching, and some administration. Very few faculty have time for political activism of any kind. It is, in fact, frowned upon by most disciplines as a sign that someone is “not a serious scholar.”
This professionalization is a problem because it devalues public engagement and, often, teaching. I am one of numerous scholars who have made this point. The vast majority of tenured professors at major universities are neither leftist radicals nor conservative toadies. They are ambitious careerists, seeking to gain recognition and status in their fields. If anything, they avoid politics in their research, their teaching and their interactions with students.
What public universities need today is an end to cheap political attacks and help with their core mission for our nation: nurturing the most talented, rigorous and creative citizen body. That is what will keep America on top. To do this, legislators, oversight boards and other citizens can help by connecting rather than criticizing, and contributing their talents rather than their venom. More than money, university leaders and faculty need help understanding the big issues confronting our society. More than labels, university students need opportunities for on-the-job learning from people who value their potential.
Instead of firing on universities from afar, it’s time that concerned citizens come to campus and join the conversation. University leaders and faculty are hungry for help in thinking broadly and deeply about our society’s future, regardless of one’s political affiliations.