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Opinion | Universities must restore trust. It starts with respectful debate

Higher education is at an inflection point. According to a July Gallup survey, only 17 percent of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in their colleges and universities, an historic low and down from 28 percent in 2015.

Recent months have intensified national debates about leadership, education, free speech, ethics and how (or if) to combat hate at America's universities. These developments have likely driven down confidence even further. Indeed, a December 2023 Harris poll shows that 58 percent of Americans believe university leaders are failing students. 

Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, David Dulio, Mark Navin, James Naus
Dr. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz is president of Oakland University. David Dulio is a political science professor at OU. Mark Navin is a philosophy professor at OU. James Naus is an associate professor of history at OU.

And the debates are about to get even more political. 

On the right, a backlash has been building against higher education. (In the Gallup study, the biggest decrease in confidence from 2015 to 2023 was among Republicans.) Concerns include ideological indoctrination, cancellation of speakers, disrespect for diverse viewpoints and an overemphasis on DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives. 

State legislatures in conservative states are increasingly intervening, such as Wisconsin’s ongoing efforts to defund DEI. Calls for reforms will only get louder. The left is likely to close ranks against these criticisms, entrenching both sides. 

Unfortunately, students will get caught in the middle of these ideological wars. 

In this climate, university faculty and leaders from across the political spectrum must unite to restore public trust. They should reclaim their stewardship over the core mission of university education: imparting knowledge that benefits students and society, and equipping students with tools for civil, respectful debate.

This mission includes doing both more and less than is sometimes supposed by those inside and outside of higher education. 

Our mission requires us to do more than vocational training. We prepare students for careers and also provide them with historical, economic, political and scientific knowledge they need to be informed about issues that matter. We stress the importance of open inquiry and freedom of speech, and we demonstrate how humility and respect can coexist with integrity and confidence. 

Our mission requires us to do less than ideological indoctrination. Contemporary thought in many corners of higher education often reduces complex societal issues into binary moral categories, like oppressor vs. oppressed or colonizer vs. colonized. This reductionist approach is at odds with the university's mission to foster well-informed, independent reasoning and humble inquiry about complicated issues of history, power and justice. 

Higher education needs to find its center to show its value. America’s universities must educate students in practices of good citizenship, without becoming echo chambers of narrow ideologies. Our institutions need to foster free speech; but we must do more, including not washing our hands of the responsibility to train students in critical thinking and responsible disagreement. For example, students should learn to approach complex questions like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with depth and nuance, rather than with slogans or misused, single-word descriptions. 

Universities should be proud of the place they occupy in the fabric of American life; and the public should be able to be proud of their universities. Unfortunately, discussions about America’s universities often focus on the small number of elite institutions from which our country’s wealthiest and most powerful members graduate. 

But non-elite universities, like ours at Oakland University, educate the overwhelming majority of America’s students. Regional, comprehensive public universities also do more to improve the personal and professional life trajectories of our students, which makes us perhaps the biggest agents of social mobility in the higher education ecosystem.

American higher education is at an inflection point, and failing to act now risks denying the benefit and promise of education to future generations.

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