Emily Chamlee-Wright and Ryan Stowers
A majority of Americans believe that a four-year college degree is not worth the cost. That’s the eye-catching finding of a new Wall Street Journal-NORC poll released this week. The survey affirms what the Pew Research Center identified in 2018 as declining trust in higher education, with 61% of Americans believing it was heading in the wrong direction.
In the face of such trends, one might think that professors would be leaping to the industry’s defense. But they too are registering deep concern. According to a recent survey by FIRE, 52% of university faculty are worried about losing their job or reputation because someone – a student, a colleague, or administrator – might misunderstand or take out of context something they have said or done. Not surprisingly, this ever-present anxiety is chilling the open exchange of ideas, not just among conservatives, but politically moderate and left-of-center professors as well.
At first blush, these findings may seem incompatible. A frustrated public might ask why we should give a whit about the plight of professors. But we should care, in part because scholars help to drive scientific innovation and creative discovery, that is, if they are operating in a context of genuine openness.
Even more importantly, to the extent that they share and practice the intellectual virtues – openness, curiosity, humility, honesty, integrity – scholars are key players in the success of a free, liberally democratic society of self-governing citizens.
Much ink has been spilt on the fact that higher ed is struggling, and justifiably so. Threats to academic freedom are coming from both the left and the right. All sides are frustrated by the rising costs of a four-year degree.
And yet, the world is burning. Globally, populist thugs act with impunity. Recession looms while public debt soars. Bitter polarization threatens to tear us apart. And whether it’s the next pandemic or the next bank collapse that keeps us up at night, the greater concern is that authoritarian remedies will be the go-to default, leaving us less free, less prosperous, and less resilient in the wake of every crisis.
No matter the current state of American higher education, we need the best scholarly minds – intellectually talented people of good will, coming together in good faith – to apply the principles of political, economic, intellectual, and civic freedom to the complex challenges we face.
For example, if you’re worried about rising healthcare costs, you should know about West Virginia University’s Ed Timmons and Alicia Plemmons. Their research identifies regulatory reforms – such as broadening the scope of practice for physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners – that, with the stroke of a pen, make healthcare more affordable and more accessible without sacrificing quality of care.
Concerned about corporate governance? So is Florida Atlantic University’s Siri Terjesen. In response to top-down ESG proposals aimed at diversifying corporate boards, Terjesen and her colleagues offer a bottom-up approach that can not only be more effective in meeting diversity goals, but also build upon and strengthen civic relationships within local communities.
Looking for ways to reduce the toxicity of online speech without undermining civil liberties? Meet Penn State University’s Kevin Munger, who deploys randomized field experiments to identify bottom-up methods for improving social norms and reducing racist harassment online.
As leaders of two organizations that spot and support bright minds like these, we can tell the stories of thousands more, each working to ensure that the ideas that foster free and flourishing societies are ready-at-hand.
And in a moment when so many on both the left and right have declared the classical liberal tradition of political, economic, and intellectual freedom a failure, we believe that it’s this tradition that offers the insights the country, indeed the world, needs most urgently. That’s why we connect these scholars, through intellectual exchange and collaboration, not because they agree on all the answers, but because they have the humility to know that to do their best work, they need one another.
Ultimately, our efforts and the efforts of anyone working in academe must advance a true republic of science in which the best ideas meet, correct, and improve one another. It’s under such conditions that better ideas achieve “escape velocity” and get to where they are needed most urgently in the broader world.
Along the way, higher ed may get back on track. If it does, it will be because professors – those who understand the vital role institutions of higher learning play in a society of self-governing people – drive that change.
Emily Chamlee-Wright is president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies. Ryan Stowers is executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation and chairman of the Institute for Humane Studies’ board of directors.
In today’s digital world, more and more people are turning to online sources for their education. The need for traditional professors, however, remains as strong as ever and is changing for the better. Professors with good ideas are essential for teaching future generations.
Professors with good ideas hold immense value in higher education. They provide students with the knowledge and tools that enable them to think critically and make informed decisions. They also foster an environment conducive to collaboration and independent learning. Good professors can stimulate discussion, challenge beliefs, and promote the exchange of ideas. These benefits are essential for any higher education institution seeking to create well-rounded graduates.
Professors with good ideas also bring fresh perspectives to the classroom. By presenting diverse viewpoints and encouraging students to do their own research–whether it be with books, articles, or multimedia sources–these professors can help widen students’ intellectual horizons. A professor with good ideas can foster an environment of open-mindedness and exploration that makes students not just receptive of new information, but capable of questioning and challenging it.
Professors with good ideas are also essential for research. Forward-thinking professors can help propel research forward by delving into exciting new areas. By giving students the necessary skills and support to think for themselves and explore complex topics, such professors can create ripples that extend beyond their classroom.
In short, professors with good ideas are essential for higher education. They bring a wealth of insight, knowledge, and diverse perspectives to the classroom and their research. Whether its encouraging students to think critically, promoting independent learning, or fostering open-mindedness, professors with good ideas have an enormous impact on higher education. With this in mind, it is essential that we make sure that we foster an environment that promotes the spread of good ideas in our higher education institutions.