Higher ed’s response to the issues that dominated the news in 2020 (opinion)

When we look back on 2020 in the United States, we find two topics dominated the news: Donald Trump’s presidency and the coronavirus. Many of us will agree that Trump’s presidency was toxic and the pandemic a tragedy that could have been more carefully controlled. We also will agree that Trump and the pandemic’s destiny were intertwined. If the pandemic had not happened, then Donald Trump might have been re-elected president. If Trump had paid attention to scientists, then far fewer individuals would have died.

Certain individuals and organizations undoubtedly will be looked on admirably for their efforts during 2020 as well as the events leading up to the twin crises. First responders, such as doctors, nurses and hospital staff, toiled around the clock to help patients throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Scientists in their laboratories worked herculean hours to develop a verifiable vaccine that might help control the virus, and Dr. Anthony Fauci became one of the most admired individuals in America.

Although the Trump administration hobbled traditionally admired federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several state agencies sought to counteract disinformation and aid the citizenry. When the Trump administration disdained a national effort, New York implemented a contact tracing initiative to help slow the spread of COVID-19. California developed a free testing plan within months that enabled individuals to find out their status within 48 hours. Many governors relied on the scientific expertise in their health agencies to develop plans that thwarted the worst possibilities for the virus’s spread.

And when we look to the organizations that have defended us against an unprecedented assault on our democracy by Trump and his minions, two groups stand out: the courts and the media.

Trump used his own megaphone to argue that the election was stolen, regardless of the results. The courts, however, repeatedly dismissed his claims. Without the courts to backstop fair elections, democracy would have been at risk. Even many judges appointed by Trump or other Republicans have stood for the voice of law and have thus far performed in admirable fashion.

The news media, although not without significant weaknesses, tried in many instances to correct the fallacies put out by the Trump administration. To be sure, many media outlets, such as Fox News, were little more than mouthpieces for the president. Social media and networking sites — such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — had to think through their role in defining truth while being tempted with inordinate financial gain. Nevertheless, during and after the election, many reporters and columnists in organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic have been the target of the president’s attacks precisely because they’ve been on the front lines in fighting an onslaught of inaccuracies and lies.

Higher education’s role with regard to both the pandemic and the presidency of Donald Trump, however, has generally been less laudatory. For every Duke University that put forward an admirable plan to help control the virus and hold classes, we saw examples like the University of Notre Dame. Father Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, scolded his students when they stormed the football field after the Fighting Irish beat Clemson University — thereby creating the conditions for a superspreader event — yet only after he himself went unmasked to a White House reception that became one of the most renowned superspreaders.

That’s not to overlook the fact that many individuals in academe performed admirably in the fight against COVID. An argument can be made that, without those individuals, the virus’s impact would have been far worse. Research centers affiliated with universities conducted trials and tests that have dramatically improved what we knew about the ability of the virus to spread indoors and outdoors. Scientists such as Fauci reflected their academic training when he put forward ideas about how to lessen the impact of the virus by social distancing and wearing masks. The scientists working on vaccines were trained in universities.

Moreover, faculty members at colleges and universities across the country, frequently derided for an inability to change, switched at a moment’s notice from teaching in person to online. And most professors showed a degree of care for their students’ well-being that demonstrated empathy and compassion.

Yet, in general, our colleges and universities’ response to how to proceed delivering educational services was disjointed and lackluster. Much of that was understandable: the challenge for academic institutions was not unlike the challenge all businesses faced — how to survive if in-person and auxiliary services were canceled. Institutions’ lack of revenue streams made it difficult, at best, to try to keep faculty and staff members employed. But at times colleges and universities have based too many important decisions on financial concerns alone.

The clearest example of an auxiliary source of funds that continued was football. Although many of us are football fans and equate the fall with watching our favorites play on the gridiron, no one could honestly argue that football was an essential service. If we had canceled football, some institutions surely would have lost a great deal of revenue. But the country, and students, would have been safer without fans rushing fields and individuals gathering in bars to cheer for their teams.

What about the other crises — such as that of our democracy? Many individual scholars were called on for their expertise on issues such as how democracies fail, how populism takes hold in a country and what the communicative tools are that a fascist uses to gain power. I am troubled, however, that social institutions that claim their raison d’être is about the search for truth have largely sat on the sidelines while truth — about both the virus and our democracy — has been under attack.

We have neither seen vigorous leaders nor higher education as a system speak out on behalf of democracy. Father Theodore Hesburgh was one of the most admired individuals in the country in the 1960s, and while by no means perfect, when he spoke out about civil rights, the country had to listen.

Higher education as a system could have fought vocally and strenuously against the McCarthy witch hunts in the 1950s, but unfortunately, all too often, faculties and administrations ducked arguments. We have the same trouble today. We have no clear national leader who commands respect and speaks as a moral compass during Trump’s assault on democracy. And as a system, we have not spoken out forcefully enough about the vital role academe plays in advancing democracy.

An Inflection Point

So where are we now? By many accounts, academe is at an inflection point. Some people argue that everything will change. Some even suggest that higher education as we have known it will soon go out of existence.

The way forward for any social institution is first to assess the past. My own sense is that colleges and universities have a vital role to play at preserving and enhancing democracy in the United States. But we have to be much more engaged than we have been before and during 2020. We should work assiduously at enabling to vote all students who are qualified to vote. We should encourage difficult dialogues to occur on our campuses rather than shudder at them. Presidents also need to speak out publicly on difficult issues rather than duck them. Their leadership should be emblematic of what they want for their faculties: to search for truth by fomenting such dialogues. We should support initiatives aimed at decreasing student debt and at increasing diversity on our faculties and in our student bodies. And we should support the idea of tenure because it protects academic freedom and not let the pandemic become an excuse for limiting or reducing it.

For all the promise and innovation that the internet has enabled, the “deepfakes” that are upon us — where we are unable to discern truth from fiction — cry out for the centrality of social institutions dedicated to understanding truth. Such institutions will make the case of putting ideas and purpose before revenue and football games.

I acknowledge the financial risks associated with keeping students at home, and the resultant loss of income on an institution’s bottom line. I do not minimize the economic jeopardy associated with criticizing a president and his administration. A successful future, however, rests on a clear articulation of the centrality of American higher education in discerning and speaking the truth and in supporting democracy.

Janelle B. Smith

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