Leaders from some of the world’s leading research universities gathered Monday to consider the intersection of the college campus and open discourse, why universities should better publicize their positive impact on society, and strategies to make them more effective engines of social mobility.
The discussion, before a filled first floor of Hill Auditorium, was part of the second President’s Bicentennial Colloquium, hosted by President Mark Schlissel in honor of the University of Michigan’s bicentennial.
Schlissel joined 10 other members of the Board of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, including:
• Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge.
• Nick Brown, principal of Linacre College, University of Oxford.
• Nicholas B. Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.
• Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University.
• Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University.
• David Ibbetson, president of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge.
• David W. Pershing, president of the University of Utah.
• Louise Richardson, vice chancellor of the University of Oxford.
• Peter Salovey, president of Yale University.
• Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford University.
Brown University President Emerita Ruth Simmons moderated the panel. Presidential Bicentennial Professors Paul N. Courant and Sue Alcock organized the event.
The discussion focused on three main topics, followed by an opportunity for audience members to pose questions to the university leaders.
Regarding how university communities can frame and effectively carry out difficult and essential conversations, some of the leaders emphasized the importance of free and open discourse.
Borysiewicz said although society gives universities their right or license to practice their work, universities in turn are charged with holding a mirror to society — a duty that sometimes requires institutions of higher learning to speak “unpalatable truths” that society might not want to hear.
“A university is, by definition, not a safe space,” he said. “It cannot be. Because we value the freedom of speech of academics to address a range of issues. And that actually means that some members, both of the institution and those outside, will actually find some of the views debated and discussed as unacceptable or unpalatable. But to not debate them is actually the worst thing that universities could do.”
The problem, Borysiewicz added, is that society seeks to impose its values on the way in which free speech is conducted.
“The truth of the matter is that society itself has to ask the question of what are the values it espouses in universities,” he said.
In noting the public outcry that occurred when political media personalities Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter were scheduled to speak on the University of California, Berkeley’s campus, Dirks underscored the difficult position in which universities can find themselves when it comes to debates over free speech.
“We spent over $300,000 to keep riots from happening, even without her (Coulter) speaking,” Dirks said. “We were also accused of militarizing our campus. We’re trying to figure out how to go forward but again, to ensure freedom of speech, we’ve had to put $2 million in our budget for extra police costs for the coming year.”
Richardson said she believes a university is a safe space — one that has to be safe for the expression of all legal speech.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to model to our students how to deal with speech they find objectionable, how to respond to it,” she said.
During the discussion, the leaders said universities need to better publicize their positive contributions to society
Faust said media portrayals often emphasize the rising costs of higher education. She added she believes many families feel trapped by this sense of rising cost and student debt, as well as by the concept that a college degree is necessary to gain entrance into the middle class.
She said universities need to make a better case for all they do that is positive in the lives of these people.
“We’re accountable to the present and the instrumental view of education, and what jobs our students are going to get. Absolutely, we have to explain that,” Faust later said. “But we cannot abandon the notion of our accountability to the future, and to the big questions that will enable our societies to move from where they are today to where they need to be.”
Tessier-Lavigne said universities also need to communicate how their research enterprise produces knowledge that eventually leads to discoveries, cures and jobs.
Regarding the strategies for higher education to effect social mobility, Brown said universities need to ensure that when they welcome students from less privileged backgrounds, they do not set them up to fail.
Eisgruber said if universities care about excellence and talent, they must look for talented students from every sector in society. At Princeton, he said, officials significantly increased the number of lower-income students on campus, in part by recruiting them into their applicant pool and evaluating their applications differently.
“We need to recognize that if we care about socioeconomic mobility within the country, one of the indispensable pieces of that is bringing students to extraordinary universities like Michigan or Princeton,” Eisgruber said.
In his remarks, Schlissel said the right tools have not really been determined to identify talented students whose gifts might not shine through traditional metrics of achievement, such as standardized test scores and grade-point averages.
He said either universities educate people to their full potential, or “everybody loses” and society is deprived of productive fellow citizens.
“The converse — everybody benefits,” Schlissel said. “Every talented person that gets an education here is going to be a productive citizen to everyone’s betterment. Our challenge as leaders is to develop the right narrative to explain that to our fellow citizens and our elected leaders.”