Universities Need to Stick to Their Mission

For over a century, an understanding existed between American universities and the rest of the country.

Universities educated the nation’s future citizens in whatever ways they saw fit. Their faculty determined what kind of research to carry out and how, with the understanding that innovation drives economic progress. This gave them an essential role and stake in both a pluralistic democracy and a capitalist economy — without being subject to the whims of politics or industry.

The government helped finance universities with tax breaks and research funding. The public paid taxes and often exorbitant tuition fees. And universities enjoyed what has come to be known as academic freedom, the ability for those in higher education to operate free from external pressure.

“Academic freedom allows us to choose which areas of knowledge we seek and pursue them,” said Anna Grzymala-Busse, a professor of international studies at Stanford. “Politically, what society expects of us is to train citizens and provide economic mobility, and that has been the bedrock of political and economic support for universities. But if universities are not fulfilling these missions, and are seen as prioritizing other missions instead, that political bargain becomes very fragile.”

Her remarks came during a recent conference on civil discourse at Stanford, ranging from free expression on campus to diversity, equity and inclusion hiring statements, which I wrote about last week. But underlying all the discussions was a real fear that universities had strayed from their essential duties, imperiling the kind of academic freedom they had enjoyed for decades.

Of course, there have long been attempts at political interference in academia, with a distrust of elitism smoldering beneath the widespread disdain for the ivory tower. But in the past few years, these sentiments have boiled over into action, with universities jolted by everything from activism by its trustees to congressional investigations to the wresting of control by the state to the threatened withdrawal of government support.

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