As we say in Texas, no matter how flat you make a pancake, it always has two sides. While disagreements about ideological bias in higher education dominate headlines, what is often missing from the discussion is that both sides are actually joined together by a fundamental point of agreement: curriculum and pedagogy must adapt and respond to the needs of students and our democracy. While each side argues about who is teaching what, what is missing is a much-needed look at how to improve the process by which we make these adaptations.
Lately, university governing boards around the country have been considering the balance and diversity of intellectual scholarship in the institutions they oversee. Many of those stewarding our institutions are concerned that students are too often being taught what to think instead of how to think, particularly about current events and history.
These concerns about politicized agendas often resonate with the taxpayers who are footing the bill for our public institutions—and our elected officials are paying attention. In a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, 61 percent of Americans said they believe higher education in the U.S. is going in the wrong direction. Among those, 81 percent said one reason is that “colleges and universities are too concerned about protecting students from views they might find offensive.”
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In my home state, the Texas Legislature responded to concerns about a lack of intellectual diversity by appropriating $6 million to fund the creation of the Civitas Institute at the University of Texas, “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.” And the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is considering a new School of Civic Life and Leadership, with a goal of ending “political constraints on what can be taught in university classes.”
Programs like the University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom and Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions have successfully fostered rigorous scholarship and enlightened conversation for years.
Given public debates about academic freedom in higher education, the question is not whether these programs are needed—in my view, they are—but how to establish them in a way that ensures that they don’t fall prey to the same problems that required their creation in the first place.
That takes us to issues of higher education governance—a process that is often tediously slow and too often inefficient but nevertheless the way we do business today. From a macro perspective, higher education oversight operates as a three-legged stool held up by the states, the federal government and accrediting agencies, collectively known as the triad, all charged with protecting the interests of students, taxpayers and the public.
But at the ground level, there are additional stakeholders whose buy-in is essential for a program to grow and thrive. These include the students, administrators and faculty whose interests the triad is tasked with protecting. The No. 1 way that these front-line stakeholders are heard is through the accreditation process.
Accreditation agencies are nongovernmental organizations authorized by the U.S. Department of Education to develop and assess institutional quality standards. Since the release of the report of the (so-called) Spellings Commission in 2006, I have urged improvements in the accreditation process. Its focus on process over results and onerous reporting requirements too often poses an unreasonable burden on those they are meant to listen to, as detailed in a timely new report from New America. However, as hidebound as accreditation processes are, they remain a key gatekeeping mechanism for the federal financial aid funds that help students pay for college and allow many higher education institutions to survive and thrive.
By updating the way we develop and evaluate new higher education programs to more effectively tap into faculty expertise and withstand accreditation scrutiny, we can better serve both students and the public. This must be done with respect for the role of all players in the process—educators and public representatives alike—and with a shared commitment to building something long-lasting, attractive to students and scholars, and financially sustainable.
Here’s where to start.
All stakeholders must begin by acknowledging that each comes from a place of shared interest in meeting student and public needs while respecting the role academic leaders play—and have played—in creating the world’s finest universities.
It’s always amused me that the folks who rail against the academy are often the same ones who proudly note that our universities are the innovation and human capital engines that make our states and communities magnets for economic and cultural growth. Equally ironic is the disdain too many academic leaders have for their elected officials—even as those legislators appropriate large portions of state budgets to universities in support of faculty, administrators and staff. So first, let’s set aside the political bickering and start from a place of mutual respect and goodwill.
Second, acknowledge the important contributions each stakeholder provides. Yes, higher education governance is often too slow and bureaucratic, but we can improve that without shutting key voices and constituencies out of the process.
New programs must often clear hurdles through state higher education systems or coordinating boards to make sure they meet a need or demand, are not duplicative of existing programs, and are financially sustainable. In addition, accrediting bodies want to ensure that programs are created within the context of shared governance. Processes to create new programs can and do vary around the country, but initiators should first understand what it takes to create them and work collaboratively to make them a reality.
Identifying needs and developing programs to meet them should begin with productive conversations between chancellors and/or presidents and governing boards. And the creation of high-quality academic programs requires the input of faculty. As front-line educators, they are best positioned to consider the availability of faculty and resources in the context of existing offerings. And cultivating buy-in from existing faculty and staff is essential to creating a climate where new faculty will feel welcome and supported.
Reinvigorating our public universities as places of rigorous learning, cultivating respect for different views and fostering intellectual growth are worthy goals. We can achieve all this, and more, by modeling the behaviors we want to nurture as we develop new educational programs that meet the needs of this and future generations.