University Campuses in the U.S. are Interesting Places

I wrote a thing on Facebook recently that got a lot of attention. In it, I tried to counter some of the talk I hear — heard again today, in fact, from Greta Van Susteren on Meet the Press — about how college campuses are no longer places where one can freely express ideas. This is a claim that is popular within a certain strain of conservative discourse in the U.S. The corresponding claim is that conservative ideas aren’t welcome on campus.

I think that claim is flat wrong. But you can read the full post, as I’ve appended it below.

Here, I want to change register and address a different strain of conversation that emerged from that post. Freddie deBoer made a comment about it. A few others raised similar questions on the post as it got shared. They pointed out that universities do exist to preserve a kind of academic culture that can be characterized as elite, exclusionary, and insular. I’d like to address that a bit here.

On Campus, Ideas Matter

What I like about university campuses compared to other kinds of similarly large, bureaucratic structures (corporate, government, or organizational) is the way we make it easy for ideas to be shared. New things can pop up with very little friction. We have a hard time shutting things down, mind you. But you can start a lot of new things fast on a college campus. The reason is that we work to build and sustain a culture that values good ideas.

Corporate spaces— and I’ve worked in a few — work almost the opposite. It’s easy to shut things down and hard to start new things. I understand why. Economically, supporting a new thing in a corporate setting almost always means allocating scarce resources — time, energy, attention, and yes money — to the new thing. It’s a zero sum affair.

But when the thing your economy runs on is ideas, there is not the same kind of zero sum situation. It’s not wrong to say that ideas compete for people’s attention, I suppose. But attention is a renewable resource. Still, it can be hard to get people to pay attention when an idea runs counter to a belief — and here I think of a belief as an idea with some age on it, some inertia.

On Campus, Ideas Have Inertia

Ideas get institutionalized on campus in ways that they may not always in other places: in textbooks that folks are required to buy, in courses and curricula that students are asked to take and demonstrate proficiency in. I work across the street from a building that has the word “Bacteriology” carved in relief on the outside. It doesn’t house that department anymore. And in any case, that department is now Microbiology and Immunology.

It’s a testament to the kind of place we are that both of these things can happen. We can feel so strongly about a thing that we etch it in stone. And we can move on to repurpose the structure, change the name, and live to talk about it. It is not an embarrassment that we do that. It’s a credit. Not a bug, a feature.

The pace of change on campus varies. Some ideas have more inertia than others. Campuses are not immune to power dynamics that keep things from changing either. Private institutions and public ones, alike, have boards of trustees that are most often comprised of wealthy people acting to maintain the circumstances that they and others like them have benefited from. Our Board at MSU is elected. So it is an explicitly, rather than implicitly, political entity. At private institutions, like the one where I began my academic career, things tend to be no less political but more about in-group influence. Boards of Trustees are, on the whole, checks on the ability of a campus to change rapidly in my experience.

The Land Grant Idea…

I don’t claim to know all about every campus across the U.S. But I’ve visited a lot of them now in my career. And I find their ability to remake themselves when good ideas come along to be a common trait.

Today, I work at an institution that has a clear mission to foster inclusion and provide access to higher learning for the people of Michigan, the state where we are chartered. What I see every day when I go to work is a group of folks who work in all kinds of roles at the University who take that mission very seriously. That means working to get better at the thing we are charged to do, not assuming we have it all 100% right. We haven’t and we don’t. I stand up and point out where we can do better, because it is my job to do that. It’s also my job to work on making the institution better. So I try to do that each day too.

Here’s my original FB message…

Look, Turkey is now purging professors and academics.

So we are officially past due to address the way people who do what I do for a living are vilified. But it happens routinely now.

I’ve had people who know me look me in the eye and tell me, because I am a professor, what I think. What my politics are. And what my job is like. That I am ruining things by creating “safe spaces” on campus. What they’ve said is usually wrong. Not even close.

Listen carefully: campuses are as challenging, uncomfortable, and intellectually engaged as ever. We don’t lack for conservative ideas. For fuck’s sake it’s mostly old white men up in here. What do you *think* it’s like? And the students? well they are your kids and grandkids. So they mostly think like you do, for good and bad. They are adults when they come to us. Young, but not blank slates.

What *is* true about campuses is that we are in the business of challenging ideas. We hold ourselves to a higher standard of truth — for a living. We insist on multiple sources of evidence and, something that is becoming more rare: we change our minds when the evidence suggests we should.

Read that again: WE CHANGE OUR MINDS WHEN THE EVIDENCE SUGGESTS WE SHOULD.

We don’t go searching for “facts” to support our feelings. And yes..that’s challenging. That’s uncomfortable. But don’t mistake it for being narrow minded or discriminatory of ideas that don’t pass muster. It’s more simple than that. Bullshit is bullshit.

Ironically, the most strident calls for “safety” come from those who want us to issue protections for discredited ideas. Things that science doesn’t support AND that have destroyed lives — things like the inherent superiority of one race over another. Those ideas wither under demands for evidence. They *are* unwelcome. But let’s be clear: they are unwelcome because they have not survived the challenge of scrutiny.

The resistance I see is from people who can’t take that scrutiny and who can’t defend their ideas. They know it. They are afraid of it. So they accuse us of shutting them out. They can’t win, and so they insist the game is rigged. The answer is more simple: they are weak. Bring a strong idea — one accompanied by evidence — and it will always win. That’s the beauty of the place where I work. Good ideas thrive. Bad ones wither and die, as they should.

My request of you: don’t let talk radio or television pundits tell you what campuses are like today. Come and visit. See for yourselves. Better yet, shadow me for a day and watch what I do for a living. Listen and watch the amazing work our young people are doing today.

If you do, you’ll see why unlike most every other economic segment in the U.S., Higher Education is the unequivocal envy of the rest of the world. It’s something to be proud of, not something to vilify.

Hyphenated, father, academic, juggler, cyclist, cook. Philosophy of life: give.

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