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America's Uncertain Search for Truth and the Fate of Universities
Julia Schleck gave the first CAS Inquire talk on September 6, 2022 for the theme "Searching for Common Ground in a Polarized World."
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Good evening. I'm Dr.
the director of the College of Arts and Sciences Inquire Program.
Thank you all so much for coming this evening whether in person or via Zoom
to the first installment of this Inquire lecture series.
With the title Searching for Common Ground in a Polarized World,
the Inquire program is structured around these lectures,
which allows students, faculty, staff and the wider public
the opportunity to investigate how we as individuals and society
understand the concept of civil discourse.
Additionally, it creates an opportunity to learn about the fascinating research
faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences are conducting.
Further, it enables students to see
the various disciplinary approaches to the study of a topic,
as well as the necessity of multi-, trans-, and interdisciplinary
insights to truly understand human thoughts, beliefs and actions.
Tonight's lecture by Dr.
Julia Schleck, associate professor in and vice chair
of the Department of English, explores the fraught relationship
between freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry.
Dr. Schleck is the author of Dirty Knowledge Academic Freedom
in the Age of Neoliberalism.
So if you're interested in the topic tonight,
you can buy your book available from the University of Nebraska Press.
And she was recently awarded the National Council
of Teachers of English's National Intellectual Freedom Award.
Please join me in welcoming Dr. Schleck.
Thank you so much, Taylor.
Thank you to the college for giving me this opportunity to speak.
So as you heard the theme of the Arts and Sciences Inquire series this year,
searching for common ground in a polarized world.
In this lecture, I sketch how we in the university
might grapple with this polarization, which has had catastrophic effects
on higher education, including the decline of public trust and support,
the emergence of partizan, attacks from across the political spectrum,
the targeting of individual professors and the reduction of public funding.
A common feature of these attacks is the promise that universities
have become politically tainted and advance particular political agendas
instead of serving as neutral fount of knowledge and expertise.
And in response, scholars and defenders of higher education
reverted to and insisted upon what has become the longstanding
core argument in favor of public support for universities that they serve
a generalized common or public good.
They generate knowledge and expertize, which is essentially
apolitical and benefits,
all irrespective of cultural identity, social position or political belief.
Now, let me be clear.
I believe that universities absolutely deserve public support and indeed
that they should receive much greater public support than they do currently.
And moreover, I hold that strong institutions of higher education
and the knowledge that they generate
are essential for a well-functioning and just society.
But in this talk, I will contend that the idea that universities
merit social resources because they serve an undifferentiated and apolitical common
good is no longer sufficiently robust or persuasive
to secure the broad public and political support that is needed.
But of course, lives work will move forward.
A. So I will open by tracing the prevailing common good notion.
And in the next few sections, I'll show the frailty of that conception
by sketching recent
precipitous declines in public belief and investment in universities.
And finally, I argue that the apolitical public good notion
not only fails accurately to capture the complexity
of what takes place within university walls, it also denies
one of the critical social benefits of institutions of higher education,
namely that universities serve as arenas for political contestation.
Collegial, well-informed, thoroughly documented, rigorously vetted.
Long term debates. Debates
over what has happened and is happening in the world over
what ways of knowing,
generate credible knowledge and therefore deserve support over the broad
material, social and cultural implications of particular findings.
And ultimately over what is to be done. So part one.
Let's begin with a review of the conception of academic freedom
and the role of the university in society which we have all inherited
from past generations.
Many of you here will know it well,
but it may be new to our inquiry students or to others.
So in the first few decades of the 20th century, educational reformers,
including many who were founding members of the American Association
of University Professors or AAUP, forged a new argument
about the role and function of higher education in society and a new conception
of the norms governing faculty work within universities.
They argued that university faculty should be given very wide latitude
in their research and teaching and protection from employment
consequences if their choices of research projects or their courses
angered political, religious or economic elites.
At this time, faculty
at other institutions were increasingly being dismissed from their positions
for views on the events of the day, like Chinese immigration,
the gold standard and child labor, which was still a practice at the time.
So here at UNL, several professors, in fact, were fired for being opposed
to World War One or for having the misfortune
to be specialist in German literature and history at that time.
Reformers sought to provide protections for faculty work,
not for the sake of the faculty per say, but because the work they did
was seen as contributing to the progress of US society as a whole,
inhibiting their ability to think and speak freely, to hobble
their pursuit of truth with worries over whether they would lose their jobs
if they followed,
where the evidence led and taught that new knowledge to their students.
This was seen as damaging to society as a whole.
Protecting faculty works, the reformers argued, was a necessity if our society
wished to progress economically, scientifically, morally, socially.
Faculty members such as philosopher Arthur Lovejoy, economist Edward Seligman
and law professor Roscoe Pound, who went on to be
one of UNO law school's more lustrous deans,
helped to found the AAUP, an organization that would advocate vigorously
for this understanding of the university and its place in society.
The AAUP first articulated its arguments about academic freedom
in its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
The 1915 declaration laid out the principles of academic
freedom, as it would be understood for most of the 20th century.
In it, they state that the importance of academic freedom is most clearly
perceived in the light of the purposes for which universities exist.
They list these as first to promote inquiry and advance
the sum of human knowledge.
To do this complete and unlimited freedom to pursue
inquiry and publish its results was absolutely necessary.
The authors write that such freedom as the breath in the nostrils
of all scholarly inquiry.
Without it, the human pursuit of knowledge is suffocated.
The second purpose
for which the university existed was to provide instruction to students
based on the results of scholarly career in the past, up
to and including the latest publication and developing ideas.
Finally, the university existed to develop experts for the use of the community.
They write that if there is one thing that distinguishes the more recent
developments of democracy, it is the recognition by legislators
of the inherent complexities of economic, social and political life
and the difficulty of solving
problems of technical adjustment without technical knowledge.
The recognition of this fact has led to a continually greater demand
for the aid of experts
in these subjects to advise both legislators and administrators.
The training of such experts has accordingly in recent years
become an important part of the work of the universities.
To ensure that the faculty were able to accomplish these three goals.
A rigorous set of procedures and protections would be slowly codified
and regularized into what is usually referred to as tenure and due process.
Advocates of tenure and due process justified these extraordinary employment
protections by grounding them in the value to society of the work done by faculty
and making it clear that such work could not be done properly without them.
This is usually expressed in the insistence that faculty work and research
and teaching is done for the common good or for the public good.
In order for this knowledge to be as true or as high quality as possible,
it must be generated under the freest possible conditions.
They argued, unaffected by fear of offending someone and losing one's job.
Furthermore, the development
of expert knowledge and expertize must be solely in the hands of experts
who are the only people in a position properly to evaluate it.
At the same time that faculty argued for the necessity
of employment protections that would keep non-experts
in positions of power from censoring work they didn't like.
They argued for passing this control to the faculty themselves
who would peer review and self-regulate the work produced in their fields.
Thus, control of knowledge production was passed from political
and economic elites, ultimately to a cadre of professionals
rapidly organizing into self-regulated disciplines.
So while academic freedom is commonly
thought of today as a kind of free speech for professors,
it was in fact grounded in the function that the university
was thought to play in society and the necessity of protecting that work.
There are other significant differences between academic freedom
and our constitutionally protected
right to free speech, which are also worth noting, particularly
since so many of the battles playing out in our society more broadly
take the form of fights over free speech when they occur on university campuses.
Most simply, free speech is a political right,
ensuring that the government will not persecute its citizens for their speech.
This severely limits
the cases in which an individual can incur legal penalties for speech.
For example, things like treason, libel, that kind of stuff.
And employers, on the other hand, of course, regularly
punish their employees for speech.
They find problematic, whether uttered on the job or in someone's off hours.
You might remember this woman who expressed her negative opinion
of the president as he passed by in the park in his motorcade.
She was not arrested by the government, but she was fired by her employer.
In contrast, academic freedom is not legally protected.
Its legal status, at least not by statute.
It's legally legal status has not been well developed,
and it tends to show up parenthetically in most legal cases,
in a footnote or in an exception to a ruling , for example.
However, it is a very strong norm within higher ed
and one that most academic employers strive to respect
if they wish to be taken seriously as an institution of higher learning.
Internal rules of process, usually called bylaws, protect
the academic freedom of the faculty and to some extent, students as well.
So in some ways, free speech is primarily a political protection,
while academic freedom is primarily an employment protection.
There's a subtler difference as well, one that has to do with expertize,
intellectually speaking, as legal scholar Robert Post argues.
Thinking of academic freedom as just a kind of free speech on campus
but quote, essentially enforce the premise explicit within First Amendment doctrine
that there is an equality of status in the field of ideas.
That's a quote. In other words, legally speaking, all speech utterances are more
or less equal in terms of the protection they warrant, regardless of their content.
Post notes that this is out of step with the ultimate judgment,
with the scholarly methods of knowledge production,
which require a careful assessment and an ultimate judgment
on the superiority of certain ideas over others within the Academy.
All ideas are not equal.
Or rather, all ideas may be equally expressed, but that's only the first step.
After that, they'll be subjected to rigorous scrutiny,
and some will be rejected as flawed or inadequate.
Academic speech is aiming at creating knowledge,
and it relies on the collective judgments of experts to sort through
which ideas are the weight and which are the chaff.
This understanding of the purpose of higher education in society,
which we inherited from the progressive era, was predicated upon a deep faith
in the idea that intellectual expertize would assist US society to progress.
In this story, academic work is seen as critical to our country's
Freely articulating new ideas, then assessing, rejecting, and ultimately
selecting for publication or oral communication.
New knowledge in a variety of fields.
All of this was regarded as important to our nation as a whole.
University expertize was trusted and valued.
For two public opinion today.
So I'm not sure whether that vision
of the university's place in society was ever fully realized historically,
but we are definitely in a very different place now in 2019.
The Pew Research Center released a poll
surveying the public on their views of higher education.
In that poll, only 38% of the public continues
to say that colleges and universities are going in the right direction.
A New America poll released just this year puts
the percentage of Americans who believe institutions of higher education
were having a positive impact on the country more like 55%.
But it also showed that support goes going down over time.
The same poll last year put positive responses of 58%
and 69% in early 2020, just before the start of the pandemic.
Other polls consistently replicate the general numbers.
So the fact that at best, only slightly over half of Americans
feel that universities contribute positively to our society
should give us serious pause.
If the goal of university work in our classrooms
and our research programs is to serve the public good,
the public is clearly not feeling it.
If this were a course where the assignments
were based on persuasively demonstrating our commitment to the public good,
we would be failing this class.
So this negative view of the university's work is not uniform
across the political spectrum, a point that is frequently highlighted
by news organizations that report on such polls.
Confidence in the good effects of universities on society
has plummeted among people who identify as Republican.
Over the last ten years, coinciding with the widespread adoption
of attacks on higher education among leading politicians on the right.
But while growing skepticism within the GOP is definitely driving the swift
downward slide, support from liberals isn't exactly off the charts .
Coming in at 67% and concern over the cost of higher
education is nearly universal.
Its polls are matched by popular rhetoric.
Popular communication channels on social media, podcasts
and minor online media sources are filled with critiques in which
not only does the university expertize, whether originating on campus
or ensconced in the halls of government, not contribute to the public good.
It is precisely these experts
who have caused the country to fall from a prior greatness
and who helped to inflict suffering on the population.
Suspicion of elite decision making, which has not benefited
the public at large, now extends to condemnation of the expertize
provided to them by the highly educated.
Unsurprisingly, some of this populist rhetoric is conservative.
They argue that academic elites are betraying traditional values
that must be preserved and protected.
We may be progressing, they concede, but not in the right direction.
And we are leaving behind too many important things.
Some of this populist rhetoric is coming from the left.
They argue that university experts are serving an elite
rather than the people at large, and therefore that academic work
mainly buttresses a class structure in which the majority of Americans are
suffering increasing economic deprivation and misery as austerity politics fight.
They insist the technocratic
progress is worthless unless it enacts broader social uplift.
Note that neither of these strands of critique
are based in a skepticism about our competence,
but over the uses to which our expertize is being put.
They're based not in technical, but in political considerations.
They don't debate our skill.
They question whether the university is on their side as they struggle to survive.
We might take some cold
comfort in the fact that we're not alone in losing the public's trust,
that we have the best interests of all members of society at heart.
This year's Pew poll on trust in scientists
and doctors groups that have a place in the university
but also work in private enterprise, makes clear
that scientific and medical expertize is also starting to suffer a little.
Overall, just under a third of U.S.
adults say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists
to act in the best interests
of the public, down from 40% who said this in November 2020.
Negative views are also growing.
Similarly, the share with a great deal of confidence in scientists to act
in the public's best interests is down by ten percentage points from 39 to 29%.
So generally speaking, scientists and doctors do far
better than most authorities there.
They're clearly crushing the politicians, for example.
And indeed, these ratings place them at the top of the list
of the nine institutions and groups that were included in the survey.
The same is true for universities as compared to other social institutions
and positions of authority such as the media, business and government,
higher education as well compared to other of our nation's institutions.
And we should be happy with that.
But we should be aware that trust is consistently going down.
It's clear that those who have been entrusted to act in the public interest
are losing the faith of the public that we're actually doing so.
Part three. Funding knowledge.
It's tempting to blame the decreasing trust in higher
and the goodness of our role in society on sheer partizan rhetoric.
Attacks on higher education by right wing media and politicians have been rampant
and increasingly high profile in the last decade, and the insistent
repetition of such claims is surely having some effect on the populace.
Indeed, the polls indicate that pretty clearly,
but searching for common ground requires, at a minimum,
taking our critics seriously, at least when they're not
obviously seeking to cast spurious claims for political gain.
We should surely model the best of academic argumentation here,
which includes not simply dismissing as uninformed or invalid
the heartfelt frustrations felt by a significant number of people.
We must not enact the dismissive elitism of which we are accused.
Moreover, high profile right wing political attacks
do not explain the critiques coming from the populist left
who would not be unmoved by conservative rhetoric.
Nor does it account for the ways in which those criticism often
align with arguments made from within the Academy itself about the need for reform.
Many of the issues they raise here are rooted in changes
in the funding of higher education in recent decades,
which has resulted in significant changes in its operations and its social effects.
So since the 1980s,
the Overton Window in the US has been pushed steadily rightward,
with the result that regardless
of which party is in power, tax cuts which shrinks the government's
available funds have pretty much been the order of the day.
One of the effects of the resulting austerity has been less
federal assistance for cash strapped states and smaller state budgets overall.
States desperately seeking for ways to cut their budgets,
have seen higher education as an easy target.
In the last several decades, state support for public universities has plummeted.
And here, for example,
are the drops from 2008 to 2017.
This is a spending per student.
Note that Nebraska is way, way down the bottom where others are.
It's kind of a blurry slide, but we're second from the bottom there.
And we, in fact,
did not drop spending, but even potentially increased it a tiny bit.
So kudos to us and to our state legislators
and to the president's office, which regularly makes our case
to the legislature.
But over time, higher education everywhere has taken a real hit.
In 1988, students provided around one third as much revenue
to public colleges and universities as state and local governments did.
Today, on average, students provide nearly
as much revenue as state and local governments.
They do this even as real wages for workers, and thus household incomes
have stayed flat or in some analyzes, decreased over time.
In short, cuts in government revenues have resulted in cuts
to higher education, which has shifted the cost of educating our populace
from our society more broadly to individual students and their families.
The shift is, unsurprisingly, hit lower income families the hardest and has had
a disproportionate impact on working families of color.
According to a 2015 study published by New York
University, researchers quote, All else equal.
$1,000 tuition increase for full time undergraduate
students is associated with a drop in campus diversity of almost 6%.
It's not surprising that as the cost of education are shifted
to increasingly strapped families, they scrutinize with a more critical eye
the activities of the institution, which is costing them so much.
Graduates with tens or hundreds of thousand dollars in student
loan debt certainly do the same.
Some of those graduates are academics who have chosen to study the university.
And one of the things they've highlighted as especially problematic
is the shortfall in public funding and the resulting increase in private funding.
Without state dollars, where is the university
supposed to find the money to continue to pay its faculty and staff?
Run the massive facilities and the specialized equipment
they house and shoulder other regular operating costs?
I mean, you can only raise tuition too much before no one will come here.
So without public options, universities have turned to private ones.
In addition to raising tuition for private donors, private foundation
funds, partnerships with corporations and the patenting and monetizing
of university research whenever possible have been some of the techniques
universities have developed to continue to keep the lights on.
The study by CU Trust in 2019 showed public university revenues
coming in at about a third, government funding a third private sources,
including self-sustaining operations like corporate partnerships and patents.
And about a third tuition and other sources.
This has, in turn, reshaped universities from the inside.
As researcher Sheila Slaughter and Gary
Rhodes write in their study, Academic Capitalism and the New Economy.
Universities now use the remaining state resources
they're given to reorganize traditional department structures
to include an increasing number of what they call interstitial organizations
that bring the corporate sector inside the university.
They develop new networks that intermediate between the public
and the private sector, and they expand managerial capacity
to supervise new flows of external resources and investment
infrastructure to market institutions, products and services to students.
This expanded managerial capacity is also directed towards
restructuring faculty work to lower instructional costs.
Lowering instructional costs
has severely damaged the academic freedom of the faculty.
A point that I discuss at length in my book
and Taylor already gave me a plug, so I encourage you to read it
if you're interested in hearing more about that point in particular.
So as a result of changing funding patterns,
the universities have added lots of new administrative offices
and administrators, new data tracking programs and new centers, institutes
and other non-departmental structures heavily funded by private money.
Avenues of faculty research which draw private money have the possibility
of being monetized directly or otherwise whole profit making potential
for the university incentivized departments and research programs
that do not receive waning institutional support.
Fields and products which with direct, practical ways connecting
to the current economy, thus fare better institutionally than those without.
The point that hits especially hard at a college like Arts and Sciences,
which supports many humanities and pure science departments.
The idea that the university
seeks to promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge
has taken a bit of a backseat to research that can help pay the bills.
Students seconded this trend towards viewing most favorably
the majors and minors they feel intersect most directly with economic opportunity.
This is unsurprising
given the debt burdens that most of them will bear immediately after graduation.
The pressure of this economic reality for students and their families has
resulted in market shifts in their views on the social role of higher education.
Harvard researchers recently published a study tracking the differences
between how students and parents conceive the primary function of college
and versus how faculty and administrators do
in the real world of college, what higher education is and what it can be.
The authors found a significant misalignment between students largely
transactional view of college and all.
Look forward to hearing from students in Inquire Serious next Tuesday.
If this aligns with your understanding by which they mean.
As a place to gain and train the qualifications for a job,
as well as acquire some experience on the resume
versus the somewhat different view
the faculty administrators understanding of college as a transformational place.
They see college as the opportunity for students to grow,
to consider their own beliefs and values, and to change as a result.
So while those who run the university and its courses largely believe
that their social function is to encourage positive growth in students who are part
of our citizenry, students and parents generally remain focused squarely
on the individual economic benefit that will accrue from a college degree.
What common good might emerge from an education is less clear
when the purpose of college is seen to be job preparation and an income boost.
These are the signs and symptoms of neoliberalism
a shift from the commons to individualism, a move from state
funding to privatization, unrelenting austerity,
and subjecting to the values of the market, things that were previously
considered to be outside the realm of financial calculation.
Together, they've made the idea of a common good, difficult to see
and even to conceive, much less how higher education might contribute to it.
We're in something of a spiral here in which loss of collective social
funding through tax cuts results in cuts to higher ed,
which then rises in tuition and a need for universities to seek
funding from private sources
and become more profit oriented generally if they wish to survive.
This results in institutions that attend more to the priorities and projects
of major corporations, grants and wealthy donors or research
that can be monetized rather than research
that might address the needs and concerns of ordinary families
or the health of our democracy, or some other non lucrative thing.
Those individual students and families who are now paying as much as the state
in terms of covering the costs of higher ed, see its value
primarily in terms of financial payback, and have become understandably uncertain
that universities are, as the polls put it,
generally on the right track or having a positive effect
on the way things are going in the country these days.
This attitude is, of course, hardly conducive to voters
pushing representatives to reverse course on declining state
funding of higher education. And things continue to.
So part for the dirty secret.
So far, one of the main responses to the situation
by those who value higher education has been pretty nostalgic.
If only we could return to the times when, as I outlined in the first section,
everyone believed in university expertize and believed that
it was helping our country to move forward in a positive way.
Perhaps they posit this is just a misunderstanding.
We believe that what we're doing is contributing to the common good.
And so perhaps we just need to be communicating that more effectively.
Perhaps this isn't more of a public relations issue.
If the people could just see better what we are doing here.
They would agree that we are contributing to the common good
and be willing to extend to us their trust and support once again.
This is a really nice idea
and it is echoed across
the media of the reports on higher education.
And a lot of recent books and organizations have been centered
around this phrase the common good or the public good.
And so I feel like it would certainly simplify matters if that were the case.
But the problem is it's predicated on something of a myth.
If there's one thing we know about the common good,
it's that nobody agrees what it is, and they never have.
Thus the idea that our knowledge
and teaching contributes to some universally recognized good
for our society cannot be accurate and therefore it's not actually helpful.
The problem with the idea of the common good is twofold.
First, it assumes agreement on the biggest question
societies face and debate over time.
And is everyone with the slightest awareness of human history
or current events well knows that's honestly just not realistic.
Human beings have never agreed on what constitutes the best way
to govern society, to distribute resources, to handle disputes,
to define humanity or human morality, or to understand the world around us.
We argue about these things vigorously in many ways, and the spectrum
of what constitutes an acceptable
or mainstream view on these matters may change that over time.
But to flatten that all into some self-evident, universally agreed
upon idea of what kind of knowledge and ideas are good for everyone in society
is simplistic, unhelpful and just flatly inaccurate as a description of our world.
There is no one common good,
and it's worth remembering that the people who first articulated
this idea in the early decades of the 20th century
lived and worked in a university system and a political system
that pretty much excluded everyone but upper class Protestant white men.
So perhaps it was easier to imagine reaching a consensus with such a narrow,
homogenous section of the population allowed to weigh in on that question.
These days, debates over what is good for everyone have gotten more
fractious, in part because everyone is a much more expansive group.
There are many things that many different people consider to be good and bad,
and that places debates over the common good firmly in the realm of politics.
Which brings us to the second problem with insisting that the university's work
contributes to an unexamined, universally recognized common good.
It attempts to place knowledge
production outside of this realm of political contestation,
rather than seeing the work done at the university as an extension
of the arguments happening in society over these big questions.
It seeks to move our work into an apolitical space
where untouched by these large questions and social debates.
The knowledge produced is somehow pure and its very existence is good.
In short, the story goes we
work in an ivory tower that is above politics.
The story often deploys the language of facts.
Everybody agrees on all the time and discoveries that are in themselves,
widely perceived by the public as having no political content.
Like a new sub particle or a mathematical theorem
one, a discovery that clearly does have political ramifications
that even the layman cannot ignore.
Let's say the magnitude of the impact the 20th century
redlining had and continues
to have on the intergenerational wealth of black families.
Then the research is decried as overtly political and therefore illegitimate.
The professors who publish such work are called out for being political,
and their work is condemned as tainted or biased.
This places the public the public bar
for real research that contributes to the common good.
Somewhere between too complicated for someone outside the field to understand.
And this benefits me or agrees with my politics.
So I perceive it to be good.
Instead of continuing to promote this idea of a universal common good,
I propose that we articulate the role that university knowledge, production
and dissemination plays in our society to something
more honest and more persuasive.
In short, the university is not outside of society
and the complications of its big debates, but as deeply divided and deeply invested
in the question of what constitutes
the right way forward for our world as anybody else.
The university is not a space apart from these fights,
but a space of intensified debate.
We are a place unlike anywhere else in our society and that we are filled
with people whose life work is to think about these questions
and articulate, nuanced stances based on years of research,
no one provides as long or as detailed
a set of arguments on the big questions as we do.
No one takes more seriously every little aspect of the topic
or researchers that more thoroughly people in society as a whole
maybe fighting with each other over these issues or some subset of them .
The universities are more like a cage fight, with hundreds of contenders
in an all against all combat where the door isn't unlocked until you retire.
So is this hyperbole? Sure.
But all the professors here know how seriously we take our research
and how big the stakes seem to us,
even when everybody around us really can't see it
. The grounds on which we fight are in public presentations, publications
and performances that constitute our formal research and creative activity.
But they go way beyond that, too.
Although we're fighting on intellectual grounds.
We're all well aware of the role that material support
plays in one's ability to make a good argument when it.
So we argue for resources to be allocated
to our little corner of the world, the place where we set our flag.
The thing we think is most important
for people to know and understand and accept about the world.
The thing that does the most to make our world comprehensible,
that will best prepare us to take proper action, that will enable us as a society
to live more comfortably or safely, more justly or humanely or beautifully.
We are deeply devoted to our cause
and we fight hard for the resources that keep it alive and help it thrive.
This is what I mean when I say our work is deeply political
because of these deeply held commitments.
We argue over resources like hiring new faculty.
Which subfield will be prioritized and ranked hiring requests?
Which departments will get more lines for any lines?
Which college will get authorized to hire?
And will those hires be tender line or non-tender line?
We argue over graduate students.
Which graduate students will be admitted to a program?
To whom will they be allocated as research assistants?
Who will their advisors
be and through them continue to exert an influence on the field?
We argue over undergrad students, which fields will be included
in general education requirements and which will be excluded?
Which classes will be required for the major or minor?
How can we increase the number of students in our major and minor?
How many are taking classes in our disciplines or niche area within it?
We also fight for research funds within the university and outside it.
We argue over who will have editorial control
for journals, book theories, performance theories, disciplinary organizations,
award and fellowships, selection panels, grant selection panels, and on and on.
In this way, we fight constantly over what is most important in society
and where we should allocate our collective resources.
We are in this way profoundly political.
We take the political questions being debated in society at large
and not only consider their face value, but the questions and principles
that lay behind them, sometimes way behind them as well.
We fight for our sides on the level of speech
and on the level of material support,
and we do so over years, decades, our whole careers.
Describing the university as a forum
for intense, long form social and political debate has the benefit
of being entirely accurate as a description of how we operate.
It also has the benefit of monitoring what people see when they look at us
from the outside, when we pretend that we're somehow apolitical.
It makes sense that when someone takes a look at our work and perceives
the implicit or explicit politics governing our choice of products,
our study designs, our courses, our published work,
our performances, they understandably cry foul.
Hey, they say our channel is supposed to be just producing neutral knowledge.
It looks to me like you're playing politics.
If they don't like the implied politics, they attack the project
as illegitimate and pound that out to critique the university as a whole.
The university is supposed to be working for the public good, they say.
But in my eyes, this clearly isn't good.
Conservatives see the work that attends to the priorities
and supports the arguments of liberals and socialists,
and they object denouncing universities as a whole.
Liberals see the products and fields that support clearly conservative agenda,
and they proclaim it
unacceptable in a university context and demand to be rooted out.
Socialists see the work that supports corporate military agendas that they see
as oppressing the poor and the workers, and they turn away in disgust.
This breaks trust.
Now, that's a big problem, one that not only results in bad polls
and falling state contributions to higher ed, but to an ability
to find sufficient agreement to work together as a society
or even conceive ourselves as one community.
As historian of science, Steven Chapman writes, quote,
Our knowledge of what the world is like draws on knowledge about other people,
what they are like, a source of testimony, whether and in what circumstances
they may be trusted and quote, as highly educated researchers, university
faculty or particular type of people occupying a specific role in our society,
we generate information.
And that information is often
used by leaders in government, business and other places of authority, making
decisions that structure and condition the lives of most of the populace.
If people look to the university for an apolitical set of facts
or information and instead find lots of work that seems to them
to be political, they will increasingly reject our work as unreliable,
and the universities is no longer fulfilling a useful social function
as going in the wrong direction.
They will then turn to other sources of knowledge
they feel are more worthy of trust when seeking to think about, deal
with or act upon the increasing number of crises that are threatening
our population collectively and individually.
They'll turn away from university expertize to something new,
something they think is more trustworthy, and beliefs that seem
simply crazy to those of us who still believe in university expertize.
Our unfortunately becoming more widespread.
Such people view those of us who still believe
in expert knowledge as deluded, blue pilled or duped.
Because we at the university, in the course of our work
regularly experience new insights, discoveries or important results.
It's easy to feel that finding new knowledge is a solo
or a small group thing.
But the truth is, if that insight or discovery is going
to be of use to our society, we need others to acknowledge it as such.
Even if many individuals believed what they asserted about the world to be true,
we would still need, in Chapin's words, to attend to the complexities
of notions like authority and trust and the socially situated norms
which identify who is to be trusted and at what price.
Trust us to be withheld.
Quote If we want to slow the increase in chaos,
we have to regain a place of trust in the community.
You might say that if we want to find anything like common ground again
and have that common ground involve a central place for the university,
we must, as the saying goes, agree to disagree
as we have have to see the university as a place where those disagreements
play out on a grand but nonviolent scale.
Usually if instead of looking to us
to provide only something they perceived as apolitical knowledge,
people look to the university in order to see the important debates play out
and to find evidence articulated to support the arguments they'd like to make.
They won't be disappointed.
People on all sides of pressing
contemporary debates can find proponents within the university.
Do we have left wing professors?
Yes, we do. But do we have right wing professors? Yes, we do.
But more specifically, beyond just party politics,
we have professors working together with the fossil fuel industry
to more efficiently extract and burn oil and gas for energy.
And we have professors who provide evidence that such activities
are resulting in increasing climate chaos and will result in generally ultra
manageable levels of natural and social destruction .
We have professors working to develop and patent new and improved types
of genetically modified seeds
with the backing of companies that will profit by them.
And we have professors providing legal arguments against patenting life.
We have professors who document and present a nonfiction or fictional form.
The impact on small farmers and rural life of such patented seeds.
Professors who show the resulting decline in important insects
and general ecology and soil benefits. Soil health.
There are professors who show how these seeds increase
food yields and farmer profits.
Professors who show the maldistribution of that food within our society.
And those who show that that imbalance follows lines of racial prejudice.
And so on. For all the pressing matters of the day and beyond.
So let's stop pretending that any of this is somehow above and outside of politics.
Let's not only agree to disagree, but a great of a damn good fight
over these issues to argue over them passionately and deeply
and with all of our wit and knowledge and intelligence and skill.
And let's agree that in addition to generating knowledge, being a place for
debate is one of the most important things that the university provides to society.
If we do contribute to a common good, it is in part by providing a forum
where such vigorous debates can play out and strong contenders to do it.
The College of Arts and
Sciences has a particularly strong stake in this redefinition.
Traditionally, we have the disciplines that do not intersect as well with
corporate partnerships, grants, patents or other revenue generating techniques.
We host to the pure sciences, the humanities and social sciences.
Aside from teaching students who pay tuition and some grants.
We don't have a very strong financial generation profile.
David The Dean would disagree with me,
but we do have a very strong and important social function
and the university's role as a forum for debate.
If we reduce higher education primarily to the disciplines and products
that intersect with and attend to the interests of the corporate sector,
we suppress alternatives and critiques of their activities
that would subvert the university's social function from housing
vigorous, multifaceted debate over the major issues of the day,
and instead just reduce us to being like the R&D arm of industry.
And this would have a profoundly negative effect on the universities walls.
Our fights may seem merely academic sometimes,
particularly when they are deep in the details looking for that
proverbial devil, or flying high into the realm of abstract and principle.
But they are always developing evidence and argumentation for people outside
the university's walls to draw upon in their thinking and in their own fights,
where decisions are made, at least temporarily, about how society will move
forward on a whole host of issues that affect our collective lives.
So arguments developed within universities are used
by politicians, think tanks, business leaders, activist groups,
nonprofits and individuals
as they make decisions about how we're going to structure our society
and how to talk about our shared world in the immediate future.
The ideas and evidence generated within universities have a profound effect
on how debates about resources outside the universities play out.
And if you're skeptical about that point, just ask the Koch brothers,
who fund university institutes all over the country, including here,
in order to ensure that their views are advanced within university debates.
If we shrink the scope of debate inside the university,
the arguments for those positions outside also become weaker, and the robust
exchange of ideas on which democracies thrive starts to wither away.
Our democracy would continue its drift towards oligarchy
and frustrated proponents of the positions which are being ignored or suppressed.
We'll stop considering argumentation as a viable way
to resolve disputes and achieve resolution of grievances,
and we'll instead start looking to other, more violent means to make their case.
So as a professor at this university, I'm ready to argue hard
for what I believe is good, and to insist
that others can and should do the same.
We should also make clear that when we do that,
we are fulfilling our role as professors, not undermining it,
and providing a profoundly good service to our community.
In this way, when inevitably some people
read my work or hear me speak and passionately disagree with me
rather than feeling alienated,
they can trust that there will be other faculty at UNL
who will articulate views they feel
are more in line with their own values and goals for society.
And this is the point.
The university supports people arguing on many different sides of the debates
that are currently rocking our world and our disciplinary norms for evidence
ensure that the case we make for our side is as strong as it can be.
Moreover, we can serve as a model for one way
disputes can be handled and arguments passionately made
without ever losing the ability to actually function as a community.
So let's openly embrace this as a positive thing
and a good we offer our society rather than seeking consensus.
I say bring on the debate.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
So if you have questions, Ethan is going to circulate with a microphone
and he'll find you.
And for those of you on Zoom, you can just put them in the Q&A.
So I already have one for you on Zoom.
So this is from Dr.
Wehrum, who's also part of the series.
So she says you mentioned the deeply rooted
disagreements over what are the facts versus what is political spin.
To what extent do you think that this is about actual disagreements about facts?
E.g., The climate is changing, income inequality is rising,
as opposed to the unwillingness of people to differentiate
between what is real and what they think ought to be real.
And if that is a key contributor to how the general public perceives
what universities do, how can we make the best of it at the university level?
So I think the latter part of that question is
answered by much of the general thrust of my talk.
I think we should proudly proclaim what we're doing here
as a big debate, a big debate that covers
a broad spectrum of potential positions.
In terms of the question about whether this is really
a disagreement on the facts or whether
this is people kind of willingly ignoring them or wishing them
to be a certain way and therefore believing them to be that way
in some respects,
you know, that that points to the problem, right?
That we have lost the trust of people to be arbiters of
how knowledge is developed.
And so, you know, that is largely what I'm pointing to here, is that,
you know, people no longer are using the same authorities
to guide their understanding of what those facts are or how we come to them.
You know, the process of knowledge production
is shifting to some degree as people stop
trusting traditional institutions of expertize and traditional methods,
therefore, of gathering information which included consulting those expertize,
those experts, and instead are saying, no, those experts are untrustworthy.
And therefore, I've got to find some other way to find the real facts.
And so, you know, they're engaged in kind of other modes of information
gathering, ones that we may not find legitimate at all because we're invested
in a very particular kind of mode of knowledge production.
But for them, they're looking for, you know, revelation
for guidance from religious authorities,
which may be more trustworthy for them than university expertize.
So they're looking to other sources of information.
And there's a way in
which our politicians have not felt
the way that expertize is regarded in our society by, you know,
for at least the last 20 years, kind of referring to like facts and alternative
facts, the reality based community and those who are not within it
as of highlighting that there are options for you out there.
And so, you know, that's fractured what used to be a general agreement
on how we would come to an under shared agreement
on how one finds facts or develop stocks or as well as how we interpret them.
I was just thinking as you were speaking that
as faculty, I think we sometimes an implicit
and reflective, snobbish way like to think of ourselves
as very different from, say, K-through-12 educators.
And that might be harming us because we really have a lot in common
with what educators are going through, especially now.
And I was thinking about this story that's been in the news
locally in the last couple of weeks, where
student journalists in Grand Island had published in the spring
a student newspaper issue that was basically included
, editorial content that was friendly towards LGBTQ people.
And there was some kind of ensuing complaining.
And the school administration responded by
shutting down the entire journalism program of the school.
And who who wins there?
You know, I mean, because at the end of it,
the students are deprived a whole realm of education.
And nobody thinks the school did a good job.
Even the original people complaining don't.
And it's all because the administrators, not the teachers or the students,
but the administrators have zero tolerance for discomfort
or anything that smells like politics or controversy.
And instead of learning how to embrace that as part of the vibrant
identity of a place of education, they are literally,
you know, ruining their own educational programs.
And to me, from a bird's eye perspective, where all of this has
the effect of doing all of this destabilization and mistrust in education,
it serves a particular political agenda in Nebraska.
We're one of the few places that don't have vouchers
for privatized education that could change at any moment.
And it's more likely to the more people
view schools as places that would throw LGBT kids to the wolves
or throw their journalism department or, you know, all across the spectrum.
And I'm wondering if you are seeing connections
between K-through-12 and higher ed or what
kinds of maybe messaging or solidarity
we could look at as far as we go as educators with with,
you know, people teaching in other sectors of education?
Yeah, that's a big a big problem and a big question.
Thank you. So I certainly agree that,
you know, there has to be this kind of continuity in education,
you know, K through 16 and that, you know, if we thought of ourselves
more in solidarity with teachers who are teaching on the K-12 level,
then I think that would help them and also help us.
And so certainly, you know, that's that's something to pay attention to. And the
so the attacks on K-12 are
kind of an extension of what it started as attacks on the university, right?
I mean, it's not that those are new on K-12 per se,
but it does seem like there was a wave of criticism of higher
ed for being politicized and then a wave of K 12
for being equally so in ways that some people found objectionable.
And so I do think it's you know, I haven't thought about this argument
in a K-12 context, but it would be interesting to do so.
Right. Is there a way in which education as a whole
should be something where, you know, education and schools are the places
where you have these debates and that we understand that, you know,
your position will be represented, but so will other people's positions.
And that's got to be okay.
You know, that we need to trust that having a wide spectrum of people
arguing over these these issues is actually the most beneficial
way to get through them.
And so certainly, you know, I think that.
It could be useful to have these conversations
with teachers in K-12 and
think about whether this would be persuasive on that level as well.
You know, there are complications with childhood development and with our
I don't know if we have any faculty in those departments,
but it would be really interesting to to have that conversation.
Yeah. Thank you.
So relatedly, a museum.
It's one thing to get a university community to buy into this idea
that there are going to be disagreements over everything
and that it's a good thing.
But how do you get the public at large to buy in and accept this
when they're already becoming increasingly skeptical?
Well, I think partly, you know, we need to stop pretending
that we're apolitical. Right.
You know, that and and that, you know, if we stop doing that and say, yes,
in fact, you know, like we are having political debates,
we are human beings with political commitments.
They have influenced what we have chosen to do in our fields.
And, you know, for some people, it's very evident, you know, like that
we think that, you know, this particular discipline
is the one that is most necessary and most helpful for the world. Right.
As an English professor, I'm committed to story right to language
and the way that that shapes our world and has the potential to shape our world.
That's partially why I chose this field for other people.
You know, if you're in mathematics, it might be the world
is actually structured by underlying mathematics.
And if we only understood those better, that would enable us to act
in a more positive way, would enable us to kind of see the world more accurately
and therefore kind of lead to better action for us overall.
More safety, more appreciation for even the beauty of the world. Right.
And that that is the critical thing to understand.
And so, you know, like when I say politics, it's not just like the the
pressing partizan politics of the day.
It is these really deep commitments to the things that, you know,
we should pay attention and give resources to in our world.
And I tend to think of this time my mother was an elementary art teacher,
and she was constantly concerned that, you know, they would cut art
from the elementary program because it just wasn't seen as useful or important.
And, of course, you know,
now we see this playing out, you know,
in the university, the next major series of cuts come through.
Which departments get the ax right.
You know, and that's an argument, right?
Like which which of these areas of
knowledge are important and which are expendable to us?
You know, who gets more resources?
And and that's like that's essentially
an extension of what people are doing out in the world, too.
They're arguing over
who gets resources, what questions, get our attention and time.
You know what things get our money.
How do we handle that?
You know, how does the government distribute it or not?
And so, you know, those big questions,
I think if we if we made clear that that's what we're doing
here, is we are providing you with evidence for your position.
Come check it out and find ways to kind of make that more visible.
You know, I think
we don't tend to take a step back and think about why we're arguing over
why we're taking the stance we are the position
that we do in these very broad terms.
But we could and then once we articulated it to ourselves,
we could think about how to articulate it more broadly out in the world.
So, you know, to some degree, where I think there are
structural issues involved here, as I indicated through,
you know, talking about funding for higher up from public sources,
you know, I think the first step can be a communications one.
You know, it can be work within the institution and then shifting
what we say to people outside so that we stop getting the like,
you know, like so-and-so, you know, like publish something
or said something on their faculty bio or, you know,
at a talk where they got filmed during their classroom
where I had a camera on them and it was political right.
And that's wrong and that's bad.
And so, you know, if we can just say, you know, actually that's good
because now, you know, like the people
in that class or in that audience or that are reading that thing
now have evidence for, you know, a particular side of an issue.
And I don't know about you, but I still read and are interested
in the arguments made by people that I violently disagree with.
Like, I want to know I want to know what they're arguing,
you know, so that I can make a better argument, if nothing else.
And that seems important, too.
And so, you know, if we are making that case that it's
a good thing to have these views articulated
for students, for the public, for readers, for ourselves,
no matter if you agree with them or not,
you should you have an investment and having them articulate it,
because that'll make for better debates , that'll make for better decisions,
that'll make for, you know, a population
that might look to us to provide some of that information again.
And I don't know, maybe that that is.
Too optimistic given where we are right now.
But I feel like we've got to start somewhere and we have we are losing trust.
And I think that this is a way to regain some of it. Hi, Julia.
Thank you so much for such a wonderful, in-depth lecture.
Really, this is just.
This is just something that came up when you were discussing learning. Right.
And one of the quotations talked about the environment
and environmental disruptions, if I have that right.
I'm just curious, are the vocational arts or the community colleges?
Are they in conversation with your research here?
I ask the question and I'm probably totally
just off the mark here, you know, where your research is.
But it prompted me to think about this, given
the video made by Michelle Obama, right.
To go to college. Go to college. This.
And what came to my mind when I was watching that video, I,
I was quite troubled by it
because there was no mention about if you don't want to go to college,
then find your vocation, find your art.
If you work with your hands, that kind of thing, you find that.
And so many times, you know, the vocational arts, arts
and sport classes get pushed to the side and they work.
They were pushed aside in the seventies when this whole thing to go to college
just came up. Right.
So I'm just wondering, wondering
are the vocational arts, the community colleges,
are they in conversation with what you're doing?
So in terms of like, have I had conversations? Not yet.
And I'd love to.
So I should, you know, anyone
that I'd like to to reach out and be able to
present or give some talks or just, you know, hear what they think.
But in terms of just the the nature of the vocational arts
in general, I would say they are absolutely included in here.
Like it's we get used to thinking somehow of ways of engaging with the world
only through our brain, but of course, like that.
That is not true.
Even even here. You're right,
you know, I mean, like, there's plenty of experimentation and
modes of learning and research products that are based on, you know, one
skill with one's hands as well as one's eyes and and mind.
And that is that certainly kind of moves into modes of being in the world
that value things like facility, beauty, craft, tradition. Right.
And so that's another way of arguing for the most important thing in the world,
you know what I mean?
Like and that's certainly actually an argument
going on, you know, touch grass, like get off line, you know, like do something,
you know, when the pandemic hit, what did everyone do?
They went and baked bread, right?
You know, like it was it was like suddenly the moment when everyone
went back to, like, traditional arts and crafts somehow
because they felt that it was healing, that it was comforting,
that it created a community that had suddenly been cut off somehow,
and that that points to the the value that we still have in those arts
that are very usefully taught in our community colleges.
And so I would absolutely kind of think of them as participating
in these kinds of topics.
Thank you. There are no more questions.
Thank you so much for coming and I hope you will join us next month.
On October 4th, when actually more we'll be talking
about partisan polarization and the need for civic respect.
We can just have another applause
for Dr. Julia Schleck.
And thank you again for coming to the series
and I hope to see you on October 4th. Have a good evening.
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