The Gravest Threat to Colleges Comes From Within

Oct 7, 2015

Virginia Tech

By Scott A. Bass and Mary L. Clark

We are experiencing one of the greatest threats to the university as we know it. It is not about enrollments, revenues, regulation, rankings, or leadership. It is about the ability to engage in unfettered debate at American colleges. It is about the assurance of intellectual freedom, about what can and cannot be discussed.

Colleges face criticism from students and others uncomfortable with the points of view expressed in the classroom and by individual faculty members. Provocative art, revealing films, graphic literary portrayals, and controversial speech are understandably uncomfortable for those who find such work contrary to their beliefs. Yet it is this type of work — controversial at times — that has enlightened the world.

Throughout history, colleges have been sites for the creation of knowledge and its dissemination to new generations. The creative spirit of the scholars in higher education, along with the protection afforded by academic freedom, has ensured innovation. Basic research that appears to have little practical application has helped cure disease, led to breakthroughs in science, and fostered understanding of the world. Presentation of counterculture perspectives, art, and literature has contributed to the next generation of leaders’ understanding of social and political movements. Disclosures of business and government practices have increased transparency and improved quality of products and services.

Many of the things we take for granted were once controversial, even heretical. Political dissent in the 1950s, which created a climate of fear for professors, serves as a not-too-distant example. Yet a key tenet of college has been the freedom to pursue novel questions. In the mid-12th century, the University of Bologna originated the concept of academic freedom such that scholars could pursue inquiry without risk of persecution. With 900 years of tradition, academic freedom is something to cherish and protect.

Our newest and greatest threat, however, comes not from external pressures, but from inside the university itself. Around the country, students have been rebelling against certain assignments, topics, or speakers. Some students object to material presented and readings assigned, asserting that assignments are upsetting, triggering anxieties or violating personal beliefs. After all, some argue, they are paying for the experience and should have a say in what they are exposed to and taught.


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10 comments on “The Gravest Threat to Colleges Comes From Within

  • After all, some argue, they are paying for the experience and should have a say in what they are exposed to and taught.

    Some?

    I pay for the experience of driving a car but I do not get to set the rules of the road. Possibly better analogies exist but the entitled rearely see anything but their own way.

    Federal funding for F.I.R.E.?



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  • We are experiencing one of the greatest threats to the university as we know it. It is not about enrollments, revenues, regulation, rankings, or leadership.

    Actually I think it is about these things, for many now University is just a means to an end, a way of getting gainful employment. The idea of studying fields that you may not see a direct relationship with is for most (unless you are the child of wealthy parents or prepared for a lifetime of dept) is generally out of the question. Is it any wonder then that no-one can be bothered to stand up for liberal principles anymore, most uni students are just heads down, bums up get my degree and get a job, in some case the students doing degrees on-line outnumber those who are physically at the university, so they aren’t going to be engaging in political debate on campus or challenging these things.



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  • Lifespans have shot up, crimes are down, food is astonishingly cheap. First world life’n’death problems have never been at such a low, yet anxiety levels remain pretty much the same as for hunter gatherers or Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

    We are homeostats (balance seekers) like every other organism and our fight or flight wiring works on the same lame brain process of expecting good enough decision making to happen if we set thresholds for action at half our range of experience. All the same apparatus is preserved (perhaps as an evolved response to the brutal neural economic energy budget cutting imperative of use it or lose). We now become anxious over stupidly trivial stuff, my social anxiety, her duplicated dress, their offended beliefs.

    Its difficult to see how this trivialisation of what should really make us anxious can be managed. Perhaps only education and the self insight this can bring can have us master our wonky perceptions. This works a little for me, before entering the room full of strangers. I fear though that suggesting “an imperfection” in our evolved process of risk evaluation meets little acceptance with those who fancy it all a Created Perfection unless perhaps we can explain it somehow as a result of “The Fall”, (that standby for why shit happens in Created Perfection).

    A prophet for today.



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  • Most college kids these days, tuition is the cover charge. I’d fail these students or tell them to get the fuck out of class if they want to be pretentious knuckle draggers.



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  • I agree. Universities have also implemented cost-saving measures by utilizing part-time faculty and TAs more and more. The result has been far less experienced people conducting classes. Revenue is poured into new building construction and sports facilities in an effort to attract new students, but once they have them, they don’t seem to be quite sure what to do with them.



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  • If you limit your discussion to only the orthodox, you stagnate. We saw that in the middle age. Even wrong new ideas can help stimulate new better ideas. In addition, those trying to censor usually are trying to protect ideas for which they have no evidence.



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  • Glen
    Oct 9, 2015 at 2:58 am

    Most college kids these days, tuition is the cover charge. I’d fail these students or tell them to get the fuck out of class if they want to be pretentious knuckle draggers.

    Significant numbers at reputable universities, who study socialising rather than course-work, fail at the end of the first year. Fail (or fail to turn up) for re-sit exams, if their neglect or lack of motivation is too extensive, and leave having wasted their money on courses they have neglected to study.



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