Director's Column: Fear Has No Place Here: Higher Education's Responsibility to Champion Truth, Justice, and the Common Good

By Donald W. Harward, Director of BTtoP and President Emeritus of Bates College

The autumn of 2017 saw the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s multipart film ”The Vietnam War” on PBS—a powerful reminder of what many of us who now work as senior faculty directly experienced some forty years ago. We remember the period of the 1960s and ’70s as a time of tension, fear, riots, assassinations, a deceitful war, the drafting of those without privilege to fight, and police being molded as paramilitary units. We remember becoming aware—not in a flash but over a labored period of uncertainty—of the realities of the hegemonic suppression of persons of color and women, and of the fact that power can deceive and the powerful should not be trusted. Within the academy, we questioned authority and tried to organize in opposition—sometimes in opposition to what was our stable and protective institutional privilege. We called out injustices and violence, and we tried to act. But ultimately, we risked little of our privilege to the threat of repercussions.

The same cannot be said of the landscape of higher education today. Colleges and universities have the unique responsibility to champion, without equivocation, a search for truth. No other social or cultural institution (not the family, the public school, the church, or the government) fully shares our mission. But in the current climate of false news, alternative facts, race-baiting, threats of international calamity, bluster without discipline, and ascendency of opinion over truth, the threat of repercussions to faculty and administrators in the academy who speak out is now real. There is a prevailing awareness of the realities of costs and limits of access, a distrust by students of institutional motives and the worth of outcomes, and—both internally and externally—an overriding questioning of higher education’s value and its purposes. Faced with these risks to our privilege, there would appear, all too often within our institutions, the comfort of silence and its safety, a reluctance to call-out these judgments and to act to change the realities. But in silence; in fear of risking support or the benefits of our privileges; and by not calling out false claims, demagoguery, or biased power, we fail to meet our full responsibility of rising to the greater purpose of higher education as a space for truth. We give fear a place here.

What underlies our authority and credibility is the uniqueness of our responsibility as educators to maintain dual dimensions of our work as colleges and universities—for as we do research, and teach, and act, we also express our contrarian dimension of being a place apart from conventionality, popular belief, and tradition—capable of being critical, exploratory, and unconventional. We emphasize doubt and the need to find evidence and not accept unexamined opinion or the power of dogma. If we ask this of our students, we should model it in practice.

However, we also acknowledge that as an institution we are part of a variety of complex communities. We are inextricably linked to those communities of power and practice. We are supported, funded, and populated by those communities of power and practice. Working that tension of being both apart from and a part of recognizes the uniqueness of our responsibilities and our essential role in an open democratic society.

Colleges recognize that they risk the benefits of support by calling out, by insisting on championing pursuits of evidence and justice, by acting in accordance with principles and stated values when doing so is seen as contrarian—even un-American. But if they do not take that risk, if they welcome silence in fear of reprisal, they abrogate what being an educator or higher education institution requires. However, if they only critique and fail to advance solutions, fail to labor at listening and gaining greater understanding, and fail to work at collaboration with diverse others in order to make progress toward achieving a greater common good, then they too have failed their dual responsibility.

The New York Times recently reported on an admonition made by one school administrator to fellow institutions—it happened to be a private high school, but could well have been a college:

He called for a dismantling of “this default understanding of Trinity as a credentialing factory,” warning that without it, students would merely ascend to “a comfortable perch atop a cognitive elite that is self-serving, callous and spiritually barren.” Without a shift in ethos toward greater commitments to the common good, toward social justice and activism, he said in the letter, “I am afraid we are, for a majority of our students, just a very, very expensive finishing school.... We’ve been talking about this for a long time, about infusing our program with a greater sense of redeeming purpose.”[1]

However, meeting that core responsibility to advance “a greater sense of redeeming purpose” now has to be done in the face of the realities of power and practices which are not only present but more challenging than ever—and admittedly loom more apparent as a threat than they were in “the Age of Aquarius.” Well-funded ideological enterprises are positioned to exert pressure. Public expectations reflect only utilitarian, capitalistic objectives for education; campuses are described in popular media as “hostile,” students are called snowflakes unable to address the realities the market offers them, and faculty are considered out of touch with modern society, easily replaced with cheaper labor and technology.

What is required of campuses is to both call out and to act—doing so in recognition of the risk of repercussions. The calling-out is not limited to alt-right repressive pressures; calling out limitations to free inquiry or efforts to prohibit the expression of reprehensible speech are equally necessary. As Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker,

“All speech is not equal. Some things are true; some things are not. Figuring out how to tell the difference is the work of the university, which rests on a commitment to freedom of inquiry, an unflinching search for truth and the fearless unmasking of error. But the university has obligations too, to freedom of speech, whose premise, however idealized, is that, in a battle between truth and error, truth in an open field will always win.”[2]

Many institutions, including those hundreds of campuses of all types using BTtoP grant support to effect local change, know that to act in the face of restrictions and repercussions is more than voicing—it is the hard work of (1) giving attention to difference; (2) designing, implementing, and evaluating constructive strategies for change; (3) making the case for reason and evidence; and (4) struggling to alter expectations, all while (5) scurrying to locate the resources needed to develop rewards for altered practices.

Reflecting on a span of higher education experiences in my own life as a college professor, president, and now as the director of a higher education project, I am convinced that on our campuses fear should have no place—no fear in being apart from; no fear in being a part of; no fear of the powerful influences of ideological propaganda or pressure of scarce resources; no fear of the inertia of intransigence and the patience needed to work for change; and, as Justice Robert H. Jackson remarked from the Supreme Court bench in 1943 in his decision that requiring saluting the flag (or standing for the national anthem) is unconstitutional, “no fear that to be intellectually and spiritually diverse, even contrary, will disintegrate the social organization.”[3] And, we could add, nor will fearlessly championing the full purposes of higher education disintegrate or diminish its promise.


[1]  Ginia Bellafante, “Can Prep Schools Fight the Class War?,” New York Times, September 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/nyregion/trinity-school-letter-to-par...

[2]   Jill Lepore, “Flip-Flopping on Free Speech,” New Yorker, October 9, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/09/flip-flopping-on-free-speech.

[3]  West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).