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US higher education is endangered

The long-held right of universities and their faculties to decide what they should teach is so precious. Precious but under threat.

Drew Gilpin Faust, a former president of Harvard University, outside her office at the Wadsworth House, in Cambridge, on July 22, 2023.Kayana Szymczak/NYT

The following essay is adapted from remarks that Drew Gilpin Faust, former president of Harvard University, delivered at the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at Harvard on May 21.

What is a university? We have been taking its existence and its essence for granted, even as attacks on its character and purposes have over several decades steadily, if gradually, mounted. The polarizations of race, religion, and politics that grip our country today have focused increasingly on universities. They have become a symbol for those divisions as well as the theater in which they are being acted out. But this is not just theater; it represents a threat to the foundational assumptions that have long governed higher education.

We should from the outset understand what is at stake. American universities have since at least the 1940s been preeminent in the world. Universities’ research discoveries have been central to American prosperity; their graduates have led the most important institutions of our government, society, and culture. Why are people working so hard to denigrate and destroy them?

One prong of these attacks has been directed at undermining belief in the value of college. A dramatic shift has occurred in Americans’ faith that college matters. In the 2010s, 99 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats expected their children to go to college; now nearly half of American parents would prefer that they not. And this has occurred overwhelmingly among Republicans. College is becoming a partisan cause — with enormous potential damage both to students and the nation. College graduates still make an average of $1.2 million more than high school graduates over the course of a lifetime. They have better health and longer life expectancy and are 64 percent more likely to describe themselves as happy. Economists estimate that declining college attendance will yield $1.2 trillion lost in economic output by the end of the decade. To oppose college is to individually and collectively shoot ourselves in the foot.


An essential factor fueling hostility toward higher education is that college costs too much. Americans currently owe $1.7 trillion in college debt. For all our invocations of the mantra of “access and affordability,” we have not succeeded in reining in cost. But we must also recognize that this rise in price and rise in debt are in part the result of a defunding of higher education, especially in the years since the Great Recession. Public universities have transferred a growing percentage of tuition from the state to families. To offer just one example: In 1960, 78 percent of the budget of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor came from the state. In 2023 it was13 percent. The shift in our understanding of college from a common good to a private good has left students to rely increasingly on loans to cover the tuition increases this transformation has required. Or perhaps to decide not to attend college at all.

In the case of private institutions, we might regard the tax on university endowments as another form of defunding higher education. Its passage in 2017 was acknowledged by many Republicans to be punitive, a means of expressing their objections to what they saw as universities’ liberal bias. That no tax was considered for the endowments of religious groups, museums, or other nonprofits seems telling. The debates around the endowment tax cast many of America’s finest universities as negative forces, as drains on society, not as powerful engines of its betterment. By 2017, partisan splits in views about higher education had taken firm hold.


Recently 79 percent of Republicans said that a major problem in universities was professors bringing their liberal political and social views into the classroom. Only 17 percent of Democrats agreed. Statistics about political allegiances of faculty indicate there are five Democratic professors for every Republican. But what does such a statistic mean in practice? Increasingly partisan views about higher education are likely as much cause as effect of these divides. And do we assume that connection with one political party or another necessarily implies a distortion of what is being taught?

A B.A. has neither an R or a D attached to it. The lives of Republicans and Democrats alike are improved by college attendance, just as the well-being of our society overall is advanced by the work of free and independent universities. The fear that higher levels of education may correlate with Democratic voting should not become a reason for advocating ignorance.

Universities must resist being portrayed in this partisan light by continually strengthening their dedication to the ideals of free speech and the open exploration of ideas. Just as judges are expected to transcend political leanings in their loyalty to the rule of law, so the culture of a university requires loyalty to what we might call the rule of truth. The essence of a university requires it to stand above the political fray, to uphold the value of rational argument and exchange as the pathway to finding the best ideas.


This does not mean that students and faculty cannot have their own political loyalties. But these must not marginalize other perspectives or undermine principles of academic freedom and rigor. We in higher education have been far from perfect in this regard. Frank disagreement and respectful argument are an ideal, not, alas, always a reality. And as our nation has become more polarized, and social media has made it possible to turn any interaction into an occasion of public shaming and canceling, it takes more courage to disagree with your peers or even your professors. I know that students have sometimes found it challenging to express disagreement with what seemed to be prevailing views in classrooms or in dining halls. In recent months deeply felt divisions over a raging war have made communicating across differences especially difficult. But I also know how so many students have remained committed to rational and dispassionate exchange as they have listened to one another and reached for understanding.

Much is at stake in dedicating ourselves to being good and true speakers and generous listeners. And much is at stake in how and what we teach. Academic integrity entails the obligation that faculty have to their fields of inquiry — to what I have called a rule of truth that evaluates the debates defining their disciplines. These are substantive questions of knowledge, method, and fact that are fundamentally academic, not political in nature; they require expertise and judgment about subject matter and educational goals. That is why the long-held right of universities and their faculties to decide what they should teach is so precious.


Precious but under threat.

Indiana, for example, has recently passed a law requiring faculty to teach a “variety of political or ideological frameworks.” Does that mean a biology professor must teach creationism? Or a historian must offer a portrait of our past that erases terrible injustices like slavery in service of painting an unrelievedly celebratory notion of the American experience? Or given the strictures introduced against teaching what has been demonized as critical race theory, will a historian be required to present a color-blind American history from which race is excluded altogether? To mandate what is often hailed as “viewpoint diversity” can mean presenting material that is just plain wrong. Does a politician know more about biology than a biologist? About history than a historian?

I have been arguing for the right of universities to establish their curricula and select their faculty by means of carefully established processes grounding such decisions in intellectual expertise. Such structures are designed to shield universities from political intervention, from becoming the handmaidens of a political party or agenda. Imperfectly, no doubt. But this must be our goal. We should not be permitting, and certainly not celebrating, a governor or a legislature or a member of Congress who is designing courses or degree requirements, hiring faculty, or proudly claiming responsibility for firing university presidents.

Universities must endeavor to maintain independence and distance from the partisan scrum. The value of university autonomy has been foundational to university excellence; it has made American higher education strong; it has made America strong. Universities need to imagine beyond the societies in which they find themselves — to pursue discoveries that will build a future that the present cannot yet envision; to transcend and even challenge the status quo; and to be free to criticize the powerful, whether politicians or plutocrats. Universities must have the freedom to think the unthinkable.

American higher education is endangered. Universities have rightly been reminded of the imperative to live up to their own values, to be accountable to the rule of truth that I have described. They need now more than ever to be their best selves. But they also need to defend themselves against attacks that are uninformed, undeserved, or rankly partisan, attacks fueled by political opportunism, explicitly designed to weaken and marginalize a set of institutions that are foundational to American democracy and to the well-being not just of Americans but of people around the globe.

We who have been nurtured and shaped by universities must be champions of the promise and purposes of higher education — of the rule of truth that universities stand for both within and beyond their walls.

Drew Gilpin Faust is president emerita of Harvard University and Arthur Kingsley Porter University research professor.