The role of higher education


Recently, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote “We should be able to….establish a set of concrete understandings about what government should and shouldn’t do. We should be able to have a grounded conversation based on principles 95 percent of Americans support.” Instead, as former congressman (and now Chairman of the National Endowment on the Humanities) Jim Leach has pointed out “it looks like increasingly people are lining up on one side or the other and they're, in effect, forming camps where the great American middle is at least proportionately very poorly represented in legislative bodies, particularly in Congress. “

Mr. Leach points us to an institution that might help us work ourselves out of this problem, but first we need to rethink that institution just a bit. That institution is the modern American university. As Leach notes: “I was told today, a university president was saying more students were lost at his university due to debt than bad grades. And that is one of the real challenges of our time: How we can afford a good university and public education at the post-secondary level?”

The simplistic answer is of course, by making a commitment to our universities. But we are in the throes of doing the opposite. I somewhat humorously, in my email signature line, refer to myself as a professor at Boise “State” University, because our funding from the state of Idaho is at 20% percent and declining. Public funding for other universities can be even lower. Where do we find the additional funding? What we do right now is chase huge research grants, like every other university. Those grants fall primarily in the area of what some call Big Science and Big Engineering.

 As someone who works in the interface of science and public policy I have benefitted from some of this funding and I know many researchers at Boise State who are doing interesting and important work. But, this funding chase can come with a cost. Teaching gets de-emphasized, as do programs and departments where funding streams are tiny. Undergraduates don’t matter as much anymore, graduate students that can help work on the research grants do matter. Some of this is not new, particularly at institutions more advanced in research than Boise State, but we are starting to see it too.

But what else suffers is the role of the university and its faculty in helping society deal with the concerns raised by Brooks and Leach above. By “helping deal” I mean exactly that, as part of a conversation facilitating and helping produce information that might be useful in collective problem solving, not in narrow “expert-centered” preaching to the un-anointed. 

For example, a few years ago I team taught a course witl Keith Allred, who was our Frank Church Professor that year (now he’s running for governor!). Our topic was collaboration and the public lands. We had our students interview a number of individuals about possible options on the seemingly irresolvable roadless issue in Idaho. We were able to generate some interesting alternatives (such as a backcountry recreation area) that we sent forward to key decision makers and their staff, who had also been involved with the class, that helped people understand how reframing and rethinking an issue could move discussions forward.

Sadly this role is simply not found in a big funding stream today. This role might help society think through problems, and might help create more public support for the university if society sees the university perform this role well, but I’m dubious. There’s not much money in this type of university work.

John Freemuth is a professor of political science and public policy at Boise "State" University.

the radical middle
matt bullard
matt bullard
Aug 31, 2010 02:57 PM
John - nice article. As a student in the class you team-taught with Keith Allred, I find it interesting to reflect on one of the central principals of that class - that if all sides of an issue are fairly presented (and represented) and the issue itself if dispassionately presented to the public and to the decision makes - the solution to the problem at hand will be found and it will be more roundly accepted and supported by the public and the decision makers.

The process by which the fringe interest groups, those on the left and the right who scream the loudest, would be marginalized in favor of a more pragmatic middle, was interesting in theory. But more and more I find that getting to that middle is harder and harder to come by. Nobody seems willing to compromise, everyone's heals are dug in, and we end up with gridlock. Most importantly, and we found this when we studied the roadless issue, is that the powers that be didn't seem to care about a the process presented by professors and masters students in the "Ivory Tower." It is discouraging.
Higher Education
john Freemuth
john Freemuth
Sep 01, 2010 12:45 PM

Well I guess my key point is that we in the ivory towwer have to try and engage real world issues, as we did in that class. Sometime people may find what we come with useful (as they did with some of our stuff), sometimes they dont. But if we dont engage, why should they be interesatesd in funding us?

Higher Ed
Sep 02, 2010 10:21 AM
Interesting that you write on this particular topic, as it has been one that I've been thinking about often lately. In regards to your comments above, perhaps the key word in "stakeholder" negotiations is "stake." As in, parties must have a stake in these negotiations, and put another way, what is their leverage?

As Matt suggests, university professors and students aren't considered a vital interest to win over or persuade in these negotiations. They have little political clout or direct interest. They are, at best, a cute ally. Instead, the focus will remain on those with real sharp teeth (and who will use them): landowners, ranchers, the enviro crowd, the recreation crowd, and business. But you know this.

The way this state treats higher education, we're just lucky to get the scraps at all. Become a nuisance or upset the wrong people in these very political discussions and there may be even more scraps to be had.

We need to somehow sharpen our teeth.
higher ed
John Freemuth
John Freemuth
Sep 02, 2010 12:13 PM
Universities shouldnt be seen has having a stake (well unless the discussion is about funding) but a role to play in helping furhter the discussion. Some do, and they can be found thoughout the west..but the culture of higher ed often ignores those people.

A small example of a role to play..back in the day, before as Hunter Thompson might have said, the going got weird, we actually showed though polling that Idahoans favored wolves. That never meant that the debate was over, only that the claim that Idoahans didnt like wolves was not that accurate.
Spot on as usual Dr. Freemuth!
Greg Bradshaw
Greg Bradshaw
Sep 01, 2010 05:08 PM
I've been reading John Adams by David McCullough over the summer and it's quite interesting how he saw an uneducated citizenry as the biggest threat to our Republic. I'm afraid he's right, and the implications of a 'dumbed-down' electorate are JUST starting to show. Keep beating this drum Dr. Freemuth!