Universities must be free to deliver their greatest benefits. Even with the best intentions, the priorities and purposes of a university can become obscured. When they do, universities suffer, and the brunt of the burden is borne on students’ backs.
“I stand on the reality that there is no way to measure the social benefit that derives from a cultivated mind.” Peter T. Flawn, president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin. __________________________________________________________________
Freedom must be transparent, so I offer three confessions. First, I believe in God as the Creator of heaven and earth. Second, in 1972 I graduated from Texas A&M University with Rick Perry and later spent two decades working there. Third, I read the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper at Southern Illinois University.
Freedom at a university is a microcosm of a free society.
Degree One: The freedom of faith. Since William Buckley’s 1950 God and Man at Yale, the national conversation around faith and religion in university life has reached a crescendo. The absolute destructiveness of state-appropriated faith, or likewise, faithlessness, demands attention. Indeed, Martin Luther famously declared, “Here I stand,” not, “Here we stand:” Me, not we.
In national zealousness to assure that Mr. Jefferson’s wall is never breached, and to affect a properly conceived protection, the boards of universities were transformed. Issues related to faith were thrown against the wall…and didn’t stick.
Universities sprinted towards secularism because there was an abiding fear that any recognition of faith in matters of the intellect diminished the rigor of thought. How demeaning to thoughtful people, with or without faith of any kind.
Mr. Jefferson’s wall of separation had no such intent. Crude contemporary renderings do injustice to that most powerful notion in a free society. Watch what is going to happen at Ball State University as a response to Professor Eric Hedin’s course and Scott Jaseck’s question from Inside Higher Ed, “Science or Religion?” last week. The argument that any thought of faith is antithetical to science is not well founded.
Degree Two: Freedom from Interference: Consternation regarding Governor Perry’s efforts to create higher levels of accountability in universities was most recently reported by NPR on May 9. Higher levels of accountability in US higher education are inarguably important. States and students invest more and more, and seemingly receive less and less. For three decades, the quality of the educational offerings has slipped while the cost to students has soared. Prices rise, purpose falls.
We need effective accountability. Mr. Perry believes that such accountability can be garnered through proactive boards who demand to know more about service and quality, but the devil is in the details.
If Mr. Perry’s appointed boards tap former legislative friends or donors of Mr. Perry for key leadership positions, there may be forces at work that are contrary to university purpose. Micromanagement stifles freedom. Universities serve best when tinkered with least. This is not a call for weakened fiduciary oversight. Rather, it’s a clarion call for transparency that builds strength. Without the public’s confidence, boards become ineffective at providing purposeful attention to the educational aspirations of students.
Degree Three: Freedom for commentary. The Daily Egyptian is broke and seeking funding from the university. This seemingly noble effort to keep a voice alive is misguided. Unfortunately, the means by which the paper is supported is precisely the reason for the wall between church and state. There must be independence so that the truth may be unfettered: the foundation of Mr. Jefferson’s wall, and Mr. Perry’s boards.
If the newspaper is on the payroll, reporting may be tainted. An honest journalistic enterprise can turn on a dime into a house organ. Ninety percent of the student newspapers at universities in the United States are subsidized. This is precisely why 90% of the student newspapers find their highest utility at the bottom of a birdcage. My bet: The 10% of the student newspapers that are not subsidized have higher quality reporting and journalistic integrity, even though nascent. Remember, it’s a university. (BTW, many dailies find themselves in the same boat, not on the state teat but on the skim milk of advertising dollars.)
The diminishment of faith considerations has had a negative influence on universities because separation and elimination are absolutely unequal. Likewise, the sense that political perspective, fleeting and malleable, should guide the university is troubling. Student newspapers best serve their purpose as journalistic laboratories unencumbered by contributions from the state. If not a “wall” of separation, a stout hedgerow will do.
Our universities may be losing sight of freedom’s fundamentals. At every level, we should aspire to educate the students in honesty, integrity and independence, as the means to better the social order.