Our Universities: The Power of Two – Ideas and Ideology

Universities, especially public universities, have a responsibility to leave ideology behind and focus on ideas. This does not mean that ideology is not valuable to individuals, but it should take a back seat to ideas at universities. In too many institutions ideology is creeping up on ideas and will eventually smother them in good intentions. Great universities transcend ideology, as do the best teachers.

“Great teachers transcend ideology.”

Suzanne Fields. _____________________________________________________________________

Last week, I read with dismay that Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is backing out of an arrangement to donate papers that encapsulate his intellectual and political life of some 40 years under the banner of the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University. They are going to close the place and give back the donations.

Unfortunate to the power of two: For math aficionados… it’s sad squared.

Senator Harkins’ letter to Iowa State University President Steve Leath reveals his thinking: “The idea was appealing, for it was at Iowa State where I learned the force of ideas, where I was exposed to a world of diverse opinion, and where I further developed my own philosophy. But after a time, it became evident that the university would not grant the Institute the very freedoms that I learned to cherish at Iowa State.” I take Senator Harkin at his word. His alma mater provided him insight and vision and the opportunity to expand his view of the world which, for one reason or another, he feels is now absent at Iowa State University.

A harbinger of the future of higher education, I fear. The Des Moines Register laid it bare on February 6, 2013. Commentary and observations from people in and around the events reveal political ideology, not ideas, at the center of the storm.

When I came to Southern Illinois University, unbeknownst to me a letter had been sent to Senator Paul Simon by the Honorable Anne Armstrong, former co-chair of the Republican National Committee and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain under President Reagan. She told Senator Simon that she believed I would be a “good fit.” While having lunch with Paul sometime later he shared the letter with me.

Senator Simon and Ambassador Armstrong were about as far apart ideologically as two people could be.

Yet, they were idea people and appreciated ideas even when different from their own, maybe especially so because of the whetted edge that ideas provide in the university environment. Both understood universities as academic organizations, different from political organizations. Loyalty is the coin of the realm in a political organization and, right or wrong, it is directed to the person whose name is on the ballot. In the university, loyalty must be to ideas rather than ideology because ideology might become dogma, and dogma doesn’t belong.

There was a very strong bond between these two thoughtful people: Each loved ideas, but only tolerated ideology. To our social and economic detriment, too many universities now hold-high ideology, but only tolerate ideas.

As partisan politics more pervasively impact public higher education, the “Harkin Incident” may become commonplace. Worse yet, it may be justification for the success of online education. As detective Joe Friday used to say in the TV series Dragnet, “Just the facts ma’am.” Better to have unadulterated facts — that is what digitally delivered instruction claims to provide — than ideology paraded as an idea. People engaged in the interplay of ideas represent education at its zenith.

My college experience was an excellent one. Like Senator Harkin, I was exposed to ideas. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I bumped into people with ideas, which in many cases were foreign to me. It always felt like that was supposed to happen. Nowhere did I find institutionalized fear of ideas. I never saw the university having a particular political perspective. Evidently Senator Harkin thinks that might not be the case. I am concerned he might be right, not just about his alma mater but about public universities around the nation as partisanship leaks into scholarship.

There is a link here between effective educational experiences, and the purposeful free flow of ideas. This coupling is being shackled to ideology too frequently on public university campuses in the 21st century. The quality of ideas colored and/or diminished by partisan political objectives is always diminished.

And victories accumulated thusly are seasonal, shallow, small, and toxic to the purpose of a university.

Tom Harkins’ political ideology should never get in the way of anyone’s academic aspirations, nor should President Leath’s.

Our universities need and want ideas. The Senator voted with his feet. Good universities should vote with their heads. What might work in the statehouse should not dominate the schoolhouse.


One thought on “Our Universities: The Power of Two – Ideas and Ideology

  1. This is so sad especially in the light of how we lost the Grant collection and instead have archives from insignificant politicians instead.

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