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5 Panel Discussion: Presidents Crow, Hanlon, Sullivan, and Schlissel
Andrew Hoffman, moderator: Good afternoon. In this session we have, in alphabetical order, Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University; Phil Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College; Mark Schlissel, President of the University of Michigan; and Teresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia. Each will offer three minutes of opening remarks, and then we will move to a moderated discussion followed by questions from the audience.
President Crow: The public and political debate associated with climate change is a perfect example of the imperative for academic engagement. In this context, I wrote down three words that all start with the letter T. The first is teaching. We need to convey to students the complexity of issues like climate change, but we do not yet know how to teach what a theory entails and how theories evolve. What we understand now is less than and different from what we will understand at some point in the future. As mentioned in the opening comments, people do not grasp what we do. Second, translation—we’re terrible translators. We have scientists in the climate change debate standing up and saying that the earth is going to end—that if we do not take action in the next few months, the fate of all of humanity will be altered. Maybe, but probably not, and certainly not with that tonality. It is difficult not to remember that just ten thousand years ago, where the Empire State Building sits today, there was a thousand feet of ice, and that was long before we were doing what we’re doing. So I’m just saying, we’re really bad translators. And the last is our tone—our tonality as teachers. We are increasingly filled with hubris, filled with arrogance, cut off from the general public, and unable to find an appropriate tone with which to communicate. And so I would suggest that the fantastic thing about us getting together here today to talk about academic engagement and public and political discourse is that we need it more than we’ve ever needed it. We need to communicate in ways that we’ve never even thought about communicating before, because if we don’t figure out how to deal with this—how to teach what theory actually is, how to get people to understand that, how to translate, and how to deal with our tone—the gap between the academic elite and everyone else will continue to grow, and what we now see as political debate will be people with pitchforks outside the door. Pitchforks! They want to know what we’re doing, why we exist, and why they’re giving us money. This is a very serious thing that we need to focus on.
President Hanlon: Let me first say that this is a very important topic, and I want to thank the organizers for inviting me. I want to speak just for a minute about the “why” part of what we are discussing. Should academics be engaged in public debate, and if so, why? And I think that it’s not only a good thing; it’s actually an obligation that we do so. I have picked three different reasons. The first is that the public invests a lot in higher education through research funding, federal loans, and state appropriations. It’s never as much as we think it should be, but nonetheless it adds up to a very large number, and so we have an obligation to give back the fruits of our labor. Number two is tenure. We think of tenure as a right, but it’s really a privilege: the privilege to be able to explore whatever you want, whatever topics you think are important or interesting, and I think that privilege comes with a ton of responsibilities to share with the public at large the fruits of what we discover. Number three is the biggie. The world’s issues are incredibly complex and public debate is, from all evidence, deteriorating. Incredibly complicated topics are being reduced to sound bites of very shallow analysis. We have an opportunity to set a model for our students, and we want our graduates to leave here and understand the complexity of the world’s issues and that the power of the mind is the best tool we all have to overcome them. And so we can set a model for our students by engaging ourselves in public debate and, as great as we are collectively and as great as the research we do on campus is, the biggest tool we have to change society is our graduates: the really bright minds that run through our place and go out. If we prepare them correctly, if we model behavior for them correctly, if we model engagement for them, they will become passionate and they will engage in deep, profound public debate instead of just trivial debate.
President Schlissel: Thank you for this opportunity. This is great and I’m particularly excited to be sitting here with my colleagues. So I share with my fellow presidents the notion that it’s actually a responsibility or even an obligation of universities to engage in public discourse and to share the expertise that we accumulate, the knowledge we discover, and the understanding that we achieve with the public at large. And I’m speaking at an institutional level, so that means that it’s not every individual’s personal responsibility; it’s really up to the individuals to choose, but as an institution and as presidents, we help shape the culture and the value system as well as reflect that culture and value system. I think, as an institution, it really is part of our obligation to society for the reasons that Phil [Hanlon] has mentioned. I think this engagement has a pretty significant effect on how the public at large thinks about us. So we’re not quite dragging them to the front doorstep with pitchforks, but if we’re perceived as being an ivory tower and talking to one another and being proud of our discoveries and our awards and our accomplishments and the letters after our names, I think in the long run the enterprise is going to suffer in society’s eyes, and our potential for impact will diminish. The willingness of society to support us will decrease. So really, the engagement piece is part of how the public sees us, and that is actually a double-edged sword.
Anybody who works at this university can certainly identify himself or herself as a professor of the University of Michigan, and their public engagement will reflect on our entire community. But it really can be messy; we are a community that values freedom of expression and freedom of thought for what we choose to study and how we choose to represent ourselves. We get accused, for example, of being a bastion of liberal thinking, and that can be reinforced depending on who’s speaking out and how. So it’s not going to be a pure win every single time professors from the university speak in public or interpose themselves. But the act of being engaged is critical for the public’s perception of our value. That spectrum of engagement ranges from individual scholars offering knowledge, expertise, and data information that they have to being advocates for a policy, conclusion, perspective, or outcome that they’re seeking to put into the marketplace of ideas, all the way to actively participating in politics. There are politicians who were professors and some people who are temporary politicians with links to the academy. So there’s a very broad spectrum, and I think we’re on the safest ground when we speak as subject matter experts, but it’s not quite that simple. I think all of us as individuals—whether you’re a professor, a staff member, or a student—have a right to speak out in public; you have a right to express your personal views. But I think that with those rights come responsibilities. You have to realize that the audience isn’t going to distinguish between your personal views and those of the institution as a whole. We had a little to-do about this here at Michigan in my first semester when one of my colleagues submitted an op-ed at an online venue. The editorial writer titled it “Why I Hate Republicans,” and we’re off to the races. We allow freedom of expression, but it led to a piling on of those who wanted to take cheap and easy shots at the quality and the nature of thought in teaching. Then it has a second downside that I think we ought to be very sensitive to as teachers. If our students perceive us as having a powerful point of view, that may suppress students from speaking or developing their own points of view; it’s a polarizing relationship. I don’t want a kid in my class to be afraid to write something in an essay that disagrees with me because he or she might not get a good grade. So it’s complicated, and it requires sensitivity and caution, and certainly while we’re expressing political beliefs, I think caution is definitely required.
Finally, I want to agree with what Dr. Crow said about the tenure issue. We don’t appreciate it, and we forget the privilege it is to have lifelong security of employment at a spectacular university. And I don’t think we use it for its intended purpose. I think that faculty on average through the generations are becoming a bit careerist and staying inside their comfort zones. Once we get that tenure, we can keep doing just what it is that got us here. And I think if there is a purpose to tenure moving forward, it really is to free us up to take on challenging problems, to engage in public discourse without having this existential worry that we’ll be expressing a view before its time or a view out of the mainstream.
President Sullivan: I also want to thank the organizers for allowing me to come back to Michigan. The Michigan meetings are a wonderful idea, and I’m glad to have an opportunity to participate in this one. Could I see a show of hands again for those of you who are graduate students? Thank you. I thought about my remarks with graduate students in mind, and I guess one of the reasons for this is that my older son became an assistant professor for the first time last fall. So he is teaching comparative religion in a public university in Texas. What could go wrong? [Laughter] Watching the academy through his eyes, I see one set of issues, and I’ve had my own experiences, too. Shortly after I arrived at the University of Virginia, we were served with a civil discovery order by the attorney general, which is something like a lawsuit, demanding that we produce all the e-mails our climate scientists had written to each other and to a long list of other climate scientists. We resisted this and said we thought this was a misinterpretation of the state’s laws. The attorney general, unfortunately, is also my lawyer. So I expressed the opinion that I didn’t wish him to be both prosecuting and defending me at the same time. He expressed surprise that I thought he couldn’t do that and that I had to have permission from him to hire outside counsel. And after spending $800,000 and going all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, we won our case stating that unpublished research documents are exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act because they’re still in the course of discovery and they’re not the final word from the scientist. But plainly, this was motivated by skepticism about climate science and whether there is some kind of conspiracy among climate scientists that could be discovered through their e-mails. I remember a fact that Mary Sue Coleman, Mark [Schlissel]’s predecessor as president of the University of Michigan, used to cite to me: 40 percent of the US population thinks that the earth is only four thousand years old. So I understand these issues of scientific literacy and also the ways we could get ourselves unknowingly into political disputes. One of our problems, of course, is that as academics love nuance, and much of the rest of the world focuses on sound bites. They’re not compatible with each other. And so what can a young academic do, whether your field is science or the humanities or an interdisciplinary, emergent field?
Well, I think the first thing is to recognize that you are not the university, so you separate your views from the university’s. Yesterday, the dean of the University of Virginia Law School told me that he’s going to be testifying in Congress today, and he said, “I’m going to make the point that these views don’t express the views of the University of Virginia, but no one is going to listen to that.” There is some truth to that, but there is still value in saying it. The second is to separate our roles as citizens and our roles as experts. We have our first amendment right as citizens to say anything that we would like, including criticizing government. But as an expert, you restrict yourself to the field in which you do your work. So, for example, I have a nephew who is a PhD candidate at University of Wisconsin, and he studies honeybees and pollination patterns. This is a really important topic right now, with hive disease affecting a lot of American bees. So I know he’s an expert when he’s talking about bees and pollination and related issues. But he’s been talking a lot lately about the funding of higher education in Wisconsin as well. He’s speaking to that as a citizen, but he doesn’t do that as an expert. And then third and finally—and this isn’t necessarily relevant to everybody—there is the need to separate the paid expert from the neutral expert. A common way of imputing the integrity of academics is to say that this work was paid for by—fill in the name of a corporation or foundation—and imply that it’s discredited because of this funding source. Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, but it’s important to acknowledge when you’ve received any kind of outside support from your work because it may color how people receive what you have to say. I think it’s also useful when you are a neutral expert to be identified as such. Sometimes in the newspaper, you’ll see somebody commenting on a research finding, and the newspaper will add, “Professor So-and-So did not have any relationship to the research project.” Well, that’s to establish that this is a neutral point of view. I think these distinctions and nuances are important, but they don’t obscure the basic point that you have the right and perhaps the obligation to speak out. And I think our position as administrators is that we have the right and the obligation to protect that when faculty do.
Andrew Hoffman: I’d like to push on the question of “why” now. We’ve heard a lot of talk about the ideal of the university and what it’s supposed to be, but is there something different right now that compels this question? We can go all the way back to World War II, Vannevar Bush, and the debates that emerged over whether universities should be doing applied or basic research. Those debates continue today. Some very noted critics are saying that the university has lost the mandate of focusing on research for its own sake and is focused instead on application. Is there something different right now that makes this question more compelling, more important, that we really need to rethink what the university is?
President Sullivan: There is a fundamental critique among some that we shouldn’t be doing research at all—that it’s not our mission and that our mission is only teaching. And if you haven’t heard that, you haven’t been walking the halls of the state houses lately. Since the year 2008, there has been a questioning of the funding of higher education. Part of that has been a challenge to the research mission, and in particular, some have questioned research in the humanities and social sciences as not being a worthy thing for a university to do. So when we as administrators are defending our researchers and our faculty, one of the things we are defending is that research is something worthwhile in every discipline.
President Hanlon: I would amplify that a little bit by expanding on the period between World War II and the early 2000s. Despite a few ups and downs, this was a period of unprecedented prosperity, economic growth, and vitality in this country. But that’s changing, and with it come incredible pressures that spill over into any field where resources are needed, including higher education but many others, such as health care delivery, energy delivery, and so on. And so there are deeper and more profound tensions right now as well as complex issues that really need deep-thinking, intellectual engagements.
President Crow: I think the most important issue now is that most individuals have access to some form of a little supercomputer [holding up a mobile phone] that they carry in their purses, their pockets, or leave next to their beds on the nightstand. They can ask this thing any question about anything and find some kind of an answer with very little ability to determine the quality of the answer. But nonetheless, they have this ubiquitous access to information that they never had before.
The academy created these ideas, as well as the technologies and mechanisms through which this information is flowing. The University of Michigan, for example, has been a powerful force for information technology and ubiquitous information in the last few decades.
But I agree with Terry [Sullivan] and Phil [Hanlon] that there was a shift in the politics in 2008. But I think the origin of that shift is not political. I think it actually has to do with the fact that we have this ubiquity of information. You have these knowledge-producing organizations, and people don’t understand the relationships or the mechanisms between them. So what we’re seeing is confusion. A lot of this—what would appear to us to be ignoramuses running amok out there—is actually, in my view, confusion. There’s confusion, and we haven’t found the position to articulate the hierarchy of knowledge and explain the way in which knowledge evolves. What’s information? What’s knowledge? What’s know-how? What’s not? What’s this? What’s that? I think that we’re in an important moment, and the thing that we have to worry about now is not falling back to the period where a few people started controlling the flow of that information and manipulating the masses. We need to think seriously about this impact of technology and ubiquity of information and how we can’t just say, “That’s not so.” What do you mean it’s not so—based on what? So all things being equal, we need to make sure that people understand that there is a hierarchy to all this and get them to understand it and respect it in some way, which we have no way to do right now.
President Schlissel: The only thing I would add is the degree of the question. I think every generation looks at itself and says, “Boy, this is the toughest time ever, and everything is under threat now, and we have it rougher than we have ever did.” Well, I’m not sure that’s true. I think that each generation has its challenges. Some of them are driven by changes in technology, moments in economics, moments in political discourse. This is our moment, and we have to figure out as an academy, just as our forerunners did, how to productively engage and positively influence how life plays out.
Andrew Hoffman: But doesn’t the role of social media have to be given its own focus? Jenny McCarthy boasts that she went to the University of Google to come up with her positions on autism and vaccines. Isn’t that something that says, no, there’s something different right now?
President Schlissel: Well, certainly the ease of access of literally every human to have a worldwide platform to dispense his or her ideas is unprecedented in history, but I would imagine that in earlier eras, there were people who would speak up in a town square and just dribble out nonsense. So the effects didn’t spread around the globe, but this tension among knowledge, experiment, discovery, reason, and then people’s lack of respect for expertise in relation to their own opinions is not a new tension.
Andrew Hoffman: President Hanlon, I have heard you talk about the idea that social media democratizes knowledge. Can you talk about that?
President Hanlon: I think that we spend a lot of time focusing on the authors when we talk about social media, but the real challenge is to focus on the readers. I said this before: if we don’t do anything else with our students, we should teach them how complex the world’s issues are. We should teach them the difference between anecdote and data. We should teach them that they really have to think about things and think deeply and not just react.
President Crow: I just want to add one point: one of the things that has hurt us is that we’ve lost the control of the word or the franchise of the university. We have people out there that have no intent of doing anything that we do calling themselves “universities.” We’ve got people running around using the word “university” to make unjustifiable profits through educational experiences that are not robust. The reason I bring this up is that I think one of the things that we need to do in this moment of time is to define what “university” means to us. In our case, we’re reconceptualizing the university to be a knowledge enterprise. We produce knowledge, synthesize knowledge, store knowledge, analyze knowledge—and the three things that we produce from that process are people, ideas and concepts, and things and objects. A lot of places that call themselves universities don’t do that. So we have got to find some way to recapture the term, the idea of what we actually are, because that’s all being corrupted as we speak, Google University being an example.
President Sullivan: I think speed is also an important part of it. As they say, a lie makes it halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on. That’s really true today, and something that is false or is interpreted in a false manner can be completely awash in social media before the academic community that was responsible for initiating the study even knows about it. And that’s a real difficulty for us because we cannot spend all our time monitoring social media. We have other things to do. And for the people who do spend all their time monitoring social media, a lot of mischief can be done.
Andrew Hoffman: We live in a very politically fractured time, a very divisive time. The university is perceived as a left-leaning institution, and surveys show that academics do lean left. Does that create a danger for us to step into political discourse and become political players with our work, with our research?
President Schlissel: I think it’s more of a danger that we don’t create an academic community that’s more intellectually and politically diverse and do so purposely. So one of the challenges I face each year is to pick graduation speakers, and it’s challenging because this liberal idea is the predominant mode of thought at many universities. But I don’t think we expose our students and one another to enough thoughtful, rigorous people who represent other parts of the spectrum. I don’t think we do it adequate justice. It’s not going away in society, right? So unless we can create a milieu here that somewhat replicates the diversity of thought in society, it’s going to be very hard for us to work through the problem. So I don’t fear our faculty representing themselves and being considered liberal. I’m more concerned that we haven’t created a sufficient intellectually and politically diverse community on our campus.
President Crow: I would just add that we have to be cautious about thinking that we live in a fractious moment. This is actually not one of the most fractious moments in American political history. We’ve had moments that led to the deaths of six hundred thousand Americans in a civil war. That was quite a bit more fractious. And I won’t walk through all the other moments of fractiousness. I think that universities have always been places where new ideas have flowed, and both conservatives and liberals have been opposed to those new ideas repeatedly, decade after decade, generation after generation. I think the one thing that we have to do is not be political. Politics is a process that we are informing. We don’t have to be political to inform politicians or political actors. If individuals want to be political, they’re free to do that, but they definitively can’t do that as a representative of the institution. The institution has to be, in a sense, above that when informing the process. I won’t walk back through the behaviors of the American colleges and universities prior to the Civil War, but we would all be ashamed. Not of all of them but of most of them.
Andrew Hoffman: Is this question different for public universities as opposed to private universities?
President Sullivan: Yes. One way it’s different, of course, is simply the presence of the Freedom of Information Act. Phil [Hanlon] doesn’t have to worry about that at Dartmouth. But the press can come in and demand various documents from Mark [Schlissel]’s drawer, and they can from mine, and they can from Michael [Crow]’s.
President Crow: I only had 167 public information requests for all my e-mails last year. [Laughter]
President Sullivan: That’s different for public universities. The other thing that’s different is our form of governance, which in many states is a pretty political process. The regents at the University of Michigan are elected by the people. In my own state, they’re all appointed by the governor. So there is a political tone on governance that the private universities less frequently have; I won’t say they never have it.
President Hanlon: I would agree with that, but we all share a strong and appropriate interest in having open-minded discourse on our campus. So we are not immune from that legitimate interest.
President Crow: I was a trustee of Bowdoin College for many years, and we never spoke of politics once in any of those meetings. I was a deputy provost at Columbia University for twelve years and attended all trustee meetings for those twelve years, and we never spoke of politics there either, so it’s a completely different world for the reasons that Terry [Sullivan] and the others suggest.
President Sullivan: The other thing I would say, though, is that being public universities, we’re also very mindful of public service as part of our mission, and that’s more exclusive in some institutions than others. But I think all of us take it seriously. And part of that service is informing a populace that lies beyond our student body. That brings back the original idea that it’s important for academics to be able to get our ideas out to a broader audience.
Andrew Hoffman: President Schlissel, you said that it was a tremendous honor and privilege to be a tenured professor at a major university. President Sullivan, you talked about the idea that it’s the professor speaking; it’s not the university speaking. Can we talk a little bit about how you see the role of the individual academic changing? To begin with, is this a question that junior faculty should be careful of getting involved in? They still have to get their tenure. Is this only a question of full professors, or is this changing the career track of all professors?
President Schlissel: I think tenured faculty have more leeway because of the protections of tenure, but I don’t necessarily believe that junior faculty members should sculpt how they want to engage with the world and what kind of impact they want to have as a scholar based on their stage of career. That falls in the category of being too careerist. You have to follow your passions. And if a part of your passion is to engage in public discourse, I think you should do that regardless of your career stage. I think one factor that we don’t consider when I hear the complaint that you don’t get credit for public engagement in the tenure process is that we own the tenure and promotion process; the faculties do in each of our departments. And if the department decides here in Michigan that it wants to give more weight to public engagement as part of the service or scholarly component of a faculty member’s career, I think that faculty have the flexibility to define achievement in that way. We can’t blame ourselves for something that we own.
Andrew Hoffman: But is there a danger? Let’s say a department decides engagement is part of its tenure review process. Might junior faculty members be a little crazy to follow that, because if they don’t get tenure, their packets may not be as attractive in the outside market? I know that may be careerist, but we also have to be pragmatic that we do want to have lives in academia.
President Schlissel: Yes, but those same faculty members are going to take chances by what they’re writing their books on, or what research subjects they take on. I remember a junior faculty member when I was a dean at Berkeley whose goal was to determine the three-dimensional structure of something called a ribosome. This was a big deal. Everybody advised this guy, “You’re nuts; if you don’t get it, you’re never going to get tenure.” And the guy said, “I don’t care; I want to understand what a ribosome looks like.” So although there are pragmatic aspects to a career, I think it’s really dicey when you start telling people to do this and don’t do that, because you can’t ensure an outcome no matter what they do. They have to follow their passion.
President Hanlon: Right. I would add also that there are so many great things faculty can do with their time. There is scholarship and teaching, of course, because of core missions, but then there’s a professional service, there’s advising, there’s public service, there is any number of things they can do. And it’s how they prioritize their time that really shapes their careers. I think that if junior faculty feel that engagement in public discourse is something that they value, then they should absolutely do it and put that as a priority. They still need to produce whatever they need to produce to get tenure, but beyond that, there’s lots of time, and they can decide how to fill that time.
President Sullivan: I’m going to raise a warning flag about all this. For all the talk about how liberal universities are, there’s nowhere we’re more conservative than when it comes to tenure. I don’t see the day coming when your collection of tweets is going to be accepted as a scholarly part of your tenure packet. And even if they tell you they’ll accept it, they might change their minds when it comes time to vote on tenure.
President Crow: We have about three thousand faculty members, and they’re free agents in the sense that they plot their own courses, they live by their own passions, and they decide what they want to do, but we’ve come up with an idea, not unique to us but one that we’re implementing rather vigorously, and that is this notion of how we empower a faculty member to have greater impact. Most faculty are motivated by the desire to have recognition for their intellectual achievements. That’s a fantastic motivation. So we built a unit that we’re going to be growing to several hundred people, all of whom will swarm around those faculty members who want to teach the public more broadly about their research through a range of technological media in a full-immersion modality. And we’re doing this through more than just the massive open online course (MOOC) platform, which lacks enough interactivity, but through a range of additional platforms.
We have one faculty member who’s our best example of this, named Ariel Anbar, in our School for Earth and Space Exploration, who’s emerging into this like a whole new creature. He’s a Howard Hughes fellow, he’s running a NASA Astrobiology Institute, and he’s designing a course with funding from the Gates Foundation that could reach a million students by the time it’s done. It will teach fundamental skills necessary for freshmen-level college understanding of science and will be taught through a completely different modality of teaching through exploration. What that means is that he becomes an unbelievably empowered, individually driven, passion-driven faculty member who will conduct research, advance scholarship, and secure his academic position through his scholarship but also become this projected force by connecting to the public in a different way. We think there’s a huge opportunity for that kind of model to help break down the barrier between universities and those not able to physically be with us. For us, it’s a big deal.
Andrew Hoffman: Does the kind of change we are discussing require change across the institution of academia, or can one university or one school within a university or one department within a school do this on its own?
President Crow: I go back to my idea of a free agent. All our schools, all our individual faculty, are free agents. So there’s no mechanism to say that we’re all going to go this way. Are you kidding me? We can’t even get everybody to show up to a meeting. We look at what percentage opened the e-mail that we sent—8 percent! Chances are that we’re not going to get everybody to go together. So one has to create these opportunities for individual innovations, school innovations, center innovations. We talked earlier, Mark [Schlissel], about individual universities innovating in different ways—differentiation. So it’s all about differentiation and enabling innovation.
Andrew Hoffman: When this conversation started, it sounded to me like there was a collective problem. Can we expect individual free agents to fix or address the problem, or does it have to be addressed collectively? I hate to be pushing on this, but I think it’s important.
President Schlissel: I think it is a leadership thing and leadership at many different levels. But someone in the president’s position or a dean or chair’s position can motivate behavior by celebrating individuals and their successes. Our communications people capture every day the comments that hit the national media from our faculty, and that’s a celebration of their success. If somebody appears in a prominent position that’s newsworthy, we push that out there. So I think that’s one way the leadership can signal this is something we want our faculty to do. But as I mentioned in my earlier comments, this isn’t a mandate that all three thousand instructional faculty, and nonclinical instructional faculty in Michigan, and everybody have to do. It’s just a component of an academic career that we respect.
President Crow: One of the courses that I taught at Columbia was for all students who were receiving National Institutes for Health (NIH) fellowships or NIH support to teach the public duty of the publicly funded scientist. And I could tell by the resistance of the students to taking the course that they hated it. The question that was asked was, “Who are you to tell me what my public duty is?” This goes to the root of your question. Our culture is not fully preparing our academics for engagement in the complex society in which we rest. So that’s something that we’re going to have to do, and that’s a responsibility that leaders of institutions are going to have to take on and move in a different way. And we’ve been working on that in my institution’s case, but I remember from the years that I’ve taught that course at Columbia that it was hard, because people say, “Get out of my face and leave me alone; I’m going to do whatever I want to do, and the rest of you can just drop dead.” That was kind of the attitude of these graduate students. These were NIH-supported graduate students who had to take this course as a function of their funding.
President Hanlon: I would also remember that our promotion processes, our funding processes, are designed to ensure that faculty will continue to do exactly the kind of work that allows them to speak to public issues. It actually doesn’t help to have someone speaking to public issues whose work is not deep and valued. So that’s exactly what our tenure processes are designed to ensure.
Andrew Hoffman: As we start to think about the role of the tenured professor or the full professor changing in these times, becoming more of public intellectual, can you imagine what that change in role might look like? I remember a funny quip by one of my colleagues. We were walking through campus, and he said, you know, “One of the problems I see around me in academia is we have too many senior professors thinking like junior professors.” They are still chasing those individual pieces of knowledge and not bringing them together for the benefit of society. Can you envision what we might do not to try to recreate one design for the full professor but to broaden the perspective of what it means? Can you give some thought to what that range of activities or roles or personas might look like?
President Sullivan: One thing I would say about full professors is that they are much more actively engaged typically in peer review. That is a very important part of quality assurance. And one of the disturbing things to me in the last couple of years has been the attack on peer review. But most full professors I know spend lots of time assessing and evaluating their peers because they’re editors of journals, they’re reviewing manuscripts, they’re writing letters of recommendation for their students or for colleagues, or they’re just spending a lot of time in what I call “assessment.” It’s an important and underappreciated part of the professorial role.
President Hanlon: I think it is really interesting when faculty are able to come in contact with practitioners. We all have mechanisms on all our campuses to bring grant practitioners to campus, and I think they really liven the environment.
President Crow: I have served on one of the National Science Foundation and National Academies panels mentioned in the introductory comments. Now imagine if we could build identities for each and every one of our faculty members that express their passions. Why are they doing this, whether they’re English literature professors, or biologists, or whatever? What is the “why”? And we find some way to help them if they can’t express that on their own. And then beyond that, we help them define an identity and articulate the ideas that they’re pursuing, their discourse with other people. We’re working on this—finding ways to translate some of the things that they’re working on that might not be easily understandable by others. This is an expensive and time-consuming process that you wouldn’t want to burden the faculty members with themselves. We’re starting to create positions of knowledge curators and educational technology specialists who will be working with our faculty to project their identities and build translation capabilities around them. All their courses, all their interactive learning environments, everything that they’re doing, all the digital ways that we have to link things together, and with that, a full professor in this particular world becomes like a super faculty member. I don’t know what to call it, but there’s got to be a way to elevate this person who has achieved national or international status as a full professor, which took decades to achieve, and he or she needs to be visible to the public. Scholars don’t have the kind of identity in the United States that they have in China and other places, and there are reasons for that that need to be addressed. And so we’re talking about how you build the identity of and interactive engagement with the faculty member, which can be then greatly enhanced by finding a way to project and translate that identity.
President Schlissel: There are two other trends in the academy that I’ve noticed that are increasing in recent years. One is this mode of education called engaged learning; that’s a set of circumstances that is going to put more and more faculty outside the academy working with their students on real-world problems and lead them to think of themselves more as contributors beyond the edge of the campus. The other is the enormous and growing popularity of entrepreneurship programs on campus: social entrepreneurship and business entrepreneurship. That’s also an externally focused activity driven by the needs and demands of our students, but I think the faculty will end up following that and, perhaps with the generational change, will develop more of an outward focus driven by student interest.
Andrew Hoffman: Do you see any dangers to this kind of activity? Is there a line someone can cross? Is there a point at which they are no longer objective academics; they’re subjective pundits. Paul Krugman, for example, is a rigorous thinker who has devoted his career to editorials and public positions. Are there activities that would start to raise some red flags in your book of going too far in this thinking?
President Sullivan: So my first political science instructor was George Will, but today, George Will would not describe himself in the same way. We have to allow that to happen—allow people to pursue their careers. That happens to academics as well. And I don’t think you want to limit them in doing it. If they wish to stay affiliated with the university now, there are certain minimal things we’re going to continue to ask them to do. At my university, one of those is engagement with students. That’s simply part of the full package at the University of Virginia. But yes, I think there’s room for people’s careers to change and go in different directions and for people to change disciplines. Interdisciplinary programs get developed because people are willing to broach the boundary of their discipline with another discipline. If we didn’t have people brave enough to do that, there are lots of fields that would not exist in the current university.
President Schlissel: So how do you define a pundit for the purpose of this question? Writing an op-ed every once in a while is OK. If you’re an expert and you have this platform that lets you reach thought leaders all around the world and you do it three times a week, is that all of a sudden punditry?
Andrew Hoffman: That’s a great question. We all know that in our culture if people drift away from doing research and if their resumes become filled with nothing but editorials, we would look at them askance. And if they become associated with a particular political position that is not necessarily grounded in research, then they are no longer part of the community of what we consider to be legitimate academics. I’m pushing the boundaries here because I think we’re stepping into new territory.
President Crow: Well, it’s not so new. Carl Sagan was a fantastically successful planetary scientist at Cornell University and was, among the planetary scientists, probably the best translator both through his Cosmos show and through his novels like Contact and other things that he did, and he reached tens of millions of people. If you talked to planetary scientists who ridiculed him for taking on the role, he was right and they were wrong. It’s as simple as that.
Andrew Hoffman: Do you think that culture still exists?
President Crow: Certainly, it still exists. It’s based on many human emotions, but I think the base may be jealousy. The notion that somehow a Carl Sagan can be a successful scientist and then, after having demonstrated his ability to be a successful scientist—as successful as any other—can go out and be unbelievably creative in other ways while still teaching graduate students and students at Cornell is important. He’s not a lesser person for emerging as a public intellectual. We only have a few hundred of those in the United States. Paul Krugman is one; George Will is one. They each have a different view of the world, but they’re each of that class. Unfortunately, not enough of them are coming from the academy in my view. And so if one can emerge from the academy and fulfill that kind of role while still teaching and contributing to the university and so forth, then hallelujah, because it’s a way to get discourse to the higher level.
President Hanlon: I believe that we are operating under a premise in this conversation that when we talk about engagement with publications, we’re talking about critical thinking and analysis rather than creating solutions for the world’s issues. That’s another very important thing the academy does. And we’re having this interesting debate on our campus right now as we’re creating an entity to find solutions for health care delivery. We have an existing entity that has conducted academic analysis of health care delivery, and now we are asking if those two should be separate or if they could be merged together; would that sort of engagement poison the integrity of it?
Andrew Hoffman: President Crow, you said that bias still exists and that Carl Sagan was not respected. What are the formal and informal obstacles to changing the university to encourage more of these kinds of people to emerge? If you could break down the obstacles on your campus, what would they be?
President Crow: We allow people to say things in academia that are unbelievable. We allow people to attack the Carl Sagans of the world. And everybody else that thinks that Carl Sagan is doing the right thing, but they don’t really say anything. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. They’re just kind of quiet. And so, to me, we have to find a way for university leadership to protect and defend the translators who emerge from among us and to encourage and empower them—help them get out and perform this translation function. There are not very many people who can do that, and they’re sorely needed, but they’re suppressed in our own environment by people who are so very interested in maintaining this status quo that they keep the Carl Sagans of the world from emerging. Everybody else has to tell those people to just be quiet.
President Hanlon: I would agree that we really need more speaking out among our faculty. Also I think what Mark [Schlissel] said earlier was really correct in my experience; our faculty are free agents. They’re entrepreneurs, and what we can do most effectively is to celebrate the pioneers and make sure they have everything they need, and when they do great stuff, just shadow them thereafter.
President Schlissel: We maintain databases of people of expertise, and when journalists come to us, we’ll direct them toward the faculty colleague who wants to be a spokesperson in an area. We can provide media training for people and give them the skills to do what’s part of their passion more effectively. And again, as I said, we can celebrate their successes.
President Sullivan: But the obstacle is in each department. That’s where a lot of fundamental rewards get distributed. And I’m not just speaking of money, although money is one of those rewards. Departments have their own cultures and customs, and as human beings, they’re also subject to envy and other such negative emotions. It’s hard to rescue your Carl Sagans from those departmental situations. And sometimes it’s just a reality that while you’ve got someone who is out being famous, there’s work that needs to get done, and that person is not lifting that share of the load. Thus it can really be boiled down to simple issues such as that.
Andrew Hoffman: We have people lining up for questions, so let’s begin.
Question 1, Debra Rowe (US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development): We have found that it doesn’t work to point to the innovators because all the obedient middles would go, “Well, that’s them.” So if we’re really going to build more public intellectuals and create professors who can do community engagement on real-world problem solving with quality, you can’t count on the departments to make these tenure guideline changes alone. You guys have power to create systemic change. What changes do we need in how we teach our PhD students so that when they do community engagement, they actually know how to do it? And how do we change this tenure system that keeps your obedient middles doing stuff that’s less than optimal?
President Schlissel: I’d say the scope of the problem is too huge to focus on just the tenure piece of it. But university presidents are less powerful than you think. We don’t get to define what the standards are. If I put out a memo that said, “I’d like you departments to approach things in this way,” it might get very few clicks. I think the senior leadership has influence in directing resources, being a positive reinforcer of the kind of behaviors that are occurring and celebrating success, and building infrastructure around people and activities that you want to support. I’m hopeful that concepts of tenure will evolve, but I’m not seeing great examples.
President Crow: This goes to something Mark [Schlissel] and I were talking about earlier this morning: we really need to be careful about assuming that all these things that we’re calling universities are the same. They’re not all the same. They’re actually different. I’ll just use Michigan and Arizona State University as examples. So let’s pretend that Michigan is a classic class M planet. It’s a certain type of planet. It’s got a certain kind of atmosphere, it works in certain ways, and it has cultures and microcultures that are very similar to the class N planet that I’m on, but our planets are different. It just so happens in our particular planet that we decided the class M planets would make curiosity-driven research the core fundamental value driving the overall design of the institution, and we said, “That’s a good value, but let’s add use-inspired research to that as the core intellectual value.” So on the N planet, drawing from the value system of the M planet, it’s slightly different. One of the things that we do is we overgeneralize universities as being more similar than they actually are. We need to start saying, well, no, we have these ten types of universities. They’re working in these ten types of arenas. There’s a core value system underlying all of them, which is free and open discourse—all the things that came from the great Greek academies. Those are still a part of what we all do, but we’re going to operate differently. As a result, you would have differentiated models for tenure and differentiated markets for faculty to work. I might not want to work at an N-class planet. I might want to work at an M-class planet. And then this array of universities will, in the long run, help provide us with an opportunity to have an even more diverse higher education community—one more likely to be able to handle the 450 million people that we’re going to have, to educate them at higher levels, and to solve more problems down the road. And so tenure is a word that will have related and similar but different meanings across all these institutions.
Andrew Hoffman: That begs the question of the rankings and what they do to normalize the idea that there’s only one kind of planet—one measure of quality.
President Crow: None of those rankings were developed by us, by the academy itself. They’re all developed by profit-seeking magazines attempting to manipulate the behavior of parents sending their kids to college.
President Hanlon: You asked the question about how we prepare our graduate students for engagement and public discourse. I would point out that we’re really not the best people to prepare them, because we don’t know how to do that ourselves. And so there are initiatives that do that quite well. The op-ed project is one; Alan Alda’s institute at Stony Brook is a really interesting place. It’s all about how you communicate science. So, in fact, there are experts in doing that. They’re alive and operating within the academy. I’m sure there are others; those are just two I know about, but we as faculty are probably not the best people to do that.
Question 2, Andrew Schwartz (Doctoral Student, University of Michigan): Do you think that this effort to engage the public or inform the public will be successful via direct interaction between the academy and the public? Or do you think that the mainstream media needs to fulfill this role and bridge the gap? And if so, could you please comment on the role that corporate media has played in creating and enabling the divide between the academy and society more broadly?
President Schlissel: The one discouraging thing for me about the mainstream media is the depth of coverage. I’m a chronic New York Times reader. It’s the first thing I do every morning. I go down to the kitchen, get the newspaper, and read it before I come to work. Anytime I read an article about which I have expert level knowledge, I realize it’s not quite right.
President Crow: That’s every time, right?
President Schlissel: Every single time. But sometimes it’s better than others. It’s challenging, and I think about how hard it is to be a journalist and write one day about immunology and the next day about microbiology, even if you’re a science journalist. So I don’t think we can really rely on the media to drive this. I think we have to be proactive, and those of us who care will have to make the news.
President Crow: I want to add that we have to up our game within the universities and the expressions of what we do so as to take the more responsible elements of corporate media and help them up their game. There will be the irresponsible journalists who only care about their own outcomes; they don’t care about the veracity of what they do. So forget those people, because there’s not much we can do with them; they’re motivated by other things. But that’s not everybody. If we up our game, they’ll up their game, and so that’s basically the approach I think we need to take.
President Schlissel: The serious journalists want to get it right. I’m not impugning their ethics or their characters. It’s just hard to get it right if you’re an outsider.
President Hanlon: They’re often taking something very technical that we offer them and trying to translate it into something the public can digest. So they’ve got a tough job. I’m also a New York Times reader every morning. I also read the Wall Street Journal; I put them side by side. It’s interesting to read the same story through each lens. And they take on some really difficult challenges in trying to make complex issues understandable.
Andrew Schwartz: Can I ask a follow-up? Do you think that the fact that these corporate media outlets such as New York Times are for-profit institutions means that they are not as unbiased as we claim we are in the academy?
President Schlissel: Well, I think they’re trying to attract readers, but I think the serious media does have serious ethical standards, and they really are trying to get it right. But they’re also trying to attract eyeballs. They’re going to choose topics to write about that they think will interest the public. So I guess the way we can interface with that is by making what we think is important interesting to the public.
President Sullivan: But I do think it’s an issue that there are shrinking numbers of journalists in all those outlets, so you have fewer and fewer people in the newsroom every day trying to cover every possible subject.
President Schlissel: Yes.
Question 3, Matthew Wozniak (Doctoral Student, University of Michigan): I’d like to touch on the question of nuances versus sound bites. Look at the venues that put out sound bites, like Twitter or Facebook or other social media; that’s a very efficient way of getting ideas and facts out to the public, and it’s really what most people are looking at as their source of information. And as Dr. Crow mentioned, it’s like you wake up in the morning and check Facebook; you just scroll through. But how do you quality-check this information? All our academic papers go up in these journals at $40 a pop, and I can’t imagine it’s very easy for the average person to go in and check the information. Are they supposed to e-mail out to the people that are responsible for the information or so on? So I have a couple questions that relate to that. Can Twitter, Facebook, or any sources like that ever have authority? Could that be the quality itself? Could that institution be of high quality? And second, how can we bridge the gap between that and our nuanced information in journals and articles? How can we find a middle ground between that and sound bites?
President Sullivan: The difficulty with Twitter or Facebook being accepted as credible is that you don’t have a quality apparatus, something like peer review, currently available for that. Could that be developed? Maybe it’s possible. I don’t know. On the other hand, when you do have peer review, it’s expensive, and you’ve got to pay for that apparatus. So you’re right—lots of ordinary readers don’t get access to the journals because even if they go to their public library, the library doesn’t have it. If they go to one of our university libraries, they may not have access because of copyright restrictions, and all those restrictions in turn are there to protect the journal’s ability to keep putting the journal out. So there is indeed a big gap between sound bite and nuance. And I think one thing that some authors do, which is helpful, is provide an e-mail address or some other way that people could get additional information. Some media outlets do that routinely. Frequently—on National Public Radio, for example—you’ll get enough information about the scientist whose work is presented that you could actually contact that person. But I don’t think we’ve got the issue of the gap figured out yet, and maybe there’s some new interstitial medium we don’t know about yet, or that hasn’t been invented yet, that will help us do that.
President Schlissel: I think one of the interesting and underappreciated aspects of social media is that it really can be an accurate gauge of what people are thinking, the users of social media. It’s not a gauge of what’s true or false or misleading or correct. Certainly, you could do analytics on the massive amount of information that Twitter and Facebook are holding on to, and God knows what they’re doing with it now, and it would be a great gauge of public thought. And I just wanted to say this about the survey result you mentioned, Andy, in your introduction about the 40 percent of respondents that said that they never thought they’d use Twitter in their whole lives and they would die if they did: I was in that group, and you know, I’m still standing, but it’s just a terrible medium.
President Hanlon: The credible mainstream media has actually played the role you just asked about. You could argue whether they play it well or not, or whether we need a different kind of mechanism, but I think that’s exactly the kind of role they’re trying to play.
Question 4, Arthur Lupia (University of Michigan): Each of you in your presidencies is offering provocative and compelling visions of the future of higher education, and your success is critical to your communities and to the nation. But we live in an increasingly competitive communication environment where the information we’re trying to provide is fighting with all the other sources you’ve mentioned. So the question I want to ask is, suppose for a moment that you weren’t a university president—suppose you were university dictator, and you either had the ability to add a program or asset that would help you adapt or had the ability to change or jettison a legacy institution that you think would help your university provide more information of more value to more people. What would you do?
President Crow: With the support of our faculty, we’ve eliminated eighty-three academic units in the last few years and restructured, at the design of the faculty, many dozens of new configurations. That has been an empowering process 85 to 90 percent of the time. That’s a very high percentage. As for the others, that’s a mess, so it doesn’t always work. And so, if I had an inordinate temporary potentate-type influence for just a day, I would empower our faculty and basically say to them, please do not just accept the standard-issue social construct that you know as your department or your school. What is it that you really think we should be doing? What is it that you really think we should be having as our trajectory? Free yourself from this conservatism that exists out there. You may come back and say it’s exactly the way we want it to be. But it will be because you decided it as opposed to you inheriting it and barely understanding it.
President Hanlon: I think that we have always provided our students with two qualitatively different things. One is knowledge about the world—just the facts of the world and intellectual frameworks we create so those facts make sense to us. On the other hand, we give them the skills to be successful in the world—communication skills, a creative mind, critical thinking skills, numeracy, the ability to engage the arts and humanities, and so on. And we have forever developed mechanisms to test knowledge acquisition, because it’s easy to test. We have never known how to test skills development, so if I could do one thing, it would be to jettison the current modes of evaluating student performance and develop modes that test their development of skills. And skills development is one thing that is really difficult to deliver online.
President Schlissel: I’m going to listen to smart guys like that and go back to my office and do what they said.
President Crow: I agree with Phil [Hanlon], too. His ideas are better than what I thought of.
President Schlissel: Those are really bold, spectacular ideas that can come from this mythical power that certainly won’t exist during the time I’m president here. To get to the practical, the real sweet spot is learning how to morph the structures and practices we have now and promote the management to change to get to a better place where we can capture the strength of disciplines but not be bound by them. We need to come to realize that we carry access to the world’s information in our pockets, so we don’t need to teach students too many facts. We need to teach them how to think and analyze and how to look for facts. So going from where we are now in the direction of the places my colleagues suggest is, I think, actually achievable.
President Sullivan: I think these are all really interesting ideas. If I could do just one thing, I would get rid of the semester, because I think it is an artificial constraint on the way that we package the information that we want students to have. Some subjects can be well taught in a couple of weeks, and some take a whole year, but we try to shoehorn everything into the same uniform fifteen-week semester. And we do it because it’s convenient, and I understand that. But I think there are ways that we could reconfigure a student’s educational trajectory and perhaps do it in such a way that lets him or her leave in three years rather than four. There’s nothing magic about four, and some students are more than ready to enter the next phase of life after three years. But we constrain ourselves not only in terms of the space of departments but also in terms of the time that we set for teaching courses.
President Crow: We did that three years ago, and it’s very interesting. We can talk about that in terms of the kinds of very positive results but lots of stresses also.
Question 5, Ryan Meyer (California Ocean Science Trust): One thing I’d like to caution against is the savior mentality because I think that could be quite self-defeating, whether or not we think there are problems with public and political discourse. And remember that engagement is going to have arrows going both directions. So if we just think we need to be shouting more effectively at the public, we’re not going to get very far. And so in that light, I’d be interested in how you see universities and academia benefiting from engagement in public and political discourse. I think the idea that we have to do it because it’s our responsibility is a very preservationist idea. I think I agree with it, but whether it’s pedagogy, the framing of research agendas, or the constitution of new centers, there are so many potential ways that listening and learning from neighborhoods around the university, all the way up to global dynamics, can really improve universities.
President Schlissel: I think that’s a point enormously well taken. Interestingly, I think one of the advantages of being a public institution is that we all have public forms of governance. Although we might wring our hands and bristle from time to time, that governance really does tell us what the public thinks, what the public cares about, and what the public wants us to do, and I think that’s an important directionality of information as well. So I think you made a great point.
President Crow: At Arizona State University, we developed a series of eight design aspirations, one of which is that our place is the single most important part of our identity. And if we’re not reflective of the place, then we will have failed. We drew these design aspirations from the writings of a whole range of people, but most notably Frank Rhodes, who was president at Cornell for a number of years and wrote a book called Creating the Future, and also Jim Duderstadt, who wrote a book called A University for the 21st Century. The second of the eight is what we call “social embeddedness,” which is the two-way highway. This is not suggesting that every university has to do this, but it’s suggesting that some universities need to move into this modality. These have been very difficult things for us to implement over the last ten-plus years. But nonetheless, they have altered the behavior, psychology, and culture of our faculty in positive and creative ways. As you say, the arrows are moving in both directions.
Question 6, Amy Schalet (University of Massachusetts, Amherst): It’s been mentioned a few times that the skills to do public and political engagement are not ones we learn at the university. And it was mentioned also that we’re not really the ones to teach those skills. And at the Public Engagement Project at UMass Amherst, we take a slightly different approach. We actually think that faculty—we’re a faculty-driven initiative—who have done public engagement are in a good position to understand the anxieties of other people with PhDs and the problems of translating knowledge and the dangers that come up. So it’s a slightly different approach, and one of the points we often make is that public engagement does have to actually be a two-way relationship for it to work. So I just want to throw it into the mix that there’s something that faculty can offer other faculty. I also wanted to quickly ask a question: if you’d be willing to develop that point that if we are empowered within the university to redefine tenure and we can in fact do that to reward engagement, what are the tensions from senior administrators all the way down to faculty about the potential loss of status if that were to happen?
President Hanlon: I was the one who suggested that faculty aren’t in the best position to teach students and others to engage. And in part, it is because I think it’s harder than it appears. I was recently on a network TV show and was asked an incredibly complex question and told I had a minute and a half to answer. Unless you’re prepared for that, it’s something that’s not that easy. It’s a lot harder than it appears, and there is some actual expertise that goes with it. On the second question, the one thing I worry about is that we have to remember the core reason for the tenure process, and it really is to be totally convinced that the person’s productivity and scholarly work will continue. That’s really the thing we’re after before we award a lifetime contract, which is an incredible privilege. So I don’t really care what the elements are or how we engineer it, but I do care that we ensure continued productivity in scholarship and teaching out of the process.
President Crow: I view tenure similarly but slightly differently. It does have a property right and is based on a contract, but its purpose in my view is a lifetime license to advance your academic agenda, your theory production, and your creativity without encumbrance from those who own the theories that you are replacing. So in the United States at a number of prominent institutions, there’s a history of individuals who were attacking the theories or the assumptions of others being ridiculed by their faculty, colleagues, or industrial interests around the institutions and ultimately fired. And so the notion of tenure is a license for your expression and your creativity to be unencumbered. It’s not a license to not do work; it’s not a license to hide. So there are limits to all this, but this notion of somehow broadening what faculty members do to project their academic identity beyond just a narrow band, that’s a school-by-school and discipline-by-discipline kind of thing within certain kinds of parameters. I think there’s lots of room for the innovation, renovation, and improvement of the idea, scope, and implementation of tenure. But it’s going to be highly variable within schools and between schools.
Andrew Hoffman: It’s time to bring this session to a close. I’d like to thank you for coming here. I think your presence has signaled the importance and the urgency of the questions we’re asking, and I think the conversation we just had will lay the foundation for the panels and the discussions that will follow. So thank you very much. [Applause]