Universities are built to handle productive tension. It’s one of their great strengths, this ability to host competing ideas and ideals, to be an inspiring arena for smart, sincere people to hash out hard questions.
“The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself,” University of California President Clark Kerr brilliantly observed in The Uses of the University
. I have that quote framed on my office wall, and I read it to a class full of aspiring academics on the first day of The American Professoriate, a seminar I’m co-teaching this semester.
I don’t expect our course to end in open warfare, but I am looking forward to being in the classroom every week for an intense discussion about the future of higher education, led by some of the very people who will have to build it. We have doctoral students from every part of the campus, from biomedical engineering and the business school to art history and anthropology. Some of them are putting the final touches on dissertations and thinking about the next steps; some are just getting started on the path to a PhD.
But all of them are deeply invested in one of the great questions of our age: what will higher education look like in the decades to come? How will the American university adapt to a fast-changing world?
On our very first day, with some students masked and carefully distanced in the classroom and others Zooming in from home, we touched on everything from the future of undergraduate admissions to the need for broader career paths for PhDs. We talked about faculty diversity, remote teaching, translating research into effective policy, and the challenge of student mental health.
The whole idea of this course is to identify some of the toughest problems facing the university and test creative solutions. The fact that we’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic that has upended campus operations only underscores how much we need innovative thinking from a rising generation.
One student has a background studying telepresence and the effectiveness of video conversations; highly useful for our Zoomed-out age. Another specializes in moral development and decision making, the science of how people frame choices and weigh ethical tradeoffs. That has to be on the mind of any honest chancellor right now, and I’ll be grateful to have his/her insight as the semester moves ahead. Still, another study labor automation and how people respond to changing job markets, a matter of intense concern as we think about how best to prepare students for challenges we can barely predict.
Everyone in the class brings their own vein of expertise. One of the great joys of my job is that I’m always surrounded by brilliant people who have read and researched and thought deeply about some very challenging topics. I’m supposed to be teaching this class, but I’m mostly there to learn.
Matthew Springer, chair of the faculty in the School of Education and one of the co-instructors for the course, pointed out that World War II was a time of huge disruption to American society, but also a harbinger of great progress. Careers opened up to women and minorities; universities opened their doors to a much wider population of students; public investments in research paved the way for incredible advances in science and technology.
Absolutely no one relishes the hardship and heartache that the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed. But no responsible leader should ignore the changes it’s likely to set in motion, either. That’s the productive tension of this moment, the competing demands we’ll hold throughout this class — how to cope with a terrible situation, and simultaneously build for a brighter future.
No matter what else happens this semester, I’m grateful to be in a classroom with people who welcome that challenge.