The Magic of a University Classroom

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

The politics and policy of higher education are important, and I understand why they get so much attention in the wider world. But as I reflect on the just-completed semester of our American Professoriate course, I’m reminded that the magic of the classroom is still at the heart of everything we do at the university.

Even in fantastically challenging circumstances — the first semester back on campus after COVID disruptions, the first session of this class after a bruising summer of debates about racial justice and diversity in academia, in the midst of intense speculation about the future of our campus and its leadership — our class was a delight for both the students and the instructors. The discussions were honest, the debates rich and revealing, and the sense of trust among a very diverse group of people was among the strongest I’ve ever felt in a classroom.

From the outset, the professors wanted the class to embody the fundamental values that we believe make an American university different than any other institution in our society. We began with the composition of the class. It was important to have students who were both highly accomplished in their fields and, as a group, representative of the diversity that makes up American higher education. With the help of Graduate School Dean Suzanne Barbour, we were able to recruit scholars born all over the country and the world, over half of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Their scholarly work is equally broad, representing math, medicine, journalism, public health, neuroscience, and social work. Have a look at the class photo below and you’ll get a good sense of what the future of the academy looks like.

Getting to know those students better was by far the best part of the course. Every week, and starting with the four instructors, we held time for “Why Am I Here?” presentations, giving everyone the chance to tell their backstory and their motivation for taking the course. Deciding to devote your life to a set of scholarly questions — how to cure addiction, how to repair trust in media, how to prevent injuries in young athletes — is an unusual choice. Hearing how people arrived at that decision was truly heartening and sharing those very personal journeys built immense trust.

The result was just what we hoped: Candid and transparent discussion of difficult, emotionally charged issues. It was a reminder that our capacity to listen and learn across vast differences is very much intact if there’s an opportunity for patience, for humanizing one another, and for earned goodwill. Those principles are central to the idea of a university.

Class discussion was informed and respectful. Each week, four students wrote blogs, randomly assigned, supporting or opposing the central thesis of the week. In many cases, students had to support positions they did not agree with, but the process led to discussions where both sides were clearly articulated and heard.

This was particularly important because the topics being discussed were contentious by design: fairness in college admissions, what equity and inclusion means in practice for higher education, the purpose of tenure and promotion. Unexpectedly for all of us, the session on university budgeting proved one of the most intense and interesting, proving the old adage that you can tell a lot about institutional values by looking at institutional spending.

Disagreements and strong pushback occurred routinely. The instructors, including Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and our invited guests, all experts in their field, were sharply challenged. The ideals of free inquiry and intellectual skepticism were embraced and tested, and the whole class was better and more cohesive for it. Open dialogue beats uneasy silence.

The class also addressed the practical skills needed for the students to enter academia and make a difference in the world. We discussed networking, cover letters, and job interviews, even putting every student through a mock interview and one-on-one meetings with instructors (including the chancellor). We were keen to demonstrate that choosing between academic success and real-world impact is not an “either/or” proposition. One of the things our students appreciated most about the class, according to their evaluations, was the mix of theoretical debate and highly practical life advice.

That matters because our students clearly want to see their work in the lab and classroom turn into something meaningful for the wider world. Three students in our seminar work on issues directly related to the opioid epidemic. Two work on problems related to social media and its effect on democracy and race relations. Others focus on improving early-grades teaching, finding new approaches to managing chronic pain, and encouraging more students to pursue advanced math, just to name a few. Our students almost uniformly focus on practical new knowledge that can change the world.

There is plenty that needs fixing in academia, and deep disagreements about how to make those reforms. But spending the last semester in a classroom was the best antidote I can imagine to any sense of cynicism about higher education or the direction of American life. There are earnest, fascinating young people hard at work every day on some of the biggest challenges in our world, and I’m headed into 2022 with profound gratitude for all of them.


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