The Virtue of Raucous Debate

Kevin Guskiewicz

Public universities are one of this country’s oldest and best ideas. The University of North Carolina was chartered in 1789, the same year our state ratified the US Constitution. There is no doubt the lawmakers of that era considered higher education to be an essential public good.
But in the very first session of my American Professoriate class, a student brought up a sharp point about what serving the public means for a state university. The word “public,” she pointed out, isn’t fixed — it has grown and changed over time. Our definition of who Carolina belongs to — and who belongs at Carolina — is far broader today than it was 200 years ago, just as the state itself welcomes a far larger and more diverse group of people into the civic fold. The latest figures from the US Census, released just a few weeks ago, show that North Carolina is among the fastest-growing places in the country, with a great many of those new arrivals drawn by the promise of world-class education and the opportunities that go with it.
That’s something to celebrate, and it means that our University needs to work harder than ever to speak to the whole state. Our growing and diversifying public is not of one mind about much of anything, which means that a University serving the people of North Carolina isn’t going to find much easy consensus, either.
That’s what The American Professoriate course is all about. It’s a seminar-style course with excellent co-instructors and more than two dozen graduate students representing a range of disciplines from literature to neuroscience. What all of them have in common is a desire to contribute not just to their individual fields, but to the life and health of the University. In today’s world, that means being prepared to show that the great American ideal of the raucous debate can happen without damaging the shared institutions of our society.
I always lead off the class with my favorite quote from Clark Kerr, who led the University of California through another great period of upheaval on American college campuses in the 1960s. “The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself,” Kerr wrote. He understood that a quiet campus, a place with no loudly dissenting voices and no contentious debates, wouldn’t be doing its job.
The genius of America has always been its capacity to welcome strident voices without tearing itself apart, to provide the framework and the forum for working out real differences without breaking the bonds of affection that hold us all together. So long as our society is roiled by great questions, our public institutions must be, too.
Kerr didn’t last as long in the UC president’s office as he would have liked. He was dismissed in 1967 amid a shifting political landscape in California, joking that he arrived on the job “fired with enthusiasm” and departed the same way. But he’s remembered today for laying the foundation of a truly great public institution, and for speaking honestly about what higher education means in a democratic society. “A great university has a duty to the future as great as its duty to the present,” Kerr wrote. “Intellectually, it must be both more conservative of established values and bolder in trying innovations than may be fashionable at any given moment…. It must take the long view and may often have to defend the unpopular.”
That is not a recipe for quiet days. But I think we need more people, more institutions, that take a very long view. The students in this semester’s American Professoriate class are still in the early stages of their academic lives, still with decades of ideas and discoveries ahead of them. The public they’ll answer to will change across the arc of their careers, with new controversies animating the institutions where they work and the society they call home. And through it all, they will seek the right balance of conserving established values and trying bold innovations, searching for the truth even when it’s costly.
I love imagining where all of these great minds might end up, long after they’ve left this class behind. But for now, I’m grateful to be learning with them.


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