An Antidote for Higher Ed's Disease

Keith Whitaker

Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of NAS Board Chair Keith Whitaker's closing remarks from our January 13 report launch, "Freedom to Learn: A Blueprint for Higher Education Reform." His words have been lightly edited for readability. To view a recording of the webinar, click here.

Thank you to Teresa Manning and Peter Wood for your presentations today, and to our panelists for sharing their insights and questions. Thank you to David Randall for your benign tyranny in keeping us on track. And thank you most of all to our members and others who have joined us in this pixelated classroom.

I want to say just a few words to close.

Peter likened NAS’s report, Freedom to Learn, to a sort of medicine. This metaphor reminded me of the claim by the great rhetorician, Gorgias, that he was the true doctor, because he could persuade any patient to take the medicine his physician was recommending, no matter how painful. It’s a novel definition of doctoring, perhaps applicable to the recent dispute over “Dr.” Jill Biden’s title. In any event, if Freedom to Learn is a medicine, then we are in need of quite a Gorgias.

I don’t need to repeat what hurdles we face in persuading policy-makers to adopt these proposals. Peter’s grim assessment is that we may have to witness a college mass-extinction event before there’s any stomach for reform.

But let’s not despair, if only because despair is a poor antidote to disease. Let’s hold on to the discussion of that last question, about the individuals and schools that are experimenting with therapies that treat the two great illnesses that Freedom to Learn diagnoses: greed and ideology.

In addition to those examples, however, I see a much broader source of support for some of these proposals: American citizens as citizens. Our first presentation today focused on ideology and our second on money. The section of the report that we have discussed least, the central section, America, is the one that I would put to the fore here. I suspect that many American citizens have only modest interest in reforming university finance, except maybe in forgiving some student loans. Likewise, I suspect that many citizens, while they may not like critical-race theory and its relatives, would probably continue to take the position that if people want to believe in such craziness within the ivory tower, let the crazies be.

But I do suspect that many, even most, citizens are repulsed by the widespread examples of universities taking huge sums from foreign powers hostile to the United States. I suspect many are even more repulsed by accounts of such foreign powers stealing intellectual property from American universities with the connivance of their “partners.” And I suspect that many citizens would want publicly-supported institutions to serve American students prior to foreign students, documented or undocumented. This is an area that transcends ideology or finance and speaks to the expectation that higher education supports—or the very least does not harm—the country that nourishes it. I think that the reform of such abuses could find wide-spread support.

Finally, besides the good that such reforms would do by themselves, they would also help define further debates about higher education in terms of the common good of the nation and its people, not only in terms of money and ideology.

Of course, to make this case to American citizens requires political leaders who see an advantage in doing so and have the skill to do so, whose motto might even be, “Make American Higher Education Great Again.” Maybe today of all days that’s too much to ask. But whatever happens to President Trump, the concern of a significant proportion of the American public for the common good is not going to go away, and that is a concern to which Freedom to Learn can effectively appeal.

Keith Whitaker is chair of the National Association of Scholars' board of directors.

Image: Markus Spiske, Public Domain

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