April 20, 2005
Why higher education deserves your support
By David Hildebrand
Higher education can be a convenient political lightening rod. Witness the flap surrounding Harvard President Lawrence Summers' comments about women and science, the firestorm ignited by Colorado professor Ward Churchill's remarks about 9/11 victims and the public outcry regarding universities' alleged liberal bias — all generating headlines and skewed opinions. Unfortunately, these fixations will electrocute everyone, not just academics.
Universities face sobering challenges: dwindling fiscal support, deterioration of public sympathy and the need to create supportive communities. The stakes are huge. It's time to stop obsessing about "scandals of the moment" and think seriously about our long-term future and the role universities must play.
Nationally, an idea is taking hold. Professors now view their mission as one of "academic engagement." As noted in these pages by UT professor Rick Cherwitz, academic engagement means that collaboration across disciplines and partnerships with the community must produce solutions to society's most vexing problems.
But it is not enough for schools like the UT to pursue this ideal. We need the understanding and assistance of the public, the media, and politicians of all stripes.
Too many imagine professors as "ivory tower" dwellers, isolated from the concerns of ordinary people and insistent on promoting ideological agendas. My experience as a faculty member at eight different schools—including a community college, secular and religious colleges, and research universities—consistently explodes this myth. But, alas, my testimony won’t change many people's minds about academe.
Some may better appreciate what academics do by thinking not of classes and books—but “intellectual capital." Like monetary capital, intellectual capital is the cumulative product of both individual effort and supportive communities. Intellectual capital is the dividend of years of hard work and practical experience that bears fruit by transforming lives and benefiting society. The best academics are, in Cherwitz’s words, “intellectual entrepreneurs.”
Echoing this theme, University of Rochester President Thomas Jackson recently declared, "The best teachers and researchers are all 'intellectual entrepreneurs.' They're in the business of creating new information, new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing their particular discipline. A biomedical researcher working on the latest vaccine, a political scientist establishing a new way of looking at studying political processes, and a young musician figuring out how to create his or her path through the art world are every bit as entrepreneurial as someone establishing a new business."
Jackson’s point is not that intellectual entrepreneurs can replace business entrepreneurs. Rather, academics are a distinct kind of entrepreneur, working with and beside those in business. Cherwitz, UT’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) director and a leader in the national movement for academic engagement, contends that portraying academics in this manner "requires us to acknowledge that a university's collective wisdom is among its most precious assets—anchored to, but not in competition with, basic research and disciplinary knowledge—and that part of the significance of such wisdom is tied to its use."
At the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center my colleagues and I observe entrepreneurship everyday: when faculty tackle complex issues involving public health, environmental resources, public education, and the needs of growing social and cultural diversity. We take on these challenges not for selfish gain or fame, but because we are—borrowing Cherwitz’s terminology—"citizen-scholars." We desire more than narrow, theoretical knowledge; we seek academic engagement, passionately embracing the ethical obligation to contribute to society. Our goal is to both discover knowledge and put it to work in ways that make a real difference.
This is an aspect of our identity we hope our fellow citizens grasp. It is hard for this message to be heard. Rising tuition, war, urgent social and economic problems, and myriad scandals on college campuses drown out the deep investment universities make in our collective future. However, without public recognition and endorsement, the social compact between higher education and the state will disintegrate: all of us as shareholders will lose the social security of a future intelligently anticipated and planned for.
It is well documented that a state's long term fiscal security is closely connected with its investment in education. While paying the bills is important, there are additional challenges. Rather than turning professors and universities into scapegoats for the anxieties felt about pressing problems, let’s reflect on how universities are and can increasingly become forces for social good. Academics should be viewed as intellectual entrepreneurs who stand on equal footing with those in the public and private sectors—citizens collaboratively producing knowledge that changes lives and improves the human condition.
We are Texans fighting for Texas. We are scholars and we are citizens. Let us forge productive and cooperative connections between ourselves, keeping the state of Texas strong in the 21st century.
David Hildebrand is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from The University of Texas at Austin in 1997.