Higher Education Exchange 2021

The recent past has been disruptive for nearly all higher education institutions, as they have struggled to maintain their educational missions safely during the global COVID-19 pandemic. But these difficulties have only exacerbated preexisting challenges for higher education. Decades-long trends of declining public trust in institutions of all kinds—including colleges and universities—have, if anything, only accelerated during the last two years. (One survey found that the percentage of currently enrolled college students who agreed with the statement “higher education is not worth the cost to students anymore” increased from 49 percent in August 2020 to 65 percent in May 2021.) Colleges and universities are not only prominent institutions, but also frequently serve as gatekeepers controlling access to other professions and professional institutions. These trends of public distrust should therefore be doubly troubling to higher education, and the traditional response of claiming the privilege of expertise in determining factual truth is not proving effective in rebuilding public confidence.

The articles presented in the 2021 issue of the Higher Education Exchange describe an alternative path for universities. Instead of “educating,” “informing,” or “serving” the public, is there another way institutions and professionals might relate to citizens? Rather than assuming that experts have the answers, the articles suggest that higher education work with rather than “on” or “for” the public. In so doing, they suggest a fundamental change in the relationship between institutions and the citizenry, as well as in the civic role of higher education in our democracy. By reclaiming a productive relationship with citizens who can be seen as partners rather than clients or customers, higher education can rebuild trust.

Together, the essays in HEX 2021 describe an optimistic vision for higher education even in the midst of disruption and danger. By seeing their communities as partners and their students as citizens, colleges and universities can secure their own institutional futures and strengthen American democracy.

The first two articles in this issue each, in different ways, consider how colleges and universities can build community identity. Byron White draws from his professional experience in journalism to consider how quickly established industries can fall victim to technological and economic disruption. He argues that to survive, higher education must build complementary, trusting relationships with local communities, and encourage students—including nontraditional students—to develop a sense of professional mission. Jay Theis describes how introducing deliberative democratic practices at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas, not only provided students with civically meaningful experiences, but also inculcated a stronger sense of campus community and collective identity.

The next two articles both consider public trust in medical science. Katie Clark describes her experience as a nursing professor in Minneapolis during the twin crises of 2020: the pandemic and the protests over racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. During these exigencies, which particularly affected the most vulnerable in her community, Clark argues for the necessity of institutional partnership with the public and describes some examples of universities and other institutions working with solidarity and empathy even during difficult times. Jonathan Garlick discusses “civic science” both as a way of preparing students to respectfully engage in public discussions and as an approach to dialogue that might encourage vaccination without making non-scientists feel disregarded or disdained.

The final three articles all in some way argue for the importance of deliberative civic education for higher education’s traditional roles of professional preparation and instruction in the liberal arts. Tim Shaffer and David Procter describe a fellowship program they lead, which seeks to connect deliberative practices to students’ educational programs, thereby encouraging students to develop identities as “citizen” or “democratic” professionals. Chris Gilmer argues for the continued relevance of the classic liberal arts to the professional and civic lives of diverse student populations. And Kettering Foundation president David Mathews concludes the volume by contemplating how higher education can rebuild trust by developing collaborative relationships with the public.

Download the Higher Education Exchange 2021