Higher Education Exchange 2021 - Institutions and the Public: A Troubled Relationship

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While the causes are complex and contested, one trend is clear: Major institutions across our society are suffering from a loss of public trust. Unable to trust authoritative institutions, “facts” become contested, which in turn feeds divisions. Frustrated with public resistance to their findings, experts redouble their efforts to present more information. Not only is higher education itself suffering a decline of public confidence, it also educates the experts and professionals that go on to inhabit other public institutions. 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 here 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.

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Higher Education
Institutions and the Public: A Troubled Relationship? by Derek W.M. Barker, Alex Lovit  ( PDF )

In this introductory essay, Higher Education Exchange coeditors Derek Barker and Alex Lovit reflect on the trend of growing public distrust in American institutions—including higher education institutions. Colleges and universities are not only prominent institutions in many communities, but also can serve as a gatekeepers controlling access to other professions and professional organizations. Public distrust in institutions should therefore be doubly troubling for higher education; reinventing relationships so that academies can work with citizens is both an ethical and an existential necessity.

Toward the Community-Centric University by Byron P. White  ( PDF )

Drawing upon his previous experience in the journalism profession, Byron White perceives existential threats to higher education’s future, presaged by disruptions to the academic business model and declining public trust. White suggests that for many institutions, the path toward long-term stability lies in strengthening relationships with local communities. In order to survive, colleges and universities must build trust with local communities and build capacity to serve local students.

Civic Engagement Contributes to Culture Change at a Community College by John J. Theis  ( PDF )

In view of increasing divisions among the citizenry and declining confidence in institutions, John Theis calls upon higher education to refocus on the civic agency of students, in addition to their academic outcomes. He describes what it looks like when a community college makes a conscious effort to organize across departments and disciplines to focus on civic skills and habits. Rather than telling students what to think or what to do, the approaches he describes help them learn how they might make decisions collectively and work together.

Treating an Ailing Society: Citizen Nursing in an Era of Crisis by Katie Clark  ( PDF )

In this essay, Katie Clark, a nursing professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, reflects on her experiences during the twin crises of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Clark discusses the necessity and challenges of institutions respecting citizens’ capacities and partnering with the public, even (perhaps especially) during times of crisis.

The Pandemic, Trustworthiness, and a Place for Civic Science in Higher Education by Jonathan Garlick  ( PDF )

As a scientific researcher and educator, Jonathan Garlick is a practitioner of civic science, an approach through which scientists avoid positioning themselves as oracular experts and, instead, promote public deliberation about science-related issues in which citizens’ perspectives, experiences, and values are respected as valid. In his essay, Garlick discusses how civic science shapes the way in which he interacts with students in the classroom and citizens in public dialogues. He also describes how this experience has shaped his plans for dialogues about COVID-19 vaccination and some of the ongoing tensions in this work.

Learning to Become a Civic Professional: Using Deliberation in Community Engagement by Timothy J. Shaffer, David Procter  ( PDF )

Timothy Shaffer and David Procter focus on how a university might change its relationship with its community by transforming its approach to outreach and engagement. They describe the university’s community engagement efforts across fields, using a “deliberative” rather than an expert model. Instead of the expert who informs the community with technical knowledge, the role of the scholar, they contend, is to convene and frame public dialogues on divisive issues.

‘Attention Must Be Finally Paid’: A Case for Reinventing Liberal Arts Education by Chris Gilmer  ( PDF )

Speaking as a college president concerned with the future of higher education, Chris Gilmer argues that reviving the civic purposes of higher education may be critical to restoring its “value proposition.” Drawing upon the history of minority-serving institutions and community colleges, he argues that inclusion in our democracy is more than a matter of finding a good career; it is also a matter of civic and political inclusion. When students learn to become active and engaged citizens, they experience the collective value of higher education as well as its individual value.

A Call for Academic Inventiveness (Afterword) by David Mathews  ( PDF )

Echoing the approaches included in this volume, David Mathews concludes with a call for inventiveness in the civic purposes of higher education. While higher education is accustomed to preparing future professionals with technical knowledge to better serve or inform the citizenry, he suggests attending to the civic skills professionals will need in working with the public. In so doing, higher education might repair its own relationship with the citizenry and regain public trust as well as produce the sort of professionals our democracy needs.

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