Higher Education Bears Some Culpability For The Insurrection At The Capitol

Last week’s insurrection at the Capitol should be a wake-up call to higher education. For far too long, many of us have sat passively by while our graduates have renounced or disregarded what we thought we had taught them. We pride ourselves in the academy on teaching critical thinking and respect for differences while we have valued free and honest speech yet we have stood by and let this President and his administration perpetrate more than 20,000 lies while we watched and didn’t call him on it. Many of us stood by and let an administration encourage nativism, racism and anti-Semitism.

Our leaders in Washington all have degrees from our colleges and universities, many from our most elite institutions, and rather than questioning false claims, these leaders encouraged them.  What happened to what we taught them; did they lose their ability to see truth from falsehoods? We brag about our graduates and all of their accomplishments; we need to look at more than just their titles and their financial prowess; must consider what they are contributing to society and what sort of examples they are for future generations.

We need to make sure that we worry about the character of our students as well as their intellectual ability. We watched as white protesters were dealt with very differently than black protesters. As Pat McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University, eloquently said in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “If we presidents shrink from telling the truth out of a fear of alienating people whose favor we crave, what are we teaching our students?” Reflecting from my days as President of Mercy College in New York, I remember holding back on stating the obvious on several critical issues for fear of offending board members and potential donors. We cannot abrogate our responsibility to civic values, truth and fairness. We must act as the moral leaders for our country; we must set an example for our students and we must not allow the perpetuation of “fake news.” As Bradley Bateman, President of Randolph College in VA noted in his letter to the Randolph Community this morning: “Whereas we foster critical thinking, honesty, and honorable conduct, those who promoted the insurrection last week demonize critical thinking while acting dishonestly and dishonorably.” 

This weekend we learned that Wagner and Lehigh Universities revoked honorary degrees that they had awarded to Donald Trump. This represents self-reflection and positive action on the part of these institutions to publicly renounce their support of someone who does not share the values we respect in the academy. At Lehigh, a petition dated Nov. 5, 2020 was sent to the Board of Trustees by the Office of Minority Affairs which stated “OMA believes that it is hypocritical and alarmingly tone deaf for Lehigh University to dedicate itself to becoming an Antiracist institution while also publicly showing its support for the rampant white supremacy and outright xenophobia displayed by the current U.S. President Donald Trump.” Who we honor matters.

For the take-over of the Capitol to be the wake-up call that we need in the Academy to make sure that what we teach is effective and lasts a lifetime may be a positive outcome of this shameful day in our country’s history. It is important for our institutions to realize that they are seen as role models by their actions and the actions of their leaders. It means we need to be proactive in calling our alums to account for their actions and we need to take responsibility for the four or more years that students spend with us. We need to make sure that our graduates are critical thinkers who can discern truth from falsehoods and who take seriously their responsibilities to respect their fellow men. We need to instill a strong moral compass in all of our graduates so that they know how to deal appropriately with all the influences in their lives.

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