The presidential election of 2016 and the values of a public research university

I work at a large, highly selective, highly ranked, and highly productive public research university in the state of Wisconsin, and my job is to serve that university, its students, and its constituents as a researcher, teacher, and administrator.  Put simply, I love my job, even though it is the most difficult one I’ve ever had.  I am thankful every day for the chance to help advance the challenging, imaginative, important, and impactful work of all my faculty, staff, and student colleagues.

At my university, just as in most education settings around the nation, we’ve all been closely engaged in the presidential election over the past year.  Now that the result is known, I’m certain that my colleagues who study politics, social movements, media, and demographics will be working hard to figure out why so many different institutions — from polling agencies to seasoned journalists to prediction markets — were so wrong about the actual outcome.  But I realized this morning that I am filtering my own reactions to the election through a slightly different lens: that of my core scholarship, instruction, and service role as a public research university professor.  I have my own partisan opinions on the election result, of course, just like every voter — but those are not what I am pondering  here.  I find myself more concerned about an issue that I think operates on a level apart from that of party affiliation — an issue that should concern Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Greens, all the same.

I am concerned that the result of yesterday’s presidential election represents a direct challenge to the core values that are necessary to the very existence of a public research university.  Based on the winner’s long record of public statements, professional actions, and private behaviors, it appears that we have elected a president who models a set of values that are wholly incompatible with those of higher education.  After all, this was a candidate who advocated for discrimination on the basis of religion; who impugned the integrity of a public official based on family heritage; who mocked a professional with a disability; who refused to meet the most basic of transparency expectations; who espoused conspiracy theories that run directly counter to broad expert consensus; who repeatedly made assertions that were documented as completely false by multiple, reputable news organizations; who bragged about intimidating protestors and suppressing votes; who stereotyped whole communities of color as dysfunctional and desperate; and who dismissed his own admissions of workplace sexual harassment and assault as just “talk.”

These incidents and others, each widely reported, will not come as any surprise to readers who have been following the election season closely.  (Indeed, many of those who voted for this candidate simultaneously expressed profound concern about such incidents.)  While one could build a list of complaints about any candidate from any party, the examples above concern me so much because they seem to reveal core values that dismiss or demean the importance of things like knowledge expertise, basic civility, democratic norms, and respect for diversity.  

But my own concern resonates even stronger this morning because of the fact that my home state of Wisconsin — whose residents and organizations have supported and benefitted from our wonderful public research university through tumultuous social, economic, cultural, and political changes for more than 150 years — played such a key part in the path to victory for the winning candidate.  I can’t help wondering if this is an implicit endorsement by my state, not only of a particular political party, or a particular presidential candidate, but also of the particular examples above — and the values that seem to underpin them.

As part of my own reckoning with these election results, I would like to try to articulate what some of the core values of a successful and responsible non-profit, public-interest, higher education institution should be — values in direct contradiction to those seemingly demonstrated again and again by the winning presidential candidate over the course of the past year.  Here are the four key values which I believe remain crucial to the success of higher education in Wisconsin and the world — and which I fear might now be under greater challenge as a result of this election:

We value the careful, collective, and evidence-based production, testing, and circulation of knowledge in the public interest.  We value imaginative and responsible research investigation, careful and cooperative peer review, clear and accessible presentation of research findings, challenging and inspiring teaching and mentoring, and open public engagement with the implications and consequences of the knowledge that we create and disseminate.  We do not dismiss a global consensus about peer-reviewed and professionally replicated scientific knowledge as a conspiracy theory merely because we would prefer not to reckon with the implications of that knowledge; similarly, we do not offer up wishful thinking, evidence-free assurances, unexamined assumptions or conspiracy theories as adequate knowledge upon which to base policy and action.  Our arguments depend on evidence, our theories are subject to testing, and our conclusions always remain open to revision if warranted.

We value civility, respect, empathy, and humility in both professional dealings and public debates.  We know that in order to persuade, we must first listen, and that to achieve progress, we must first expect compromise.  We try hard to assume the best of intentions in our opposition, and to find shared understanding and experience from which to begin any negotiation, even in the most polarizing of disputes.  We enthusiastically engage with a diverse information and media infrastructure, made up of both for-profit and non-profit institutions, in order to support a robust marketplace of ideas.  This does not mean that we shy away from controversial issues or critical stances; challenging orthodoxy, whether through art or science, is a crucial part of the knowledge production process.  But  we nurture an environment of both working and learning where faculty, staff, and students alike can feel safe to engage with risky and controversial ideas.

We value broad-based democratic engagement, participation, and transparency in decision-making.  A research university is a collective enterprise built on shared governance.  We subject our faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions to peer review and faculty vote as well as to administrative oversight.  We collaboratively determine the arrangement of our disciplines, we peer-monitor our research conduct, and we jointly shape our teaching curricula through regular faculty and staff discussion, debate, and vote.  We seek out the input and engagement of the many diverse communities that our students and stakeholders call home, across Wisconsin and the world.  And where administrative leadership is necessary for clear and accountable decisions on budget priorities and resource allocation, we value both transparency and broad consultation in that decision process.

We value the participation and cooperation of people from diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and identities in service of better understanding, increased creativity, and more effective problem-solving.  We know that the university gains its power from the juxtaposition and interaction of different ways of knowing — from the arts and humanities to the physical, natural and social sciences — and from the combined and coordinated effort of people whose personal histories, individual identities, unique talents, philosophical beliefs, and professional goals span the range of human experience.  We know that it is not enough to merely attract and retain a diverse constituency of faculty, staff, and students, but that we must work hard, every day, to nurture and maintain the norms of open-mindedness and empathy, imagination and curiosity, civility and respect that enable effective engagement and cooperation between the most disparate of partners.  And we know that we still have much work to do to ensure that our diversity of persons and perspectives here at the university fully encompasses that of our state, our nation, and our world.

There is a saying that “Elections have consequences.”  As a citizen fortunate enough to live within one of the world’s greatest democratic experiments in history, I absolutely accept those consequences, and I am prepared to personally respond to this election through my own private choices and partisan activism.  But education has consequences as well, and in my professional and public role as a steward of our higher education legacy here in Wisconsin, I feel a responsibility at this historic moment to articulate and defend the values that I believe are essential to the survival of that educational legacy.  I  hope that regardless of partisan affiliation or political preference, our stakeholders across Wisconsin and the world will work to help us uphold our values of evidence-based and open-minded knowledge production, civil and critical discourse, democratic governance and engagement, and excellence through multifaceted diversity.  To me, such values define the Wisconsin Idea — and they are worth working for every day, regardless of any momentary political victory or setback.

For more on the core values of my university, see the following resources: