Fear and Fearlessness

May 4, 2017

I have been involved in several conversations recently about what it’s like for students, faculty, staff, and senior leaders in higher education right now. More than anything I hear fear. Students from many racial and ethnic groups fear harassment and abuse. Students with conservative views fear ostracism. Faculty fear social media firestorms based on misinterpreted or misrepresented statements made in class. Advisers fear unhappy students in the context of increasingly permissive firearms laws. Administrators fear conflicts on their campuses and responses from legislators–some of whom neither know nor care about higher education.

Everyone is afraid.

As I have thought about these expressions of fear, it has occurred to me that nothing is more destructive of the mission of higher education than fear. Professors must respond in real time to unexpected questions and observations, and they won’t be able to do so if they fear every tiny mis-step. Students must be able to try out ideas and arguments, and they won’t be able to do so if they fear social punishment or harassment. Everyone needs to focus on their work, and they won’t be able to do so if every walk across campus includes the fear of verbal or physical abuse. Researchers must follow wherever evidence and reason lead, and they won’t do so if stating their conclusions puts their jobs or their families at risk. Institutional leaders must act in the service of the public good, and they won’t do so if the result will be devastating cuts to their institutions.

We need to restore fearlessness to higher education. Student learning depends on it. The advancement of scholarship depends on it. The mission of higher education to serve the public good depends on it.

Saying it must happen, of course, does not make it happen. But focusing on the need can be a first step. We need to talk to each other about what would help us regain the fearlessness that makes higher education great. We need to take action to remove the risks where we can and mitigate them where we can’t. In some cases, bringing hostile groups into dialogue with each other may actually reduce the risk and thus the fear. In other cases, letting others know we have their back can help them act more fearlessly.

When you make the short list of reasons the United States prospered and thrived in the 20th century, higher education belongs at or near the top. Merely having institutions of higher education is not sufficient. The cultures and practices of higher education institutions have made all the difference. Cultures and practices can be lost. We cannot afford to let the culture and practices of fearless higher education institutions become features only of our past.

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