Feb. 8, 2017
Not since the era of witch hunts and “red baiting” has the American university faced so great a threat from government. How is the university to function when a president’s administration blurs the distinction between fact and fiction by asserting the existence of “alternative facts”? How can the university turn a blind eye to what every historian knows to be a key instrument of modern authoritarian regimes: the capacity to dress falsehood up as truth and reject the fruits of reasoned argument, evidence and rigorous verification?
The atmosphere of suspicion and insecurity created by the undermining of truth provides the perfect environment for President Trump’s recent actions on immigration. The American university’s future, indeed its most fundamental reason for being, is imperiled by a government that constructs walls on the Mexican border, restricts Muslim immigrants and denigrates the idea of America as a destination for refugees.
Although American universities did not always welcome the huge influx of refugees after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, that intellectual migration transformed a provincial and second-rate higher education system into the finest in the world. Manufacturing may have fled our borders, but American higher education remains a powerful and competitive force, a destination for students and scholars everywhere and a vital engine of employment and economic health. An astonishingly large percentage of graduate students and professors in science today are foreigners and immigrants.
I am a Jewish immigrant who came here as part of a family that was stateless, and my deep patriotism is rooted in that experience. I benefited from American humanitarianism, and I have worked my entire life to give back to this country. An America inhospitable to immigrants and foreigners, a place of fear and danger instead of refuge, is unthinkable in the context of the nation’s history and founding principles. If a more practical argument is required, think of the consequences for the quality and future of our colleges and universities, and their highly prized superiority in science and engineering.
Moreover, what will become of the major government agencies of scientific research, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation? Will their research agendas be manipulated to fit Mr. Trump’s view of reality? Will there be a continuing erosion of support for basic research as opposed to research that contributes to some commercial product? The greatest advances in medicine were a result of research conducted after World War II, motivated exclusively to enable humankind to better understand nature, not to come up with a new drug.
What, then, are we, the leaders of our institutions of higher education, to do when faced with a president who denies facts, who denies science? Is it best to stand by when he repudiates climate science and revives the credibility of discredited theories about autism? Facts and photographs did not stop him from rejecting the evidence regarding the election results or the size of crowds at his inauguration. He has undermined public confidence in the electoral system. In the face of this, standing up for the truth — which is, after all, higher education’s business — might appear to be an act of political partisanship. But this is not about political parties. It is about the proper role of the academy in a troubling time.
American colleges and universities, public and private, are properly seen as nonpartisan elements in civil society, committed to research and teaching in a manner that transcends ordinary politics. But to succeed, these institutions must ensure that academic freedom and the highest standards of scholarship prevail. This means respect for the rules of evidence, rigorous skepticism and the honoring of the distinction between truth and falsehood.
Doing this has never been easy. Institutions of higher education are dependent on state and federal funding, including tax exemptions, research funds and scholarship support. Pressures from within also exist, often inspired by students and faculty members seeking to create a consensus of belief that can marginalize disagreement and dissent. Nevertheless, the key to the astonishing success and international superiority of the American university, particularly in science and engineering, has been its resilient commitment to freedom and nondiscrimination, and its respect for truth, no matter how uncomfortable.
The presidents of our colleges and universities must defend the principles that have enabled institutions of higher education to flourish. These are freedom and tolerance, and openness to individuals no matter their national origin or religion. The actions and spirit of the new administration threaten the American university’s core values.
The voices of our leaders in higher education must be heard in opposition. The cause is not partisan. The cause is a democracy where citizens of the entire world are welcome, minorities are protected and dissent respected. Such a democracy is the only context in which research and learning and the pursuit of knowledge can thrive. The time to act together is upon us. The world must have no doubt about where the American university stands.
Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College. This is an article from the On Campus series at www.nytimes.com/opinion/on-campus.