3 ways colleges and universities can earn back America's receding trust | Opinion

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In a recent Gallup poll, 56 percent of Americans said they had “some or very little” confidence in higher education. It’s not just a GOP thing, either: while 67 percent of Republicans distrust colleges and universities, so do 43 percent of Democrats.

Do you trust our colleges and universities?

If you answered “no,” join the club. In a recent Gallup poll, 56 percent of Americans said they lacked confidence in higher education. It’s not just a GOP thing, either: While 67 percent of Republicans distrust colleges and universities, so do 43 percent of Democrats.

And earlier this month, Congress’ new tax plan levied an unprecedented excise tax on investment income for 36 private higher education institutions. Universities successfully fought off a proposal to count tuition waivers for graduate education as taxable income, which would have put advanced degrees out of reach for many students. But the writing is on the college wall, for anyone who cares to read it: Across our political spectrum, more and more Americans think less and less of higher education.

Sure, there are some partisan differences. As the Gallup study revealed, Democrats are more likely to denounce universities as too costly and Republicans more frequently condemn them as too liberal. One Gallup pollster even suggested that higher education drop the term liberal artswhich allegedly alienates disgruntled GOP voters.

But we’re going to need new deeds — not just new words — to improve our public standing. So I’ve got three modest suggestions, which we could implement right now. Taken in isolation, none would make much of a difference. But if we did all three, at the same time, they might place higher education in higher repute.

1. Declare a moratorium on salary increases for university presidents.  

According to a study released this month by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 58 private-college presidents received over a million dollars in 2015. The top earner was Wake Forest’s Nathan Hatch, who took in over $4 million in salary and deferred compensation. According to the chair of the university’s board, that sum reflected Hatch’s “exceptional leadership that has paid dividends for the university.”

Please.

Across the corporate world, CEO pay has boomed on the theory that you need to reward leaders who create big profits for the company. Most economists don’t think higher pay actually motivates executives to increase the shareholder value of their businesses. So it’s especially upsetting to see our universities indulging in a similar fantasy.

Besides, universities aren’t businesses. The “dividends” they create lie in abstract values like knowledge and understanding, not in dollars and cents.  If they don’t want to be taxed like a business, they have to stop behaving like one.

2. Declare a second moratorium, on the construction of nonacademic facilities.

Each fall brings another exposé about new luxury dormitories or athletic centers sprouting on our nation’s campuses. Here in Philadelphia, Drexel dorms feature golf simulation rooms while Temple equips some student suites with 42-inch flat-screen TVs. Texas Tech University boasts an $8.4 million water park, complete with a 25-person hot tub and a 64-foot-long lazy river. It’s “a great recruiting tool for the university,” as one school official said.

He’s probably right, which is precisely the problem. As a University of Michigan study found, students applying to less selective institutions are more likely to base their decisions on a school’s amenities rather than its academics. That helps explain why St. Leo University in Florida advertises a student “relaxation room,” with “spherical nap pods” alongside the requisite big-screen TVs.

But school should be about the life of the mind, not about living large. Like presidential salaries, obscene new facilities feed the public perception that our universities covet wealth over wisdom. So any new construction should be limited to strictly academic buildings, like classrooms or laboratories. That’s the primary good we have to offer. And it will make us look good, too.

3. Guarantee freedom of speech.

According to a well-worn Republican complaint, our campuses have become bastions of liberal political correctness that demean or suppress conservative points of view. And there’s plenty of evidence for that. Right-wing speakers get shouted down, while right-wing students report being mocked and maligned by their peers and professors.

But conservatives have mounted their own attacks on free speech, too. Witness efforts by GOP lawmakers in Iowa and North Carolina to require state universities to hire more conservative professors, which would surely inhibit what candidates and hiring committees say. Or consider the recent brouhaha in Wisconsin, where a GOP lawmaker threatened to withhold funding from the state university unless it canceled a controversial course about “whiteness.”

That’s all the more reason that every higher-education institution should endorse the 2015 statement produced by the the University of Chicago, guaranteeing “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” The statement goes on to affirm that “it is not the proper role of the university to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

But it is the proper role of the university to educate the public, which has become increasingly skeptical about the education we provide. There’s no easy formula for repairing this breach, but a few simple pledges would go a long way. We’ve been fighting for too long already.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of  “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press).

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