May 13, 2003

Panel looks at higher education

Issues facing the arena of higher education took center stage Friday during a panel discussion entitled "Futures of Higher Education," held by the Graham School of General Studies.

Affirmative action, government censorship, and the threat of becoming out of touch with the general public highlighted Friday's discussion, which featured distinguished faculty members from the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The seminar, held at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago, was the first in a series of colloquia and discussions that the Graham School hopes to host in the following years, with each seminar addressing different issues that face higher education in America today.

Geoffrey Stone, professor in the Law School and former provost of the University, discussed the recent Supreme Court case dealing with affirmative action and the consequences it would have on colleges and universities across the country.

Stone's talk addressed the impact of the decision to hear the case, the importance of the amicus briefs filed by the University and several other universities, and also how the justices will most likely approach the case.

Stone also reflected on the possible effects of the elimination of affirmative action, speculating on how schools like the University of Chicago Law School could ever function without the students who are recruited through affirmative action, saying that he could not imagine the University's Law School without the "robust" presence of black and Hispanic students.

"It would be a less interesting, less challenging, and less relevant place," Stone said. "And I certainly cannot imagine that a society that for so long turned its back on African-Americans and other racial minorities could, in Lyndon Johnson's words, 'justly believe' that such an outcome is fair."

Fellow speaker Nancy Cantor, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was previously involved with the University of Michigan lawsuit and commented on how important open dialogue about education is, and yet how little progress there has actually been in fostering such dialogue across racial and ethnic lines.

Another issue addressed by the panel was the curtailment of freedoms during the war with Iraq. Jonathan Cole, the provost and dean of facilities and the John Mitchell Mason professor at Columbia University spoke on the recent Patriot Act and the government's involvement in disrupting research universities.

In his talk, "Defending the Idea of the University in Troubled Times," Cole criticized how few tenured professors are fighting back against the government's move to impose restrictions.

"Tenure serves no purpose unless it encourages the faculty to speak out on controversial matters," Cole said.

Reflecting on much of what was said by previous speakers, Cantor explained that all too often the university acts as a "monastery" where few ideas and opportunities are shared with the public.

In her talk, "The University as a Public Good," Cantor stated that universities need to maintain a balance between an ivory tower-like monastery and an active participant in the marketplace of ideas in the public arena.

"Although our society has few models for crossing boundaries, I feel that universities can and must play a very special role in addressing society's trickiest issues, face to face, in a civil context, even if we have to start from scratch," Cantor said.

Retracing the comments of the previous speakers, Cantor also broached the topic of race relations. To her, universities have a unique opportunity to influence society.

"Here is an arena of daily life in which we have precious little experience in the vibrant exchange of people and ideas across 'the color line,'" she said.

While the panel's comments resonated with some in audience, others were less than satisfied.

"I found it ironic that while [Cantor] was calling upon universities to get active in the public domain, the very event was addressing the monastery, not the public, and wouldn't have any impact on what she was trying to improve, " said Matthew Story, a first-year in the College who attended the discussion.