US election result must not obscure need for higher education reform

The removal of Donald Trump from the White House could lead to major reform in college education, but many other issues require urgent action, argue Sandro Galea and Nason Maani

November 2, 2020
Donald Trump dolls
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Whoever prevails in tomorrow’s presidential election, America’s universities face a period of immense challenge likely to test the most resilient of institutions.

Not only does the shadow of Covid-19 still loom large, along with the ensuing economic crisis that has raised the threat of staff redundancies even while universities consider the complexities of hybrid or online-only teaching, but other pressing issues also remain unresolved. Indeed, the pandemic has exposed a number of broader social crises and longer-term structural challenges for US higher education that can no longer be ignored.

A major one is how to handle the ongoing calls to address structural racism; universities are grappling with their own role in perpetuating disparities, with recent campaigns such as #BlackInTheIvory highlighting the barriers faced by many academics of colour. Beyond this, higher education institutions must confront how racial disparities are exacerbated by admissions processes, fee structures, student debt and the final marks and degrees awarded to ethnic minority students. In parallel, universities must also strike the right balance between ensuring students feel welcome and safe on campus, yet are exposed to a diversity of speech and opinion.

These three crises – adapting to Covid-19, meeting economic challenges and reckoning with social unrest – require bold leadership and an acceptance that fundamental change is both inevitable and necessary. Universities have the skills and expertise to make these difficult changes and, in doing so, meet the scientific, economic and social challenges of the moment.

In the context of scholarship, the academic sector must redouble its commitment to the generation of science, scholarship and creative works. Universities have been central to the global response to Covid-19, and while this remains vital, it is imperative that research re-engages with the broader health and equity impacts of our decisions, for this and future generations.

The harms of the pandemic, and of social distancing, have not fallen equally. It is incumbent on universities, beyond Covid-19, to bear witness to the consequences of the pandemic for those who bore the brunt of this inequity.

Moving beyond individual research and expression, there is an unprecedented need to maintain a high standard of scholarship and find ways, as scholars and institutions, to better assess scholarship of worth. This may mean taking a stand against poor measures of impact encouraged by the system, which can lead to the promotion of flawed evidence at the expense of more considered studies, particularly at this critical time.

In the context of the economic crisis, the sector runs the risk of exacerbating an already worsening landscape. The loosely regulated market of US universities, in which competition is encouraged and cost control is not required, has led to rising fees, an inability to bend the cost curve and a strong resistance to external constraints that might bring costs down.

In other words, we run the risk of becoming further uncoupled from the access and affordability necessary to attract the best talent, instead being restricted to the minority who inherit the material wealth to afford access and training.

If we are to improve diversity of experience, and therefore diversity of thought and richness of scholarship, at universities, we must address the structural inequality of university fees, access and student debt. We see no way in which this can be achieved without targeted government investment with a view to supporting those who have been historically disadvantaged in order to reverse the structural discrimination that is “baked in” to our structures of funding, fees, access and debt. Refocusing on the core mission of providing access to high-quality education could curb longer term costs.

One could imagine a system of government incentives for universities that focuses on pro-social goals such as student composition, education attainment and retention in underrepresented minorities, and the acknowledgement that long-standing practices such as college legacy programs run counter to such goals.

In the context of our role in social justice and the broader mission, while we must commit to widening the doors of access and address structural factors that disadvantage students and would-be faculty, this will require us to include, at times, seemingly unpalatable subjects or opinions. It may also require us to honestly interrogate our history and our own place in discrimination.

Education is not the filling of a vessel but the lighting of a flame. It is through the coming together of differing perspectives and opinions, in safe and respectful environments, that such flames can be kindled. In this way we can also be an example that encourages sorely needed elevation of our public discourse.

To do so, however, we must address the role of education in exacerbating inequalities. Students are the scientific and moral architects of our future. Universities cannot afford to unwittingly disadvantage the cause of equity while claiming to promote it. Instead, we must, as science has always done, bear witness to the forces that shape the world and engage with them.

The crises that afflict our world have shown the extent to which population health, scientific literacy and equal access to economic opportunity are social goods. The value of an academy that operates with a sense of moral purpose and inclusiveness towards society but remains unbending in the study and communication of scientific fact in the face of ideology, self-interest or political winds has never been clearer.

Nason Maani, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is on a Commonwealth Fund Harkness Fellowship at Boston University School of Public Health, where Sandro Galea is dean.

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