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Commentary: Public support for college is slipping. Why that’s trouble

The recent results of a Pew Research Center survey on the public’s views of colleges and universities are disheartening. Pew found that during the past year, Republicans perceiving higher education in a negative light has increased 13 percentage points. Among Republicans, 58 percent now perceive colleges and universities negatively, while 36 percent viewed them as positive. Among Democrats, 19 percent see higher education as negative while 72 percent see it as positive.

It’s no secret that one likely cause of this change is the 2016 presidential election and the political climate that followed. College campuses were — and still are — the sites of protests leading up to and following the election. This is part of the role that universities have historically played as sites of social activism, from Edward R. Murrow’s leadership of the National Student Federation of America in the 1930s to the student protests over Vietnam and civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s.

But what is different now are the ways in which we understand events taking place on campuses.

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In addition to these results, Pew also reported similarly wide gaps in the perception of the national news media between Republican/Republican-leaning respondents and those on the other end of the political spectrum. Americans are accessing other sources such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs for news, which can radically skew one’s perception of what is actually occurring at the nation’s more than 4,000 campuses.

In the 1960s, former University of California president Clark Kerr introduced the term “multiversity” to describe higher education, with manifest ideas of knowledge production and dissemination, for a multitude of constituents. Kerr said, “The university is so many things to so many people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself.”

Universities, by their nature, are chaotic places, but one of the few where the purpose is to bring together individuals with diverse identities and beliefs to engage in a better understanding of the world. It is tragic to think that a sizable population of Americans view this opportunity as adverse, or worse nondesirable. And especially at a time when a larger proportion of historically underrepresented students — students of color, low-income students, immigrant students and nontraditional adult students — are comprising the higher education landscape.

Another cause for these results likely relates to the increasingly high costs of college. Researchers have detailed the 30-year trend of declining state appropriations to colleges and increasing tuition at public and private institutions. Coupled with increasing amounts of student debt and a diminishing number of full-time faculty members, the recipe for dissatisfaction is a potent one.

More of us need to understand that universities are learning organizations that are often at the forefront of longstanding social challenges. There are, at times, missteps in how to engage with one another — but it often starts with inaccurate or partial information. Civil and productive discourse is essential to the development of critical thinking, and hopefully the solutions to problems that bedevil our society will originate when people engage, debate and analyze different perspectives. But this opportunity is often thwarted by a mentality that seeks to find “both sides” of an argument when one side denigrates, obfuscates or demeans the humanity of the other. All members must cultivate an approach that seeks to elucidate and educate, rather than insult and intimidate.

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Social injustice — such as racism, sexism and homophobia — persists. But if we cannot summon the courage to engage and discuss the causes, effects and solutions of these ills, we are fated to perpetuate them. By their very nature, colleges and universities are not sites to uncritically absorb dogma or ideology. The marketplace of ideas only functions with a full understanding of the histories and lived experiences of all those who inhabit it.

If anything, the results of the Pew survey suggest that we need greater engagement with ideas across the political spectrum — with less of the vitriol endemic to the political arena. With so few institutions that purposefully engage with diverse perspectives and experience, the role of the university has become more critical than ever.

Reddick is the assistant vice president of research and policy in the College of Education at the University of Texas.

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