Monday, September 5, 2011

Leadership as a Mission

As faculty and staff at the University of Rhode Island prepare in earnest for the new academic year (and clean up at bit from Hurricane Irene), I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of URI and public higher education, and more broadly, our collective future. Recent events have reinforced the conviction that our communities, America, and the world face substantial and undiminished challenges, perhaps even more severe than we believed just a few months ago.

Worries and fears are beginning to grow across many sectors of our nation. And just as our concerns about the future increase, it appears that our confidence in our government’s ability to address those concerns is waning. To me, that is particularly disturbing. Why? Because, for a long time, America has been widely considered the world’s best, most influential, most successful, and most optimistic representative democracy. We are the government. Therefore, doubting our government might be a symptom of a more serious problem – that we doubt our neighbors and even ourselves. By “doubting”, I do not mean exercising responsible skepticism or demanding evidence for others’ assertions or positions (as well as our own). I am concerned by the toxic refusal to even consider views that differ from our own and insistently questioning the motives, ethics, values, and morals of those with whom we differ. Doubting ourselves – unreasonably questioning our abilities and capabilities to adequately respond to the challenges and difficulties we face – is obviously different, but may be partially related. Living and working in an environment dominated by attack and denigration is hardly conducive to building or maintaining the self confidence required to solve difficult problems.

At a meeting this past summer (prior to the near meltdown of governance over the debt ceiling), I heard a presentation by two very experienced and highly-regarded political writers. They indicated that the then current partisanship and polarization of government was substantially more pronounced than what they had previously observed. But in their view this situation arose, at least in part, from the fact that divisions in Congress were driven by powerful forces in society, that in some respects threatened to overwhelm Congress. Another factor was the increasing difficulty to reach agreement on basic facts; highly ideological and partisan media and “think tanks” were all too willing to supply “facts” to suit any preferred position. I came away thinking that critical analysis, serious discussion, negotiation, and finding common ground are no longer seen as essential to the health of our nation – not only by those in Washington but by many factions of our society. Events since then have only reinforced that conclusion.

I believe that in such circumstances public research universities, like the University of Rhode Island, need to accentuate their leadership role. From my perspective, public leadership has long been an implicit mission of the land-grant university. It is time to explicitly acknowledge and embrace that part of our historic mission.

There are multiple, important areas where the leadership of the nation’s public universities could become a critical factor in surmounting the challenges and difficulties that currently confront us. We need to articulate and consistently demonstrate the importance of constructive engagement with ideas and positions that differ from one’s own. We should insist on the appropriate use of scientific findings, quantitative analysis, data analysis, and rational discourse in shaping public policy. We need to defend the importance of education, research, objective analysis, and expertise in shaping the search for solutions. We should show in our words and actions that it is not only possible, but desirable, to find common ground and develop shared solutions in the midst of very diverse assumptions, worldviews, and sociopolitical allegiances. I strongly believe that it is critical for public universities to forcefully remind our political leadership, and our people, that finding solutions to the extensive, global-scale challenges that we face in the 21st century in fact requires us to work constructively with others who do not share our views, presuppositions, religious beliefs, or all of our values.

I think the University of Rhode Island is prepared to expand its leadership role. I believe that it is essential to the future of our state and nation that we do so.