Discovery, Debate, and Dissent

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak at the SXSWedu conference in Austin. Among other things, I shared my view that while putting students on a path to success will always be job one, we in higher education have broader responsibilities as well.

I spoke about the values we instill in the young people on our campuses – either tacitly or deliberately – and laid out what I call the Three Ds, which I consider cornerstones of a good education: Discovery, Debate, and Dissent.

Starting with Discovery. As I have said before, I believe students, faculty, and researchers should be relentless in their pursuit of new ideas. They should think critically, ask tough questions, shine light in the dark corners, and challenge authority, conventional wisdom, each other, and themselves. A university campus ought to be a place where some people are mad, some are frustrated, but all are alive with curiosity.

But of course, the farther you push the bounds of discovery, the more you challenge the status quo. And the more you challenge the status quo, the more disagreement you are going to have with those around you.

Which brings me to the second D – Debate. I fear the art of debate – on campus, and certainly in society as a whole – is in decline. So it is more important than ever that our students learn how to argue their positions in a reasonable, well thought out, persuasive, and civil manner. This will benefit society as well as the students, who will need this skill as they negotiate their way through their lives and careers.

Finally, and perhaps most important, we need to teach our young people how to act when their argument doesn’t carry the day. Leading me the third D – Dissent.

I want our campuses to be a place where students are able to appropriately, and respectfully express disagreement, without repercussions. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do.

Effective leaders understand that dissent doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong. Great ideas aren’t born from consensus. More often than not, dissent is the first step down the path to innovations, breakthroughs, and solutions. Where would the nation be without the suffragettes, the civil rights marches, or the anti-war protests?

Stifling dissent is the worst thing an academic institution can do.

But we must teach those who dissent to do so peacefully, lawfully, and constructively. We must teach them to recognize that peaceful dissent is one of the great freedoms of this nation. It should be exercised often, but never abused in the name of progress.

The goal of the Three Ds, as I see it, is to help cultivate men and women who are highly-educated, well-informed, mature, and principled. Women and men who are able to argue and stand by their convictions – but are also humble enough to listen and learn from the perspectives of others.

As Chancellor, part of my job is to make sure our presidents are creating an environment where these things can happen. Where teachers can teach and students can learn. Where different points of view are more than welcome – they are sought out! Where, when a student leaves, she or he leaves – not just with a valuable credential – but with a deeper understanding of our rights and responsibilities as Americans.

The world of higher education – and education, generally – will always reflect the world as a whole. As it absolutely should. But we should be more than a mirror. We should be a shining example of our hope and expectations for the next generation.

Thank you, as always, for reading. I’ll write again soon.