ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Initiating Public Trust

April 10, 2005 by ACTA

The recent fiasco at Columbia University about whether anti-Semitic sentiment is tolerated and even encouraged in the Middle East studies program has inspired a sharply critical staff editorial at The New York Times. Opening with an unequivocal condemnation of Columbia's handling of the situation—"Sad to say, the school has botched the handling of this emotionally charged issue from the start, thereby allowing festering concerns to erupt into a full-scale boil"—the editorial goes on to count the ways in which Columbia's lack of foresight and inadequate grievance procedure compounded the problem in the name of resolving it.

According to the Times, Columbia botched its investigation by assigning pro-Palestinian professors to the investigative panel, thereby guaranteeing that the panel's results would be "greeted with skepticism," and by conducting its investigation too narrowly: "Most student complaints were not really about intimidation, but about allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the part of several professors. The panel had no mandate to examine the quality and fairness of teaching." The editorial concludes with a fairly unconvincing (because unconvinced?) expression of hope that as Columbia continues to clean up its internal mess, it will conduct itself with more "determination and care" than it has to this point.

The piece's sharp and cutting criticisms, combined with its faint concluding sentiment, together express not only a specific disappointment in Columbia, but also a more general distrust of college and university comportment. It's as if the Times staff had said to themselves, "Well, we should write an editorial urging Columbia to clean up its act—but we can't really expect anything to come of it."

Such moments speak to the growing breach of faith between the American public and the higher education establishment. Tuition prices are soaring even as tales of administrative malfeasance and institutionalized bias circulate in the media; there is an increasing sense on the part of the American public that higher education is not what it should be, and there is a related sense on the part of people who work in higher education that the public does not fully grasp the work that colleges and universities do. So pressing has the problem become that a new organization is forming with the express purpose of repairing this rift. The Public Trust Initiative will most likely be launched this fall, and will consist of a nationwide effort to educate the public about the value of higher education not just to individuals, but to society as a whole. According to,

The Public Trust Initiative will involve efforts in every state and with every sector of higher education. The effort will feature both a national ad campaign and attempts to have colleges shift some of their communications with their own constituencies—students, parents, alumni, opinion leaders, taxpayers generally—away from messages about individual institutions and toward messages about higher education.

"There have been a number of calls recently for a new national dialogue on the social compact between higher education and society," said Stanley O. Ikenberry, former president of the American Council on Education and the University of Illinois, who is leading the effort. "What we are trying to do is to launch such a dialogue."


Ikenberry said that much of the work thus far has been trying to get a handle on what the public knows and doesn't know about higher education, and to figure out which messages will work. For example, he said it was important that academics not to talk about higher education as being "in crisis."

"The public doesn't see higher education in crisis. Some of us may see that, but the public isn't convinced of that, and even if they were, the public isn't ready to take on yet one more crisis," with Iraq and other issues already center stage, Ikenberry said. "The public may well be in crisis overload."

He said that the message of the campaign would be a positive one, with the emphasis on "why access to higher education is important to society broadly." He said colleges need to talk about how having an educated populace affects health care, crime prevention, the economy, the quality of life, etc.

Ikenberry said that the campaign, to date, has not focused on fighting images of higher education that come up in the culture wars, such as the idea that Ward Churchill is representative of faculty members. Ikenberry said he is hopeful that this controversy will pass, but "if that's seriously and persistently on the public's list of concerns, obviously we would have to address it."

The Public Trust Initiative is an interesting and a necessary project—but it's also one that won't succeed if it tries to define away some of the most pressing problems facing higher education today. A campaign to promote support for higher education thatsees—or hopes to see—major national flashpoints such as the Ward Churchill scandal as tangential to its purpose is a campaign that risks limiting its potential power and credibility.


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