HE has “unique” civil discourse potential

HE has “unique” civil discourse potential

The diverse backgrounds and perspectives on university and college campuses around the world allow them a “unique potential to facilitate civil discourse and find common ground across ideological lines”, a leading higher education leader from the US has said at the UPP Foundation 2023 Lecture.

Tulane is developing a 14-block campus in downtown New Orleans

Michael A. Fitts, president of Tulane University in New Orleans, is the third speaker to deliver the UPP Foundation annual lecture, where he laid out the importance of higher education’s “social impact”.

This year’s event was held at London’s iconic Lord’s cricket ground, the evolvement of which he compared with how institutions can “stay relevant”.

“There are very few types of institutions that manage to survive and thrive over decades, let alone centuries,” he stated.

The oldest universities in the UK and the US are older than the countries they are in, he continued.

Founded originally as a medical school to fight a yellow fever pandemic in 1834, Tulane’s outlook has “always been more outward looking, pragmatic, interdisciplinary and socially impactful” when compared to some other universities.

Over a number of crises, particularly hurricane Katrina – where 80% of the city flooded – and the Covid-19 pandemic, Tulane has “refined and extended its model as an outward looking academic institution”, he detailed.

With “significant debates today about the value and importance of higher education”, the president pointed to the need to pursue “true academic excellence with social impact”.

Crises have led the institution to place academic knowledge to meet “genuine community needs” at its core.

In recent years, Tulane has embedded an interdisciplinary approach into it curriculum, placed civic mindedness in focus and launched a series of new research institutes and initiatives.

The institution is also “engaging in a holistic and revolutionary revitalisation of downtown New Orleans”, he continued, where it is developing a 14-block campus.

“We plan to generate over $300 million in research funding, host five Tulane schools and create scores of start-up businesses,” he detailed.

“Similar efforts at other universities have seen incredible success. The Idea Center at Notre Dame University has launched 145 start-ups since its founding in 2017.

“In the US, we have seen time and again the power of start-up culture to create or transform communities paired with a major research university.”

Silicon Valley was anchored by Stanford University and investments by Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center saw start-up raise $534m in 2022.

“The recent push toward censorship represents an opportunity for our sector to demonstrate our value”

While acknowledging that New Orleans has a long way to go before joining those ranks, the Innovation Institute has the resources “in place to make it happen”, Fitts suggested.

“We have come a long way from the old university model,” he continued, “a finishing school for the elite, where professors and pupils retreated from society into libraries and labs behind ivy-covered walls.”

Fitts paid a tribute to the late Bob Zimmer, the former president of the University of Chicago who had previously given a UPP lecture, as a “tireless and fearless advocate for freedom of expression”.

“The recent push toward censorship represents a crisis of free expression and an opportunity for our sector to demonstrate our value.

“Universities are one of the few institutions in society that bring together individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives to live, learn and work together in an intensely relational atmosphere.”

As overseers of “decentralised, dispersed communities” that allow “creativity and challenges to bubble up”, higher education leaders are afforded a “unique potential to facilitate civil discourse and find common ground across ideological lines”.

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