A Life of Purpose
A conversation with AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella
In her recent book, What We Value: Public Health, Social Justice, and Educating for Democracy, Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), considers some of the most urgent challenges of our current moment and looks at how a liberal education can help us meet them. She examines ethical issues in the medical and public health fields and discusses free speech controversies and other equity and inclusion challenges on campuses. A liberal education, she stresses, is essential for preparing members of a society to consider and work for the common good. She spoke with Liberal Education about her book, noting how lessons from health care involving moral distress, moral courage, and compassion fade can apply to administrators and faculty in higher education. She also emphasized the need for campuses to demonstrate how their teaching and scholarship contribute to their surrounding communities and to society more broadly. But, she pointed out, one of the biggest challenges facing higher education is increasing economic and racial disparity. That inequity needs to be addressed if we are to successfully tackle other crises such as climate change and rising authoritarianism.
In What We Value, you note that we are part of a culture that sees death—and I would also say aging—as failure and therefore un-American. How can a liberal education shift this norm and help students think differently about the human condition?
The inability or unwillingness of both patients and health-care providers to talk about death and confront issues of mortality has led to needless suffering at the end of life. Liberal education is designed to address the most fundamental questions of human existence, including whether life can have meaning, given the inevitability of death, and whether desiring immortality is rational. A liberal education that confronts issues of death and dying, as well as meaning and purpose in life, must also be intertwined with medical students’ education. Otherwise, we’re not going to make any progress in lessening the pain, despair, and isolation individuals feel at the end of life.
As Al Killilea, one of my former colleagues at the University of Rhode Island, was about to have his book The Politics of Being Mortal published, his sixteen-year-old daughter, Mari, died in a car accident. It was such a tragedy, but I remember what he told our students: It’s not death we fear so much as the annihilation and absurdity of a meaningless existence. For him, it’s only through that recognition and acceptance of human interdependence that meaning can be found in both life and death.
You also talk about moral distress in the medical field. How might that concept apply in higher education?
Moral distress occurs when there’s a continual erosion of what people think is the right thing to do because they’re coerced by institutional or societal structures to engage in behavior they think is unethical, but they feel they have no choice.
I’m seeing growing levels of moral distress in higher education amid the global pandemic, the financial crisis, and this moment of racial reckoning. Higher education’s democratic purposes are more critical than ever. Yet we’re also seeing an unprecedented and unwarranted intrusion into what’s happening on college and university campuses. Legislators are attempting to chill certain speech by banning the teaching of critical race theory, The 1619 Project, LGBTQ issues, and other so-called divisive concepts. Governing boards are intervening in tenure and promotion decisions. Politicians in Florida are trying to determine which accrediting bodies institutions can use and what can be talked about on college campuses as legitimate.
Colleges and universities are facing these issues alongside prohibitions in certain states against masks and vaccination mandates. But campus leaders have a responsibility to protect the safety and well-being of faculty, students, staff, and members of the extramural community. This is creating burgeoning levels of moral distress.
What can higher education leaders do?
Leaders have to exercise moral courage and develop moral resilience. That will require them to identify their own values and ask themselves how much individual injustice they’re willing to countenance for the sake of long-term reform. They need a capacity to sustain, restore, and deepen integrity in the face of moral complexity, confusion, and distress. And that requires a willingness to clarify one’s own level of responsibility and understand the limitation of what one can do under the circumstances.
What are some examples of what moral courage might look like on campuses today? Are the consequences of acting with moral courage greater than they used to be?
Faculty and administrative leaders in Texas continue to speak out against restrictions on academic freedom, especially around the teaching of critical race theory, despite the lieutenant governor responding to their actions with calls to remove tenure. And in Mississippi, following the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, campus leaders refused to fly the state flag bearing a Confederate symbol even after the legislature threatened to cut their salaries by a quarter and remove universities’ tax-exempt status.
What’s shifted is the advent of social media and its tools for airing grievances and spreading disinformation, with campus disputes often judged by the public before they ever appear on a president’s desk. Trolls with targeted agendas try to influence public thinking, and it’s often unclear as to when comments on social media veer into a realm of threats, which brings us back to how we protect the safety and well-being of all members of the community. Yet, Trinity Washington University’s president, Patricia McGuire, reminds us that the reluctance of campus leaders to speak out on issues they consider too political out of fear of alienating donors, governors, or state legislators, who might be controlling purse strings, has “debilitated not only the voice but the real purpose of higher education, which is a place where students should develop the critical thinking skills and moral reasoning habits that are necessary for a strong democracy.” We can’t shrink from the truth out of fear of alienating people or fear of retaliation.
We must demonstrate moral courage now, as we’re facing real threats to democracy through the rise of authoritarianism, but it is not easy. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we have forums like the Presidents’ Trust, where presidents can have a sounding board and a network that will help them practice the habits of heart and mind necessary for exercising moral courage.
In What We Value, you discuss compassion fade. Could you talk a little bit about what that is? What can we do about it?
I referenced the Moral Machine game from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is about lifeboat ethics: Who are you going to save in this situation?
When we see widespread destruction, death, and despair, the psychological phenomenon of compassion fade emerges. You’re willing to give to the one child who’s fallen to the bottom of a well and who we follow intently over a period of hours and days, but then when it becomes a dozen children, two dozen, hundreds, thousands of people—there’s a sense of being overwhelmed. There’s helplessness and hopelessness. The way to overcome that compassion fade is to look at these many individuals in terms of a single unit. That’s where the humanistic identification—the moral imagination, imagining what it’s like to be in the shoes of another different from oneself—is so important.
What advice might you give faculty members grappling with issues related to free speech, particularly when sensitive topics arise in class discussions?
I used to teach critical race theory, the philosophy of law, and introduction to philosophy, in which we talked about abortion and reproductive rights, the death penalty, and physician-assisted suicide. The final section of the course addressed the meaning of life and whether God exists. These are all controversial issues, and I wonder whether I would be able to teach the same way today.
In the classroom, we must create a culture of trust and belonging so that students know that we’re embarking on a shared endeavor in the pursuit of the truth. That will require us to engage in the free exchange of ideas but also to entertain the possibility that some of our most fundamentally held beliefs might be mistaken. That can be threatening, but discomfort can lead to greater strength in terms of discerning the truth and meeting the purposes of a liberal education.
We must also ensure that everyone feels like they deserve a place in the academy and in the classroom and that they belong in the discussion. Teaching in person involves going to class ten minutes early so you can talk to students as they come in, ask them how they’re doing, what’s going on. The same applies for online instruction. You log in early and talk to people so they have a sense that they matter to you beyond just being a student who’s paying tuition.
Particularly with the stark political divide that we’re living in right now, how can a liberal education help students learn to speak across differences?
We know from Tony Carnevale’s research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that a liberal education can help students acquire the knowledge and skills that make them less likely to tend toward authoritarianism. That’s because it bolsters self-confidence, as well as a sense of autonomy and authenticity in ways that make people less susceptible to threats to their psychological and social well-being from people with differing points of view. So, as we look at the challenges we are facing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, liberal education can provide a way forward.
In the context of the polarization and partisanship in this seemingly post-truth era, a liberal education can help teach students to be mindful of the dangers of ideological filtering, to understand the role of misinformation in shaping agendas, and to engage in evidence-based research that will enable them to draw conclusions about the best course of action. For instance, liberal education teaches students to propose, construct, and evaluate arguments; to anticipate and respond to objections; and to write, speak, and think with precision and clarity. It also fosters resilience, adaptability, flexibility, moral decision-making, and the capacity to work in diverse teams—which are all necessary to thrive in the workplace of today, as we’ve seen from AAC&U’s employer surveys.
What is one concrete step colleges and universities can take in the near term to counter anti-altruism and anti-intellectualism?
They can serve as anchor institutions. We’re not going to be able to restore public trust in higher education unless we’re visible in the lives of the members of the communities in which we’re located, those we seek to serve. And anchor institutions demonstrate that their success is inextricably linked to the psychological, social, economic, and educational well-being of those in their communities.
We can also engage in liberal learning outside of the classroom. There’s a false dichotomy between preparation for work and a liberal education, but there’s also a false dichotomy between liberal education and preparation for life outside of higher education. Even when we talk about liberal education as leading to individual flourishing and to a stronger society, it’s not as if you can’t live a life that’s flourishing if you’re not educated. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. They had flourishing lives, and their lives might have been richer if they’d had access to a liberal education, but that doesn’t mean that their lives were any less meaningful. We talk as if it’s a tragedy if people haven’t been liberally educated, but there are so many different ways to engage in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. We have to pay attention to the kind of humanistic endeavors people are involved in every day and celebrate those as part of what we do.
Research shows that we live in an increasingly individualistic world. With more focus on the career outcomes—individual outcomes—for college graduates, how do colleges and universities better instill in students the idea and value of a common good?
We need to stop thinking of our lives and our accomplishments as solely derived from our own efforts and look at the broader social context and structures that enabled us to achieve what we’ve achieved and to give back to the communities from which we have benefited.
The move away from the notion of higher education as a public good to a private commodity coincided with Ronald Reagan’s governorship of California, when he said that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for basically frivolous intellectual pursuits that are taking place in colleges and universities. But what we are doing on college campuses is essential for tackling the unscripted problems of the future—the wicked problems around climate change, around food and shelter insecurity, around war, and around diseases like COVID-19.
We need to demonstrate how the teaching and scholarship that’s taking place in college classrooms affects the individual interests of people in our communities. I was struck during the 2020 presidential election by how many people don’t understand that COVID-19 research, cancer research, and treatments for asthma and other diseases that affect their loved ones all take place on college and university campuses. So many people think, “Well, that takes place in some medical center,” but they don’t realize the contributions of academics to those endeavors. They don’t realize what it is that we do that helps them in their communities. But that’s not their fault. We haven’t effectively communicated the impact of our work on society. We need to reinsert a narrative that demonstrates the value of what we do.
With the pandemic, extreme political divides, the urgent need to address racial and social justice, a not-that-distant attack on the US Capitol, attacks on democracy, climate change, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and more, our current times feel quite grim. In thinking about liberal education and the role of colleges and universities, what hope can you leave our readers with?
For me, the biggest challenge facing higher education is a growing economic and racial segregation. We must ensure that everybody has equitable access to higher education and, once on campus, has the opportunity to participate in the high-impact practices that we know will help them thrive in work, citizenship, and life. I am confident that liberal education is key to addressing the societal issues that we’re facing now.
Liberal education, delivered at institutions of all types, empowers students to become innovators in their own lives and fosters the skills and competencies necessary for addressing the grand challenges of the future. It is an education that contributes to both economic empowerment and to the strength of democracy. But the work of making the traditions of a liberal education accessible to everyone requires ongoing vigilance and attention if we are to avoid what Thomas Jefferson termed an unnatural aristocracy and instead fulfill the promise of US higher education by preparing all students for work, citizenship, and life.
Lead photo: Lynn Pasquerella at AAC&U's 2020 annual meeting. (Mike Ferguson)