Magazine President's Note

Our Shared Future

Why a liberal education is one of the best investments society can make

By Lynn Pasquerella

Spring 2024

At the beginning of April, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) joined with Interfaith America to convene campus leaders from across the country for a discussion on “Advancing Campus Pluralism: Bridgebuilding across Difference.” Since 2018, AAC&U and Interfaith America have been partners in pluralism, championing our shared objectives around promoting institutional transformation through the building of relationships among diverse communities. We seek to cultivate respect in ways that move beyond merely tolerating differences and instead extend to active engagement with other viewpoints as a means of fostering dialogue and mutual understanding. From its inception, our partnership has been grounded in a common commitment to interfaith cooperation as a learning goal and practice on college and university campuses. Of course, our work has taken on a new sense of urgency given this pivotal moment for higher education and democracy.

Among the pressing issues addressed during the plenaries and concurrent sessions at the gathering was the question of how to create a culture of pluralism while supporting the unique needs of our students. Also discussed were the challenges for presidents committed to demonstrating pluralism in times of both calm and crisis. I had the honor of moderating the final panel of the day, on positioning universities as models of pluralism, with Andrew Delbanco from the Teagle Foundation, Michael Murray from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Mariko Silver from the Henry Luce Foundation, and Jenn Hoos Rothberg from the Einhorn Collaborative. Every one of the panelists had me on the edge of my seat with their comments. I was particularly struck by a story Rothberg told about how her organization’s founder and trustee, David Einhorn, responded to the turmoil at his alma mater following the October 2023 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.

Like many other campuses, Cornell University has experienced protests, antisemitic incidents, and fear among Jewish and Muslim students alike since the initial assault and ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. In a November 2023 open letter to the Cornell community, published in the Cornell Daily Sun, Einhorn, whose parents and two daughters are also alumni, suggests that rather than disengage in anger and withdraw support for the university, the current situation calls for even deeper engagement. He reminds readers of the university founder’s powerful mission to create “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” and highlights Ezra Cornell’s belief that excellence in liberal education entails making use of the knowledge and character one gains throughout college “to do the greatest good.” Einhorn appeals to his fellow Cornellians to uphold the university’s founding principles by striving “to honor our shared humanity; to build communities of belonging where every student feels safe and welcomed; to encourage and promote free expression, exchange and engagement of diverse ideas; and to bring about positive social change through acts of service.”

Einhorn is convinced that these values continue to be enacted in the classroom and beyond, citing a visit last year to Cornell during which he witnessed productive dialogue across difference, peaceful protests, and vigils drawing together people from all backgrounds. He laments the media’s obsession with sensationalized reports of intolerance by students, faculty, administrators, and campus security and the way news outlets present these accounts, instead of the kinds of daily acts of unity he observed, as the norm. In the end, Einhorn offers practical advice for scaling campus pluralism through a framework in which individuals take responsibility for their words and actions and seek to learn about and understand the legacies of discriminatory language and rhetoric. To be successful, however, campus leaders must implement and widely and effectively communicate policies preventing harassment and discrimination. Einhorn’s guidance centers on promoting empathy that arises from a desire to learn from different perspectives, the ability to articulate opposing points of view, and a willingness to change one’s mind. Most important, he invites exercising moral courage and empathy by “stand[ing] firm in your beliefs without vilifying someone you deeply disagree with” and by building networks of care and support for oneself and others.

Einhorn’s words capture AAC&U’s conviction that liberal education by its very nature is pluralistic, involving an intellectual commitment and social responsibility that, when fulfilled, constitutes society’s best investment in our shared future. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about the initiatives Einhorn is inspiring. I am equally grateful to have heard from colleagues at foundations, colleges, and universities throughout the nation about their own work aimed at strengthening higher education and democracy through pluralism.

Illustration by Paul Spella

Author

  • Lynn Pasquerella

    Lynn Pasquerella

    Lynn Pasquerella is the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Share