Magazine: The university in an era of populism

Opinion by Michael Gioia
Jan. 15, 2017, 2:06 a.m.

The American presidential election in 2016 will long remain an object of perplexity, to put it mildly, and the course of recent events here remains just a part of a global, political whirlwind. The news media reminds us of this regularly — from Brexit to Duterte to Marine Le Pen, votes and personalities have succeeded in cracking open long-frozen norms and assumptions. This narrative is hardly new, but it bears tremendous implications for both academic communities and the broader role of the scholar in society.

As many have observed, the 2016 presidential campaign has developed a frightening chapter in political discourse; indeed, the power of emotional appeal over fact in politics has grown so noticeable that the Oxford English Dictionary selected “post-truth” as 2016’s “word of the year.” And while popular attention often focuses on glaring factual inaccuracies, fake news or Trump’s tirades towards the media, I fear these are merely symptoms of a broader shift in attitude. Specifically, as others have already written, and as witnessed both through political rhetoric and polling, the populism that has fueled recent electoral victories centers on a marked distrust of “experts.”

This should alarm anyone who believes in the importance of research and thoughtful debate in setting policy. Alas, recent post-election events on both sides of the Atlantic seem to only confirm the anti-expert tendencies of contemporary populism. Whatever you make of Trump’s cabinet picks, it is clear that top universities will see less of their faculties joining the helm of the executive branch than has previously been the case. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Michael Gove, a prominent Brexiteer, has frequently criticized “expert” economists who have written on the costs of leaving the EU. And in an effort to win over populist voters from Marine Le Pen, French presidential candidate Francois Fillon attacked the “tiny microcosm who think they know everything.”

To see whom these populists are deriding, scholars at Stanford need only look in the mirror. Of course, it comes as no surprise that an academic elite and contemporary populism would not see eye to eye. But as this anti-expert populism rises, the troubled relationship between the academy and ascendant political forces puts much on the line, from government funding for universities to the role of research in politics. Whether we like it or not, the academy and its scholars are encountering an increasingly skeptical public, and it is now incumbent on universities to chart a new path through these surprisingly stormy waters.


All this leads to the question of why elements of society has grown so hostile to higher education in the first place. Certainly, much of this relates to a broader hostility towards elites, a phenomenon too big to be unpacked in this column. But I think the divide between the academy and populist society remains more complex than a simple disdain for the ruling class.

Stanford and its peer institutions often exist in their own world, blissfully removed from the thoughts and concerns of the rest of the country. While countless Americans in “flyover country” cannot count on the continued economic viability of their communities, Stanford students plot to build the next great startup and celebrate landing high-paying jobs at top tech and financial firms. And the faculty travel in equally rarefied circles — after graduating from prestigious peer institutions, those professors who succeed in earning tenured positions enjoy a life of inquiry in sunny Palo Alto often punctuated by close ties with America’s political, business and cultural elite.

A more intangible, cultural divide exists as well. To begin with, so few Stanford students and faculty come from the middle-American communities that unleashed the current wave of populism. Campus activists regularly deride these communities or their cultural structures as oppressive, sometimes based on minimal contact with individuals from these areas. Many on campuses across the country have proclaimed their disdain for the white working class, especially after it voted for Trump, thoroughly othering a large segment of this country’s population. With such diverging views, the connection between populist and academic worlds seems elusive.

At the same time, the academy has all too often withdrawn into itself. For various reasons, the once celebrated figure of the public intellectual has faded away. Dry academic writing limits the consumption of scholarship to a handful of other scholars. And with the institutional pressures to publish, attend conferences, serve on university committees and then teach, academics have little time left for more public-facing pursuits. As a result, scholarly debate has developed entirely apart from society, with minimal points of access for non-academics.

While I have focused on issues specific to Stanford or the United States, the scope of this situation spans borders and oceans. And under these circumstances, it is no grand wonder that voters feel so removed from the communities of experts at prestigious institutions across the country: However accomplished and well-intentioned, these scholars reside in an entirely different world from the rest of society — economically, politically and culturally.

So is this truly a problem? And if so, where do we go from here?


I can’t help but worry over the future of the university in this populist age. The divide between academia and populist society cannot be dismissed, and populists are increasingly holding very real power. Not only does scholarly research risk losing the respect of a skeptical public; there remains a real possibility that federal grants for research and education could suffer under a populist administration, especially with perennial calls to trim Washington’s bloated budget. Even before Inauguration Day, funding for climate change research has already come under attack.

Society needs universities now more than ever. If we feel that recent political campaigns and events point to the presence of mistrust, poor civic education or a deficit of empathy in society, then we should respond by bolstering universities. To start, higher education equips a citizenry with tools to make political decisions, understand their systems of government and sort out truth from fiction. Scholarly research, free from the fingerprints of political parties and interest groups, can help avert dangerous policy proposals. And the broader intellectual community and debate fostered on campuses can put political leaders in contact with everyday citizens — whether by bringing prominent speakers to public events or connecting accomplished faculty with community members, universities can break down the perceived wall separating elites from the rest of society.

But to do these things, academia needs broader public trust and public recognition. To start, universities must reinforce the importance of political, intellectual and ideological diversity. Studies have shown tremendous imbalance of political views among the faculty at Stanford and peer institutions, with some departments in the social sciences having upwards of 30 registered Democrat professors without a single registered Republican. This imbalance leads to perceptions of bias, both from within and outside the academy.

If one-half of the country cannot see scholars sympathetic to their intellectual tradition, it’s not hard to imagine why they would proceed to generally distrust the American academic establishment. Of course, universities should not go about simply hiring new faculty because they are conservative. But a greater institutional respect for intellectual diversity should be in order. A recent task force formed at Harvard to promote diversity on campus will include a focus on political diversity, setting a good example for other institutions. And at the same time, universities should reinforce their commitment to economic, ethnic and geographic diversity — all too often, residents in rural and low-income areas see no pathway to study at America’s elite institutions, let alone to join their ranks of faculty. For anti-elite populists to better appreciate the work of America’s scholars, it would be helpful to see that some of those maligned “experts” come from communities and backgrounds just like their own.

Additionally, academia must promote more public-facing activity among its faculties. While much of the American populace may feel little connection with scholarly discourse, the academic life of Stanford and other universities boasts profound relevance for all of society. Research in medicine improves the lives of countless patients; studies in the social sciences help us make our political and economic systems more efficient and equitable; humanistic inquiry gives us the tools to make sense of the struggles and triumphs that mark every individual’s inner life. The professional schools help us train better teachers for our children and managers for our workplaces.

These accomplishments are wonderful achievements for society, and universities and their faculty should share them. Whether by writing books for the reading public, discussing their research on cable news and documentaries, or contributing to popular newspapers and journals, professors should not be afraid to participate in our public discourse and share their research. Some professors already do so, by writing for The New Yorker, consulting with Smithsonian museums or appearing on The Daily Show, and this sets an excellent example.


Its outcome aside, the 2016 election witnessed a nadir in the caliber of American civil discourse during the course of the campaign, which seems unlikely to improve anytime soon. Certainly, all sides can agree that public discussion should amount to more than tantrums and ad-hominem attacks. Now more than ever, society needs an academic grounding to its conversations.

Moving our discussions forward will require the participation of the academy. Universities need to pry open their gates to exchange with the outside world, but that starts with rethinking how we conduct our academic life within.


Contact Michael Gioia at mgioia2 ‘at’

Michael Gioia was Managing Editor of Opinions from Vol. 250-251; he also previously led the News division. He is from Plano, Texas and studied History and Modern Languages at Stanford. When Michael is not working for The Daily, he can generally be found reading or drinking coffee.

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