The mob violence that erupted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was a deeply disturbing event many of us never thought we would see in our lifetimes. This grave flashpoint, coming amid the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed demands for racial justice, marked the culmination of volatile forces that have been building in an increasingly polarized America for years.
How did we get here? Unfortunately, the nation’s tumult is the result of a culture that has steadily devalued the rightful place of facts and reason.
Ideological echo chambers, fueled by social media and entrenched political dogmas, have combined to erode our traditional bulwarks of commonly accepted facts and standards of evidence. Without facts, we cannot have an informed and respectful dialogue about how to address the urgent needs and deep fissures in American society.
To counter these destructive forces, we must alter course immediately. Our universities may be the American institution best suited to intervene.
Now more than ever, universities have an obligation to become firm advocates for the restoration of reason, rationality and honesty into our national dialogue. This obligation directly follows from our mission.
We have an opportunity now to inject knowledge and intellectual rigor back into the fabric of our nation by forcefully demonstrating the values at the core of a university: the commitment to open discourse, listening to divergent points of view, and being open to changing one’s mind when new ideas and facts warrant it.
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This requires an environment where diverse perspectives, experiences and ideas inform and stimulate discussions and engagement.
This kind of productive interaction thrives in a climate of respect and civility. It requires an environment of inclusion and an openness to engaging in conversations that can be difficult and may challenge existing views. It requires the skills to argue forcefully for one’s position, but also the maturity to learn from others and to be persuaded by a better argument.
The need to bridge divides
In their statements and actions after the terrible events of Jan. 6, colleges and universities have begun to signal a renewed role in restoring civil society.
Such efforts are just one part of a larger position that universities have long held in society. Scientific research conducted at university labs, sometimes stretching back decades, has been critical in the unprecedented race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and advanced treatments.
In most U.S. cities and regions, universities serve as key partners for social and economic development, beyond their time-honored role as providers of a transformational education and path-breaking research.
At Vanderbilt University, we have explored how research institutions can help to heal our deep national divisions. Working closely with our faculty and national thought leaders from across the political spectrum, we recently launched the Vanderbilt Project for Unity and American Democracy.
Co-chaired by former Republican governor of Tennessee Bill Haslam, former White House Fellow and Vanderbilt research professor of law and political science Samar Ali, and Vanderbilt professor and presidential biographer Jon Meacham, the new endeavor aims to give policy makers and the public the tools needed to combat conspiracy and ideology with evidence, data and respectful discourse.
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Universities can unify communities
While some may cynically view universities as bastions of the elite, centers of learning historically have played a unifying role — not just in the United States, but in many societies around the world.
From the earliest colleges and university systems in Europe to land-grant and industrialist-endowed institutions in the United States, universities have embodied the spirit of innovation and social progress. The role of universities is, and always has been, that of conveners, creators and collaborators.
Almost 150 years ago, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Vanderbilt University’s founding endowment was made by a northern industrialist who wished to establish an academic institution in the heart of the South that would “contribute to strengthening the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country.”
We take seriously this responsibility to reconnect our leaders and institutions for the greater good.
No one harbors any illusion that projects like ours will be a panacea, but they offer a model for how leaders can come together across divisions to address complex challenges.
At this perilous juncture in American history, it is imperative that we harness the best parts of our academic missions to restore faith in one another and in our enduring democratic experiment.
Daniel Diermeier is chancellor of Vanderbilt University.