“Free and Brave:” Defending Universities and the Rule of Truth

Drew Gilpin Faust

What is a university? We have been taking its existence and its essence for granted, even as attacks on its character and purposes have over several decades steadily, if gradually, mounted. I spoke about rising criticism of universities more than a decade and a half ago in my inaugural address as president in 2007. But the acceleration of these attacks is no longer slow.  It is deliberate and it is determined, and it is now enlisting many whom we had come to think of as staunch allies.  The upheavals of this past academic year arising from the tragic situation in the Middle East have provided the occasion for those already hostile to the culture of American higher education to escalate their criticisms.  The polarizations of race, religion, and politics that grip our country have in recent months focused unceasingly on universities.  One might even suggest that universities have become a primary symbol for these larger divisions, as well as the theatre in which they are being acted out.    But this is not just theatre; it represents a genuine and existential threat to the foundational assumptions that have long governed American higher education.   

We should from the outset understand what is at stake. American higher education has since at least the 1940s been preeminent in the world.  It has often been described as our country’s most successful “industry.”  In the 2024 [London]Times Higher Education World University Rankings, seven out of the top ten institutions named were in the United States; thirteen out of the top twenty. University research discoveries have been central to American prosperity; its graduates have led the most important institutions of our government, economy, society and culture.  At this moment we are sitting in the center of the biotech capital of the world—a place that will bring health and longer lives to people across the planet.  It is here because universities are here.  Why are people working so hard to denigrate and destroy them?