OP-ED | UConn Must Step Up As Discourse Deteriorates
The dust-up at the University of Connecticut last week involving Lucian Wintrich, the White House correspondent for the right-wing Gateway Pundit, was not UConn’s brightest moment.
In case you somehow missed it, chaos ensued when the UConn College Republicans invited Wintrich to deliver a speech titled, “It Is OK To Be White.”
While Wintrich spoke amid boisterous dissent, a woman grabbed his notes off the podium. The Hartford Courant reported that Wintrich followed the woman into the crowd where “police said he grabbed [her], ‘pulling her back in a violent manner,’ and caused a significant disruption to the event with his ‘tumultuous behavior’.”
Wintrich was charged with breach of peace, the story went national, and the University of Connecticut went into damage-control mode.
Whereas Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stood by the school, “about 200 members of the UConn community marched on campus” to protest the university’s delayed response. Wintrich, meanwhile, said the event showed how “the leftist media is turning Americans against each other.”
These are not exactly salad days for colleges and universities. The new state budget, for instance, cuts payments to the University of Connecticut and the UConn Health Center by $143 million over the next two years.
Nationally, the House Republican tax plan regards graduate-student tuition waivers as “taxable income, dramatically increasing what they owe in taxes each year,” according to Time magazine. “University leaders have warned that it would have a ‘devastating impact’ on graduate students and higher education more broadly, pricing out many students and limiting U.S. competitiveness.”
Advocates of higher education, it seems, are few and far between amidst Trumpian populism.
“Why does a kid go to a major university these days? A lot of Republicans would say they go there to get brainwashed and learn how to become activists and basically go out in the world and cause trouble.”
So says Frank Antenori, 51, a former Green Beret and Arizona state legislator, profiled recently by The Washington Post, as a spokesman for the “increasingly vocal campaign to transform higher education in America. Though U.S. universities are envied around the world, he and other conservatives want to reduce the flow of government cash to what they see as elitist, politically correct institutions that often fail to provide practical skills for the job market.”
Conservative criticism of “elitists” is nothing new. In 1952, Vice President Richard Nixon called the intellectual Democratic candidate for president Adlai Stevenson an “egghead.” Vice President Spiro Agnew was similarly dismissive of academia, saying in 1969, “A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
And then there was Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, castigating Barack Obama in 2012: “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”
So what’s an institution like UConn to do in such anti-intellectual times?
Its mission must evolve, for one. The economy and the workplace are shifting drastically. To remain viable, colleges must be “alert to how the global competitive environment has changed,” UConn’s Fred Carstensen of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis told me last summer. In particular, UConn must work with the state to develop both a “high-end IT infrastructure” and the programs of study to accompany it.
But even as UConn adjusts its technical mission, it must sharpen its focus on providing a liberal education that “helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”
UConn might have flubbed its handling of Lucian Wintrich’s controversial address, but it must continue to offer opportunities for wide-ranging discourse. Now more than ever, students need to learn how to interact intelligently and constructively with political agitators like Wintrich.
Call it elitist, if you’d like. I’d simply call it using your brain.
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