One can hardly pick up a newspaper or read a newsletter in the last year where there is not an article about some kind of assault on the workings and integrity of higher education.  

For all my years in this field, I have not seen so many controversies about how higher education is delivered and the policies and practices that guide administrative and faculty actions. I am old enough to remember the student uprisings of the 1960’s and the early 1970’s that focused on the war in Vietnam and the push for students to have a voice on campus matters. I remember the beginning of the conversations about the value of tenure and the belief that such a system was unsustainable in universities – which was particularly disturbing for me because at that time I was in the process of working my way to a tenured-faculty position.  

I recall the controversies around faculty governance and the challenges we faced in implementing a system that gave faculty a voice in things they rightly were responsible for. Perhaps I am looking at this through a lens of history, but they seemed to come in sequence and as one issue waned, another issue took its place. Today, they seem to be coming at a much faster pace, with each having a significant effect on how we think of colleges and universities and their role and responsibilities within society.  

The other significant difference in my view is that previous threats were mostly between faculty and administration or students and faculty. It was unusual for politicians to get involved in the work of the state’s public universities. But today’s challenges are largely regulatory, legislative, or legal from external sources and designed to dictate the ways colleges and universities do their work.  

For the purpose of this column, I will explore the issues of affirmative action in admissions decisions and the erosion of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at state universities. These are just two of the challenges that could have a significant impact on how academic programs fulfill their mission of being an institution for the public good. Other issues include the challenge to free speech on campus, the erosion of academic freedom in the classroom, the dismantling of tenure, and the censorship of educational materials.    

Several years ago, race-conscience admission was challenged by a group called the Students for Fair Admissions. They sued Harvard University, then the University of North Carolina, contending that the schools’ admissions approach violates constitutional protections and federal law and wanted the court to prohibit admissions offices from considering an applicant’s race. Universities believe that using race as one of several admission criteria results in a diverse student body which benefits the educational experience for all students. This case was considered by the Supreme Court last fall; a final decision is expected this summer.  

Both universities have said they cannot build a diverse class without the consideration of race in their admission decisions. Without the opportunity to explore diverse points of view, ask difficult questions of each other, challenge each other’s perspective, and explore unknown perspectives, the core of what an academic institution is supposed to provide its students and faculty is eroded.

The push for the elimination of diversity, equity, and inclusion content has gone so far as to require some state schools to dismantle and eliminate their DEI office. Unlike the race-conscious admission issue which will set a legal precedent, these actions are quite political.  Conservative state legislatures are working to ban diversity statements in hiring – some states already have – as well as all spending on DEI educational activities and programs. States have tied state funding to the elimination of DEI activities that support social justice work, discussions about systemic racism and oppression, and any trainings related to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.    

So, where does IHP stand?  We are strongly opposed to political, legislative, or legal intrusion into how colleges and universities are run. Without the autonomy to make the decisions that support the exchange of free ideas and intellectual curiosity, the ability to create an environment that supports the core ideals of higher education is lost. We support creating a diverse community of faculty, staff, and students by making policy decisions needed to accomplish this goal. Diversity of experience, background, and thought makes us a richer community. We believe our continuing conversations about race, sexuality, and the historic inequities in health care make us better clinicians and more thoughtful human beings. It’s a mission we commit to in our collective journey of self-development and reflection in leadership and practice.    

I close by recognizing that March is National Women’s History Month. Most of our health professions programs are largely populated by women and have a rich history of women leaders who have driven them forward. I hope you take a moment to honor the many women who have changed the world for all and those in our professions who have created the rich disciplines we know today.   

I wish you all a wonderful spring,