Tearing down the ivory tower
Brian Sass stood behind a glass case containing about 40 small handguns, a “Hillary for Prison” sign plastered above him and a pistol holstered to his side. He was reluctant to talk to the News, until he heard the topic: what he thought of Ivy League universities like Yale.
His gruff voice reverberated throughout the small room, and his eyes, once scrunched up with suspicion, opened wide with excitement behind his glasses.
“Universities are degrading America and the Constitution,” he said.
Sass, a middle-aged white man wearing a baseball cap and blue jeans, had 90 credit hours when he dropped out of Hocking College, a technical school in southeast Ohio. College was too expensive, he said, and he did not think he would benefit from finishing the degree program.
Sass’ gun store is nestled between a pawn shop and small law firm on the main street of Circleville, a city in central Ohio with a population of just under 14,000 people. Framed by sprawling fields of dark green soybeans, stalks of corn and the occasional barn, the county seat of Pickaway County — which Donald Trump won by double digits in the 2016 presidential election — feels more like a small town than a city.
Asked whether high schoolers in Circleville apply to schools like Harvard or Yale, Sass chuckled and shook his head — the majority of the city’s residents could never afford to attend a place like Yale. The eight other Circleville residents interviewed for this article all agreed.
“If your daddy’s not rich or a politician, you don’t have a chance at going to an Ivy League school,” Sass said matter-of-factly. His colleague behind the register nodded in agreement.
A month later, sitting at a table in the Davenport College common room, Sam Chauncey ’57 discussed the history of higher education in the U.S. since World War II.
The black baby grand piano next to the table shone as it reflected the light streaming in through the colonial-style windows from the courtyard. A large blue rug, with an intricate red floral pattern, covered much of the hardwood floor, and on the white walls hung watercolor paintings of iconic buildings on campus.
Chauncey, a longtime Yale administrator and assistant to former Yale President Kingman Brewster, had spent a great deal of his professional life within the walls of Yale. Even after retirement, he has remained on campus as an advisor.
Asked to respond to the Circleville residents, Chauncey said people from poorer, more rural areas tend to mistakenly see elite universities as inaccessible and, as a result, “undesirable.”
“If I tell you about some beautiful island in the Caribbean where you couldn’t possibly afford to go, you’re going to poo poo it,” he said.
The stark contrast between Sass’ gun shop and the Davenport common room — and between Sass’ and Chauncey’s interpretations of that divide — speaks to a broader rift between small-town, Republican-leaning America and the nation’s institutes of higher learning.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, as of 2017, 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents believe that colleges and universities have a negative effect, while just 36 percent say their effect is positive. Just two years earlier in 2015, those numbers were reversed — 54 percent of Republicans said colleges have a positive effect on “the way things are going in the country,” while only 37 percent said their effect was negative.
With the belief in the value of higher education fast eroding among many Americans, Yale must ask itself: Have universities lost the public’s trust? And, if so, how can they regain it?
How we got here
Support for higher education was not always a partisan issue. Before World War II, relatively few people went to college. But that all changed with the passing of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill. Intended to help veterans of World War II, the bill granted stipends covering college or trade school tuition and expenses for the over 7 million veterans returning from overseas.
By 1947, almost 49 percent of college admits were veterans. According to Chauncey, the GI Bill inspired the growth of “a strong societal belief in higher education as essential for the good life.” Going to college became a “national thing” and higher education a national topic. Higher education during this time evolved and developed into a system, with community colleges at the lower level and the “great research university” at the top.
Presidents of major research universities like Yale, Harvard, University of California, Berkeley and Notre Dame became well-known names throughout the country — national leaders whom presidents of the United States “would die” to have in their cabinets. When University presidents gave a speech, which happened often in those days, political leaders and everyday Americans alike listened. According to Chauncey, every time a national commission was ordered in a time of unrest, a few University presidents would serve as members.
Because of university presidents’ social capital, it was hard for politicians to attack universities. When U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy went after so-called “Communist” academics in higher education during the Red Scare of the 1950s, the presidents of Harvard and Yale helped “kill” McCarthy’s career by speaking out against his actions, Chauncey said.
However, in the mid-’60s, the tide turned, as sometimes violent campus protests broke out across the country opposing the Vietnam War.
American Studies professor and Chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate Matthew Jacobson dates the rise of anti-university sentiment back to the launch of Ronald Reagan’s national political career in 1966, during which Reagan attacked the “spoiled, disrespectful” students of UC Berkeley, their “radical, permissive” professors and the university itself as a parasitic institution. Chauncey cited the election of former U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1968 as the turning point. According to Chauncey, Nixon “hated” the great research universities, and his insecurities about his own intellect manifested themselves in verbal attacks on elite institutions.
Although they date back to the 1960s, the efforts to discredit the university picked up steam in the 1980s, Jacobson said, as conservatives began to opt out of the university system and create “parallel” conservative think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, from which they attacked the “liberal university.”
More recent attacks on universities throughout the past two decades, Jacobson said, have framed institutions “as bastions of elite privilege and misguided liberalism,” as conservatives accused liberal college students and professors of suppressing ideological diversity and free speech in the face of campus protests.
Yale became a flashpoint for liberal campus protests in 2015 after former lecturer and assistant head of Silliman College Erika Christakis wrote an email questioning whether backlash against provocative Halloween costumes might have a negative effect on campus culture. Christakis’ email, as well as reports of a “white girls only” fraternity party on Yale’s campus, ultimately led to widespread protests against racial insensitivity by Yale students.
Among students’ demands were the renaming of Calhoun College — which bore the name of Yale class of 1804 alumnus, former South Carolina senator and fervent proponent of slavery John C. Calhoun — and the eradication of the title master, which described the faculty leader of a given residential college. Both these demands were met — after several years of protests.
Political science professor Steven Smith, whose research focuses on the history of political philosophy, said that the “fracas” over the renaming of Calhoun College and the title master severely damaged Yale’s reputation, ultimately adding fuel to the already fierce attack on academia. Though Smith was not personally against the renaming of Calhoun, he told the News that the controversy surrounding the question of renaming “made the University seem weak.”
The Halloween incident of 2015 sparked discussions on how to make the Yale faculty and student body more inclusive. But while members of the Yale community started talking about increasing the ethnic and gender diversity of its faculty, conservatives advocated for greater ideological diversity on college campuses.
The demand for more conservative professors stems from the commonly held belief that universities and the faculty members who work at them are predominantly liberal in their political beliefs. A nationwide study published last year in the electronic journal Econ Journal Watch found that Democratic professors outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 12 to 1.
Frederick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told the News that universities deserve the increasing animosity coming their way. According to Hess, universities’ “ideologically homogeneous” faculties fail to engage respectfully with those who disagree with them, creating stifling environments for students who do not share the worldviews of universities like Yale.
“A place like Yale should be interested in ensuring that its faculty and doctoral students represent a rich and diverse set of experiences,” Hess said. “These ongoing campus debates create renewed energy in making sure everyone feels they belong, that everyone feels heard and that everybody feels safe, and those are all healthy things. But everybody feeling safe does not mean everyone feeling safe or everyone feeling heard as long as they agree with progressive political priorities.”
“Snotty kids in higher classes”
Unlike several other Circleville residents, a middle school principal, who asked for anonymity for privacy reasons, agreed to an interview without hesitation. With a hot pink workout zip-up and a neatly banded blonde ponytail, she gave off an aura of confidence.
“I was the first person in my family to go to college. My parents made it very clear from a young age that it was an expectation that I would go further in school than they did, so academics were always the primary concern in our household,” she said as she sipped her latte.
The middle school principal voted for Trump in 2016. But not once in her interview with the News did she specifically criticize the liberal nature of universities. In fact, the only time she mentioned it was at the very end of the interview when asked whether the Ivy League’s reputation as liberal dissuaded Circleville students from applying.
And she wasn’t alone. Only two out of the nine Circleville residents interviewed identified the liberal nature of universities as the primary cause of the rise of negative attitudes towards higher education. Instead, the majority of those interviewed said that economics, not politics, is driving the wedge between universities and communities like theirs.
“Economically, there’s been a shift that’s made it undesirable to have a college degree or even an advanced degree because it’s not creating a sustainable workforce,” the middle school principal said.
Politicians echo this sentiment. For example, during the 2016 Republican presidential debate, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla, argued for more welders and “less philosophers,” since, according to Rubio, welders make more money than philosophers.
Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, of which Yale is a member, said that many are beginning to lose faith in the notion that a college degree “will help you live a better life than your parents,” which she called a “decoupling of higher education from the American dream.”
Perhaps the rhetoric surrounding the depreciation of a college degree has gained traction in recent years because statistically, adults are far less likely now to live lives better than those of their parents, irrespective of education levels.
According to a study at UC Berkeley by professor Raj Chetty, the American dream is fading. Rates of absolute mobility — the percentage of children earning more money than their parents — have fallen from approximately 90 percent for children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s. Though the trend has occurred across the entire income distribution, the largest declines are observed in middle class families. The industrial Midwest is being hit particularly hard by this trend. In Ohio, for instance, the percentage of children who earn more than their parents dropped 45 points from the 1940s to the 1980s.
But statistics show that, on average, a college degree helps promote higher-paying careers.
The Pew Research Center found that millennial college graduates ages 25 to 32 who are working full time earn more annually — about $17,500 more — than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma, a pay gap that was significantly smaller in previous generations. College-educated millennials are also significantly less likely to be unemployed — 3.8 percent versus 12.2 percent.
Still, for many Circleville residents, access to the Ivy League’s “ivory tower” and the financial promise it represents seems out of reach. Only 15 percent of Circleville residents over the age of 25 have bachelor’s degrees, compared to a national average of 33 percent.
Circleville resident Crisha Webber said that Ivy League schools are reserved for “snotty kids in higher classes.” And Jim Mason, whose Circleville furniture store has been in the family for more than 100 years, said families from Circleville cannot afford to send their children to places like Yale.
“A lot of people here are more frugal and don’t want to waste $50,000 on an Ivy League school,” he said.
Lauren Esteph, who manages a family-owned bookstore, considered going to college to cultivate her skills in writing. But it ultimately did not seem like “the right decision.”
“Cost was one of the things that made me question it because if I wasn’t set or had my heart set on this thing I wanted. If I wasn’t going to use it, then it kind of scared me a little bit,” Esteph said. “I probably could have gotten a scholarship or grant or something, but am I going to be wasting all these resources and say my writing never goes anywhere? That’s gonna be a lot of money. I’m gonna be paying it off all the rest of my life.”
Yale has expanded outreach and financial aid over the past decade to students from lower-income households. With a median family income of about $40,000, the majority of Circleville households would pay nothing for a Yale education, since any family that makes under $65,000 per year qualifies for full financial aid — or a $0 expected parental contribution.
Still, the “higher class” students greatly outnumber those of lower socio-economic status. At Yale, 16.3 percent of students come from the bottom 60 percent of the income scale, while 18.7 percent of Yale students come from the top 1 percent.
“[Ivy League universities] need to get out of their big bubble and come down and see places like Circleville,” Webber said.
To Sass, who believes that universities are “liberal breeding grounds” where students are not taught to think for themselves but instead to swallow blindly whatever their professors teach them, recruitment of a more ideologically diverse set of professors is essential if higher education institutions want to regain the trust and respect of the American people.
However, to Executive Director of the Pickaway County Visitor’s Bureau and Circleville resident Tim Wilson, the importance of bringing more conservative voices into the university community does not stem from a concern about the “attack on free speech” or the “liberal breeding ground” that universities have allegedly become. Rather, it comes from his desire to lessen the distance between the liberal “ivory towers” of universities like Yale and conservative middle America.
“There’s always going to be a struggle between the liberals and conservatives in what direction we want the country to head in,” he said. “I suppose some of it comes from a lack of understanding and lack of communication between the groups. The more you put people with different opinions together, the more they work it out.”
To the majority of Circleville residents interviewed, the task of closing this divide falls on the next generation. They believe elite universities like Yale should be doing more to recruit students from smaller towns and conservative areas like Circleville.
The middle school principal said that schools in smaller communities often get overlooked even though they have “a great potential pool.”
Mason believes schools like Yale do not merely overlook applicants from small conservative towns. Rather, these institutions are so contemptuous of the way of life in rural, conservative America that they deliberately do not accept students from these areas.
“If I write it in red ink or if I write in blue ink, does that make a difference?” he said. “Are they going to turn me down because I’m from Corn Country, Ohio? I think they probably would.”
Whose problem to fix?
For the past 20 years, molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Valerie Horsley has dreamed of returning to her grandmother’s church and talking to the congregation about the flu vaccine. Most of the attendants get a flu vaccine every year, since flu viruses evolve. But the churchgoers do not believe in evolution, she said.
Now, Horsley is speaking to large crowds about the value and validity of science to the economy and to personal well-being. But none of those groups are the congregation at her grandmother’s church in the South, where she was born. Rather, she is courting the votes of fellow Democrats in a primary election for the 17th district seat in Connecticut State Senate this August.
Horsley said she does not believe greater communication on the part of universities about their value to society would do anything to mitigate the current partisan attack of academia. She sees the assault as “an orchestrated platform” in the Republican Party to promote the “uneducation of America” and to build a base that “hates the elites.”
“The GOP doesn’t want any science. They don’t want education. They just want the wealthy 1 percent to have the wealth,” Horsley said. “It’s not really knowing that research would change their mind about the value of the university.”
For Horsley and some professors and administrators interviewed, blame for the rise in negative attitudes towards higher education lies with the Republican Party and the Trump administration. But others acknowledge that the fact that Circleville residents and others throughout the country considers universities inaccessible, distant and elitist represents a real problem that Yale and its peers have a responsibility to address.
Pasquerella said the academy as an institution has for too long been complicit in creating the “ivory tower” — a place out of touch with the concerns of regular people and a “site of exclusion for many” — by rewarding “narrow, technical articles in peer reviewed journals” rather than the high-impact practices of professors in service to the broader community.
Still, Yale faculty members interviewed reached no broad consensus on how exactly to combat the perception of Yale and its peers as “ivory towers” or to identify tangible actions Yale should take.
Those interviewed were lukewarm about the Circleville residents’ suggestions that recruiting faculty members and students with more conservative views could help combat negative attitudes toward universities today.
Though Smith said he does not think Yale should hire people on the basis of their political commitments, he pressed the University to be more proactive in its recruitment of faculty members who prioritize the values of tradition, respect for history and patriotism over multiculturalism.
Jacobson, on the other hand, told the News that he doubted hiring more conservative professors would weaken antipathy toward academia, since the Republican Party’s disparagement of universities with language like “snowflakes,” “triggers,” “political correctness” and “attacks on free speech” bears no resemblance to his day-to-day observations about what actually happens on campus.
To Horsley, the tendency of professors to skew liberal is inevitable because, as academics, they go through a training program that forces them to interact more with diverse subsets of the population, which Horsley argued is “not part of the conservative platform.” She added that the University should hire professors based on their expertise, not their ideology.
Horsley, who was born in Alabama and grew up outside of Atlanta, said she knows from her own experience that students from the middle of the country do not want to go to universities in other parts of the country. Horsley went to college in South Carolina and never thought about applying to Yale or other East Coast schools.
“There’s lot of regionality about it,” she said. “It’s often a painting of the West and East coasts as being the problem and pitting the rest of the country against those two coasts to gain power.”
Higher education as a public good
Some professors and administrators suggested that the “ivory tower effect” can be mitigated by better communicating the value of the intellectual capital that universities produce through research.
The effects of this research are ubiquitous in the lives of everyday Americans. But most do not think about the way university research contributes to the economy, to democracy or to individual well-being when they think about institutions of higher education, according to Pasquerella. In fact, she said, they rarely think about research at all. None of the nine Circleville residents mentioned the research that universities produce when discussing attitudes toward universities.
“There are few problems our society has solved — medical problems, public health problems, military problems, technological problems, ethical problems, problems of production and distribution — that weren’t solved by someone trained in a university,” Jacobson said. “Every time you take a pill, thank a university. But most Americans don’t think about the production of knowledge this way at all, and we are partly to blame for not getting that word out.”
This is part of a broader shift away from the notion of higher education as “a public good” to viewing it as a “private commodity,” Pasquerella said. The public views universities as a place that confers degrees, which will eventually help them find employment, not a public good that benefits everyone in a community or in society as a whole.
According to Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication Anthony Leiserowitz, there are thousands of things universities like Yale can do to engage the local, state, national and global communities and fight that trend. They just need to make it a priority.
Some professors already have taken initiative to connect their work to the lives of everyday Americans.
If Horsley is elected state senator, she will be able to advocate for and promote higher education outside the gates of Yale. She said she hopes to promote scientific research and industries based in science — such as information technology, tech manufacturing and bioscience — as ways to effectively bolster the state’s economy.
While she believes serving in public office “is one of the major things I’m supposed to do in the world,” she noted that her colleagues find it difficult to prioritize outreach and communication because of their busy schedules.
“It’s really easy to hole yourself up in your office, your lab and your classroom all day and then go home,” Horsley said.
Jacobson’s efforts to break down the barriers of the “ivory tower” are more institutional in nature. Yale’s public humanities program, which he co-directs, works to promote museum exhibits, documentary films and digital humanities projects that expand humanities discourse to a wider range of local and regional institutions, as well as their respective publics.
“Our work should not be so cloistered, nor should we regard one another as our only audience, regardless of what field we’re in,” Jacobson said.
Fallible human beings
Although Horsley’s campaign for office and Jacobson’s public humanities program may help tear down the barriers the “ivory tower” creates, these initiatives are local and regional rather than national. They do not reach beyond the New England area to towns like Circleville in the heart of America, where much of the distrust and devaluation of universities originated.
Chauncey called for university presidents again to serve as national leaders and as the “primary spokespeople” on how institutions like Yale “serve the national interests.”
Today, university presidents are no longer “symbolic national leaders,” which Chauncey attributes to the fact that university trustees select presidents for their ability to manage the university internally and raise money rather than for their “innate leadership qualities.” He added that university presidents are so busy handling the administrative side of the university that they also simply might not have the time to give speeches or write opinion pieces.
But according to political science lecturer and West Virginia native Michael Fotos ’78, if universities hope to recapture the hearts and minds of the public, they must reach out directly to underserved populations in middle America, like the people of Circleville. It is essential, he said, that members of universities, administrators and professors alike, step outside the “blue bubble” in which everyone presumes that the “New York Times–Washington Post worldview is reasonable, just and universally valid.”
Expanding programs that give veterans the opportunity to attend institutions of higher education, such as Yale’s Eli Whitney Program, would be a good start, according to Fotos. These types of programs help Yale and its peers reach “an underserved but rich-in-intellectual-capacity group of students” and further engage with a diverse subset of the American population.
But these programs have not yet bridged the distance between Yale on the East Coast and rural communities like Circleville in the heart of the United States.
Inside the gun shop, Sass let out a long sigh, as he rested his elbows atop the glass display case of pistols. He had finished his fiery tirade against the “ivory tower” of Yale, and his eyes, once twinkling with excitement, betrayed newfound weariness.
Sass turned away, apparently lost in thought. But he raised his head to make one final comment.
“A lot of students and college professors see themselves as infallible,” he said. “They need to see themselves as fallible human beings.”
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org