Public Service and Risks to Public Institutions

September, 2017

Lincoln -- Three commendable public service undertakings highlight the early fall calendars of colleges and universities in Lincoln, Nebraska:

• Union College sent two dozen students to assist victims of Hurrican Harvey in Texas. Half were nursing students, the other half students in Union College's International Rescue and Relief program. (I'm not aware of any other such college program in the state.)

• Nebraska Wesleyan University presented its annual Visions & Ventures Symposium with best-selling authors Byran Stephenson and J.D. Vance. They addressed the origins of fear and anxiety that have become part of our contemporary discouse. The symposium ran two days and was open to the public.

• At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Colleges of Business, Law, and Journalism are hosting "Truth Be Told: Reflections of Whistleblowers." Richard Bowen of Citibank and Walt Tamosaitis of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation will discuss their whistleblowing experiences on September 20th at the Lied Auditorium. (Full disclosure: I am a supporter of this and similar ethics events at universities.)

Of course this is only a small sampling of the public service work performed continually by these three institutions, one of which organizationally is under the control of elected officials and two are independent non-profits.

But such works in the public interest – often bringing attention to divergent opinions – should not be taken for granted. Unfortunately, these good news stories were overshadowed this week by a contretemps at UNL over free speech. A student provocateur exercising her speech in an outdoor forum was confronted by a faculty lecturer exercising hers. It was caught on video and elicited a "troll storm" directed at NU officials.* At least two Regents forwarded intemperate and threatening messages to multiple parties, amplifying the storm. Several state legislators could not resist offering to cut the NU budget in response to the dust-up.

Which brings up a subject I have discussed here before: the susceptibility of Regents and others with control over the University to the demands of mob behavior. In World War I, Nebraska Regents targeted and removed faculty for teaching the German language; in the 1960s, Regents demanded faculty support for the Vietnam war. Of course the most notorious example of maladministration of higher education by public officials was the Nazi takeover of German universities in the 1930s. The lesson: don't count on public institutions to be constant defenders and bastions of our freedoms. Public institutions can be fragile. "It Can't Happen Here" you say? But perhaps it can, and we are witnessing it.

While it is important for public officials to defend even unpopular free speech and to resist the shouts of the mob, it is also prudent public policy over the long haul to encourage faculty engagement and public service programs at both public and independent non-profit institutions, like those noted above, so as not to put all liberty's eggs in one basket.

* One person sent an email full of nonsense and vulgarity; he identified himself as a retired naval officer. Perhaps he is but, being one myself, I wonder how he escaped instruction on how to be an officer and a gentleman. Square yourself away, whoever you are, and stop being an embarassment to the Navy.