Universities should not be viewed as 'hired guns'

Posted: Sunday, February 08, 2009

The comments of Rep.'s Anna Fairclough, Mike Hawker and Mike Kelly, of the House Finance Committee, to University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, reported in the Feb. 5 story, "University faces hostile Legislators," would seem to suggest that university faculty, staff and students should, without question, support oil and mining industry development because revenues from these industries are a key source of revenue for the state and the university.

But a university is not a hired gun. It is a public trust. And whatever its revenue streams, it best serves that broad public interest and best ensures quality education by independently pursuing a wide range of ideas in an equally wide range of fields of study.

That is part of the genius of American universities - they produce graduates ranging from people like University of Alaska alumni award winner Kay Wallis, a psychology graduate who served as a state legislator and as an Indian Child Welfare Act advocate, to UA alumni award winner Lorena Hegdal, the first Native Woman in the university's history to obtain a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, who now works on the Alyeska Pipeline Company as an engineering director and volunteers for the United Way and for Rural Student Services.

These and other graduates speak to the breadth of service and commitment that your University of Alaska provides and engenders.

I would encourage Rep.'s Fairclough, Hawker and Kelly to take pride in and to support all of the students, staff and faculty of your higher education system in Alaska, in the pursuit of their beliefs (including those who pursue beliefs you disagree with).

The quality of education in a democracy is a function of the freedom of inquiry that defines that education. And the strength of our democracy, like the strength of our universities, is a function of the our willingness to respect, listen to and protect the rights of those we disagree with.

• Gary Rhoades is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C.

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