On Monday afternoon, the University of Michigan hosted leaders from nine of the world’s most highly ranked universities to discuss the public role of research universities for the ongoing celebration of the school’s Bicentennial.

The event, titled “The Evolving Bargain Between Research Universities and Society,” was the third conversation in a series of colloquia hosted by University President Mark Schlissel. It is following “The Future University Community” from January, which featured U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and a discussion with four former University presidents in April on the topic of research.

The event featured a prelude performance by students from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and introductory remarks by Presidential Bicentennial Professor Paul Courant, who is also the interim provost, and then Schlissel himself.

Schlissel emphasized the importance of the gathering to advance discussions on research that will hopefully benefit society in the future.

“For the University of Michigan 200th year we are looking forward with purpose in examining the future of higher education and of our society,” he said. “Here for what I believe is an unprecedented public conversation are leaders from nine of the world’s top Universities, participants of the Board of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values … Our challenge here as leaders is to develop the right narrative to explain our missions to citizens and society.”

Following Schlissel’s remarks, moderator Ruth Simmons, President Emeritus of Brown University, facilitated discussions focusing on three specific topics: the role of free speech on campus, affordability of education and the responsibility of universities to promote social mobility.

Each university leader discussed a specific topic related to the public role of research universities and their interactions with society.

Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, argued universities should not deter freedom of speech in detriment of celebrating different ideas. Borysiewicz first noted there is a special relationship between universities and the public.

“My view from over the pond, if you like, is that you are quite right that there is a compact between society and universities,” he said. “It is one that is entirely built on trust, and that we as institutions have to understand that society that gives us our rights or licenses. If we forget that, we are in great difficulties.”

He then explained universities are sometimes the conduit for conveying what might not otherwise be heard.

“However, universities are also charged with something else, in many parts of the world, with speaking unpalatable truths, even though society might not want to hear it,” he said. “This is where often conversations become extremely difficult. A university is by definition not a safe space. It can not be, because we value the freedom of speech of our academics to address a range of issues … and to not debate is the worst thing a university can do.”

Nicholas B. Dirks, Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, contextualized Berkeley’s history surrounding freedom of speech and noted the issue the university had with safe spaces. In April, at the University of California, Berkeley, political commentator Ann Coulter’s speech was canceled due to threats of violence against her — an incident that fostered heated debates regarding the right to free speech.

“Of course, Berkeley has always been at the epicenter of discussions regarding free speech, after all we invented free speech on American campuses for public universities in 1964,” Dirks said. “There are some differences between then and now, but the similarities are quite stark, in that in my university, this has become a highly politicized issue. For the Ann Coulter (event) we got credible threats, both from the far left, as well as from the far right. So we clearly had a problem with promoting a safe space for her to speak, in the literal sense.”

In addition to discussing the role of universities in promoting freedom of speech, participants also explained their views on future affordability of education and financial aid for all students.

Speakers on this topic included Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, and David Ibbetson, President of University of Cambridge, among others.

David W. Pershing, President of the University of Utah, said many students at the University of Utah work to better their own financial conditions and to prosper through entrepreneurial activities.

“The University of Utah has about 32,000 students, but most of them are working their way through,” he said. “More than half of my students are working more than 20 hours a week, so it is a little different from some of the other institutions represented here. We are preparing our students to graduate and to be successful.”

Pershing said a new building called Lassonde Studios on the campus serves as a residential community in which students interested in starting their own company work and live in the same space. Pershing said the facility is helping the community.

The last group of participants included Nick Brown, Principal of the University of Oxford, Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University President, and Schlissel, all of whom discussed ways universities can promote social mobility for their students.

Schlissel highlighted the University’s Go Blue Guarantee initiative, which guarantees free tuition for in-state students whose family have an annual income of less than $65,000.

Eisgruber then emphasized the need to help not only students from the lower socioeconomic status, but also to provide aid for those whose families do not make more than $110,000 a year.

“A lot of data focuses on how you take kids from the lowest economic quintile and bring them to the top,” he said. “That is one question you could ask. But we do a lot for socioeconomic diversity even in those other quintiles. Just as an example, (the) top income quintile in the United States starts at $110,000 in terms of salary. That is not what I think in terms of as wealthy. And in fact someone from this specific socioeconomic background would be very close to receiving full aid at Princeton. And that contributes to social mobility too.”

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