As we put a divisive election season behind us and look ahead to what a new presidential administration will mean for our nation, this is an apt moment for every sector of our society to consider its purpose and impact in times of division and tumult.
Higher education, for its part, can be a unifying force for good. Among other important contributions to our collective well-being, universities help students develop their leadership skills and model respectful discourse, produce knowledge that enables elected officials to make better decisions and churn out the innovations that keep economies thriving. We are part of the civic infrastructure of the nation and part of the intellectual, social and economic connective tissue that links us all to one another, even in times of political alienation, health crises and economic distress.
History provides countless examples of this. In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Congress made bold investments in higher education. Even as the very future of the Union was in doubt, they saw that securing the future required colleges to help the nation rebuild and thrive.
Following World War II, and with the aid of the GI Bill and federal support for research and development, universities were instrumental in helping create the American middle class and enabling the U.S. to become an economic and scientific superpower globally.
Responding to the social revolutions of the 1960s, universities became more accessible to people of color, women and students of more modest economic means, and they helped facilitate a — as yet unfinished — diversification of the private and public sectors.
At key moments like these, when the nation needed a new direction, universities helped chart the course. It would be claiming too much to say that higher education holds the answers to all our problems, but we should recognize the vital role that it can play in addressing them.
In a knowledge economy marked by rising income inequality and declining social mobility, higher education remains the most reliable path to economic advancement and the middle class. In fact, UCLA has been widely lauded for its success at providing social mobility to students from lower-income families.
In the midst of persistent residential segregation that separates people along ethnic and, increasingly, ideological lines, UCLA brings together a multiplicity of people from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds — from every region of our nation and nearly every state in our country — to learn, live and work together.
At a time when the era-defining threats we face — from COVID-19 to climate change — cross ideological and national borders, only rigorous research, sound science and evidence-based decision-making can solve them. Universities have steadfastly championed much-needed fidelity to facts and modeled the importance of critical analysis.
No, universities do not have magical answers to ideological polarization or political gridlock. We have more work to do to root out structural inequalities on our campuses and in our communities. We still struggle to help those with deeply held beliefs find ways to hear others with equally strong divergent beliefs. But we have a history of cultivating understanding, expanding opportunity and producing tangible results that improve lives. We have a worthy mission to help all of us who share this fragile Earth better understand our past, contend with our present and imagine our future. As our fractured nation moves forward, universities should issue this ancient invitation: “Come now, and let us reason together.”