“A couple of days after the inauguration of the last former president, Kellyanne Conway appeared on Meet The Press and tried to defend a remark made by Sean Spicer that there were more people who attended President Trump’s inauguration than attended President Obama’s. She basically got pushback on that. And she said, ‘Well, you know, there are alternative facts.’ And that was the first time that I ever heard that phrase. I said, that’s interesting. What in the hell are alternative facts?” – David Wilson, President of Morgan State University
After some digging around that reference from January 2017, Wilson began rhetorically asking students across campus whether they were receiving alternative facts in classes. While somewhat tongue-in-cheek in his approach, there was nonetheless a seriousness and a reticence in the question. “How did we get to where we are so fast?” Wilson wondered during a recent session on the defense of truth hosted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “It is scary that we have gone so quickly in the direction of lies and mistruths and misinformation that has basically covered the entire foundation of almost every institution that forms the American democratic foundation. We’ve lost a sense of common sense. We’ve allowed news outlets and pundits to convince us that, you really didn’t see that dog; that was really a giraffe.”
Wilson was one of four panelists who presented the growing problem of fact vs. fiction, lies vs. truths and the growing surge of propaganda infiltrating America and the Academy. Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley, Lanisa Kitchiner of the Library of Congress and Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also weighed in on a topic that has put informed individuals and higher education on their heels.
Rauch noted the array of false or misleading statements told by former President Donald Trump – more than 30,000 in the span of four years, according to The Washington Post – and its influence on his backers as the ultimate example of a formative disinformation campaign. But Rauch said of the barrage of alternative facts, “The people in this room are literally better positioned to make a difference in our crisis than any group I know.” At the same time, he cautioned, “A lot of what has to be done is outside the four corners of the university. It has to do with changes in the way the social media environment is structured, the amount of public education in terms of internet literacy, and the way the media responds. Those are not up to you, and there is no easy solution to this massive and frankly malevolent campaign.”
So what can higher education do? Rauch touted the notion of the “constitution of knowledge,” a set of rules and checks and balances that by its very nature also searches for errors. Journalism, law, science and research are at the core of fact-based solutions, the areas higher ed drives and promotes. But he says it must continually find the power to fight off disinformation and manipulation, the kind of data that shows that “62% of Americans now say the political climate prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” Maintaining believability is key. “If you guys lose credibility, we are in serious trouble because these attacks [QAnon, Stop the Steal, Anti-Vaxxers] are aimed squarely at the credibility and legitimacy of the reality-based community,” Rauch said. “University campuses are where chilling is not supposed to happen.”
Rauch questioned the lean of universities to push so far left that it completely alienates all of the right. “We see a 10-percentage point drop in public confidence in universities in just four years. Prioritize viewpoint diversity. You can work very hard to challenge and remove obstacles to welcoming conservatives and conservative ideas on campus.”
But Wilson pushed back on that notion. “I get that. However, it is so difficult for me to imagine that if 1 of the 50 is rooted in that stuff, that is the complete erosion of the American Academy. If you have a certain percent of faculty spouting a whole lot of misinformation, then what is the role of the college campus? It has truly become a political party.”
Ensuring checks and balances
One of the beacons of truth that can help in the fight are libraries, which are evolving to meet misinformation head on but are often underfunded and underappreciated. “Where I think university leaders can be instrumental is centering the library as a source of access to information in a way to defend truth in an atmosphere of disinformation,” Kitchiner said. “First is to articulate and demonstrate the role of a library as a source of high-quality information in a variety of formats. Second, to shift the library from a sort of beacon of authority as it has been conceptualized to a service model.”
Wilson said ensuring that students are well-versed in those checks and balances and knowledge of fact is also paramount. “I make it known very clearly to students that we are accepting you as you enter this institution as you are, but make no doubt that you must not leave Morgan as you came,” he said. “The expectation is that you’re going to use this constitution to engage in conversation and dialogue. You’re going to discuss the issues of yesterday, today and tomorrow. You’re going to listen to different points of view. If you leave this institution the same as you were when you came, you should be asking for a refund.”
Bradley talked about the dangers of how true free speech and actions can divide a campus. “If you just let it go, just a marketplace of ideas, that’s it, there is no constitution, there’s no governance, there’s no process by which people engage the ideas, then I think you end up with the divisions and the polarization we have, where suddenly we’re shutting each other down,” she said.
At one point, a group put up a divisive poster, sparking controversy, “controversy of the kind that just is not productive. It’s not advancing you towards understanding.” But instead of a chaotic reaction, its student government took on the topic and challenged the organization, which eventually relented and apologized publicly. That self-governance showed the power of the process, and Vassar implemented a policy for poster review and discussion on controversial issues.
“We don’t want to proactively constrain. We don’t want to censor,” Bradley said. “By the same token, we want to create an environment of learning not an environment of black and white, one side or the other. Do the opposite of chilling, rather engage in conversation and build a community around that issue. The truth is, what’s more important than to have something provocative, and force a conversation about it? We believe that dialogue will in fact confer skills of inquiry of staying at the table when you’re highly offended.”