What Higher Education Can Learn from Colin Kaepernick

Trump’s attack on professional athletes this week was inevitable. It reflects a pattern of assault on groups and personalities that trigger the bitter resentments of his base. We can expect Trump to continue these populist assaults on other “coddled” groups doubted for their lack of toughness, patriotism, and gratitude. And eventually, in some dramatic fashion, he will come after American higher education.

Will universities, inclusive of administrators, faculty, and students, respond with the same subversive intensity, grace, unity, and intelligence shown by these professional athletes. I doubt it.

This week we witnessed LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Gregg Popovich, Sterling Sharpe, and even Terry Bradshaw speak out immediately and boldly about the unifying qualities of sport and the democratic necessity of provocative discomforting protest. Simultaneously, we are watching Colin Kaepernick secure a place in our nation’s history alongside the likes of Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Curt Flood, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Billie Jean King, Roberto Clemente, Arthur Ashe, and Greg Louganis as individuals whose sacrifices and symbolic actions still transcend any court or field or track or pool. These courageous voices speak to the competition and teamwork of sport as meaningful, potent, and universal human experiences with the power to expose injustice and bring us together as a people. Today’s professional athletes, more than any previous critic, have come closest to undressing Trump with that historic question: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Can our colleges and universities do the same? Who or what would bring us together to mount this kind of noble response?

How will higher education defend its quiet acceptance of teaching as a merely a secondary or tertiary institutional purpose? How will it explain pathetic levels of faculty diversity that mirror the racial make-up of the Republican Party? How will it account for administrative salaries and academic programming driven by corporate and military spending priorities? How will it excuse tuition increases and financial aid practices that largely exclude the poor? And how will it justify the blatantly unconstitutional but alumni-favored practice of legacy preference in admissions?

Behind these terribly embarrassing questions an indispensable ideal remains — that of a liberal arts education, taught well by expert, caring faculty members who value open and disciplined inquiry, civic engagement, and personalized learning relationships between faculty and students. I’d like to think those of us in the academy have some unifying capacity to explain these essential practices for any functional democracy. But I worry the professoriate, in today’s context, will fail to convey any core purpose to our work beyond maintaining sub-discipline provincialism, the hoarding of narrowly-focused research funds, an accepted apathy for teaching, and a myopic quest for individual academic distinction. And we should all worry if higher education has any of the big love that our most outspoken athletes seem to cultivate in huddles, dugouts, and locker rooms alongside colleagues pursuing shared goals.