Opportunity and the Vital Role of Higher Education

Road sign that reads Opportunity Ahead

Since the events of January 6, 2021, I think it is important that we pause to not only affirm our democratic institutions, but also reflect on the role that higher education plays in supporting these values. Education is democracy’s best protector. Our university bolsters our institutions that unify the nation in the defense of freedom and democracy.

In the aftermath of that event, we have focused much discussion on listening and providing nonviolent spaces for different perspectives to be heard and paths forward developed. While of enormous importance, I also suggest that a key role we in higher education play lies in restoring what is missing for large fractions of the nation: opportunity.

The pandemic has accelerated the polarization in income, health outcomes and job opportunity have been growing for years across the U.S and has left us witnessing the desperate and devastating results as the disenfranchised take to the streets.

As a data point, consider that California will turn a budget surplus for FY ’21.  This largely results from robust income and capital gains taxes derived from those whose jobs were weakly impacted by the pandemic. The progressive nature of the state tax system produces growing tax revenue for California. Around us, however, there is economic devastation – lost jobs, lost savings, lost education and, yes, lost opportunity.

Higher education has a clear role in leveling the playing field and providing the necessary pathway for social and economic mobility. In an economy where knowledge and the ability to link and apply ideas lie at the core of opportunities, lack of access to and limited completion of educational programs define the lives of millions of Americans who feel alienated from the American Dream.

Undeniably, USC has educated successful leaders and professionals of our society. Indeed, our students are attracted by the opportunities afforded by a USC education. I do not espouse walking away from this value proposition, but I will point to the need to ensure a USC education is understood as more than a return on financial investment.

There is a difference between the value of a USC education and the values that education imparts.  Our challenge -our ultimate success – lies in imparting values that create both enhanced career opportunity and impart a willingness of USC alumni to work against polarization of outcomes that is currently destabilizing our society.

The University of Southern California is one of the world’s leading private research universities and has been an anchor institution in Los Angeles for 150 years. USC is a global center for arts, technology and business. Our university graduates become influential professionals in every facet of our society from working on Wall Street to the social work sector.

Our faculty have a responsibility of modeling behavior and delivering educational programs that address not only disciplinary specific information, but also how a USC education leads to a stable and vibrant society. In the wake of such enormous civil unrest, I believe we need to contemplate the following questions:

  1. What role have we had in the establishment of the current polarization of outcomes?
  2. What role might we play in increasing access to and opportunities derived from a USC education?
  3. What contribution can we make to strengthening democracy in America in the years ahead?

When populations harbor longstanding grievances, they move to the streets to voice their concerns.   We know all too often that when discourse ends, violence begins. I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that still resonate today: “We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity.”

At its best, the United States democratic system embodies the belief that people from different backgrounds, faiths and political persuasions can come together and vote in a fair and free election and participate in a peaceful transition of power.  Polarization of opportunity and outcomes can become so extreme that the trust in our democratic institutions fails. The events of January 6 suggest we are perilously close to this point.

Higher education supports our democratic institutions through what we teach and the behaviors we model. I call on all of us to revisit the values we demonstrate to our students and to continue to work towards ensuring increased opportunity for all.

–Charles F. Zukoski, January 28, 2021