Whose University Is It? A Post-Sex Week Reflection

My dad, a World War II veteran, was a meat cutter with five children. He valued education but could not afford to send us to college. He prided himself on being an excellent meat cutter, but he bragged even more about the good report cards of his children.

Ultimately, I earned a master’s degree in nursing at the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. at the University of California, San Francisco. My first academic job was at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I have taught and researched in the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee for 15 years.

The four universities I mentioned are public land-grant universities. They are special places having a great impact on my life. They have inestimable impact on the generation of knowledge for bettering the U.S. population. Tennesseans benefit significantly from UT, a land-grant university.

The first land-grant universities promoted agricultural knowledge, technological development, and liberal arts so that working-class individuals could have a high-quality, useful university education. Like UT, many land-grant universities have grown into major research centers. Who owns these universities?

State legislatures have a key role in keeping these institutions well resourced to meet their mission to the state. The Board of Trustees has fiduciary responsibilities and assures that the university is operationally sound in many areas, including student success, economic growth, faculty recruitment, promotion and tenure, research, outreach, and economic development. University administrators balance the budget, raise funds, set goals, and maintain standards in tenure decisions, scholarships, teaching, stimulating research and student success, and recruitment of an excellent, diverse faculty.

Land-grant university students are exposed to a new social world, that of university life, and learn from actual researchers and active scholars who often write the books and articles students read. There are honors programs for students with exceptional promise. Students have access to debate, diverse people, and ideas, arts, sciences, humanities, health and business professions that develop the capabilities of the whole person. Land-grant universities offer graduate education at the master’s and doctoral levels. Such universities are big places, where there is not only one answer to the many questions that are raised in its forums. Students may struggle to let go of the familiar. But the reward can never be taken away: a broad university education.

Students pay tuition for their formal education. Twenty centuries ago, students formed contract agreements with their teachers and traveled among the European universities. The University of Bologna, chartered in the 12th century, issued a document, adopted by many early Western universities, assuring that traveling scholars should not be inhibited from going their way between communities of scholars. This was the beginning of academic freedom. Now, scholars explore a universe of ideas, and should still be unhindered in their individual and collective pursuit of new knowledge.

University students pay fees to fund student government, student organizations, and events as a form of self-governance. For example, the University of Wisconsin attempted to regulate speakers and other student-fees uses. They lost. The court said students may allocate their fees freely to support viewpoints that were even considered “abhorrent” to some others. To violate First Amendment rights by manipulating students’ use of fees is unconstitutional.

Land-grant universities generate knowledge. The faculty is core to knowledge development. The faculty manages the curriculum, the substance of what is taught. Faculty members who meet stringent standards in major land-grant universities earn tenure and promotion for their teaching, research, and service. Tenure helps universities to keep the best and attract the finest new faculty to come to the university.

The university is alive with ideas. Faculty members need to perform their scholarship in areas in which they excel, and on topics they choose, in light of societal problems to be solved, research priorities, and the evolution of the arts. The faculty should be empowered to speak openly, without fear of retribution. This is also an element of academic freedom. Without it, those with political agendas, those who think that it is their place to “shield” students from some points of view, could manipulate faculty, curricula, and visiting scholars.

Land-grant universities are answerable to the public, the citizens of that state. But it does not stop there. Universities find and invent solutions that better the lives of people nationally and globally. Legislators, trustees, administrators, students, faculty, and the public are essential players, but no one owns a major land-grant university.

As a nurse scholar, I appreciate diversity of people and have concern for the health of the university community. That includes sexual health: self-acceptance, women’s reproductive needs, the prevention of HIV and hepatitis, and stopping violence such as bullying and date rape. Thus, I support Sex Week, which takes place at many universities annually.

UT is a major land-grant university with outstanding teaching, research, performance, artistry, and athletics. I suggest that we leave it that way and stop worrying about Sex Week. There have been no adverse consequences of it. The risk is to lose the soul of the land-grant university in trying to quell dangerous ideas that often turn out to be not so dangerous after all.

UT is a significant growing enterprise. How can we fully compare the excellence among such institutions, reflecting unique places, people, and endeavors? No one owns a land-grant university. It is a living thing. Rejoice that we can benefit from the creative work that happens at UT.

My dad would have thrived at the University of Tennessee. He often remarked, “Put your money in your head.” I followed his advice and got a university education. I have no regrets.

Joanne M. Hall (Ph.D., R.N., FAAN) is a professor at the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee and notes: “The ideas expressed here are mine as a citizen; I do not represent the views of the University of Tennessee.”

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