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Universities provided the fuel for American economic growth and global leadership in the last century. This is particularly true for public universities. They educated more businesspeople, governors, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and athletes than any other set of post-secondary institutions at home or abroad. Other countries can create workers to compete with Americans, but no one nurtures better thinkers and innovators.

That is why tens of thousands of the brightest children from other countries apply for admission to American universities each year.

However, America’s great public universities are in peril today. This is primarily because of the attacks they are suffering from both sides in our highly partisan politics. Activists on the left see universities as a forum for pushing their efforts to boycott Israel or demand reparations for past racial injustices. Activists on the right want universities to reaffirm American greatness and justify the use of American power at home and abroad. Critics on the left allege that wealthy donors and large corporations have “captured” universities. Critics on the right assert that leftist radicals, post-modernists and anti-Americans have corrupted university faculty, closing the doors to patriotic conservatives.

The political demands from the left and the right, and their accusations of bias within universities, are threatening the institutions they claim to champion. Fending off the finger-pointers distracts everyone from the facts, and from what universities really should be doing to help our society.

American universities have never existed to take a political stand for or against any set of policies. Even in war, universities have existed to offer space for critical evaluation of popular and unpopular positions. They are places for debate, for investigation, and for rigorous analysis. There are plenty of institutions in the United States and abroad that promote particular foreign and domestic policies. The purpose of the university is to test arguments and evidence. That is what distinguished our public universities, in particular, during the last century. They should be judged by the quality of debate on campus, not by litmus tests about whether they are sufficiently “liberal” or “conservative.” Universities exist to transcend those superficial labels.

The facts contradict claims about too much influence for wealthy donors or radical ideologues. Neither accusation stands up to the reality that anyone can see on a large university campus. The majority of faculty today are professionals, hired because of their research in a field of study — history, chemical engineering, neurobiology, law and countless others. To get hired in a very competitive job market, faculty have devoted most of their waking moments to specialized research, some teaching, and some administration. Very few faculty have time for political activism of any kind. It is, in fact, frowned upon by most disciplines as a sign that someone is “not a serious scholar.”

This professionalization is a problem because it devalues public engagement and, often, teaching. I am one of numerous scholars who have made this point. The vast majority of tenured professors at major universities are neither leftist radicals nor conservative toadies. They are ambitious careerists, seeking to gain recognition and status in their fields. If anything, they avoid politics in their research, their teaching and their interactions with students.

What public universities need today is an end to cheap political attacks and help with their core mission for our nation: nurturing the most talented, rigorous and creative citizen body. That is what will keep America on top. To do this, legislators, oversight boards and other citizens can help by connecting rather than criticizing, and contributing their talents rather than their venom. More than money, university leaders and faculty need help understanding the big issues confronting our society. More than labels, university students need opportunities for on-the-job learning from people who value their potential.

Instead of firing on universities from afar, it’s time that concerned citizens come to campus and join the conversation. University leaders and faculty are hungry for help in thinking broadly and deeply about our society’s future, regardless of one’s political affiliations.

 

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on 1 January 2015.

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Seventy-three years ago today marked the beginning of a new era in world history.

After what President Franklin Roosevelt called a “dastardly attack” on our naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, the United States went to war with Japan. For the next four years, young Americans fought some of the most brutal air, sea and land battles in the nation’s history against a hardened and vicious enemy. Young Americans had to push Japanese soldiers off of the islands they had occupied from Wake Island and Midway to the Philippines and Iwo Jima. In Okinawa alone, more than 50,000 Americans were killed and wounded. Japanese casualties were more than twice that.

Fast forward 73 years and the future of the American relationship with Japan is again entering a new era.

Once the war ended after the emperor’s surrender in August 1945, the enemies in war became allies in building a new East Asia. The Japanese recognized that their effort to dominate the region had failed, and they turned to the United States for assistance in rebuilding their country. Americans recognized that a vibrant and democratic Japan was crucial for world peace and the containment of communism, promoted by the Soviet Union.

Japan became the anchor for capitalism in Asia. American investments financed new factories for automobiles, electronics and computers. The American military ensured Japan’s security and its access to food and industrial materials mostly acquired from neighboring Asian countries. Oil and other energy resources came from all over including Texas, Indonesia and the Middle East.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Japan emerged as the first “Asian tiger.” Its citizens were highly educated, productive and peaceful. They exported more to the United States and Western Europe than they imported, and they used their balance of payments surplus to invest abroad. In fact in the 1980s, many Americans worried that Japan was buying too much New York real estate. There were also concerns that they were unfairly “dumping” their electronic products on the American market, undercutting U.S. companies such as Texas Instruments.

For all these economic tensions, however, American and Japanese citizens entered the new millennium as close partners, committed to joint prosperity through increased trade and cooperation.

That partnership has now changed radically.

With the opening of China to the international economy coupled with the precipitous decline of Japan, China has become the largest producer and consumer in all of Asia at breakneck speeds. Japan has fallen behind because of poor investment choices, corrupt government and population decline. Japan’s population is aging rapidly, and its closed immigration policies prevent the arrival of young and innovative people from abroad. Simply put, the center of Asian entrepreneurship has shifted to China.

Because of this, our relationship is markedly different from how it was during the decades after the Pearl Harbor attack. So what does the future hold?

Japan will remain a major producer of automobiles and high-end electronic items for the United States, and Japanese citizens will continue to purchase American products. But future growth for American businessmen is not in Japan. Nor does the security of Asia revolve around Japan. U.S. economic interests in China, along with India and Vietnam, will continue to grow, and Japan will get less American attention. The Japanese know this, and their government’s greater military assertiveness in recent years is an effort to become more self-reliant.

That does not mean the relations between the two former World War II adversaries will worsen. Americans will continue to trade with Japan and visit that country in large numbers, but more of these activities will include China and South Korea too. The special bilateral partnership between the United States and Japan will become a looser regional relationship with neighboring countries involved. There will be more independence, more compromise and tougher bargaining for all business and security deals between the U.S. and Japan.

If the 73 years of U.S.-Japanese relations since Pearl Harbor have been intensely close, the next few decades will be more distant and multilateral. That should still be good for business and democracy not only in Asia, but in the wider world.

 

 This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 7 December 2014.

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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author of five books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. In September 2011 he published a new book on the past and future of nation-building: Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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