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In the early 1960s, my younger brother, Carter, was placed in a “slow” track in school because of learning problems that had no name back then. In a fifth-grade science experiment with a homemade wooden maze and two hamsters, I tried to prove that his anti-seizure medication, not his lack of intelligence, had made him “slow.”

Before the experiment was complete, one of the hamsters escaped its cage for a few hours, but I was undeterred. The hamster on medication learned more slowly than the one without.

When Carter’s school failed to see his potential, I was bitterly disappointed. He eventually found his place as a firefighter, saving lives, serving his community and giving his own life in that role. Were it not for the community college course in fire science that he took as an adult, Carter wouldn’t have had access to any education after the vocational track in which he was placed in high school, nor would he have been able to advance in his work.

My older brother, Eddie, went to a nearby junior college and, later, to an all-male college in Virginia to play football. After a short stint as a bank teller, he spent his life as a high school football coach, which is what he had wanted to do all along. I was lucky to have made it to college at all, my parents having said they could afford to send only one of us and, in any case, they did not think that girls should go.

A high school math teacher made it possible by helping persuade my parents that I should attend the College of William & Mary, a public institution with a strong academic reputation. My mother thought it ruined me, which shows that alarm about the potential for education to change us is not new, but also that it will always be ill-fated, for at least two reasons: because we humans are made to learn, and because education frees us to be who we are in the process of becoming. We are not made from whole cloth in college.

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Given my background, I have always had an allergy to the forms of snobbery that I have experienced in some academic environments. During my undergraduate studies, I had professors who referred to people who came from the part of Virginia where I grew up as “a bunch of ignorant hillbillies and rednecks.” Their prejudices contributed to my sense that I was an outsider at college, too, caught somewhere between the bigotry at home and the sense of superiority among some at college, each seeming intent on warning me of the other. The bind helped me learn that not belonging fully to any closed group can also be a good and freeing thing, that it can keep us thinking for ourselves. That is what education is for.

I received a truly great graduate education, earning my doctorate in 1985 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, an institution I’d put up against any other I could have attended, public or private. When I arrived at Cornell University as a member of the faculty, people would sometimes struggle to remember where I got my degree. Our great Midwestern public research universities are quite different, one from another, though together with other public institutions they teach, by far, the greatest number of students and produce a very significant proportion of the important research that is done in the United States. 

“You got your Ph.D. at … was it Michigan or Minnesota?” they’d ask. I was surprised at their inability to distinguish among institutions west of New York. I’d make a joke out of it, but I genuinely found it strange. I learned that at the large and the small Ivy League institutions, degrees from those institutions were the coin of the realm. I have also learned since then how extraordinary these institutions can be — and how much more open they could become.

Right now, I am focused on the economic instability and jobless rate that roil the country, and the value of the education that is provided by the public colleges and universities of Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia and Wisconsin. The same goes for our public institutions in California, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York and across the nation. I fear that their centrality to the country’s well-being will become starkly evident to some only with their demise.

The stakes are extraordinarily high for these institutions as vital decisions about federal funding for states and localities are being made. The stakes have been high for a long time. Far too many U.S. institutions — public and private — face untenable financial circumstances as a result of the coronavirus. For public institutions, these come on top of the withdrawals of state funding that began long before the pandemic.

Related: Enrollment and financial crises threaten growing list of academic disciplines

Even the wealthier public institutions will not escape the damaging effects of this virus, nor will private institutions, and they will all need the continued support of their alumni as well as state and federal support for students’ financial aid, for education and for faculty research. At this point, most public universities are hybrids of public and private funding, in any case, with decreasing shares from public funds. The mixed funding model can work, but only if all the sources of funding can be sustained.

If and when the federal government responds to the crisis with stimulus funds, as it surely must, I fervently hope our representatives will support states and localities because we cannot afford, as a country, to have our public institutions of higher education weakened or, in some cases, decimated. It is hard for people to imagine the loss of conditions they have always had and, therefore, take for granted.

But it is important that we all try to imagine the United States without a flourishing and heterogeneous higher-education sector, a country and a world without the teaching and research, the inventiveness, the critical thinking, the entirely new employment sectors, the respect for evidence and the economic impact for which higher education in this country is known. These institutions benefit not merely those who attend or are employed by them; whether directly or indirectly, they benefit the society as a whole.

Meanwhile, we also need more support for other postsecondary opportunities in this country. At a time when “either-or-ism” has become popular, I plead with readers not to yield to the belief that we should elevate any one kind by denigrating all others. The diversity of postsecondary education has long been a great strength; my family is a testament to the need and the value of institutions and apprenticeships that not only meet different needs but also cultivate different talents.

While some have forgotten the value of our public higher education systems, there are others who, in the name of public education, are engaged in the populist sport of launching wholesale attacks on private colleges and universities. Some of these attacks are just as destructive as the elitism that purist critics purport to be fighting. Valid criticism arises out of a legitimate worry about prestige, the advantages it confers and the quality it masks in other kinds of educational institutions; some rightly focus on the failures of elite institutions to do more with their wealth to promote access and affordability, reinforcing rather than combatting the inequality that plagues the country; in other cases, it is snobbery that rankles and raises people’s ire.

But too many of the attacks on “elite” institutions intersect with and reinforce cynical political efforts to undermine the authority of science; to deny or distort the benefits of bringing together academically talented people from every group in the country and in other countries; and to erode respect for evidence and expertise.

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As president of a small, residential liberal-arts college, I have seen firsthand what colleges like Amherst offer their students. I wish more institutions of higher learning had the student-to-faculty ratio — 7 to 1 — that Amherst can afford. I wish every institution had faculty as devoted as Amherst professors to both teaching and research. Students flourish here as a result of that student-faculty ratio; they grow from the investment that faculty make in them and from the faculty’s high expectations; they benefit from the unique experience of living in a community of individuals who are racially, ethnically, socioeconomically and intellectually very different, but who are meaningfully connected by an avid desire to learn.

The intensity of intellectual exchange gives rise to surprising and important connections that push knowledge and understanding in new directions. It also gives rise to lifelong friendships and bonds among students, between students and professors, and among students and staff. Despite its commitment to opportunity for young people from across the socioeconomic spectrum, Amherst inevitably reflects and reproduces the inequalities in the larger society — in the composition of its student body, its faculty and its staff. Most elite private and wealthier public institutions could do a good deal more to create greater access, success and equity, but they do not and cannot resolve the irreconcilable contradictions that define the society of which they are part.

That we cannot resolve these contradictions does not mean that we cannot do better, and we must. But without the particular contributions of private colleges and universities and the hybrid public institutions, without their intensive cultivation of academic talent, the world would be a poorer place. Tearing down is so much easier than building, especially the kind of building that brings needed structural change.

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The world needs its Amhersts. I often find myself wishing I could have been a student here in this era. I was lucky to end up three hours away from my family back in 1969 and would never have been allowed to leave “the South” for college. There are worlds of good between anti-intellectualism on the one hand, and intellectual arrogance on the other.

The world needs its Amhersts, but not only its Amhersts. To lose the gift of our great public universities and the many other underfunded postsecondary opportunities for young people and adults will make us all poorer than many people fully understand. I urge those who are so inclined to advocate actively for federal funding for states and localities in support of public higher education.

This need for public funding, like so much else, has been turned into a partisan political issue, but the outcome has the potential either to help protect, greatly to weaken or even to break some of our great public institutions, which remain necessary economic, social and cultural engines for us all. 

I owe the great gifts of my life to forms of education that were unimaginable to me growing up. I know and see every day the difference that education can make for the least, as well as the most privileged, among us — and for everyone in between. And I know that many fewer young people will get what they deserve if we fail to support public higher education in the United States.

This story about the importance of America’s public colleges and universities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Biddy Martin has served as president of Amherst College since 2011. Previously, she was provost of Cornell University and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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Biddy Martin has served as President of Amherst College since 2011. Previously, she was Provost of Cornell University and Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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