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Posted at 4:58 PM ET, 01/20/2011

Tucson shooting response underscores role of universities in building community

By Gary Rhoades

Here is a guest blog from Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. He is on leave as professor of higher education at the University of Arizona.

Last Wednesday, in an airport lounge, as I waited to board a plane from Chicago to D.C., I watched the memorial service at the University of Arizona for the victims of the Jan. 8 mass shootings in Tucson.

It was hard to be so far away.

My home is in Tucson.
The attack took place less than five minutes from that home, which is in a quiet neighborhood in lovely desert surroundings. Somehow that, and the nature of Congresswoman Giffords, a legislator working to be accessible and responsive, serving with dignity, and being open to all, makes the mass shooting all the more horrific, as does the sacrifice and bravery of those Americans, old and heartbreakingly young who were wounded and who died in the attack. The shooter and the subsequent litany of images and of commentators opining on the events, worked to take that beauty and basic goodness away from the community I love.

I was moved by the memorial service. Struck by the number of people who attended, and by their repeated applause in response to President Obama's eulogy and celebration of life. In that ceremony, the Tucson community began to work back towards the best of what we can be. Amidst the shattered and lost lives and dreams our community chose to stand up, to reclaim who and what we are about.

It made me proud that my university hosted the ceremony, in doing so performing an important service to help heal the community in which it is situated.

The ceremony spoke to the cultural centrality of colleges and universities in our communities.

It spoke to their profound significance in our democracy, which the shooter had assaulted.

In the early years of our country, Thomas Jefferson understood that significance.
But in recent years we too often fail to recognize and prioritize that significance.

I am a professor who studies higher education.

I am on leave from the University of Arizona, working in Washington D.C. as General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors, an organization that for 95 years has been devoted to advancing and defending academic freedom in the academy. What I have seen in my research, and now see from my position in D.C. is that too often policymakers and managers are focused on the short-term economic role of colleges and universities. They see higher education as an economic, private good that mostly benefits those who purchase it. They overlook and under-invest in the other fundamental roles of higher education as a public good.

The memorial ceremony at the University of Arizona is a reminder.

A reminder that some of the greatest challenges and threats to our society and well being are neither economic nor technological.

It is a reminder that at our best, our calling in the academy is not to enhance our institution's revenue and prestige but to engage and enhance the communities of which we are a part.

The memorial service is a reminder that our colleges and universities have a central role to play in enhancing our democracy and the cultural life of our community, by serving as a public, open space to address, work through, and make meaning of our lives as citizens and as human beings.

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By Gary Rhoades  | January 20, 2011; 4:58 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Crime  | Tags:  Gabrielle Giffords, Giffords memorial, Giffords shooting, Tucson shooting, University of Arizona  
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Thank you so much, Gary, for your refreshing & insightful blog about the role of universities in enhancing democracy & culture in our communities. It was exactly what I would have expected from my old friend & advisor.

Posted by: LyndaBergsma | January 24, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

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