University leaders, including half a dozen AAU presidents, fear they are losing public and political support at an alarming rate, and say they must do more to counter charges of elitism in this Politico article.
"It's not enough anymore to just say, 'trust us,'" Yale President Peter Salovey said. "There is an attempt to build a narrative of colleges and universities as out of touch and not politically diverse, and I think ... we have a responsibility to counter that — both in actions and in how we present ourselves."
Rice University president David Leebron remembers a time when universities were held in nearly the same esteem as the military.
"Now, we've fallen a lot," he said. "I think it's a very challenging time where we can't just go out in the world and say, 'We're an esteemed institution' and people will credit what we're saying."
University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce compared public attitudes toward universities with distrust of Congress, the legal system, the voting system and the presidency.
"We are part of that, and again, it's not surprising we're part of that when you're at the point where even basic science is being questioned," she said. "It's hard not to say there's some purposeful attempt to distort and diminish the value of higher education — and that's concerning.
"I think this has been a wake-up call that we do have to do more to let the public know what's true," Cauce added. "It's not enough to say the perceptions aren't accurate. We have to figure out how do we really communicate that to the public. We're educators so we should be able to figure how."
University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias agreed, calling on more presidents to step up.
"We have to prove our value. We should not take for granted that the general public knows the difference we make. And we have to pound that message again and again."
"Access, affordability has got to be part of it," Tulane University President Mike Fitts said. "People feel like these institutions are the gatekeepers to success in society ... they can't feel like they're shut out and their kids are shut out."
"There have been some who have been thinking that universities are accumulating endowments and that these are not being deployed," said Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. But, Wrighton said, his university covers the full cost — "that's room, board and tuition" — for students who can't afford to attend. Still, he concedes, "when you look at the sticker price, it is off-putting."