08/02/2011 01:20 EDT | Updated 10/02/2011 05:12 EDT

The Crisis of Credibility

From sex-abuse scandals within churches to the stupefying fiascoes on Wall Street and in the Gulf of Mexico, a general malaise has replaced our optimism. For academics concerned by the crisis of credibility in our political, economic, and social institutions, it is time to take a good look in the mirror.

While many appear to be breathing a sigh of relief after the debt limit deal in Washington this week, significant damage has been done. The low opinion of many in the U.S. about the lack of leadership in American politics has now been effectively internationalized and this crisis of confidence has fundamentally altered the political conversation. For progressives, it has perhaps once and for all ended any idea that "change" based on "hope" can be achieved.

Confidence, of course, is based on credibility and the combination of increasing access to information is providing a front row seat to the tawdry business of politics as usual. The view is not pretty. While new expectations around social transparency and the energy of the millennial generation is exciting, unless we consider in more detail what these changing expectations mean in practice, liberalism is lost. No political ideology based on inclusiveness, equality, facts and reason, can withstand the well-funded and steadfast anarchism of the American right. While many assume the coming age of austerity is economic in nature, the developments of these last months in Washington might usefully be seen as just the latest example of once-vaunted pillars of our modern society crashing down.

Consider the number of institutions that have imploded in the last decade. From sex-abuse scandals within once venerable churches to the stupefying fiascoes on Wall Street, and in the Gulf of Mexico, a general malaise has replaced the optimism of 2008. The view that billionaires share the interests of the so-called populist Tea Party and that the Supreme Court is merely an extension of the political parties and corporate interests that supported them in the past has enshrined a rather depressing view of a society.

Are we really mere grasping individuals seeking to maximize self-interest by all means necessary? If so, why are so many surprised when the institutions we have built fail to uphold basic standards of decency? Congress can no longer claim integrity of any sort, and in the UK the News of the World scandal has so far tarnished the media generally, Scotland Yard specifically, and may still bring down David Cameron's coalition government. In Canada, the idea that editorial boards at our national papers are neutral and principled voices was effectively undermined when in the last election nearly every single paper endorsed a prime minister who refused to answer questions from the media. Oh brave new world!

Of particular concern is that this crisis that is so evident in other institutions is also threatening the academy. In addition to supporting research to assist a better understanding of the world, Universities serve an essential role of building the critical thinking skills required for the workplaces of the future. Yet, while lip service is paid to the idea that a university education exposes students to civilized discourse, open minds, and models by which one could vehemently disagree without becoming disagreeable, institutions of higher education are more often seen as corporatized warehouses of ideological indoctrination.

On the right, the University of East Anglia's lack of transparency in its own internal processes served as a proxy for those who continue to deny climate change. On the left, there is a stubborn refusal to define 'good' scholarship, or even what constitutes a well-qualified candidate, as any definition merely serves the orthodoxy of the elites. This sort of nonsense infects hiring committees, research funding, and tenure decisions.

While maligning the petty world of academia has been a longstanding enterprise, the increasing failure by academics to practice what they preach can no longer be easily hidden. If universities and publicly-funded research institutions want to lead us out of the wilderness of unenlightened self-interest, they must first reform their own internal practices. Unless academic institutions embrace the most basic tenant of all education and research -- credibility -- they can hardly seek openness and accountability from others.

Some institutions will be unable to take up this challenge. They lack the creativity to find meaningful solutions and fundamentally misunderstand their obligations to the next generation. They will, of course, soldier on, and rely upon obscure "black box" decision-making that reeks of bias and lacks basic transparency. As such, they will be increasingly challenged, and become the source of ridicule as their failures are connected with an increasingly pervasive and dangerous anti-intellectual narrative.

For academics concerned by the crisis of credibility in our political, economic, and social institutions, it is time to take a good look in the mirror. By acquiescing to covert hiring, promotions, and grant funding practices, the academic establishment provides fodder for those who seek to further erode the value placed on expertise in public policy making. By teaching only one side of a debate, relying upon top-down instructional methods, and embracing fill in the bubble evaluations, they do harm to their invaluable role in creating autonomous learners and innovation thinkers. It is high time for academics to confront their own legacies and consider if they are truly worthy of their posts.

Are they willing to engage in the socially relevant, self-critical, and reflexive work of the academy? Unless they are ready to lead and put their best selves forward, our broken political process may be seen as the model by which facts, reason, and understanding are employed. The time for following has long passed. It is time to lead or make way for the next generation.