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I recently attended an alumni event to discuss the state of higher education in the United States. Warm spring air graced the bright tulips as I walked into the clubhouse at the pristine country club. The grounds were immaculate. Silence filled the golf course surrounding the buildings, as no golfers were present. It was curiously calm, a bright Sunday afternoon. Membership costs here are exorbitant.

I used to come to this country club as a child. My grandparents were members, and I used to ride bikes here with my dear friend to swim in the pool. We would pretend she was my sister, using my now painfully evident white privilege to allow us to swim all day long. At the age of 8, I knew no different; I thought these opulent swimming pools and tasty chicken tenders were afforded to everyone. My last time here had been for my grandmother's funeral, soon before I completed my bachelor's degree.

People of all ages arrived at the alumni event, and as we put on our sticky name tags, my hands started shaking. The memories here of politeness and façade were strong.

Small talk commenced mainly among alumni of different Ivy League colleges. I began chatting with another young woman and a trans woman. I always find outliers in networking events such as this because I am also one. We got food from the brunch buffet and people began to sit at the nearby tables while waiting for the speaker to begin.

I sat beside an older woman who told me she received her Ph.D. from MIT.

"Wow, I'm sure she has a lot of wisdom to share," I thought.

I asked her what her thoughts were on higher education today. She gave me an example of what she misses from her past. She said when she went to college, they had a class in which each student was presented with an issue and had to write an argument in opposition to their own. She said she learned so much by doing this and that there is deep value in learning about opposing viewpoints, as we are all much more similar than we are different.

The speaker started soon after. She was introduced as Rachel Croson, provost of the University of Minnesota. Croson explained that her four years in the role make her one of the few who have lasted that long as provost of any university.

She began by saying that universities mirror society.

She explained that current political polarization is fueled by fewer and fewer opportunities to talk with people of different opinions, just like what the woman next to me was saying. Echo chambers through social media were mentioned as one cause. However, she explained, present-day challenges are seeds for opportunities.

She explained how, in the U.S. in the 1980s, higher education was considered a public good — something accessible through a general college option at the U, for example. Higher education used to be seen as a value to all individuals, creating social and economic mobility. Today, however, it is considered a private good, and it feels as exclusionary as the country club we sat in while listening to this talk.

She continued to explain that there is overwhelming proof of the return on investment of higher education, and her passion for the university was palpable.

The biggest challenge in higher education today, she said, was the decreased public trust in the institution. She referenced a 2023 Gallup poll (tinyurl.com/poll-confidence) that showed Americans' confidence in higher education has fallen to 36%, a sharp decline from polls of prior years. I believe the public has lost trust in higher education due to the perception that it's a private good allowed only to the few who go into massive student debt or have family money to afford educational privileges.

However, the statistics Croson mentioned regarding how little trust Americans have in all U.S. institutions surprised me. She referenced another Gallup poll from the same year (tinyurl.com/poll-trust). The polled Americans stated that small businesses, the military, the police and then the medical system were the institutions they trusted the most. At the bottom of the list were television news, big business and Congress.

Notably, only 8% of Americans polled had trust in Congress.

After the talk, I spoke with Croson directly and asked her what no one else was brave enough to ask during the open Q&A. I asked how she was navigating U students protesting for peace and a cease-fire between Israel and Palestine. She explained that discussions were happening between students and faculty.

We can only build trust between the public and institutions through dialogue, learning more about the opposing argument and seeing the cards as they lay. Massive political polarization continues to appear in all institutions, including higher education. However, continued dialogue inside all institutions and with the public, including the health care system, Congress and some big businesses is occurring slowly. Achieving transparency is the first step toward rebuilding trust.

With continued smoke and mirrors and massive distraction tactics inside U.S. institutions, distrust will prevail as the overarching public opinion. It is up to the people inside these institutions to be honest with us and stand firmly in the belief of social and economic mobility for the public, not just for the few shareholders at the top.

Kristen Hutchison, of St. Louis Park, is a medical writer.