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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently labeled President Obama a snob for encouraging all Americans to attend college. For those of us old enough to remember, such a charge carries echoes of four decades past when President Richard Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, attempted to merge Democrats and academics into a single entity in the public consciousness, calling them "effete, intellectual snobs."

Shortly thereafter, Agnew was forced from office on charges of extortion, bribery and tax fraud. Clearly, Santorum, a strong opponent of funded public education despite possessing three degrees from institutions of higher learning, was trying to access a misplaced but persistent resentment that links higher education not just with wealth and class, but with privilege and remoteness from the troubles of common folk.

The evidence for the wrongheadedness of Santorum's statement is well-documented. From the GI Bill to Pell grants, higher education has provided the stepping stone to a better life for ordinary Americans. Once a bastion for the rich, scholarships and attention to access and diversity have helped colleges and universities level class distinctions, basing admissions on the promise of and ambition for self-improvement and societal contribution.

Innovation is the engine of the American economy and education is the source of innovation. Those with higher education degrees earn more in their lifetimes, contribute rather than subtract from the tax base that funds our services, and have the skills needed to adapt to the ever-changing demands of the work force. It's a significant component in the prescription for a more fulfilling life.

The media prominence of Santorum's attack, however, demonstrates that colleges and universities need to do a better job of explaining their essential function in elevating personal and collective well-being while producing and teaching the knowledge that fosters economic vibrancy.

To refute accusations that our institutions are insular country clubs, we need to expand our efforts to bring the campus to the community and the community to campus. We must integrate our learning objectives with application to societal needs and opportunities. We need to remain nimble, energetic, creative, and engaged if we are not only to stay ahead of the curve but also to sustain our voice in establishing that curve.

Our critical thinking and communication skills, our interdisciplinary and international explorations, our discoveries that lessen pain and extend life, our creation and study of the deep repository of stories that provoke recognition and resonance about the human condition, all establish higher education as central to what we've become and what we wish to be. We must take more responsibility for effectively framing and conveying this reality.

Thomas Jefferson said that "an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." Of course, Santorum might take issue with Jefferson's deism as well as his advocacy for the separation of church and state. The fact that this founding father's book collection became the Library of Congress might also relegate him to the collective trash bin of snobbery in Santorum's estimation.

However, Jefferson's intelligence was by no means foolproof. Predating Darwin, he firmly believed that Lewis and Clark would encounter dinosaurs in their expedition to map the primitive West. It was beyond the scope of his grand imagination that one would emerge as a serious contender for the highest office in the land.

Robert D. Newman is dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah.