The University in the Future

Response by Andrew Abbott

April 4, 2001

You know, I read Don Randel's remarks and said to myself, "Andy, you have written this talk. You've even given it a bunch of times. You and Constantin Fasolt and Richard Streier wrote it about the Core. You took it on the road in the Hugo wars. You gave it again last Sunday in New York for those two hundred college prospies and their parents. You gave it Monday for the grad student prospies. It's the old 'we're better than the rest' talk; no, not utterly different from them (we're too mature to say that), just a little better--you know, nothing sells like a little humility. And always with that pastel haze of realism to gentle up the myth so it's not so barefaced. A nod to the various constituencies,--polite words about the scientists, nice talk about diversity, reflections on how undergraduates challenge us to remember our roots, all the good stuff."

I said to myself, "Just who exactly are we trying to kid?" Maybe there's nothing whatever different about this place. So I'm going to do a very U of C thing, which is to start an argument. And paradoxically I'm going to do it by denying that there is anything special about the U of C. I am going to make the case against this "special U of C" line. And I'm going to do it in the tone of David Lodge, drawing on invective and sarcasm to startle us out of our Chicago pieties. I'm sorry if it's a little offensive--I've had a bad couple of days in the office. But it's all right. We can all look at each other afterwards with a little embarrassment, wonder what Andy ate for dinner last night, and chalk it all up to his well-known reputation as errant artillery.

To start with, I don't want to talk about the long run of history. The very nature of knowledge will gradually shift with the coming of new media, as it did with print, and to think we could in any way shape such an affair is foolishness. Even to think we can foresee it is delusional, although some of our colleagues collect much public notice jetting around the world and holding forth about their own personal delusions regarding this matter. To be sure, we can think about trying to preserve something of the structural nature of our university over the 25-year haul. But the reality is that over the last 25 years, the expansion of the College has completely transformed this university. That transformation went largely unnoticed because demographic replacement of the faculty removed the old old guard, while the medium old guard figured out how to insulate itself behind its Distinguished Service this's and that's, and the new guard never really knew anything different and were, in any case, themselves from a different generation with different desires and dreams. It's a great place but it bears no real resemblance to the utterly graduate institution I came to in 1971, when undergraduates were the ghost in the machine.

As for the spiritual nature of the university, that is created largely by the current social structure (forgive me for being a Marxist), and that social structure has been seriously changed, both by the recent blows of Mr. Sonnenschein and by the inevitable forces of the larger conjuncture; the emergence of a purely national, elite tertiary educational market, the replacement of collegiate by post graduate education as the consequential form of advanced training, the reorganization of academics' family lives, and the democratization of research resources consequent on pork barrel funding, the internet, increased travel, and so on. We'll always remember the old University, but using the language of the Faust college or the Levi graduate university to talk about what we have today is just more self-delusion. It's all right, of course. What we say won't matter much. If they bother to read us at all, later generations will make what they want of what we said. We did it to our predecessors and our successors will do it to us. But the bottom line is that the values of the place are going to change pretty rapidly, what with one thing and another, and we can't do a damn thing about it.

As an example of this change, let me unmince a few words about one of the local sacred cows, a cow I have tended carefully over the last decade. We don't have a faculty taught core. It's more so than elsewhere, and maybe it's better designed than elsewhere, but it's not truly faculty taught. Our humanities core was cut--I was there, my friends--because the faculty involved no longer wished to teach it. They don't believe in teaching students about values. According to what many of them write, they're not really clear whether they have any values themselves. They're not sure what they want to teach (although they'd certainly like to teach it in Paris rather than Chicago). The social sciences core is sometimes thought to be a little healthier intellectually--that's the shibboleth of me and my fellow social scientists--but still a good half the social science faculty avoid teaching in it. The reality of the curricular wars here is that many faculty would like to settle into the fatuous routine of lecture courses, disguised as very-much-needed surveys, in which they can do less work. Most faculty here secretly think it a waste of time for eminent academics with planet-wide reputations like theirs to be at the same time teaching somewhat randomly chosen elite 18-year-olds how to write a paragraph of prose. Surely somebody else can do that.

What about the President's claim that it is important to "think about our disagreements without scapegoating and accusations of moral bankruptcy"? Bullshit. What good is a university where people don't attack each other hammer and tongs? Where nobody is going to get hurt? Are ideas worth arguing about, or are they just things to play with while wondering where Professor Zeitgeist managed to get that unadulterated Kona coffee or whether Umbrian olive oil is better than Ligurian? Beats me--I'm dumb on olive oil--but I do know that most of us feel that we have colleagues--certainly in other departments and sometimes in our own--who teach things that are wrong in themselves or wrongly cited or motivated by politics or personal pathology, and so on - and yet we do nothing about it. The "open encounter" of ideas is in reality a non-encounter. One does not hear of an extensive conversation between the Committee on Social Thought and the Center for Gender Studies. But I would not want to be a fly on the wall if these people were--following Doris Lessing's crazed scheme--forced to marry one another academically. What do we do about these non-encounters? We don't do anything. That's what I used--in my youth--to call moral bankruptcy. Now I call it maturity and forbearance.

Do we really have "academic autoimmune disease?" In which our contentious beliefs somehow threaten "the necessary conditions for questioning, challenging, differing, arguing"? Has somebody around here felt threatened recently by somebody else's ideas? I haven't met them. Maybe threatened by others' deft academic politics or by their all too effective gatekeeping. But by their ideas? Assuming that a decent respect for others constitutes our basic academic value is, in the current situation, simply a way to hide from the fact that most of us have lost the raw edge of academic passion. The reality of it is that we don't really give much of a damn about anything except our own little bit, and if others leave that alone, we'll leave them well enough alone.

In fact, there is nothing real at risk in our various culture wars and curricular wars and never has been. Our flashy conferences rehearse with simulated outrage our supposed differences, but we are more worried about whether the Chilean Chardonnay will really pass muster, whether we will have hurt X's well-known-to-be-delicate feelings, or advanced our deftly quiet vendetta on the students of Y, that pomo fool. Academic stances succeed each other with monotonous quarter-century regularity as each generation invents some new wrinkle (or relabels an old one) in order to conduct the obligatory massacre of the middle-aged, then growing bored flits off to Bellagio and Stockholm and Aspen for a properly pleasant decline.

It is this kind of non-commitment that forces Don to his most depressing conclusion, that "we cannot idly expect [faculty] to express their values and commitment through any very significant financial sacrifice." Excuse me? The median salary of full professors in the Divisions is around the 93rd percentile of the American income distribution. Their children's college tuitions are paid for. They have health insurance, disability insurance, university-paid trips to conferences, half-price at the lab school, office phones to use for personal long distance, all the usual privileges of the upper class. Do you think the taxi driver who brought me in from O'Hare last Sunday night thinks people who have all this but are in only the 93rd, not the 95th, percentile of income are making a sacrifice? Showing a special commitment? And that we can't expect people to "express their values and commitment" at the price of that extra trip to London for spring break?

The reality is that our faculty is not unusually committed. We may want to think of ourselves as special, but one has a hard time taking this talk of commitment and the "special university" very seriously once one has sat in the administrative offices and listened to the endless litany of self-gratulation and narcissistic blackmail from faculty members who year after year "just heard from my friends at Columbia that there really might be an important opportunity for me there."

Part of the problem is that the university doesn't face any threat. There is no risk to any of us from our ideas; there is little on the line. So we make ideas a parlor game. Indeed, one could see the more idiotic excesses of post-modernism as an attempt to try to call some kind of threat into existence. At least then there would be a fight, commitment, passion, anger. But in fact, no one cares. Nearly all of us believe that nonsense can be and is taught in classrooms, urged at meetings, and peddled in various contexts here, but it's OK as long as it goes on in somebody else's discipline, just not in our intellectual backyard.

As President Randel points out, the sciences to some extent avoid this. But they are no better than the rest of us. Smug and self-assured in their own special way, they imagine that their debates really are of more importance than anything else, since as they well know they study the truth, as opposed to the rest of us who waste our time with the beautiful and the just. And indeed, as the President has remarked, they are very well supported, on the one hand by a military industry looking for new ways to kill other people without risking any of our own and on the other by a civilian population desperate to live a few more months or weeks and hence willing to spend 17% of its disposable personal income on medical care, from which the sciences siphon off the blob of money that lets them play their little genetic games. In fact, if we cut life sciences research in half we could give a quarter of a million dollars cash on the barrel annually to every single primary or secondary school in the United States.

In conclusion, I fear I was just a little naive. Perhaps it has been a great folly to believe this institution's patter about itself. And indeed one of the institution's greatest follies is its utterly pathological self-obsession, a pathology reaching its apogee in my department--God knows how many Chicago Schools of Sociology have been tarted up, by me among others. And take this little colloquy of ours here. Nothing really at risk, no real worry, nothing to make us nervous. Just a little stimulation and tut-tuttery, and then we're off to the wine and cheese. In reality, of course, there's just a small sector of this university that makes merry talking about itself, all the while imagining that it's talking for the whole. The great body of the university is more or less unaware and uncaring that it is indistinguishable from universities elsewhere and looks with amused contempt at the Idea of the University posters plastered about.

So there it is, the case that the U of C is no different from any other place. Somebody had to appear in this venue and make this case--happened it was me. I apologize for my excessive energy in making it. But in fact there's a strong case to be made that we're no better than the rest. The great driving forces out there in American higher education push us on whether we want to or not; nationalization of and competition in the undergraduate student market, changes in the family form that mean faculty spend Saturday at AYSO soccer games instead of the laboratory and library, the growth of absolute winner-take-all markets for senior faculty, the decreasing utility of a college education that actually teaches something--these will all push the University towards rapid change. There will be a different university here in 25 years, both in social structure and in values.

If that is going to be a great university, much less THE UNIVERSITY, we had better wake up and discover a commitment to something besides the nostalgic pleasantries we live with today. From Gibbon onward, it has been common to portray eighteenth century Oxford as a somnolent university combining Augustan self-assurance with intellectual flatulence. Unless we develop a real vision, we're not going to be much better.