The University in the Future

Response by Samuel Hellman, MD

April 4, 2001

In most occupations, commenting on your boss’s presentation in public--especially in his presence--is fraught with risks and should be approached with trepidation, but in our line of work that is not so. A colleague once told me that tenure is never having to say you’re sorry. In that spirit I offer my comments. Since I am from The Biological Science Division and the medical school, I will use this vantage point.

There is a revolution occurring in biology epitomized by the projects, both public and private, to document the human genome--an example of what Mr. Randel suggests determines the size and shape of our academic institutions. The implications of this revolution extend far beyond the university. Fortunately, this university requires of its undergraduates at least a year of study in the biological sciences. This is especially important for those liberal arts graduates who have no intention of further study of these subjects. The important societal discussions currently occurring require a familiarity with the concepts and vocabulary of biology. It is not possible to discuss genetic engineering without some real understanding of what a gene is and is not.

Within current biology and medicine the prevailing view is that advances are made by discoveries at molecular and sub-molecular levels. This emphasis on reductionism--almost to the exclusion of other levels of knowledge--is exaggerated by the role of freestanding biomedical research institutions and private industry. I once heard James Gowans, an Oxford immunologist, discuss the traffic of lymphocytes throughout the body; he worried about reductionism by comparing this method to studying automobile traffic by analysis of the internal combustion engine. Erwin Schrödinger believed that quantum theory--the ultimate in reductionism--was the proper level for studying genetics. Time has proven that to be too basic a level. Universities in general, and this university in particular, are prepared to consider questions at many levels of organization by, to quote Mr. Randel, "questioning, challenging, differing, arguing." New meaning can be given to discovery by the inter-disciplinary study so characteristic of this university. Isolated investigations will continue to be a central focus but multi-disciplinary studies will determine the success of the University of the Future.

The second revolution today is digital. Mr. Randel has commented on the built-in bias of our local computers. While he questions the importance of this technique in learning, data enthusiasts speak of "the disaggregation of knowledge into data or datafication." This also misses the importance of context and collegial encounter. Seely Brown and Duguid in their recent book, The Social Life of Information, suggest that "the way forward is to not look ahead but look around."

The University of the Future then has to provide the advances of reductionism considered at many levels. It must embrace the digital revolution but not develop digital tunnel vision. Using a medical simile, Mr. Randel cautions us against academic autoimmunity. Fortunately, The University of Chicago has a long history of interdisciplinary dialogue and collaborative study. This, perhaps, is the only university where one can hear the phrase "transaction costs" in the business school, the law school, the medical school and the Social Sciences Division.

Mrs. Gray was especially eloquent in her discussion of the university and its history. Mr. Randel mentioned their three great mediaeval schools, theology, law and medicine. I would like to spend a few minutes emphasizing the participation and--dare I--the centrality of medicine to the history and the idea of the university. This is not merely chauvinism, but is offered to counter the perception of medicine as separate from the main interests of the university. The University of Chicago is unusual in its organization and geography. In most universities the medical school is at some distance--physically and intellectually--from the main campus; not so here. We exist and prosper within the central university community.

Mrs. Gray reminded us that The University of Bologna is the oldest university. Berengario de Carpi first encouraged human dissection and autopsy at that university. The word autopsy derives from "to view oneself." Surely, that is a major interest of a university. The second oldest university is the University of Paris. Vesalius was educated there but spent most of his career at the University of Padua where he made his anatomic observations, correcting some of the generally accepted concepts of Galen. Also to Padua for further medical study went Caius. He returned to Cambridge and refounded his old hall in 1557 as Gonville and Caius College. It was at Cambridge that circulation was discovered by William Harvey. Pharmacy began at Padua where the first chair in botany, founded in 1533, became the basis for materia medica. As hospitals developed relationships to universities, scientific medicine emerged in the 19th century. With the development of scientific medicine, medical epistemology changed. Observation and experiment replaced learning primarily from old texts. The context of Mr. Randel's quotation from Hippocrates is "to help or at least to do no harm." Implicit in this is that sometimes in order to help one must risk harm. So it is with inductive research. Advances in knowledge often do harm to older cherished concepts, inviting "questioning, challenging, differing, arguing."

The German universities of the 19th century provided the model for The University of Chicago. The previously mentioned Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt's predecessor Alexander had wide interests in science and in its relationship to society, culture and the human condition. He was a great influence on Thomas Hodgkin, one of the greatest figures in the medicine of that time and a personal medical idol. I leave you with the translation of the quotation from the Roman slave Terence that is engraved on Hodgkin’s tombstone: "Nothing of humanity was foreign to him." This should be a part of The Idea of the University.