The University in the Future

Don Michael Randel

The title for our year-long colloquium is "The Idea of the University." This, of course, evokes John Henry Cardinal Newman’s famous if only partly read work, the title of which, however, is The Idea of a University. Jaroslav Pelikan’s "dialogue" with Newman is titled The Idea of the University, but although the book is dedicated to the centennial of The University of Chicago and recalls his time here, it derives from a year-long series of lectures at Yale on the future of the university, which clearly means Yale. Both Donald Levine and Hanna Gray have spoken about "a university" and "the university" in lowercase letters, surveying aspects of the history of universities generally, but both have made it clear that the real subject here is The University, with capital letters, of which we know there to be only one. Donald Levine’s subtitle, "On the Genius of this Place," eliminates all possible doubt.

The title given to me, "The University in the Future," might to the untutored appear to refer to the general rather than the particular. But this has been definitively resolved for me by the nice folks at Microsoft, Bill Gates, chief executive officer, for as a user of Microsoft Word, I need only type the letters "t h e [space] u," and a handy little yellow box pops up offering to supply the words "The University of Chicago," nicely capitalized, with hardly any further intervention on my part. Indeed, in the first sentence of this paragraph, on reaching the first letter of the word untutored, I was offered the possibility of using the phrase "The University of Chicago," nicely capitalized, instead. You might wish to amuse yourselves, should any of what follows not prove absolutely riveting, by thinking of all of the words that begin with U for which the phrase "University of Chicago" would not be a satisfactory substitute. We are, to be sure, self-absorbed at this university, but not perhaps to the degree that Mr. Gates supposes. In any case, I hope that I will be excused if I follow the example of my predecessors by saying a bit about universities in general before returning to The University, with capital letters.

The general question before us is what has become of universities, "in the age of money," as some commentators have put it, and what is likely to become of them in the future in consequence of that. Among the many gloomy accounts of this, I find the one by Bill Readings, in his The University in Ruins (1996), especially stimulating. He writes that "the current fierce debate on the status of the University . . . by and large misses the point, because it fails to think the University in a transnational framework, preferring to busy itself with either nostalgia or denunciation–most often with an admixture of the two" (12-13). Readings’s history of the modern university goes as follows:

The characteristic of the modern University is to have an idea that functions as its referent, as the end and meaning of its activities. . . . In general the modern University has had three ideas. The story begins, as do so many stories about modernity, with Kant, who envisioned the University as guided by the concept of reason. Kant’s vision is followed by Humboldt’s idea of culture, and more recently the emphasis has been on the techno-bureaucratic notion of excellence. The distinguishing feature of the last on this list is that it actually lacks a referent. That is to say, the idea that functions as the University’s referent–excellence–itself has no referent. The University of Excellence is the simulacrum of the idea of a University. (p. 54)

In Readings’s view, Humboldt’s university of culture serves the state in the production of national subjects. With the decline of the nation-state and its replacement by a transnational economy in which capital pursues profits across all boundaries, the modern university comes to serve only itself and justifies itself through an appeal to excellence, for which it claims to stand. "The economic counterpart of the hollowing out of political subjectivity that accompanies the decline of the nation-state" is "consumerism–which is correctly perceived as the most pressing threat to the traditional subject of university education in North America" (p. 48).

So as not to be accused of concealing anything, let me conclude my invocation of Readings with his remarks on university presidents:

In the Kantian University, his or her function is the purely disciplinary one of making decisive judgments in inter-faculty conflicts on the grounds of reason alone. In the University founded on culture, the president incarnates a pandisciplinary ideal of general cultural orientation, becoming the figure of the University itself. . . . As Schleiermacher puts it, the true "idea" of a rector is that of a single individual who can stand metaphorically for the University in the eyes of the world while remaining metonymically connected to the rest of the faculty. . . . In the University of Excellence [here Bill Gates has again wanted me to say The University of Chicago, but I have not allowed it], however, a president is a bureaucratic administrator who moves effortlessly from the lecture hall, to the sports stadium to the executive lounge. From judge, to synthesizer, to executive and fund raiser, without publicly expressing any opinions or passing any judgments whatsoever. (54-55)

I find this stimulating not because I believe it to be necessarily correct in every detail. One might or might not find Readings’s leftist critique of the global economy sympathetic. Dominick LaCapra points out that in his hyperbolic account, Readings "is himself so marked by the idea of the university of culture that he is unable to inquire into the extent to which it was always a phantasm" (Critical Inquiry 25 [Autumn1998], p. 39). But Readings does help us to think about the ways in which the various ideas of the university (lowercase) in the past have been ideas at the service of other powerful institutions and about the degree to which universities today have retreated to an idea--excellence--that is simultaneously unobjectionable on its face and empty at its core. The public is left to turn in search of arbiters of excellence to the likes of U.S. News & World Report, where excellence is readily quantified and commodified. Another lesson here is the one that Hanna Gray has already taught us, echoed in a particular way by Paul Hunter, namely that history is often a story told by someone for a particular purpose and that one needs to be careful about justifying the present by appealing to a past that is rarely as simple as one might like it to be. Gerald Graff puts it this way: "A university is a curious accretion of conflicts that it has systematically forgotten." (Quoted in LaCapra, p. 49.)

But let us now talk about The University, with capital letters. Our university is arguably the only major research university that thinks it important to have an idea of itself that sets it truly apart, the vogue in higher education for mission and vision statements imported from total quality management notwithstanding. A very high proportion of faculty, students, staff, and alumni would insist that they could give an account of this idea, and these accounts would speak first and foremost to the fundamental principles and values of an academic institution rather than to the kind of thing that might appear in a travel guide to colleges and universities. We have been known to say on occasion that we are the greatest university in the world. But in light of the foregoing, I hope we can agree that this is by itself not a sufficient idea of The University.

At a minimum, part of our idea of our university is that we think it important to have an idea of it. And we think it important to be able to argue about it. Indeed, we think it important to be able to argue about any and all things. But I believe that it is also important to have some ideas about the nature of argument as part of our idea of The University. Here I would like to recall first two remarks of Paul Hunter at our last session: (1) "The sometime tendency to think of a University of Eden from which we have descended and digressed is a seductive and delusionary myth." (2) "Remembering that the Ideas of a University as articulated by Harper, Hutchins, Levi, and Gray were in many ways incompatible offers a good start not only at sorting out our history but also in thinking through our possibilities for the future."

When we argue about the idea of our university, it is important to avoid the trap of arguing as if The University once lived without sin, guided only by its own unchanging idea of itself, and uncorrupted by the baser interests at work in society. As I remarked on another occasion, "It is naïve to suppose that universities [including this one] have ever existed independent of cultural, economic, and political forces. The question is not whether universities exist in relation to such forces but why and how they do." A favorite poem by A. R. Ammons begins "I can tell you what I need is money." Neither I nor any of my predecessors nor any member of the university community could have said it better. And we have been known to go, Willie Sutton-like, where the money is to get it, including to the Baptists, the federal government, the parents of eighteen-year-olds, and a good many other places as well, each attaching its own set of strings. The very size and shape of our faculty today is overwhelmingly the product of federal policy in relation to science (and a lack of one in relation to most other disciplines) since the Second World War. And that policy has been driven for most of this period not by the search for truth and beauty that might form part of our idea of our university but by the belief that science is good for business, good for the military, and good for helping us to live a little longer. Even some of what might help us live longer can be declared off limits if it runs afoul of the ideology of the incumbent political party. So much for clean hands, whether you do big science, Mozarabic Chant, or anything in between.

It is similarly important, when we argue about the idea of our university, that we avoid falling into the trap of thinking that all change has been and is for the worse–a straying from some right and proper path that all right-thinking people have ever followed. We ourselves have originated most of the substantial change that has taken place over time, sometimes in response to external forces but often as a function of our passionate belief in the need to question any and all things, including our own beliefs. We cannot immunize ourselves and our university from such a fundamental belief. This means that we must know how to cope with our disagreements without scapegoating or accusations of moral bankruptcy.

Here I should like to recall some of the remarks of Jonathan Smith at our first session:

       "The university’s unity is a product of its difference."

       "The coherence of the university lies in its refusal to allow differences to remain incoherent and inarticulate.
       "Viewed in this light, a university is a privileged social locus where a variety of competing interpretations and proposals as to ‘what is the case’ may be explored, experimented with, and evaluated apart from urgent needs and ineradicable consequences. It is a place that requires of all its citizens that they be always aware of their boundedness, their necessary partiality, and that, therefore, they become skilled in the arts of being attentive to, of seeking to understand the perspective of others, and of entertaining the possibility of integrating into their view that of the other."

       "The goal of such an enterprise is not some passive form of tolerance, but rather active modes of reflection which seek to clarify interpretative choices which must be made, as well as the consequences these will entail."

The chief threat to our idea of our university, then, comes not from without but from within. It will be a failure to recognize that the right to question, challenge, differ, argue is not just an individual right but is also a collective right–that to question, challenge, differ, argue with the other is to embrace the other as a part of a collective enterprise. If we are threatened it is by a kind of academic autoimmune disease in which the rights and beliefs that set us forcefully apart from the rest of the world turn against our own collectivity and set about to destroy the necessary conditions for questioning, challenging, differing, arguing. We become a body in which every organ is simultaneously at work rejecting every other organ. I should say, furthermore, that I believe that these considerations apply across all of the people who make up our community, whether faculty, students, or staff. A "decent respect" for others seems like an enabling condition for what we claim to value most.

What is the goal of questioning, challenging, differing, arguing? Do we do these things only for their own sake? Or are these merely the handmaidens of research, about which we also like to speak as a fundamental aim of our university? If so, research into what and for what purpose? James Redfield observed at our first session that "if our research fails nobody really cares much but us, most of the time nobody else notices. In this specific sense the research operation is unworldly. It is in fact heir to the third of the great mediaeval schools: not law or medicine but theology. Like the scholastics we are engaged in a perpetual dispute which only occasionally interests anybody but us." This is why the world sometimes calls us wooly headed and calls our institution an ivory tower. Of course, we also do work for hire, and some of the work we do is of direct benefit to humankind. But if our research "only occasionally interests anybody but us," it is of deadly interest to us. It is not just that we do more research than other universities as a fraction of our total effort that sets us apart from them. It is that we take it very much more seriously and have been willing to make considerable sacrifices for the sake of it. The range of disciplines that we maintain and in which we excel, without regard for simple factors of supply and demand, speaks forcefully to this. But the real reason for taking research so seriously, for making it the object of our single-minded devotion, is that it is about life itself. Life constantly teeters on the brink of being a dirty joke. Research is the determined effort to find or make or assert meaning when the alternative is absurdity. That is an idea worth having at the heart of a university, an idea worth living by. That is the sense in which I take James Redfield’s remark that we are "the most academic of the great universities." Here academic does not have the everyday meaning of irrelevant or immaterial–quite the opposite.

We have sometimes debated the relationship between our commitment to research and our teaching of undergraduates. Research universities have often been assaulted of late with the charge that undergraduates are being neglected in favor of research. In consequence, all of them have busily claimed that the research university is an ideal environment for undergraduates, who benefit from the stimulating presence of faculty members and graduate students whose basic instinct is to question received opinion. I believe this to be true, as far as it goes. But The University of Chicago is in much the best position of any of them to deliver on that promise. The University’s commitment to research and the importance that we attach to it simply could not escape the notice of any undergraduate here. Conversely, undergraduates have their own contribution to make to the research enterprise. For one thing, first-year students, especially our first-year students, do not know enough not to ask hard questions. The fact that a whole discipline has swallowed a certain line of thought for generations simply does not constitute evidence for a bright undergraduate. This can have a tonic effect on faculty and graduate students. In my own work, the nugget of ideas in papers that are still discussed thirty years later came to me with the realization that no bright young person who had not already been socialized to my discipline could possibly take seriously the current account of some topic or other and that I should try very hard to think of something better.

It is sometimes thought that undergraduate teaching can have a corrosive effect on the spirit of the research university because of the greater pressure placed on it by the marketplace to supply preprofessional or vocational education. This is only the latest phase of the debate that goes at least as far back as debates about whether any electives at all should be allowed into the strictly classical curriculum. Here again, however, the danger may come as much from within as from without. As LaCapra puts it, "Training to become an academic may often be as preprofessional as training to become a doctor or lawyer" (p. 45). Nevertheless, our own version of undergraduate education is still the best defense against either of those dangers, for it aims to provide not a closed body of knowledge, whether immediately useful or not in whatever profession, but the intellectual tools for engaging an ever-expanding body of knowledge of whatever kind. This is precisely of a piece with what underlies our commitment to research.

We have in common the idea that we ought to and do have an idea of The University that is worthy of the names idea and university. That idea is in part a set of values and in part a strength of commitment to those values. We steadfastly value freedom of inquiry in the pursuit of meaning in any and all things. We insistently value ideas, whether embodied in the fruits of research or in works of art, for their beauty and for their power, and in so doing we declare forcefully that they matter in our lives and in the world. We rambunctiously value vigorous debate for the sake of learning from one another and not for the sake of demeaning one another. These values are uniquely embodied in the shape of our university and everything that it does.

The shortest part of these remarks concerns what fundamentally to do about all of this as we contemplate the university in the future. The answer is, "as little as possible." Whether in the administration or not, all of us should take the Hippocratic Oath and promise to do no harm. But we are sure to continue to change, just as we have changed steadily from our founding to the present. That change must be born of our unchanging values and a belief that vigorous debate can and must at times end in agreement. We will not change for the sake of mere imitation. We will change in response to our ability to question ourselves, just as we insist on questioning others.

There are also some more specific ways in which the future will look a great deal like the past. We are a university of extraordinary accomplishment in relation to its resources. Fierce commitment, focus, energy, and imagination have enabled much that would not otherwise have been possible. These will be as necessary in the future as they have been in the past if we are to maintain and increase the level of our accomplishments, and we must believe that we will increase the level of our accomplishments. Our ability to see and grasp opportunity and possibility must be at least the equal of our ability to identify problems and limitations. Resources will not be any easier to generate in the future than they have been in the past, and we will need more of them. This will entail a disciplined and sustained collaboration in fundraising across the University and a belief that there is a common good to be achieved.

No discussion of the future would be complete without some discussion of technology. Simply put, computers will not save us a nickel. New technologies will become the necessary adjuncts of much that we do, but they will not substitute for what is our most important underlying asset, namely the talented, transforming individual. Whether in research or teaching, we are a community of people capable of changing one another’s lives. No cathode-ray tube or flat-panel display can substitute for the direct, personal encounter of such people with one another. New technologies may extend our reach to other audiences, but they will not fundamentally change the character of this institution. Of course, you know that these words come from a life-long student of monasticism.

That said, our community will itself become more diverse just as the nation becomes more diverse, and we will take steps to ensure that it does. We cannot at once believe in the power of our values and of the education that we build on them and allow some sectors of society to be denied access to those values and that education. We must be a community of inclusion in our own right and in relation to the city in which we live. In order to guarantee enhanced access for all students, we will require significantly greater support for financial aid. We can be proud that we serve a population of students that is somewhat needier than that of some other private institutions. But we must remain equal to the challenges of the costs that this imposes.

Among the sacrifices that we have undertaken for the sake of some of our accomplishments is that we have denied ourselves some measure of the physical facilities that we might otherwise have expected to have. It is no secret that major efforts are under way to make good this deficit. But still greater efforts will be needed. Will the character of campus architecture continue to change? Yes. Will everyone like every new building? No. We will simply aspire to architecture of a quality equal to the quality that we expect in all of our intellectual and academic undertakings. The northern edge of The Midway will continue to be its historic gothic self. The southern edge of The Midway will become steadily denser and more architecturally diverse, taking on its own lively character.

I have said that The University’s principal asset is its people. After all, only people can embody the values and the commitment that make us what we are. We are proud that we are different from other institutions, and we choose not to imitate them. This, however, does not prevent other institutions from wanting to imitate us in some degree by attempting to lure one or another colleague away. And, it must be said, this does not prevent the occasional colleague from being tempted by such blandishments. We must hope that values and commitment are the principal reasons for which both faculty and graduate students want to be at The University of Chicago. But we cannot idly expect them to express their values and commitment through any very significant financial sacrifice. One of our greatest challenges for the future, then, will be to find the resources with which to ensure that neither talented faculty nor talented graduate students go to other institutions for the wrong reasons (though it is hard to imagine what a "right" reason could be).

The University in the future will be formed of people as diversely talented as those we so often invoke from our past and in the present. Each will claim to know precisely what is special about The University of Chicago in just the way that we do now. But some of them will be voting to change things about the University that we have worked hard to put in place. I hope that from whatever perch we view this scene, we will see in this a strength of the institution–an institution capable of living fully by its own values, including especially the commitment to argument in the best sense.