The University in History

Opening Remarks by Stuart A. Rice

January 17, 2001

Welcome to the second meeting of the Idea of the University Colloquium.

Ten weeks ago Don Levine spoke about the "genius of this place." His lecture emphasized the special character of this university, and how its focus and spirit evolved, the kinds of choices made in that evolution and their consequences for scholarship and intellectual leadership. In doing so, he touched very briefly on the role of the non-university world in assisting, fighting, or ignoring that evolution. However, he did bring us to the point of recognizing that there are challenges to our fundamental values inherent in the technological and commercial changes underway in the non-university world.

Our panelists, James Redfield, Jonathan Smith and Geoffrey Stone, also focused attention on the ways in which this university is distinctive. Jamie Redfield mused on how ideas matter in a specific and intense way here, more so than at other universities. Jonathan Smith noted that our culture is associated with becoming skilled in the arts of being attentive to and seeking to understand the perspective of others and of entertaining the possible integration into one view that of another. Geoff Stone remarked on the diversity and complexity of our intellectual enterprises. Although Geoff directly acknowledged the necessity for financial support to maintain and to continue to develop what we believe is a unique association of scholars, researchers and students, neither he nor our other commentators discussed the role of external world social consensus in the evolution of this university.

About fifteen years ago, while on a lecture tour in Ireland, I visited Newgrange, a prehistoric tumulus of immense size that is covered with a layer of quartz stones that were transported from a site more than a hundred miles away. This tumulus was constructed before the pyramids of Egypt. The connection I wish to make between this rather obscure information and today's colloquium is straightforward. The existence of Newgrange implies that the then existing society generated enough surplus (and it must have been an immense surplus) to invest in its construction. But the making of that investment implies that there must have been some kind of social consensus that the investment was appropriate. The existence of the idea of the university, and of universities per se, implies some sort of social consensus that the investment in them is appropriate. That consensus has changed greatly over the thousand or so years that universities have existed and is changing particularly rapidly now. Consider our attitude towards university based science. Michael Gibbons has noted that under the prevailing contract between science and society, science has been expected to produce "reliable knowledge" provided merely that it communicates its discoveries to society. This contract is being challenged (and possibly replaced) by a new contract that ensures that scientific knowledge is "socially robust," and that its production is both transparent and participative. I want to advance the argument that understanding the social consensus concerning the nature and role of the university should be an element of our understanding of the idea of the university.

Today we have the privilege to be addressed by Hanna Gray, President Emerita of the University. Her subject is The University in History, to which she has appended the subtitle: 1088 And All That. Following this talk, our panelists Paul Hunter, Stephen Stigler and Anthony Yu will comment on aspects of the issues raised. There will be an opportunity to question all of the speakers at the end of this session.