The Idea of the University, Take One--On the Genius of This Place

Response by Geoffrey R. Stone

November 8, 2000


At the outset, I would like to thank Don Levine for his insightful and inspired account of the "idea" of the University of Chicago. In offering this account, Don has fulfilled the highest aspirations of our University, for he has offered a challenging and original hypothesis that not only describes the University we know, but will help to define and to constitute our University for the future.

I would like to offer three brief observations about this account, drawing principally on my own experience as Provost for the past seven years.

My first observation, which is triggered by Don's invocation of William Rainey Harper's comment that we must be "one in spirit," is this: The University of Chicago is an extraordinarily complex institution that very much calls to mind the familiar story of the elephant and the blind man. Most of us, even those of us who have spent a lifetime here, get to see first-hand only a small fraction of the full-range of the University's activities. As a result, faculty, students and alumni often mistakenly think that the University as a whole is merely an extension or an extrapolation of the part that they know best.

One of the unique responsibilities and privileges of the Provost is the opportunity to get to know first-hand all of the University, or at least as much of it as possible. To this end, I've made it a practice of meeting regularly over the past seven years with every department and every school in the University, in their space. There are, by the way, more than 50 such academic units.

In these meetings, I have experienced first-hand the stunning breadth and diversity of our University. The ways we teach, the ways we define research, the ways we articulate our goals for students vary significantly from Physics to Music, from Economics to Ecology & Evolution, from Mathematics to the Graduate School of Business, and from the School of Social Service Administration to the Department of Surgery. What our faculty and students actually do with their time varies in remarkable ways.

The simple image of a faculty member in a class with 20 students, or working late at night in the library, does not quite capture the reality, for example, of our faculty and students who spend years engaged in an epigraphic survey in Luxor, or who participate in the $80 million effort to map 100 million cosmological objects in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey on a lonely mountaintop in Apache Point, New Mexico, or who work in our Pediatric Intensive Care Unit trying to devise new medical techniques and strategies to save the lives of desperately ill children.

Even more striking to me in these meetings than the differences across the University, however, is what we have in common. In my meetings with these schools and departments, faculty and students have impressed upon me what in their view distinguishes their school or department from similar schools and departments at other universities. Astonishingly, but at the same time, I suppose, predictably, what each of these schools and departments says it values most echoes almost precisely what I hear from every other school and department in the University.

What these faculty and students from such disparate fields always emphasize are seriousness of purpose; an unshakeable belief that ideas matter; a commitment to hard work; a profound dedication to the value of interdisciplinary research and education; a sense of responsibility both to preserve and to transmit intellectual values to the next generation; and a joy in asking the very hardest questions, and in being asked such questions by others.

Thus, my first observation is this: The University is more varied, more far-reaching and more complex than most of us fully comprehend. But in this almost dizzying diversity of activity, there is a deeply ingrained and deeply shared sense of identity and mission. I would thus add to Don's list of internal contradictions another antinomy- diversity and unity. We are, truly, "one in spirit."

My second observation derives out of Don's description of the University's "rhythm of restless innovation," it's "disposition" continuously "to invent" new courses and programs, and its history of "continuing revolution." From my perch in the Provost's Office, I would report that this rhythm, this disposition, is alive and flourishing and, indeed, is often exhaustingly energetic. Whether one looks to our new Institute for Biophysical Dynamics, which dissolves for the first time ever the traditional disciplinary boundaries between the physical and the biological sciences; or our new Institute for Mind and Biology, which brings together biologists and social scientists in the interdisciplinary study of biopsychology; or our new Program in Cultural Policy, which engages faculty from the Harris School, the Law School, the sciences and the Humanities; or our new programs in Human Rights, Gender Studies and Race, Politics and Society, each of which breaks completely new ground with a deeply University of Chicago approach; or our new College Civilization-Studies Abroad programs in Rome, Tours, Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Bombay; whether one looks at these or at a host of other such programs, this is a University in a state of "continuing revolution." As Don has observed, "reflect, experiment, reflect, revise - that has been the University's script," from the very beginning. The University is today, as always, a work in progress.

My third, and final, observation is triggered by Don's invocation of the concerns expressed by Robert Bellah and Edward Shils that "the kind of excellence that the University [of Chicago] has striven for" may not be sustainable "in The Age of Money." This tension between the pursuit of "fundamental intellectual values because of their intrinsic interest" and the challenge to find the resources necessary to support this activity faces every university, every day. And, indeed, it has faced every university, every day from the very beginning of universities.

To exist, a great research university needs libraries, laboratories, classrooms, fellowships, scholarships, competitive salaries for faculty and staff, residence halls, programs for music, art and theater, athletics facilities, language labs, museums, auditoria, highly sophisticated scientific equipment, computers, travel grants, curators, research technicians, engineers, film and slide archives, legal aid clinics, and on, and on, and on. The annual budget of the University of Chicago, not including our Hospitals, is now $1 billion per year.

Whether this $1 billion per year comes from individual donors, or from students paying tuition, or from corporate sponsors, or from government grants, or from foundations, or from clinical trials, or from medical patients or their insurance companies, it must come from somewhere. And every one of these sources of financial support, in one way or another, wants something in return. This was a challenge faced intensely by William Rainey Harper in 1890, and it is a challenge that has been faced by every one of his successors. And, of course, The Age of Money is internal as well as external. It is not only that the outside world has changed, but that our own expectations - the expectations of our own faculty and students - have changed as well.

During World War I, Will Rogers gave President Wilson some advice on how to deal with the problem of German U-boats. Rogers said that all the President needed to do was to bring the Atlantic Ocean to a boil. Rogers added and that he would leave it to the technicians to implement his idea. This is often what it feels like to chairs, masters, deans, provosts and presidents, when faculty and students simultaneously demand more libraries, laboratories, scholarships, fellowships, salaries, travel grants, research funds and offices and at the same time expect that, to make all this possible, "administrators" - who are, after all, generally only faculty members in disguise -- need only "bring the Atlantic Ocean to a boil."

My point is that Bellah and Shils are right to worry about the potentially corrupting influences of consumerism and commodification. But the solution is not to pretend that resources aren't essential. To maintain "the kind of excellence that the University [of Chicago] has striven for" requires money, and lots of it. It is true, as Don suggests, that we have a long history of doing more with less, and that is justifiably a source of pride. But it is also true that we need more, even to do more with less. This may be unfortunate, but there it is, and it simply won't do to pretend otherwise. As Don Randel observed in his inaugural address last week: "It is naïve to suppose that universities have ever existed independent of cultural, economic and political forces. . . . The question is how [they] can exist with dignity."

This, then, brings me to Don Levine's final question: Can we sustain the University's distinctive spirit in the years to come? Can we, in Don Randel's words, "exist with dignity"? I believe passionately that the answer is an unequivocal "yes." As Don Levine observed at one point in his talk, it was a puzzle to others that the University of Chicago can offer a better educational program to undergraduates than other institutions with more resources.

The point must be made more broadly - how can it be that this University has earned more Nobel Prizes than any other in the nation; that its faculty have earned more Nobel Prizes in the past decade (six) than any other university in the nation; that it had more faculty members awarded the National Medal of Science last year than any other university in the nation; that its students receive more Fulbright-Hayes doctoral dissertation fellowships than any other university in the nation? How can all these things be so when we don't have the resources to match our fiercest competitors?

The answer, of course, is that money matters, but values matter more. The "idea" of the University of Chicago is its source of greatness. We are who we are, and I do not believe that this is fragile or precarious. I believe that, as always, we must change and adapt creatively, indeed, brilliantly, to changing circumstances along all dimensions - intellectual, social, technological and, yes, economic - but in our most fundamental values, in the deepest core of who we are, we must, we can, and we will remain true to ourselves.