The University in History: 1088 And All That

Audience Discussion

January 17, 2001

Richard Shweder: My question is really an invitation to Hanna Gray to suggest steps that we might take to rededicate ourselves to the core ideals of this institution, of which it seems to me the most fundamental are self-determination and academic freedom in pursuit of basic knowledge and in defense of critical thinking, including against the current contrarian thinking. And it seems to me there is good reason to worry that our degree of self-determination, if not at an all-time low, is very low at the moment; and that even our academic freedom is seriously threatened. On the one hand, there is the authority of the State and the "strings" that come with federal funds that you alluded to. Just to select a random example I attended a meeting this year at the University of Chicago [conducted by our Social and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board] in which everyone in attendance was told that "research is a privilege, not a right." Quite frankly I never thought I would ever hear such words uttered at the University of Chicago. That type of extension of State authority, I think, reaches into and interferes with academic freedom in serious ways. And on the other hand there is the marketplace and the business mentality that has also encroached on us. It leads us to actually entertain using the University of Chicago's name as a branding device in ways that, at least in the eyes of some of us, seem motivated largely by financial interests and have rather little to do with the pursuit of basic knowledge for its own sake. As you well know, starting in the early 1980's a commercial incentive structure has been legislated that tempts universities in such directions. So we have these powerful forces--the State and the marketplace--that have been there all the time but have limited our self-determination at the moment to a troubling degree. What steps should we be taking now to rededicate ourselves to our academic values? What, in your view, would be the most effective "little" steps for us to take and on which battlefronts?

Hanna Gray: I'm not sure I'm going to accept all the assumptions of the question that you've posed, because I think we could argue for some time over the degree to which something has become more or less, the degree to which something is being dealt with or not, and so on. But if we just take the large issues that, obviously, need to be contended with in any such rededication, any such recommitment to the basic principles of what an institution like this is about--they have existed for a long time. The problem of the relationship to government, the problem of the reach of that longish arm and the regulatory arm into institutions of this kind, the sense in which no private university is entirely private any longer--that has existed for a long time. It has taken many different forms over time, and it has become more intensified in particular periods of time, in part by the regulatory disposition and in part by the emphasis on accountability (sometimes on the part of people who I think don't know what the term means, but that's another matter). The issue with government is about doing things that really have to do, after all, with discovery. There is no way in which you would have major science without some kind of national support. And there is no way in which you can have national support without some kind of relationship that is always going to test self-determination.

I think that the issue of the relationship to business and commercial entities and practices is a growing one. It's a growing one, in part, for the very reasons that Paul Hunter was talking about--the whole introduction of whole new technologies, and so on, into this world, and the sometimes, I think, overreacting ways in which it is believed that if you're not "in it," you're lost, and that to be "in it," you need capital, and if you need capital you need it now.

I think that we have absolutely not figured out how that should work, because we aren't comfortable with it, because we don't have experience with it, because we don't even know what we're doing as we enter into it, often, in these new commercial relationships that have to do with the new technologies and the forms of learning they make possible.

And that's particularly dangerous because we don't know what we're doing, I think. I'm talking about universities as a whole; I'm not talking about any one university. I'm talking about the sense in which I think universities have failed, so far, to do more than to say there's a worrying problem and not to confront the problem directly. So I think it's in that area, in many ways, that whole new initiatives need to be taken. And I think every institution has to have a really fundamental discussion of them, but I think there also have to be ways that some universities can talk about them properly--talk about them without worrying about the competition--talk about them without the anxiety about falling behind--talk about them in order to learn something constructive about that world.

Now that doesn't mean that the other issues go away, or that the other problems aren't great, but I would argue that there have always been issues and problems that are always going to exist; there's no such thing as absolute self-determination. There's always going to be a balance, so it seems to me that the important thing is for the institutional forms--and we have some good ones--to be vitalized, in which these complicated issues can be talked through, and in which the policy implications can be talked through. I continue to believe that the most important thing to know is what a university shouldn't do. That, I think, is the most important way to define what a university can be and should be, and can do and should do, today. The most important thing to do is to be clear about how a university should not operate as well as what a university should not be.

But it's always in particular cases that the test comes, and the particular cases are always imperfect cases. What we have to be very careful about, I think, is not just, as it were, complaining about the difficulties and therefore evading that discussion, but actually--in ways I think this university has done at critical moments in its time--confronting those difficulties by making those hard decisions and building up the sense of how these broad principles can and should apply in these cases, and insisting that we use the devices, the instrumentalities that we have, and the tradition that this institution has--a faculty which is willing to engage in hard thought, and willing in a way that moves the institution along, to make some hard choices. I think that's the way we do it, that we live in the way that we say our self-determination is meant to allow us to live, which is to think rigorously and to be willing to live by some consequences which may include our continuingly greater poverty at times.

Marshall Sahlins: My question is inspired by Rick's and by Mrs. Gray's answer, but I want to address it to Tony Yu, as he spoke most directly to this issue: Do we have faculty governance?

Anthony Yu: My personal view is that I don't think we can have any kind of a scientific measure. I defer to my good friend here [Stephen Stigler] to give you a statistical and maybe more scientific kind of a measurement. My own sense is a much more pragmatic and pedestrian one, which is to say that--and I hope I won't be treated, Marshall, as copping out--when I feel, at some of the lowest moments, that we are constrained brutally by, say, the administration, or external forces or whatever, and then I talk to some colleagues in other institutions, I become more encouraged. So in a certain sense I would say that this very highly personal and even idiosyncratic perception is based really on comparative feelings and knowledge, and not just on saying: Do we have a Senate or not?--We have a Senate.--Is the Senate functioning properly?--etc. All of those can be addressed, but I do not think I can answer in absolute terms, Yes we do, or No we don't.

[unknown voice]: Do you think the University of Chicago will ever have an engineering school like MIT or Stanford, and if not, why not?

Hanna Gray: I do not believe the University of Chicago will ever have an engineering school like MIT or Stanford. It was part of Harper's original plan that someday there would be a school of engineering. There was also an attempt made to take on what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology and was then called the Armour Institute--and that came to nothing. The question has often been asked why there is no school of engineering. I think the moment for it passed, in terms of the resources that might have been available. I think there was the recognition that there were other engineering institutions--University of Illinois, Northwestern, ultimately IIT--in the world, and one could not do all things that were valuable to do in a single institution, and some division of fields and labor was important. I think the emphasis in the sciences was not one that required, or suggested a priority for, engineering, over a very long period of time. I think that at the same time, some scientists have sometimes felt that lack, but Professor Rice would know more about that fact than I. And I think, finally, that the relationship with the Argonne National Laboratory, which was thought might fill in, over time, some of those gaps, obviously does not in that larger way, but nonetheless it creates relationships that allow for a greater presence of applied science and of engineering.

The question about whether a university in the 21st century can be a great university without a school of engineering is brought up from time to time. For example, such universities as Yale and Harvard, which had major engineering schools and then translated them into departments, are now trying to rebuild those to some extent, and it is a very difficult thing to do, to play catch-up. Having a little one is not necessarily helpful, either, and I think other ways have to be found of gaining from what that absence might take away. But no, I don't think the University of Chicago will ever have a school of engineering, and I guess I don't think it should.

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