Is a university a research institute with students, or and educational institution with research around the edges – or something in between?
I’m really happy universities exist, and that they support philosophy departments, and seem to think I do something useful. But the longer I have spent in universities, the more I've become familiar with the vast differences in schools and departments, the complexity of funding, how different things are done in other universities, particularly those in other lands… and, frankly, the less I have a feel for what universities are really supposed to be. Here are four issues around which my doubts and confusions cluster.
Research versus teaching. At Stanford we charge the undergraduates a lot of money. We draw the best students in the world --- or at least as good any others. But at Stanford, and Harvard, and the University of California, and all the other elite universities, we all know that research is the main criteria for hiring and promotion. So what is a university? A teaching institution? Or a big research lab with some students around the edges?
Academy or Laboratory? I tend to see the university on the model of the philosophy and other humanities departments. After all, our heritage goes back to Plato’s academy, perhaps the first university-like thing in the Western tradition. We think about hard intellectual problems and teach students to think. But when you’ve been around a university as long as I have, and chaired the department as both Ken and I have, and sat through countless committee meetings with colleagues from all over the insititution, you have to adopt a larger perspective. The place is a sprawling megalith, and the paradigm model is not thinkers in a library or seminar but scientists in a lab, funded by government or industry, competing with others for the next round of grants and prizes.
Who owns the university? Whose university is it, anyway? To whom do we answer? Officially, we are a corporation, so the Trustees are in charge. But as a non-profit corporation, do we answer to a higher authority? If so, what is it? The needs of the world? Of the nation? Of something more abstract, like Knowledge or Truth? And who are the final arbiters of how we conduct our mission? The faculty? The alumni? The students? And what is the administration’s job? To convey the deep wisdom of the faculty to the Trustees? The Trustees for the most part are practical people in touch with the wider world. Maybe our mission should be to translate the Trustees vision to the university’s work force --- like you and me.
Finally the future of universities like Stanford and Berkeley and all of the ones we're familiar with for that matter leaves me mystified. Traditionally, universities whatever else they are, are a place. They provide a place where books and faculty and labs and students can all be together, and reap the benefits of being together. Will that continue to be important with the changes wrought by the internet? There are already internet universities. Are they the wave of the future? Will Stanford and Berkeley and UCLA and Cal State San Francisco become dinosaurs in a great new world of distributed universities, whose libraries and classrooms are just U-R-L's on the internet?
So, we’ll have lots to talk about with our guest, the Stanford provost, the philosophy department’s very own John Etchemendy. We’ll start by asking him just how he sees the university --- a school with researchers around the edge, or a big lab with students around the edge.