The Idea of the University

Sunday, November 7, 2010
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 4, 2009

What Is It

Is a university a research institute with students, or and educational institution with research around the edges – or something in between?  To whom does the university answer – the trustees?  The administration?  The faculty?  The students?  Or something more abstract, like knowledge and wisdom?  John and Ken examine the very idea of a university with Stanford Provost John Etchemendy, in a program recorded before a live audience at the Annenberg Auditorium on the Stanford campus.

Listening Notes

John and Ken like universities, especially since they work at one. Nevertheless (at least for the sake of this episode) they're skeptical whether universities are worth a darn. What is the purpose of a university? Whom does it serve? Who owns and controls it? And who evaluates whether it's done its job?

Undergraduate tuition at elite universities is hefty, making it seem that education of youngsters is the primary mission at such schools. But in the eyes of many faculty and donors, it's graduate-level research that matters most, especially for determining hires and promotions. It is unclear, then, whether universities are meant to serve undergraduates or to support graduate students and faculty; the purpose of the university seems to be pulling in two directions.

Etchemendy's view on the matter seems to dissolve that tension: Across the board, universities aim to create, preserve, and transmit knowledge. And since accomplishing that requires graduate and faculty research as much as undergraduate education, universities are meant both to serve undergraduates and to support faculty and graduate students. This, he thinks, requires universities to reshape themselves as the borders of knowledge expand and contract, by adding and subtracting research institutes, libraries, and teaching departments.

Ken is skeptical that universities serve civilization at large, however, beyond students and faculty. For he doesn't see how society's concrete needs---for food, medicine, shelter, etc.---can be met by the university's doings. But Etchemendy thinks Ken is wrong: Universities have been involved in designing many technologies---from microwave ovens to the Internet and magnetic resonance imaging---that have profoundly impacted the lives of laypeople. Without technological miracles from universities, he suspects, civilization would wither.

Are universities meant to transmit practical wisdom, in addition to knowledge of facts and theories? In Etchemendy's view, wisdom comes after one gains both knowledge and life experience. Universities can offer both, though most focus more on the former (and a few more on the latter). Usually, then, universities provide some ingredients for wisdom, without mixing them up or adding the final touches.

If the mission of universities is to create, preserve, and transmit knowledge, where do college sports fit in? Does nurturing pre-professional athletic teams dilute or corrupt that mission? Etchemendy points out that a university can in good conscience support activities that aren't strictly part of its mission, as long as they are ancillary to the mission. And sports---like it or not---are ancillary for at least two reasons: They both develop the non-intellectual side of students (which Etchemendy views as equally important as its complement), and they generate prestige and revenue that might filter down to researchers.

What is the purpose of the tenure system, wherein deserving faculty are guaranteed not to be fired, no matter what controversial opinions they adopt? Does its presence make universities responsible for being society's watchdogs and whistleblowers? Ken thinks not. Individual faculty, he says, can choose to criticize or support whichever causes they want, but the university itself needn't (and perhaps shouldn't) take sides. Nevertheless, he opines, individual faculty would do well to revitalize the distressingly vapid state of discourse that prevails in society at large. This, John and Etchemendy think, could be accomplished merely by better publicizing the views faculty already express within academic settings.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:46):  Traditionally, a university is a place made of bricks and mortar and filled with human bodies. But online schools like the University of Phoenix, which is more than 30 years old and serves more than 300,000 students, challenge that notion. Zoe Corneli talks to Douglas Threet, Area Chair for Management and Finance at the University's offices in San Jose, CA. The purpose of universities in general, Threet thinks, is to create happier futures and better citizens by supporting learning, teaching, research, and practical training. That the University of Phoenix stresses the final element of that list reflects, in Threet's view, its commitment to helping people who have reached a stage in life where a traditional bricks-and-mortar college education is not an option---for example, individuals with nascent families and demanding work schedules.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 50:16):  Do universities create knowledge for the sake of culture at large, or do they harvest information for the profit of private companies? Ian Schoales traces the development of the lucrative franchise, which began in a library at Columbia University and will, perhaps, end up pouring funds into the school's endowment.