The Modest University

Around nine in the evening on the night of August 11, 2017, over three hundred torch-wielding white supremacists marched two by two across my backyard, chanting “You will not replace us” and “Anti-black.” As our children huddled in our darkened house, my wife and I followed the khaki-clad men and women as they marched away from our house, onto the Lawn, and up the steps of the Rotunda. Eventually they assembled around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the founding father, the slaveholder, and the architect of the grounds of the University of Virginia, where I teach and, since just August 1, live with my family.

The next day, as is now well known, hundreds of alt-right activists gathered in downtown Charlottesville to intimidate my neighbours and declare their allegiance to white supremacy.

In the days that followed, my university president, Teresa A. Sullivan, referred to the men and women who had marched across my lawn and across our campus yelling “Jews will not replace us” as “torch-bearing protesters”who had a right to free speech. In neither statement did she name the particular ideology—white supremacy—or express the moral outrage so palpable across campus and Charlottesville. What had happened that Friday and Saturday, she said, “contradicted our values of diversity, inclusion, and mutual respect.”

If Sullivan was disappointed that a group of self-identified neo-Nazis and white supremacists didn’t share “our values,” I was dejected that my president spoke as though lost in the bowels of a modern bureaucracy.

By Monday morning I had concluded, as I wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that contemporary universities were “incapable of moral clarity.” I had expected too much.

Why should my colleagues and I look to our chief executive for moral leadership? As a university president, Sullivan is, in the words of Thorstein Veblen, a captain of erudition, not the leader of a community bound to a common moral mission.

I was wrong. I should have expected more. Universities may not be defined by a common moral mission, but they are distinguished by ideals and practices worth defending.

Like most all university presidents, Sullivan leads a sprawling enterprise. Consider the University of Virginia. It is an entertainment and production company with its own calendar of public concerts and events, a health-care provider, a start-up incubator, a federally financed research unit, a philanthropic behemoth, a sports franchise, and, perhaps incidentally, a community devoted to education and the creation and transmission of knowledge. And these multifarious activities correspond to a range of distinct purposes. Contemporary universities are expected to educate students, create democratic citizens, offer credentials, and socialize. The University of Virginia is actually a multiversity.

Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, coined the term “multiversity” in 1963. He contrasted his own sprawling, postwar institution—flush with federal research dollars, full of students, and fragmented from increasingly specialization—with the iconic universities of Berlin, Paris, and Oxford. These universities, at least in their historical form, embodied a universitas, a unified whole. Bound by the unity of knowledge and a common purpose, suggested Kerr, they had a “soul in the sense of [a] central animating principle.” The modern American university, in contrast, he concluded without lament, is “a whole series of communities and activities held together by name, a common governing board, and related purposes. This great transformation is regretted by some, accepted by many, gloried in, as yet, by few.” The universitas had become the multiversity.

For melancholy moderns such as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the dissolution of the university into the multiversity is but another consequence of the shipwreck of modernity. Modern universities, he writes, have become, “perhaps irremediably, fragmented and partitioned institutions.” Generally uninterested in how different disciplines might relate to one another and contribute to a “shared understanding” among teachers and students, the modern university is little more than a loose collection of self-interested individuals—students, faculty, administrators, and alumni—pursing their own goals. Without a common intellectual end, then, universities have nothing to offer students but individual brand management and career advancement.

Such criticisms have a certain truth to them. Last August, when I criticized my own university president for her lack of “moral clarity” and dismissed my own university as a “bureaucratic behemoth,” I had my own moment of MacIntyre-like nostalgia. In so doing, however, I risked turning legitimate critique into elegy, indulging a desire for an institution that never was.

The university as a fully coherent, autonomous institution guided by a singular purpose, the universitas, never existed. Faculty members at the University of Paris in thirteenth- or fourteenth-century France sought to balance allegiances to the church, the state, and the universitas litterarum. Faculty members at the University of Göttingen in eighteenth-century Germany struggled to satisfy the mercantilist demands of a state that considered universities just another resource, like forests or mines, with a commitment to scholarly traditions. (They made the state a lot of money in student fees from England while also inventing philology, history, and political science as disciplines.) Faculty members at the University of Chicago in nineteenth-century America strove to balance the interests of business, industry, and modern science with the demands of educating undergraduates. In a way, universities have always been “multiversities”—institutions serving multiple and sometimes competing ends.

Elegies for a university that never existed don’t just ignore history, they also overlook what did survive, however fragmented and refashioned: the practices and ends of the scholarly life, a life devoted to the cultivation of knowledge and education. Even as universities have repeatedly transformed themselves, they have always sustained and reinvented these practices under the conditions of the present. The scholars and students who constitute university communities participate, then, in practices that are always local and universal.

And so instead of offering an elegy for an institution that never was, let’s imagine an institution that could be. Toward that end, I offer three ideas that encourage us to look back so that we might better look ahead.

Academic Virtues

First, the university has its own ethical practices and resources. For centuries universities had some of the primary keepers of scholarly traditions and practices devoted to creating, cultivating, and sharing knowledge. And with the emergence of the modern research university in Germany and the United States over the course of the nineteenth century, they became the primary institution of such practices. When faculty members teach, learn, and write together in classroom, in labs, in the library, and in their offices, they participate in activities that are, in the first instance, oriented toward epistemic goods, goods bound to safeguarding and renewing knowledge. Their daily activities are unique and internally coherent, even as the demands of the multiversity distract and dilute them.

Despite the deep differences among scholars and students in thirteenth-century Paris, nineteenth-century Berlin, and twenty-first-century Charlottesville, they have all participated in the scholarly norms, practices, and virtues that both cut across and are reinvented for different times and cultures. These are the norms upheld in centuries-old philological practices of critique and interpretation or in the lab-based practices of experimental natural sciences that blossomed in the nineteenth century. To name but a few: a demand for evidence, openness to discussion, and a respect for the authority and legitimacy of specialized knowledge.

Each of these virtues presumes another one—a commitment to the community of scholars. Scholarly knowledge is not just a personal possession. It is a collective good cultivated, created, and shared across time and place. Scholars experiment, read, write, and think in relation to a community of fellow scholars who share, in whatever rudimentary and varied forms, common ideals and practices. Private insight or revelation can become scholarly knowledge only when submitted to and revised according to the norms of a scholarly community. All those cumbersome footnotes, appositive phrases of attribution (“as Kant argued”), and the arcane systems of peer review that encourage them may make reading a university press book a bore. But at their best, these are gestures of gratitude. They are acknowledgements that knowledge is never just our own. It is a gift.

And yet even the most committed and vocal defenders of universities rarely appeal to these scholarly ideals, practices, and virtues to make their case. Instead, they argue that universities educate democratic citizens (just come visit Mr. Jefferson’s university in Charlottesville) or produce economic value through research or skills training.

But however worthy these purposes may be, they are external justifications. Those who appeal to them make the case for universities in terms of goods and values that are not necessarily grounded in the goods, practices, and virtues that scholars and students have long maintained. We need to recognize and defend these as what makes a university a university. Contrary to what the literature scholar and inveterate skeptic Stanley Fish might argue, scholarly practices and virtues are not simply bureaucratic or professional procedures. They are robust intellectual virtues and ideals embedded in traditions. They provide those within and outside universities with essential goods. They help explain why someone might devote her life to the university. And, most importantly from a cultural perspective, the university’s legitimacy and authority depend on them.

The university, so conceived, stands for and requires a range of ethical and epistemic virtues related to the creation, fostering, and dissemination of knowledge. And these epistemic practices and virtues entail a commitment to the basic equality and potential of those people open to the university’s goods and practices, even if universities have historically violated their own ethical commitments.

And so when three hundred white supremacists marched across my backyard and across the Lawn at the University of Virginia chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and “White lives matter!” with their tiki torches, they implied that the young women of colour in my classes don’t belong there, that the Jewish students who come visit me in office hours don’t belong there. They falsely and maliciously denied their very capacity to participate in the community that is a university, to be formed by its practices and to share in its goods. That is why members of the university, including my president, can and should denounce the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched on the Lawn at the University of Virginia: because they are an affront to the ethics of the university.

President Sullivan’s initial failure to do so—repeatedly referring to them as “torch-bearing protesters” who had a right to free speech—was a failure to defend the university and the virtues to which it ought to be committed. The university is for all who love knowledge, seek the truth, and are committed to the communities that sustain these desires.

The fact that modern universities face different challenges than those of the thirteenth or eighteenth centuries does not change the fact that they are universities. The multiple enterprises of modern multiversities and the university’s scholarly practices and communities have a part-to-whole relationship. Although the multiversity may be the whole, scholarly communities and practices are the most important—or in a more Aristotelian sense, most essential—part. Multiversities could end their football programs, curtail their PR efforts, and stop their sustainability efforts and remain universities, as long as scholars and students continued to do what they have long done. Without scholarly practices and ideals there is no university.

A commitment to sustaining and cultivating such practices could be the basis for a vision of public higher education. But it would be a vision that is not overly tethered to more liberal traditions that valorize intellectual autonomy and freedom over authority and trust. Instead of upholding the ideal of epistemic bootstrapping, such a vision would promote ideals of community, shared practices of learning, and epistemic authority. Such a vision would also not tie universities to particular faith traditions or comprehensive visions of the good. It would, instead, remain steadfastly, almost abstemiously, committed to its own internal practices and goods. And when forces from inside or outside the university threaten these goods, scholars and students need to speak out and defend their community.

Calibrate Expectations

Second, the university’s scholarly practices are insufficient to support a distinct form of life. If universities are going to survive and maintain what makes them distinct and vital social institutions, faculty, students, administrators, and alumni need to recognize the university’s moral limitations. Precisely because universities are not bound to particular moral traditions with full accounts of the human and ultimate ideals and given the conditions of a pluralistic modernity, universities cannot legitimately provide ultimate goods. Their goods are proximate. Faculty members must remain constantly vigilant that they do not, as Max Weber warned his colleagues in 1917, tell their students what they should do and how they should live. Scholars should resist the temptation to pose as prophets, declaiming moral truths in classrooms where their charismatic authority can go unchecked.

“Our aim,” Weber told those gathered in a lecture hall in Munich a century ago, “must be to enable students to discover the vantage point from which he can judge the matter in light of his own ultimate ideals.” Implicit in Weber’s imperative was the assumption that students arrive at the university with their own values and moral imaginations, however incoherent or unspoken. They have already been formed by families, churches, media, and local communities. To acknowledge the university’s moral limitations is to acknowledge this fact.

And this ought to compel scholars to recognize their students as the moral agents they already are. It would require scholars to treat their students’ moral ideals and commitments not as ideologies to be unmasked but as desires to be cultivated. One goal of a university education, then, would be moral articulacy not ideological demystification.

The goods of such a university, then, are internally coherent but ultimately always in the service of ends that exceed the university—religions, traditions, democracy, economic value. Part of the current confusion surrounding the fate of universities is that by tethering universities so closely to external goods, we risk losing sight of the goods that are unique to them—the scholarly practices and goods that have always been their distinguishing features. Perhaps there is some solace in knowing that for centuries universities have always struggled to balance these internal and external goods.

The Insufficient University

Third and finally, universities need to look beyond themselves. Constantly cultivating their own practices and reflecting on their own moral limitations, universities need to engage communities, institutions, and traditions that have their own moral resources and imaginations. Universities may not bear comprehensive visions of the good, but they are uniquely positioned to sustain encounters between and among different institutions and traditions. They can help students develop capacities to engage conversations that take their deepest and often conflicting values seriously. Universities can encourage sincere and patient thinking about the question of why: Why have you committed yourself to justice, democracy, money, knowledge, family, or a faith tradition? But they should always do so within the constraints and according to the ideals of their own practices. When seeking out encounters and partnerships with other communities, university leaders and scholars should be clear that they too come as members of a community and so out of a commitment to knowledge as a common good.

Because of their own limitations, universities have a particular interest in supporting inquiries about ultimate values. They cannot offer a single, fully coherent account of the value of their own practices and goods. Individual scholars or students may be able to account for their own commitments, but universities as institutions cannot offer a general argument as to why one should devote her life, or a season of it, to knowledge and the epistemic practices and virtues necessary for thinking well. University presidents and deans all too regularly offer incantations of the value of the liberal arts or a university education. But as soon as they move beyond the economic and political value of universities, they typically turn to therapeutic bromides that convince no one but nicely bring the occasion to a close.

To all this one could legitimately reply that my account is itself a product of a comprehensive moral vision. By arguing that the moral limitations of the university necessarily restrict the kinds of claims and activities that universities can legitimately sustain, I assume but never articulate a moral vision of my own. To such a rebuttal I would simply reply that my account presumes not a comprehensive moral vision but rather a more cultural and sociological account of the conditions in which public universities currently find themselves—those of pluralism. As someone trained in a public university (UC Berkeley) and who now teaches in another (UVA), I have never been able, nor have I wanted, to assume that either my colleagues or my students shared a common moral vision, whether that means a set of particular doctrines or shared practices tied to a faith tradition, a particular philosophical anthropology, or even a vision of what it means to live well. This is the world I have always found myself in, and I remain committed to living in it and learning from it. One benefit of my vision is that it understands the moral limitations of universities not as a failure of conviction or a capitulation to the levelling forces of modernity but rather as a strength to be defended. Universities that reflect on these limitations have real social goods to share.

My love of teaching and writing grow out of my own faith tradition and the daily habits it provides me. But I make no presuppositions about why my students or colleagues come to the university. I only assume that they, like me, have come because they also desire to know themselves, others, and the world better and believe, however dimly, that the university can help nurture such love.

[This essay first appeared in Comment (Spring 2018). Here is a link to the online version. It draws on a talk given at Davidson College in October 2017 and subsequently published as “The University is Dead, Long Live the Academy!”]


chad wellmon

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