Democracy & The University

In 2017, the University of Virginia reported an operating budget of almost $3.2 billion, assets of $11.2 billion, and liabilities of more than $7.8 billion. The university includes UVA Global LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary based in Shanghai; an athletics enterprise with 25 programs and $24 million in revenues and expenses; a police force with 67 officers; an investment company that manages resources from 25 tax-exempt foundations, each with its own board; ownership of numerous art, historical, and scholarly collections, including more than five million printed volumes; capital assets in the form of academic buildings, dorms, and a Unesco-recognized World Heritage Site; a top-ranked medical center with several affiliated health companies, more than 12,000 employees, and its own budget of almost $1.5 billion; a concert-and-events venue for everything from monster-truck rallies to the Rolling Stones; a recycling business; a mental-healthcare provider; and a transportation system with a fleet of buses and cars. Incidentally, UVa also educates around 16,000 undergraduates and 6,500 graduate and professional students each year. Continue reading

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.

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Melancholy Mandarins

As an epithet for the university, “alma mater”—nourishing mother—has proved unfortunately apt. Like modern-day mothers, universities are subjected to impossible expectations and draconian judgment. Professors assiduously avoid administrative work but rail against the overhiring of administrators and encroachments on faculty self-governance. Students expect expansive support services and state-of-the-art recreational facilities but express outrage over the fees that help pay for them. Politicians wax indignant over everything from professors’ teaching schedules to admissions policies and the university’s defining pursuits, such as inquiry not tied to practical aims. Journalists proclaim that resistance to change has made our universities obsolete, when they’re not complaining that they’ve changed too much, too fast. But as long as the American university has existed in its modern shape, one lament has stood out—that of the melancholy mandarins.

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Let Us Think Together

In 1637, René Descartes recounted a “fable” of how he came to think well. From his youth, he had read the books of the ancients, exercised his rhetorical skills, and observed the debates of philosophers and theologians. But in all this learning he found no rest or certainty, only endless disputes and puffed-up opinions. “Nothing solid,” he concluded, “could have been built on such unfirm foundations.” Once he escaped the control of his schoolteachers, he abandoned the “study of letters” and resolved to seek no knowledge other than what he could find in “the great book of the world”—collecting experiences and testing himself “in the encounters that fortune offered me.”

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Academic Prestige

Ten years ago, the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided to “assess” the quality of research in universities across Britain by putting in place a new system, the Research Excellence Framework. In 2014, the Council and its institutional partners released a report that included evaluations of almost 200,000 “research outputs” ­— including journal articles, books, and conference proceedings. Since then academics on both sides of the Atlantic have ridiculed the REF, as the framework is known, as a bureaucratic boondoggle that values quantity over quality.

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After the University, Long Live the Academy!

In 1917 a group of German university students invited the renowned sociologist Max Weber to Munich to participate in a lecture series entitled “intellectual work as vocation” [geistige Arbeit als Beruf]. The students met weekly in the backroom of a bookstore as the Bavarian chapter of the National Federation of Independent Student Groups, a loose association of students established around 1900 to make sense of the radical changes German universities had undergone in a matter of decades.

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Don’t Look to Universities for Moral Clarity

Around 9 p.m. on Friday, I opened my kitchen door to chants and flickering lights. After telling my kids to stay inside, I scrambled over a stone wall and down a brick stairwell to find torch-bearing men and women clad in white polo shirts and khakis, chanting “You will not replace us” and “Anti-Black.” They marched in cadence, two by two, as far as I could see.

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