In an effort to understand what it means to be a university in our society, prominent faculty from a wide range of universities and organizations met Friday and Saturday in Clark Hall to discuss and debate the issue in a conference format. The conference, entitled “The Idea of the University,” was sponsored by the Society for the Humanities (SHC) at Cornell.
Speakers included President Hunter R. Rawlings III, Neil Rudenstine, emeritus president at Harvard University and senior advisor to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Stanley Fish, dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin and President Frank H.T. Rhodes, Emeritus among others.
“[The founders of the SHC] conceived of an organization that would provide fellowships for some Cornell faculty members, bring distinguished visiting scholars to campus, offer interdisciplinary seminars in the humanities, and in a critical departure from the prevailing model, serve as both scholarship and teaching,” Rawlings said.
According to Dominick LaCapra, director of the SHC, “if you look at the people [scheduled to speak] … we really try to get people representing all the significant areas of faculty.”
In his opening remarks, LaCapra said, “The idea of the university is the focal theme of the Society for the Humanities this year, and fellows have already begun presenting a series of thought-provoking papers.”
Rawlings said, having “an organizing theme has been a hallmark of the society since its inception [and the theme] is a good example, I think, of the ability of the society over time to create sustained discussions about serious subjects that are of significance to all of us in the academy, not only for humanists,” Rawlings said.
LaCapra introduced the university theme by noting the lack of discussion about the topic.
“I think that there has been extensive empirical research on the university from historical, sociological, and economic perspectives,” LaCapra said. “But there is I think little sustained and informed analytic and critical work on the contemporary university, its genealogy, its problems and its prospects.”
After LaCapra’s introduction, Rawlings was the first speaker of the conference.
According to Rawlings, “another tendency in contemporary commentary on the university is to focus upon the multiple roles they play in today’s world, roles which are clearly subordinate to our primary mission of research, scholarship and teaching.”
Rawlings discussed this role and said, “as we become larger, wealthier, more and more multifaceted, and frankly, more successful, we fulfill the needs of society for technological expertise, economic generation, and sheer entertainment.”
“We become subject to external criticism and internal confusion,” he added.
Both Rawlings and LaCapra commented on the idea of the university as a business-oriented corporation.
“The corporate university has come to occupy a highly visible and influential place in American life, and that is a mixed blessing,” Rawlings said. “Our many constituencies both on and off the campus are exceedingly extremely difficult to balance, and we risk losing our fundamental sense of identity in the efforts.”
Rawlings also discussed the origins of the university, stemming from a monastic and secular school, which have, “endured in our universities today.”
Referring to the “explosion of knowledge” in universities, Rawlings said, “specialization has brought remarkable benefits in the creation of new knowledge but proposes conceptual difficulties for faculty members and students alike in trying to comprehend the university’s own organization of knowledge.”
“Course catalogues list thousands of courses, but relationships among them are impossible to fathom,” Rawlings added.
According to Rawlings, “The idea of the university, its identity, depends upon answering twin questions: what should students know and what should the faculty teach.”
Following Rawlings’ talk, Rudenstine’s speech was entitled, “The Idea of A University: Newman to Now: Altered but Persistent Principles”.
“If we think of the thousands of assemblages that are called universities … we know how vastly different they can be from one another,” Rudenstine said.
“There is no single model we can extract from this variety of institutions,” he added.
Rudenstine discussed many different aspects of the university, including its creation in response to the basic human need of learning.
“People want to know because they want to know, not because knowledge will help them professionally, economically, politically, socially, or otherwise,” he said.
Rudenstine also outlined three main points of the discussion concerning the university, including challenges facing university members to undertake scholarly works that may criticize society, the challenge caused by the increase in diversity on campuses and understanding what it means to pursue truth and discover knowledge.
According to Rudenstine, “these points have to do with certain ways in which the university idea has been challenged or modified by developments over the past three-quarters of the century.”
Martin and Rhodes also provided commentary during the conference’s closing panel discussion.
In his closing remarks, Rhodes suggested that an overall reassessment of college curriculum is a “responsibility of growing urgency.”
In addition to talking about academic standards and the attainment of merit, Martin emphasized the aesthetic importance of the college campus.
“Perhaps we’ve paid too little attention to sight and architecture,” she said. “People remember their college experiences in terms of places on campus and interpersonal encounters.”
Archived article by Jason Leff