There is nothing like a good bout of the flu (which I suspect my students have generously shared with me) to make one consider the meaning of life and other elevated thoughts. My particular elevated thought today involves a question that we all have probably asked at one time or another: What should the role of the university be in society?
In today’s America, universities educate students with the knowledge, values and skills necessary to make them successful professionals and citizens; universities support research by faculty that expands our understanding and appreciation of the world we live in; and universities provide a variety of services to their communities, their country and other societies. But, I wonder, is this enough in today’s rapidly changing globe, with all the challenges, opportunities and ambiguities those changes present us?
I have the impression that in the past, universities — because of their status in society — played a more prominent role in calling our attention to basic issues that confronted our society. Charles William Eliot, one of the most prominent of American university presidents was an outspoken critic of racial inequality and “imperialism” while leading a fundamental reform of education at Harvard and beyond during his tenure as Harvard’s leader from 1869 to 1909. At other times, this was not the case: For example, during the period of slavery in the United States, universities did not raise their voices against this so-called “peculiar institution.” Indeed, a number of universities profited from the trade, and some even owned slaves.
In recent years, one is hard-pressed to remember a university represented by its president raising its voice on a major societal issue of the day (apart from education-related ones). Indeed, the former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, resigned after outcry that resulted from him speaking out the lack of gender diversity in the sciences. His experience may have made many university presidents skittish about speaking out at all on issues of the day.
There are clearly limits on what universities can say about contemporary issues. First of all, universities are communities of scholars who hold very different views on prominent issues. If a university president or university board takes a position on a controversial issue, it can offend those holding different views within its community and can raise fears about constraints on academic freedom. Putting forth the appearance of taking sides on a major issue can undercut the university’s image of a community in search of the truth.
Yet, I wonder if there are not issues in our world with great consensus on the problem but little action toward a solution, where universities could usefully take positions by calling attention to the problem and the need for solutions — maybe even proposing solutions. One example is the problem of world poverty. There is no dispute that more than two billion people live in great material deprivation and that a few hundred million live in extraordinary wealth. What is the obligation of the latter to the former? We talk about it all the time in our classrooms, conferences and publications. Should we talk about it more publicly as a major institution in society? Similar questions arise regarding human rights, global climate change and so on. Of course, to be credible as a university on such issues, the institution would have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It would have to behave in ways that supported its positions, and this might be more difficult.
I realize a question like this applied to Georgetown or any other university raises more problems than it solves. Who decides on what a university’s position is on issues? How is that decided? Who speaks for an institution like a university? I acknowledge also that the flu can make one a little nutty, so readers can discard this column as the consequences of wayward germs. Still, I wonder if we at university are missing an important role for our institution in society. More than that, I wonder what students think.
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind the Podium appears every other Friday.