"The Purpose of the University"
Gerard Piel
Publisher, Scientific American

University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B.C.

8 May 1965

On both sides of the 49th parallel, for the past century or so, North Americans have been accommodating their common sense to a logical contradiction. We have prized learning as the way to wealth and power for the citizen and for the state. Education at public expense became a birthright of the children of Canada and the United States ahead of all the world; the terminal year of compulsory education is pushed ahead from decade to decade. Public universities established by our provincial and state governments long ago crowned the summits of our public education systems. Yet, even as the advance of our material well-being has justified our common faith in the utility of learning, we have had to learn another lesson: that learning must be prized as an end in itself.

The paradox finds its sharpest expression in our public universities. They grow in distinction and achievement and in effectiveness on all their public missions, precisely as our provincial and state governments come to respect their autonomy. Organized and generously supported for all kinds of practical purposes, the public universities must transcend those purposes. The have a higher function, not as instruments of our local governments, but as institutions that are central to our self-government.

As universities, our public universities are still in process of invention. The paradox is not yet perfected. In its ideal model, the university is a community of scholars, independent of all external authority and dedicated to the increase and diffusion of human understanding. This is, at least, the romance that surrounds the origin of the modern university in the cities of late-medieval Europe. The communities of scholars were as often organized by students as by teachers. Banded together for mutual instruction and protection, they proclaimed their freedom to seek the truth and defied regulation by any spiritual or temporal power.

Now, the universities of Europe were not the first institutions to prize knowledge for its own sake. In every civilization, as Thorstein Veblen observed:

"there will be found something in the way of esoteric knowledge ... It may take shape as a system of magic or of religious beliefs, of mythology, theology, philosophy or science. But whatever shape it falls into the in the give case, it makes up the substantial core of the civilization in which it is found, and it is felt to give character and distinction to that civilization."

In advancing the claims of esoteric knowledge, however, the universities of Europe subverted the substantial core of civilization of medieval Europe.

Against Veblen’s cool cultural relativism, the historical record shows that the ascendance of science in the universities at the time of the Renaissance set the life of mankind on a new course. The scientist, on scientific questions, can accept no authority but his own conscience. By confronting the propositions of reason with the test of observation and experiment, he brings accumulative, irreversible change in man’s relation to his natural environment. Throughout the half millennium of the scientific revolution, the universities of the West have had the primary function of fostering and defending the autonomy of the intellect, no matter what menace it brings to the established order from its enquiry into the unknown. The success of science, manifest in the transformation of the material condition of man, has brought corresponding transformation in the relation of man to man. It has carried the argument for reason against force, for the contract against status in the organization of society. In consequence, one single sovereign holds sway in contemporary political theory. That is: the citizen, robed in all the singularity of his mortal life.

The independence of the universities of Europe is sanctioned by a tradition of a thousand years. Tradition is defended, moreover, by the elites who these universities have graduated. Where their constitutions still approximate the ideal and the pristine, the universities remain self-governing communities of scholars. The universities of North America have quite different antecedents.

Typically, they were organized by external authority — the church of the state and more recently in a few cases by endowed membership corporations — and they are governed by boards of trustees. Legally, the faculty are employees, hired to carry out missions assigned by the governing board. The mission of Harvard College, for example, was at the outset to educate the clergy of the Puritan colonial polity; later, to educate Christian gentlemen. The mission of the land-grant colleges founded in the states during the 19th century, was to improve the agricultural and mechanical arts and to train their practitioners. Especially in the public universities today the pressure of ulterior motivation is reflected by the great variety of marketable skills in which they offer training. Along with the learned professions — divinity, the law and medicine plus business and public administration now ranked as learned — the catalogues list home economics, accounting, nursing, public speaking, social work, pharmacy, physical education, advertising copy-writing, journalism and other miscellaneous skills, vocations and trades.

Over the past century and especially during the past few decades, a growing number of private and public universities in the United States and Canada have attained standing as universities in fact. Harvard University was, again, the first of its kind. As late as 1869, Charles William Eliot, in his inaugural address, had to declare that Harvard did not posses "with the single exception of the endowment of the Observatory ... a single fund primarily intended to secure for men of learning the leisure and means to prosecute original research." The necessary material resources have since been forthcoming in exponentially expanding abundance from private philanthropy and form the public treasuries. But no university has become a center of increase in knowledge until its faculty have organized and established their identity as a community of scholars. The have won the powers of self-government de facto, inside the corporate structure that still identifies them as employees. Their academic freedom is secured by tenured employment, guaranteed in the last analysis by the moral sanctions that can be applied from outside the university by the professional guilds. As Richard Hofstadter has shown it was the scientists on the faculties who took the initiative in working out these pragmatic arrangements with the governing boards. The incontrovertible utility of science won independence, in principle at least, not alone for scientists but for workers in other fields.

As the universities have become true seats of learning, the governing boards and the governing body of alumni have come to accept another significant principle: the diffusion of knowledge is best carried out in the environment that nurtures increase of knowledge. What Eliot called the leisure to prosecute original researches fires up the whole process of teaching and learning. And the flow of energy runs both ways. Alfred North Whitehead declared:

"The universities are schools of education, and schools of research. But the primary reason for their existence is not to be found either in the mere knowledge conveyed to the students or in the mere opportunities for research afforded to members of the faculty ... The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and zest of life, by uniting young and old in the imaginative consideration of learning ... This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energizing as the post of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes."

In recent years the great universities of the United States have come under external pressures tending to divert them from their central function and to disrupt their internal organization. The mobilization for national survival in World War II and unrelieved claims of national service through the twilight period of the cold war have burdened these universities with missions that, in ordinary times, would be regarded as outside the province of the university. A mounting tide of Federal funds, most of it from military and para-military agencies, has placed the support of science, in particular, on an entirely new basis. The emphasis which such funds lay upon the project rather than the man, the short durations of time for which they are committed. the unresolved question of whether they are expended for the purchase or the support of research, the transfer of decision in the deployment of such funds from the universities to the granting agencies — all of these considerations have stirred deep disquiet in many quarters in the United States.

I cite these developments in my country as representing the extreme to which pressures to serve external interests may be exerted by society against the integrity and autonomy of the university. I would not presume to assess the situation in Canada. But I am confident that parallel and analogous pressures are felt buy the universities here. This is because the university represents such an extraordinary concentration of the finest assets of contemporary civilization. Inevitably they invite the attention of special interests and of national interests as well. Universities and their scholars and scientists are subject, at all times, to temptation and compulsion to turn from their long-term, narrow objective.

The hazard to society, of course, is that such distortion of the university forecloses aspiration toward the end-in-itself to which the community of scholars is dedicated: the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Those who would willingly take that hazard must reckon with another: that the university, diverted from its proper and legitimate end, must inevitably lose its capacity to serve the external purpose as well. The lesson in the case of the scientific enterprise must be familiar to everyone by now: technology battens on the stock of established knowledge; the continued advance of technology hangs upon the free forward movement of science. A specific demonstration of the enormous power of open-ended pursuit of knowledge is furnished by the central revolution in technology that is now sweeping the business and industrial world: the computer and the related "soft-ware" technology of information processing. No ad hoc research project could have elicited the fundamental developments in logic and mathematics and in solid-state physics that come to focus here.

By the same token, it is hazardous for society to press the university to add this or that marketable skill to the curriculum. How, in the first place, can one have any confidence that a presently marketable skill will really find a market when the student has graduated from the university? At the rate of technological, economic and social change in which society is entrained today, it would be far wiser to equip the student for adaptation to change. Such adaptation would undoubtedly call for reaffirming in an appropriate modern form the classical curriculum that endowed its pupils with the same generalized command of the culture of their civilization. At the very least, it would teach the student to learn and to go on learning, as he must, throughout his life in order to maintain his competence in whatever profession or vocation he enters.

We return again to the same paradoxical conclusion: the university will effectively serve the practical short-term interests that external powers press upon it only to the degree that the university is set free to pursue its own high purpose.

The crux of the paradox is to be found in ourselves. It is to be found in our own dual nature, so aptly defined by the late Alexander Meiklejohn:

"In a government which is carried on by consent of the governed, every citizen is both governor and governed."

In our private capacities — in our "pursuit of happiness" — we are the governed. It is in this capacity that we seek to put the university to the service of our special interests. If we act with a sufficiently preclusive regard for the private interest — whether through political pressure groups, or on behalf of stockholders, or by permitting agencies of government to make improper demands on university resources — we can undo the work of generations in the building of the university. In the pursuit of our private interests, we are most properly subject to the restraint of public regulation.

Only when we act in our capacity as governors do we begin to understand the relationship of the university to our deepest interests. Alexander Meiklejohn had this to say: "When a man is using his mind and will in dealing with matters of public policy, that mind and will must be kept free." And again:

"As the makers of the laws, free citizens have duties and responsibilities that require absolute freedom."

It is to defend, inform and enlarge the freedom of the citizen that the university must be accorded the same absolute freedom. As governors, we must understand that the university, whether private or public, belongs not to its trustees, nor tot he state, but to us. In this light we recognize the university at last: it is our seat of government as self-governing citizens. It is the citadel whose sanctity hedges our own sovereign immunity.