What is a university?

What is a university? What does it add to society and what can we, as students, expect from it?

For centuries, the university was the intellectual center of civic life. Not everyone was expected to go to school or even allowed to, but it was recognized as the developer of scholarship in much the same way churches were recognized as developers of righteousness, and cultivators of community. The liberal arts and classics existed to help students develop an appreciation for culture and deliberation, the sciences for inquiry and discovery. And for hundreds of years, this was the standard.

Somewhere in the past century though, the purpose of university became expanded. Along with being centers of intellectual exploration (a more cynical person might say instead of) universities now had the added task of being an idealized model of what society might look like, provided things were more fair. With the introduction of affirmative action, Minority and Women’s Studies departments, and a host of other programs, college administrations around the country said their role as developers of scholarship wasn’t enough. Universities, they argued, shouldn’t just exist as intellectual spaces but should also be representative of the greater population.

Today these dual views of what a university is and ought to be still exist. Is a university supposed to serve primarily as an academic center? Is it supposed to do more, to be a center of not just academic progress, but to reflect the larger society around it? This is where I believe the deeper tension exists amidst debate about trigger warnings, safe spaces and the like.


The first universities weren’t formal schools, but gatherings of individuals with a desire for knowledge. Thousands of years ago Socrates posited the way to truth, if such a thing existed, was to ask questions. Still today questions form the basis of our research, and research is at the core of what makes a university different from any other type of school. Colleges are often at the forefront of groundbreaking discoveries and scientific advancements, making their role in society much more significant than merely that of four-year job training factories. Central to discovery though, is the principle of free expression. In their book, “End of Academic Freedom: The Coming Obliteration of the Core Purpose of the University,” Cleveland State Professors William Bowen and Michael Swartz argue,

“the university is, or should be, the institution in society responsible for conserving the variation of ideas; and that the success with which society produces the knowledge needed to adapt to major social and environmental problems depends vitally upon conserving this variation. The “enemies” are idea-vetting systems that restrict or constrain the variation of ideas that can be used in inquiry, deliberation and action.”

For Bowen, Swartz, and many others, a student’s ability to appreciate the variation of ideas that exist in the world is much more important to their students’ level of comfort, which professors have no effective way of measuring because every student is different. There exist an infinite number of social and politics topics which when discussed honestly could potentially offend someone, but that is the nature of discussion, they argue. Students shouldn’t be able to censor ideas in the classroom just because they feel uncomfortable. We should enter college expecting to be made uncomfortable at some point or another, to be challenged, and to re-evaluate our own biases and orthodoxies because otherwise, college is little more than in-depth rehash of our prior education. A university’s purpose is to serve as an institution of scholarship, undergirded by the principles of free expression, inquiry, and academic freedom. For some, this is a university’s primary and perhaps, only duty.

For others still there is more to the story, a different view of what a university is. If asking questions is the first step to good producing great research, then universities should strive to attract students willing to challenge orthodoxy, to ask difficult questions, and do the work required to answer them. With this reasoning as a premise, it’s often argued that a student body willing to do just that–to produce scholarship worthy of outside consideration–can’t all come from the same background.

From the University of Minnesota’s statement of diversity:

         “In proposing a transformational framework, we are defining diversity as not only a driving force but also a necessary condition for excellence. We are saying that excellence is truly achievable only in an environment that fully supports engagement with diverse cultures and perspectives. An academy of the highest stature, as measured against ideals of both academic excellence and social justice, is one in which excellence and diversity are inextricably intertwined—not either-or, but both-and.”

 Good scholarship requires diversity in race, political views, religion, sex, and so on, because different people have different perspectives, and there is more room for debate between people who disagree. Visible diversity provides intellectual diversity, if only because it’s unlikely that any two people–but especially not two people of different races, religions, or creeds–would view the world quite the same way. This is the academic argument often used to justify affirmative action and the creation of various ethnic and women’s studies departments. Diversity within a student body doesn’t just benefit certain students but the entire university, making these programs a net benefit even when they privilege certain students over others.

Implicit in this argument however, is another statement about what a university ought to be. It is also frequently argued such programs are necessary to right societal wrongs: racism, discrimination, and sexism, among others. Universities aren’t just places of research but symbols of how society should look. Thus, greater representation of minorities on college campuses is not only preferable, but also necessary. Those who argue for greater diversity in college, whether via race-conscious admissions, Latino/Black/Women’s Studies majors and departments, and programs and housing specifically for minority students, do so with an eye towards equality.

Diversity isn’t just important to the scholarship of a university, but inherently good. Striving for a diverse student body and faculty is therefore an important goal independent of the academic benefits of doing so.

Because there is disagreement about what exactly constitutes the purpose of a university, it’s natural that there is also passionate disagreement about what students can and should expect from their colleges. If a university’s purpose is to be the intellectual center of civic life, free expression must be its center. Difficult questions should be met with debate, and diversity should be valued more highly in the context of intellectual differences than in those of race or gender, even though they overlap. Using this framework, it’s difficult to justify intervention by university administrators in the classroom or lab except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Academic freedom is an established, accepted norm and any violation of it is a violation of the entire purpose of a university. For others, intervention by a school administration in the classroom and in other aspects of student life–housing, private organizations, even social media–is not a mere possibility but a necessity.

However, if part of a university’s responsibility is to reflect society as it should be, to not just boast diversity, but actively work to promote inclusivity, then it’s reasonable that students would expect their university to take measures to ensure all students feel welcome. This sentiment seems to be at the core of calls for trigger warnings, explicit racial quotas in admissions and employment, and other efforts to fulfill the university’s role as reflection of societal progress. Following this line of reasoning, college administrations have a duty to create a safe space for students, which either equals or exceeds its duty to cultivate an intellectual space. Looking at it this way, it’s less difficult see why some college campuses seem to be coming apart at the seams right now.

But there is still a third group of students we tend to ignore, and those are the students who are neither involved in the protests nor leading the backlash against them. They’re the students for whom defining the purpose of a university is secondary to well, acquiring a degree. Most undergraduate students don’t really have the luxury of going to school to conduct groundbreaking research, or to protest during classes and work. Most students, whether or not we like to admit it, just want to get their degrees and move on with their lives. I find it almost comical that at a time when more students than ever aren’t graduating, doing so only after 5 or 6 years, or when they do graduate, are doing so with upwards of $20,000 in debt on average, this somehow isn’t the main issue being discussed. Even at my own school–which has itself been the target of outrage because of an offensive frat party theme–the majority of students aren’t engaging one way or another in the debate (which is perhaps also a problem). Of course this really doesn’t make for headlines that are quite as polarizing, or validate the endless thinkpieces about why millennials are all terrible, but it’s just the truth. In spite of this, I still think these debates—when they’re actually debates—are worthwhile.

How people define what a university is has everything to do with what they believe universities should do for their students, what students can expect from their faculty and administration. Though debating the merits of safe spaces and campus protests isn’t bad, it tends to distract from larger issues, particularly that while there used to be a general consensus about the purpose of colleges, that consensus doesn’t exist anymore. Until this is addressed, every other conversation is just ideological performance theater.

2 thoughts on “What is a university?

  1. I love this post because you explained each position on the purpose of university better than perhaps the average holder of those views would even be able to. In other words, you passed the Ideological Turing Test with honors. And by stepping back, and looking at all the possible positions from the outside, you were able to notice something I’ve personally never heard articulated so well: namely, the until we reach consensus on what the purpose of university is, we’ll just keep talking past each other.

    I am reminded of the incident at Yale, when the Prof. said he was trying to cultivate a space for intellectual growth, to which the student protester replied (paraphrasing) “this isn’t a space for intellectual growth, this is our *home*”. Those are two radically different and irreconcilable conceptions of university.

    My worry, as someone who prefers the “exposure to new ideas” / “intellectual growth” end of university, is that the current breakdown in consensus is generational. Just like the Yale case I mentioned, the difference in position split along an age dimension, too. Maybe the current university environment is a product of the new generation, and new concept of safe spaces, etc., reaching a critical mass relative to retiring Boomers. That suggests consensus will one day soon be reached, only not in the direction I personally prefer.

    It will be interesting to watch if this new consensus in some ways undermines the “true” i.e. market tested, external purpose of university, and ends up self-canablizing the institution. Because there really are two types of “purpose” involved. There’s the view of the students, i.e. the customers, and the view of their eventual employers, the tax paying public, and so on. If university becomes too much of an echo chamber, and a comfy home environment, the cycle make reverse, with all the status and funding flowing back to new or refurbished institutions willing to once again be epicenters of debate. At least I hope.

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