What is a university?

The answer may enrage you.

Having posted over a hundred entries to this blog on university affairs, I may seem foolish asking a question like “what is a university?” Shouldn’t I know? Isn’t it obvious? Does it really matter?

As some philosopher said regarding time, I know what a university is — so long as nobody asks me, so I was curious as to what my own definition would look like if I tried to spell it out. The answer is not obvious, though, because a university has not always meant the same thing over the centuries, and it does not necessarily mean the same thing to everyone now. And it matters because very often the arguments we have about universities turn on our assumptions about what universities are and what they ought to be. Recent debates over certain religious universities in Canada, provide one obvious example. What follows then is my initial, and admittedly provisional attempt to define what we ought to consider a university in this country. I hope it provides readers with some food for thought and some opportunity for debate.

1. A university has two principal functions: providing instruction on matters of intellectual importance and conducting research on those same matters.

2. These two functions, to the extent reasonably possible, should support one another. University teaching, therefore, is distinguished from other modes of education not only by seeking the highest levels of sophistication, but also by deriving its vitality from the atmosphere of on-going discovery fostered at the institution. For this reason, most, if not all courses at a university should be taught by faculty who are active researchers in the disciplines in which they teach. Conversely, research ought not to be done in isolation from teaching. Researchers should be open to allowing issues that arise in teaching to suggest new research questions and, where feasible, students, both undergraduate and graduate, should be given opportunities to participate in research.

3. Because strong intellectual work can only be done in an atmosphere where scholars feel free to take risks, challenge conventions, and change their minds, universities must foster an environment that prizes intellectual freedom. Except in cases of illegal conduct, violence, or flagrant abuse of the trust placed in faculty members, universities should never seek to sway, silence, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise influence faculty members to take, renounce, or be silent on any particular position, nor to control or monitor controversial actions. Indeed, universities should take all legal action necessary to defend the academic integrity and freedom of the scholars associated with it. Academic freedom is a right of individual scholars, not of universities themselves or their administrations. Therefore, no university should seek to impinge on the academic freedom of a scholar by claiming it has an institutional freedom to do so.

4. Though university education should provide the kind of intellectual enrichment that would serve any graduate well in the working world, university education should never be construed solely or even primarily as a path to employment. Even in disciplines with obvious professional connections such as education or law, the university should first aim to teach the history, theoretical underpinnings, crucial knowledge, and critical skills necessary to build a profound understanding of the discipline. A university law program, for example, should aim primarily to produce graduates with a profound understanding of law, rather than lawyers, per se.

5. A university has one additional secondary function: to serve as a cultural touchstone in its community to encourage all members of the public to participate in the life of the mind. Universities should, within reasonable limits and without needlessly detracting from its primary missions, sponsor and host artistic performances and displays, public talks, open debates, and other events that excite interest in intellectual pursuits, broadly construed.

This to me seems like a good starting point for a real, meaningful debate on what a university should be. Some readers might object and say that I have simply described Canadian universities as they are. To the extent that that is true, we should consider ourselves lucky, and seek to conserve and develop what we already have. But as the case of Trinity Western and Redeemer have demonstrated, not all institutions that consider themselves universities would sign on to all five of my criteria — particularly the part about academic freedom. Quest University, the new private institution in BC, would certainly not qualify because it does not expect its profs to be researchers, for example. And it’s not just those universities: I think you would be hard-pressed to find many university administrators or any politicians who would endorse number 4.

In any case, what we mean by the term “university” is a debate that we have to continue to have in this country. Have at it.  

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