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From the Shelf Universities in Trouble

By Thomas Geoghegan

the current issue of the Harvard Bulletin

IN THE September issue of the Harvard Bulletin. several faculty members discuss the many-sided troubles of the university. Professor Adam B. Ulam argues that the university has overextended itself and should leave society alone. Professor H. Stuart Hughes writes that the university should stop playing politics. Professor Samuel P. Huntington adds a pessimistic prognosis on the further decline of student-teacher relations. Ten other Harvard teachers submit briefer remarks on the fad for "relevance" in the curriculum. Most express fears that political activism on campus may compromise scholarly values and impartial inquiry. It is disturbing to find so many faculty disturbed.

In "The University Should Mind Its Own Business." Adam Ulam, professor of Government, deplores the meddling of the university in political and social issues. He also regrets the rapid expansion of higher education, making the ivory tower resemble the Tower of Babel. A return is urged to "the essential function of the colleges and universities, that of teaching and propagating learning."

But he restricts this function too narrowly. In propagating learning, the university also asserts allegiance to a set of universal ideas which aim to benefit all mankind. If this allegiance conflicts with the specific goals of a particular society, political tension naturally results between the university and society. To take the obvious example: the university (radicals and college presidents together) is usually regarded by the Nixon Administration as the focus of domestic opposition to the Vietnam War. This opposition has had some effect in reshaping policy and seems worth maintaining.

Professor Ulam also contends that the university should refuse attempts "to solve directly the political and social problems of the society at large or its own community." This formula would exclude those political and social problems which the university itself created. As a major urban property owner, for example, the university will frequently find itself in conflict with the urban poor. The university must begin to think of itself as a social service institution.

Ulam himself opposes further expansion of higher education. He clearly prefers an impoverished, modest Little Ivy to the lavishly financed modern institutions. Expansion will intensify, nevertheless, as government continues to pay more of the cost. In that event, it would be wiser to plan even more welfare activities and applied research projects for the benefit of urban neighbors. "The social wrongs that may be committed by the university." Professor Hughes protests, "are not to be corrected by turning it into a social service institution." Though social service is not now a function of the university, it will sooner or later be accepted as a legitimate one.

IN "The Need Now Is To Depoliticize the University" Professor Hughes echoes in less stringent terms the desire to separate the university from politics. "The task is to depoliticize connections with the right, rather than repoliticize them from the left." This makes sense only if one does not see depoliticization as neutralization or apolitical detachment. On the contrary, depolitization requires the effort of the left to pry the center loose from the right. The university cannot avoid politics. If it should choose a critical, independent center position, tension with the government would still persist.

"The crucial distinction." Professor Hughes notes, "lies in how one goes about addressing oneself within the university to matters of public controversy."

Violence and social protest seem out of place in the hushed domain of the scholar. Professor Ulam argues that the university itself must reestablish some form of authority or "face the prospect of outside imposition." The real question is: what form should the new authority take? Institutions can usually eliminate the violence of a minority by becoming more democratic. Political reform-at the university and national level-would do the most to "depoliticize" the university.

IN THE SAME issue, ten other professors addressed themselves to the question: "Is it becoming more difficult to teach . . . because of changing attitudes about the relevance of the past, the life of the mind, and disinterestedness?" Most concluded that it had-it was, after all, a leading question. Some professors mention certain "rude" and "unbelievably ignorant" students, but they generally sympathize with what they believe to be the concerns of most of their pupils.

Each teacher naturally believes in the relevance of his own discipline, but he worries at times. Speaking of the smaller departments, Professor of German Jack M. Stein wonders: "Is there not then a danger that these will become even smaller and the larger ones even larger?" Professor Samuel P. Huntington suggests that the once dominant academic culture is being supplanted at Harvard by a new "political-activist" counter-culture.

Political activism does thrive on campus and doubtless makes teaching more difficult. It is possible, though, to mistake for "activism" what is only malaise. As Professor Ulam points out, few young people have the patience and temperament for four years of liberal education. Social pressures (not just the draft) are sending more students than ever to colleges and creating more and more unhappy ones.

Though society has overhauled the university in this and other ways, the university must not turn its back on society. It has come too far to retreat to the concept of Little Ivy espoused by Professor Ulam. Shutting out political controversy and the mania for "relevance" might indeed bring forth a tranquil university. A tranquil university, though, would also be a dead one.

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