Thursday, 6 December 2012

How do we know if we have a University or not?

Universities are unique organizations whose purpose is to pursue truth. As such they have characteristics that distinguish them from other types of institutions of higher education. Understanding the purpose, nature, and characteristics of universities will help students select among different types of schools and will help policy makers and legislators understand the implications of their actions.

After asserting in my last post that we should impose some rules about what types of education organizations can include “University” in their names, I built a little rationale for why we should protect the use of the term “university," and I asked how we should proceed. I was really trying to operationalize a way to address the more general question of, What is a university and what should we expect from one? I think that if we are going to build some discipline around what we call a university, we should at least think about the basic characteristics.

I will admit too that I have been a little motivated by the $10,000 Platform article that appeared in Inside Higher last week. It outlined some of the similarities among the higher education reform efforts in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin. I have included below links to short articles treating higher education reform in Ohio and Colorado as well. All of the efforts seem to revolved around cost cutting measures and performance-based funding. My growing concern is whether some of the Universities in these states will remain so after they receive the benefit of reform. It struck me that articulating what a university is, might help folks understand if they really want a university or not.

Before writing any more though, I do want to say that I am not presuming to define what a university is in any general way. I am just trying to make the point that the University is something and that it is different than other things like trade schools, career colleges, high schools, seminaries, medressas, polytechnics, military academies, science academies, institutes, liberal arts colleges, and such. If you disagree with the characteristics I list below, please chime in, make recommendations, improve my thinking - no worries. In addition, I am not trying to define any of the characteristics that I have listed below. I am just trying to provide descriptive illustrations that might be useful for our purposes.

I think that for an institution of higher education to include the word “University” in its name, it should have the following characteristics. It will certainly have many other characteristics, but there should at least be evidence of the following:

Universal Knowledge
The University ought to be a place in which it is possible to explore universal knowledge, in which intellectual resources are available across disciplines to address systemic discovery, teaching, and learning. That is, a University is a place in which scholarship contributes to and benefits from the constellation of disciplines that constitute the collective of human knowledge at that point in time.

Academic Freedom
The American Association of University Professors has a great resource on Academic Freedom that covers a range of topics, case law, and provides some detail on the evolving interpretations of academic freedom. At the very least we can use the following as a touchstone.

"institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition"

Practically, academic freedom needs to be supported through and reflected in shared governance, research, the “classroom,” and in public life. Academic freedom is complemented by a system of responsibilities that are exhibited through the behavior of faculty. Assuming the responsibility is not a punishment or a trade-off, it is a condition of being part of a community of scholars whose principal objective is to seek the truth - the purpose of the university.

Community of Scholars
Being part of a community and being a scholar has meaning. Scholars, of course practice scholarship, using scholarly methods in pursuit of truth. I am going to cheap-out a little here. I love Wikipedia, and I am going to quote directly from it on the topic of Scholarship because it is pretty accessible.
Scholarly method or scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public. It is the methods that systemically advance the teaching, research, and practice of a given scholarly or academic field of study through rigorous inquiry. Scholarship is noted by its significance to its particular profession, is creative, can be documented, can be replicated or elaborated, and can be and is peer-reviewed through various methods.

As a member of a community, the scholar has a responsibility to maintain integrity in the community, become expert in its methods, and uphold standards of scholarship. And, as a member of the University serving on a faculty there is also a responsibility to prepare others for and welcome others into the community.

Teaching, Discovery, and Service
I am going to suggest that teaching, discovery, and service or practice are essential activities within the University. They do not need to be equally balanced, but none can be trivial either. Each should be represented in the institution's mission, coherent with its values, evident in its practice, its hiring policies, and evaluation systems. There ought to be evidence that teaching, discovery, and service are actively and meaningfully supported by the institution, and expected of every scholar.

I think that the purpose of the University is so important that it should have its own category. I think too that it is worth mentioning that although no systems or practices should impede the search for truth, and many should be designed to facilitate the search, the University does do things additionally. For example, Universities may in addition to searching for truth, simply teach some skills.

I think that this is enough for now. Institutions that do not possess the characteristics listed above, may be very good examples of what they are, but they are not Universities, and probably should not be representing themselves as such. I am not yarning-on about this to be a jerk, so much as to create a point of reference. If in the name of efficiency, policies are passed that change the characteristics of a university, they may become a good college, but may no longer be a university. If a prospective student sees “University” in the name of an institution, that learner has a legitimate expectation that the school will at least possess the characteristics listed above. The same holds true for the tax payer who is investing in their public "University." It is my feeling that it is all that goes into the pursuit of truth coupled with dissemination and teaching that separates Universities from other types of education providers and many other types of organizations more generally.

$10,000 Platform, Inside HigherEd 
Wikipedia: Scholar 
Colorado creates master plan for improving higher education

John Kasich’s New Higher Education Funding Formula: Results Equal Funding

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