Tug of war for knowledge

December 4, 1998

Sheldon Rothblatt argues that universities need boundaries to retain their legitimacy, privileges and trust

Advocates of academic reorganisation are never hesitant to proclaim the requirements for completing the transition to a Knowledge Society. These are weak disciplinary divisions and supra-departmental units, such as "matrix" arrangements for facilitating collaboration with industry and government.

Systems for attracting and distributing start-up capital are also necessary. The boundaries of the university are some times regarded as an obstacle, especially where, as in the regionalisation policies of the European Union and its member states, inter-institutional cooperation across shared national borders is favoured.

The weakening of conventional lines of demarcation accentuates familiar fault lines. United States universities have long struggled with conflicts of interest arising from contract research, particularly demands for secrecy of industrial patrons eager to stay ahead of the competition.

Government-sponsored, but university-based research occasions similar concerns about public access to knowledge. Patent laws, which vary radically from one country to another, give rise to divided attention, as does what may be termed the dual employment issue, not so much in the form of consultancies but of private corporations established and run by professors.

Where data accumulation and retrieval are closely and immediately linked to products and services, the university should not, it is strongly argued, retain many of its conventional structures and systems of assessment. Any survey of universities in Europe or the US finds that many of the desired features are already in place, with customary forms of academic loyalty relegated to subjects and disciplines implicitly regarded as marginal.

At least two opposing forms of organisation and value systems exist in single institutions. Analyses of these are strangely absent.

Whether something approximating to a "traditional" university is superior or inferior to what may be in the making is not the issue. There may be loss, but there is also gain. But the ensuing ambiguity and confusion, conditions that do not ignite methodological enthusiasm in the policy sciences, is most interesting.

If, historically, the world of the research university is undergoing intellectual and academic transformations of a revolutionary character, serious thought ought to be paid to an analysis of aspects of the university as a self-governing corporation unique in society.

Academic freedom is one way to start because it developed in structures typical of most research universities. Academic freedom was born of a research ethic in the last century, derived from a belief that new or original knowledge was essential for civilisation and social enlightenment. The creative process had to be protected because no one really knew, at the outset of an inquiry, where it might end.

The history of the medieval university is permeated by searches for corporate integrity and independence, the rights, privileges and advantages of institutional autonomy in a context of powerful states, churches and municipalities. It was the relatively plural nature of medieval society, its feudal character, competing ecclesiastical jurisdictions and free cities, which created the preconditions for some form of institutional unity or cohesion, underpinned by consensus on what constituted knowledge and learning.

As citizens, academics enjoy all the liberties associated with democratic polities; but as academics they are entitled only to those privileges associated with fields of inquiry in which competence is recognised and validated by peers. Grey areas abound.

Innovation is not always easy to assess. Holocaust "revisionists" hide behind academic facades. Off-campus ideological groups find ways to spread propaganda in university settings. Freedom of speech is confused with academic freedom, but only the latter involves disciplinary competence.

A self-governing, self-correcting university and its internal structure provide the environment in which knowledge acquisition and expression exist under the rules governing academic freedom. For the university to retain its legitimacy, and therefore its income, privileges and public trust, it requires boundaries, as well as a centre able to speak for its values and support the principles of inquiry consistent with plural and broad-minded cultures.

There is a lot of wiggle room here. Ever since the Vietnam war, universities and colleges in the US have been wiggling, with consequences that have often wearied public tolerance and compromised civilised campus discourse.

One conclusion is the possibility that universities can become so flexible, porous and adaptable that the kinds of activities protected by the freedom to learn and the freedom to teach lose their structural supports. In the presence of a dual organisational system, the disciplines most dependent on conceptions of academic freedom are highly vulnerable to changing national moods and funding priorities, while those most favoured by outside interests are able to find new and different means of accommodation independent of ordinary safeguards.

Disciplinary and subject specialism validated by peers and protected by certain kinds of inner perimeters have been the organisational defenders of academic freedom. But there is a downside. For one of the more unintended consequences of a high division of academic labour is a propensity to view the university from a single perspective only, without regard to the needs of neighbours.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and STINT professor of history at the Royal Institute of technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

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