The Idea of a University Leader · 19 October 2003

by Thomas C. Reeves

On October 15, Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, published a thoughtful and provocative article in The Wall Street Journal titled "The Idea of a University."

Universities are distinct and important, Bollinger argued, because, at their best, they grapple with change and nurture "a distinctive intellectual atmosphere" of open inquiry, curiosity, and tolerance. "With all the pressures toward the closing of our minds that come with conflict in the public arena, it's not a bad idea to have special communities like universities distinctly dedicated to the open intellect." Bollinger boasted that such an atmosphere at Columbia has produced much distinction since the institution's founding in 1754, including graduates who have won 64 Nobel Prizes.

As I read the article, the thought occurred to me that in forty years of teaching in higher education I had failed to come even remotely close to a leading administrator who spoke sincerely and meaningfully about the importance of free thought and the creation of an intellectual atmosphere on campus. We have all heard the usual blather about "excellence" at commencement time, of course, but all too often these days Presidents and Chancellors condone repressive political correctness and a wide variety of forms of anti-intellectualism.

Examples of the repression pour into my computer almost every day. One need not look far to document the anti-intellectualism: The great majority of students enter college thinking about having fun and getting rich. Examine the advertisements for campuses and see how many stress hard work and the serious encounter with leading thinkers and ideas. How many even mention the intrinsic value of being educated?

Assuming that a campus seeks academic distinction (and one can by no means take this for granted), what specific steps might be taken by a top administrator anywhere to recreate the productive and valuable atmosphere described by Bollinger? How might a President or Chancellor go about creating a free and intellectually sophisticated culture on campus that would produce the sort of first-rate educational experience that almost any ambitious campus might reproduce? Several suggestions come readily to mind for your consideration, each one a potential book in itself.

First, defend academic freedom. That means genuinely permitting the free expression of responsible ideas by qualified faculty no matter who is offended. There are few enemies of authentic education as formidable as the currently fashionable political correctness.

Secondly, defend the free speech of students. That means putting an end, for example, to the confiscation and destruction of student newspapers that take the "wrong" position on "sensitive" topics. Young people should be encouraged to think for themselves without being afraid of violence and recrimination. Thirdly, permit and encourage ideological diversity on campus. That means, for example, that conservative faculty members should be hired and promoted. Not because they are conservative but because they are qualified for the position and happen to be conservative. Presenting more than one point of view, especially about the great moral issues of life, is always healthy and might well lead to thoughtfulness.

Top administrators should also labor diligently to maintain high academic standards on campus. That means working to eliminate nonsensical courses and majors, seeing that grades are awarded responsibly, and discouraging the use of student evaluations, which too often lure professors into the worst sorts of pandering. (We have recently learned that a professor's physical attractiveness plays a role in the scoring.) Campus leaders should know as many faculty members as possible, offering them personal encouragement and support in their research and teaching efforts. An anonymous and unappreciated faculty will often spend an inordinate amount of time reading want-ads in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Presidents and Chancellors should help build great bookstores as well as libraries.

Students should know that there is more to the intellectual life than textbooks. A lot more. Reading and education should appear to be as important as football and drinking. Academic leaders should hire as many full-time faculty members as possible. The current scandal of offering students underpaid part-timers and graduate students should end immediately. On many campuses, the elimination of legions of minor administrators could help fund this improvement. And, oh yes, Presidents and Chancellors should try to raise a lot of money. But not just because the basketball team is winning or because the Business School needs more accounting professors. Donors and legislators should be presented with the need to educate. Bollinger writes, "Universities remain meaningful because they respond to the deepest of human needs, to the desire to understand and to explain
that understanding to others."

The serious decline of popular culture and good taste in our day is clearly linked with the anti-intellectual smog that hovers over our high schools and colleges. Why not make these eight suggestions job requirements for top administrators? We might attract to our campus suites people as serious about the life of the mind as Lee C. Bollinger, and wouldn't that be refreshing.