What makes the ideal university? Six values that power higher education at its best

Most universities and colleges achieve 4 of these 6. The final two are often where institutions come up short

By Virginia Valian - Abigail Stewart

Published August 25, 2018 1:00PM (EDT)


Adapted from "An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence" by Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian, The MIT Press, 2018.

Although there are no longer laws against the full participation of everyone in society in the academy, actual colleges and universities can do more to approximate the ideals of meritocracy and inclusiveness with respect to faculty. The standards for merit are too vague and still too saturated with inherited or unearned qualities, like the social class of our families. Individuals from different demographic groups are still insufficiently included or rewarded when they are inside the borders of academia. Moreover, the ideals of inclusion and merit are often perceived as in tension with one another — that is, that inclusion of all groups will risk or dilute merit, and that demanding merit will require exclusion of some groups, thereby limiting inclusion.

Like most of our colleagues in academic higher education, we are firmly committed to merit as the only basis for inclusion and recognition of faculty.  At the same time, we reject the notion that these two valued virtues are opposites or even in necessary tension. In short, we believe that it is possible to attain a genuinely meritocratic and inclusive academic  world. We also recognize that higher education is substantially more meritocratic and inclusive than it once was. Our hope is that we can help speed up the process of change, allowing us all to operate within institutions that are more inclusive and meritocratic in the future than they are now.

The Six Academic Virtues

1. Search for Truth

In the ideal academic setting scholars have the time and resources to search for truths within their fields. Among scientists, developing theories that will explain how the world works is a fundamental part of that search for truth.  In other fields, there may be skepticism about whether there are capital-T Truths to be discovered. But most academics in the United States would agree with some of the views expressed by the German Nobel Prize-winning novelist Hermann Hesse in his post-World War II novel "The  Glass Bead Game (or Magister Ludi)," celebrating a well-ordered intellectual world protecting knowledge against chaos and threat. For example, he wrote,

To sacrifice the sense of truth, intellectual probity and loyalty to the laws and methods of the spirit to any other interest is treachery. If, in the struggle of interests and slogans, truth is imperiled, devalued, mutilated and violated … then it is our duty to resist and to rescue the truth, i.e., to persist in striving after truth—the highest canon of our faith.

The ideal academic setting for many is one in which striving after truth is the first and most important responsibility of scholars. In fact, Hesse excoriates the “scholar who, as an orator, author or teacher, wittingly utters falsehood and supports lies and perjuries,” suggesting that such scholars are “of no use to [other] people whatever,”  causing them “nothing but harm.” The ethical standards guiding many disciplines, most university research offices, and many mission statements of academic institutions explicitly or implicitly articulate the centrality of striving after truth. It is unstated, but nevertheless accurate, that the search for truth is best served by having diverse seekers; an inclusive institution would help attain this goal.

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2. Freedom to Pursue All Ideas

Strongly related to the quest for truth is a second feature of the ideal academic setting: it is a space in which people are free to pursue all ideas — those that are popular and those that are unpopular, those that are familiar and those that are novel, those that are probable and those that are improbable. Robert Hutchins, the visionary and controversial president of the University of Chicago, put it this way in 1953: “The claim of academic freedom is based on the high  and  serious  calling  of  the  academic  profession.  That  calling  is to think. A university is a center of independent thought.”

Equally, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP, 2013) states, "Academic freedom is the indispensable quality of institutions of higher education." As the AAUP’s core policy statement argues,

“institutions of higher education are con- ducted 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” (1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure).

There is, then, broad agreement that academic freedom, understood as the “free search for truth and its free exposition,” is an essential academic virtue. It is clear both that institutions must better explain why this is so important to the public, and that real tests of academic freedom arise when institutions are more inclusive.

3. Respect for Knowledge and Expertise

In ideal academic institutions, expert knowledge is valued and respected by both students and faculty. In her 2013 autobiography, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recalled feelings of respect and reverence for knowledge as she described her reactions as a new student to Princeton University’s library:

I reveled in the vastness of the main catalog room, riffling through the drawers full of cards, rows and rows of cabinets running almost the length of the ground floor. And above them, like cathedral spires, rose the stacks, shelf after shelf, carrying a book for every card below, books ranging in subject from the majestic to the comically arcane. Here, in one of the world’s greatest libraries, was my first exposure to the true breadth of human knowledge, the humbling immensity of what was known and thought….

Jonathan Cole, a professor and former provost at Columbia University, expressed similar feelings about Columbia College in "Toward a More Perfect University" (2016):

Traversing the tree-lined Columbia Walk, I thought of George Santayana’s possibly apocryphal observation that when he walked the … campus he felt in the company of great minds. There was something inspiring about looking up at the façade of Butler Library and seeing carved in stone the names of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil, and those of Shakespeare, Milton, and Goethe, among many others whose work we would read in Columbia’s required Humanities course.

Few would question that a deep respect for the “humbling immensity of what was known and thought” is at the core of academic institutions and must be preserved. At the same time, anxiety about the value of what Sotomayor characterizes as “comically arcane” research is almost always near the surface of statements valuing “majestic” knowledge and expertise. As a crucial counterpoint to this anxiety, Hanna Gray, a recent President of the University of Chicago, points out in "Searching for Utopia" (2012) that unquestioning acceptance of traditional knowledge is not implied by the valuing of expertise in the contemporary university. Instead, there is a “focus on scholarly investigation and discovery, a wide embrace of all the emerging and newly created fields of knowledge….”

Legislatures also frequently comment on what seems to them to be arcane and unimportant intellectual pursuits, thereby questioning whether it makes sense to “respect expertise” that does not make intuitive sense to those outside of academic institutions. Part of respecting expertise and valuing truth and knowledge for its own sake includes understanding that people cannot predict ahead of time what might turn out to be an important discovery, and that we must protect the ability of scholars to pursue ideas that may seem improbable but might provide a crucial key to our understanding. Another part of valuing truth and knowledge is accepting that it is difficult to determine, in fields outside one’s specialty, whether a particular line of research is promising.

Finally, all researchers know that even dead ends often teach the field something. It can be difficult to make these larger points within academia as well as outside it, but an important component of the system of higher education in the United States and other countries with similar systems is commitment to the free and open pursuit and exchange of ideas, with reviews by one’s peers providing some constraints on the wildness of our speculations. Clearly these values are best served when the faculty is inclusive of a wide range of kinds of knowledge and expertise.

4. Embrace of Creativity and Innovation

Today’s ideal academic institution embraces creativity and innovation as much as it respects a secure grounding in past understanding. Hesse’s vision included the idea that “we may under certain circumstances also be innovators, discoverers, adventurers, pioneers, and interpreters.” As Gray argues, exposure to the liberal arts in the university is “liberating” because it frees the mind from unexamined opinions and assumptions to think independently and exercise critical judgment, to question conventional doctrines and inherited claims to truth, to gain some skill in analysis and some capacity to deal with complexity, to embrace a certain skepticism in the face of dogma, and to be open to many points of view.

Students and faculty in all academic institutions are expected, then, both to respect acquired knowledge and to value the intellectual skills and gifts that enable individuals to challenge existing beliefs and develop truly new ideas and understanding. In chapter 2 we will see that creativity and innovation are fostered by inclusive diversity.

5. Merit

In the ideal college or university, success is a function solely of someone’s capacity and desire to do the work. Hesse’s vision here is apt: “[A]ll the students, irrespective of descent and prospects, are on a completely equal footing: the hierarchy is graded entirely according to the aptitudes and qualities of the students, in respect of intellect and character.” This meritocratic ideal posits that demonstrated “merit” (here, the aptitudes and qualities of the student), rather than inherited position or wealth, deter- mines academic value. Admissions policies that emphasize evidence of past learning and the capacity for further intellectual growth reflect this meritocratic ideal, as do tenure and promotion policies that rely on evidence of intellectual accomplishment in teaching and research.

Nevertheless, colleges and universities have never been and are not now entirely meritocratic, either in the admission of students or in the selection and promotion of faculty (The Uses of the University, 2001). For example, many institutions give an advantage in admissions to students whose parents or other relatives are alumni; such legacy students are viewed in admissions as having a special kind of “merit” that students from different kinds of families cannot access or demonstrate. Similarly, many faculty members prefer to hire colleagues with credentials from prestigious institutions, independent of their other qualifications ("The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton," 2005). Although faculty tend to think that merit is in one way like obscenity in the mind of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart as he wrote in the 1964 opinion on Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964—they know it when they see it—there are frequent debates about what counts as merit. The vagueness around our definitions of merit enables us to act on irrelevant preferences rather than judgments of merit. Although it is difficult to ensure that our academic institutions are truly meritocratic, that commitment is central to the ideal vision.

6. Inclusiveness

Finally, and tightly related to the ideal of meritocracy, is the notion that academic institutions should be inclusive. That is, membership on the faculty or in the student body should not be reserved, as it once was, to a single group, whether defined by gender, race or ethnicity, religion, economic means, those without disabilities, or other personal characteristics. Instead, our ideal academic institutions are open to everyone and should include a wide range of kinds of people who share only their quest for knowledge and commitment to pursuing truth, creativity and innovation, and the other virtues of higher education. Jonathan Cole, while admiring Columbia’s scholarly seriousness, also notes who was not present in his class of 600: “When I entered the college [in 1960], there were no women (Barnard was the women’s college at Columbia), only two African Americans—both talented academics and athletes—and no Hispanics in my class.”

In later years all institutions of higher education in the United States were challenged to be more inclusive. As Richard Rodriguez wrote in the 1981 book Hungry for Memory, “When educators promised to open their schools [to those previously excluded], it was partly because they couldn’t imagine another response; their schools were rooted in the belief that higher education should be available to all.”

Most people agree that the ideal college or university should not resemble the original institutions of higher education in America that refused to consider admission of women and other groups as a categorical matter. Women and advocates for women’s education had to fight for the notion that women should be able to demonstrate that they had the qualities of mind and knowledge that suited them for higher education. The “junior girls” of 1876 wrote a poignant letter to their successors 100 years later at the University of Michigan, expressing "[o]ur hope that the next Centennial may find in our University a larger band of girls than we: wiser for all the progress which the world will make in these hundred years to come, but still as enthusiastic and earnest as we are to whom the admission of women to colleges is a new thing and for whom it required some heroism to enter upon a university course."

Just as women were only grudgingly admitted to higher education, racial and ethnic minorities faced many obstacles to higher education, perhaps stemming in the United States from the spirit of pre-Civil War laws that prohibited teaching slaves how to read and write. In the wake of slave rebellions, several states passed laws fining those who might teach slaves to read and write, tacitly acknowledging the subversive potential of reading and writing. The ideal academic institution now takes a very different approach, repudiating all demographic limits on who is “fit” to be educated.

Realization of Academic Virtues

Institutions of higher education worldwide, and perhaps especially in the United States, have a great deal to be proud of, in terms of their success at living up to the six ideals we have outlined. College and university  campuses remain centers of a love of the search for knowledge and understanding, of freedom to pursue all kinds of ideas and insights, of respect both for acquired expertise and knowledge and for creativity and the capacity to innovate and produce new understanding and new knowledge. Each accomplishment has also been challenged. For example, academics who supported left-wing causes were persecuted during the McCarthy era. The sixties and seventies saw demands for “relevance.” More recently, attempts to introduce inclusive terminology have met charges of “political correctness.” Each change must be articulated and supported by evidence and argument in every generation of faculty, students, and administrators.

In the main, we believe that most faculty and most students experience colleges and universities as living up to these ideals—especially the first four—more often than not. And we concur. It is in the last two ideals, meritocracy and inclusion, that institutions of higher education—despite their clear intention to live up to all of the ideals—too often fall short. And in failing to live up to those ideals, the academy makes the other ideals harder to achieve.

The ideals of merit and inclusiveness are often perceived to be in tension with each other: to pursue merit is to be exclusionary, and conversely to be inclusive is to disregard merit. This tension can be expressed at two levels.  At the first level, individuals have difficulty making impartial judgments about merit - despite their beliefs that they can do so.  At the second level, institutions reflect and exaggerate those psychological or human difficulties.  As a result, some of our policies and procedures inadvertently benefit some groups at the expense of others, limiting not just the desired inclusiveness but fidelity to the first four virtues as well.  We recommend adopting new practices and policies that both mitigate some unfortunate psychological tendencies and create stronger institutions. Our experience has made us optimistic that change in institutions' policies and procedures to make them both excellent and inclusive is possible.

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