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On What Makes A University Great: Against Bret Stephens

October 22, 2017

Bret Stephens recently authored a NYT piece praising University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer. As a long-time observer of university and its doings, I’m agnostic regarding any judgment of Zimmer and his presidency. He could be great, or he could end up being terrible. It’s too soon, in my opinion, to make any judgment like that.

My beef is with Stephens’ analysis of the moment. The substance of his argument—on freedom of discourse, rigor, censorship, and what makes a university great—misses the point. The University of Chicago is not great because of its policies regarding free and rigorous discourse. That is only a necessary condition for greatness, but not a sufficient one. No university that focused solely on the conditions of discourse, at the expense of ideas and topics discussed, would ever become great.

What makes an institution excellent? A great university first pursues the highest ideals and achievements for the benefit of knowledge and humanity. Nobel Prizes recognize knowledge created for the sake of some form of human progress. They don’t recognize the rehashing of settled questions around white supremacy, or racism, or women’s rights, or police brutality, or rape culture, or climate change denial. Rehearsing these questions does nothing to make a university great. Forwarding and clarifying great ideas, past and present, is the proper end of a university.

The University of Chicago’s motto is “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur.” This means: “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

That motto does not mean a university can’t occasionally offer trigger warnings, in classes, when dealing with sensitive subjects. It does not mean that an institution has to let Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulos suck security resources so that they can spout provocations for the sake of it on campus. How are those speakers enriching human life with their racial ideologies? How are they creating growth in the garden of knowledge? How are they attempting to forward human progress, in some fashion, for all members of the human family? Those are the questions that a university should ask when allowing time and space for speakers.

So Bret Stephens misses the point when he gives credit to the university, or its president, solely for being brave on policies of academic discourse. That bravery must be accompanied by a sense of the needs of the times and future concerns.That kind of sensitivity saves us from “intellectual mediocrity and social ossification.” – TL

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