The shifting face of a university

Prussian model: Politician and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt developed a German-supporting university ideal after Napoleon’s defeat. ( John Macdougall/AFP)

Prussian model: Politician and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt developed a German-supporting university ideal after Napoleon’s defeat. ( John Macdougall/AFP)

COMMENT

Professor William Gumede’s recent article on generating knowledge for the economy is on point and requires many more academics to continue probing “the idea of a university” (“Boost Africa’s economy with knowledge”, Mail & Guardian, December?19 2014).

They should do so because the mandate of universities is to provide open, scientific and critical intellectual debate. My purpose here, by providing a brief historical overview of the idea of a university, is to show that a single discourse can accommodate all conceptions of the “ideal university”.

In essence, the regulative principles of an ideal university contain a deep-seated ambiguity, which endured for many centuries. A university is an Indian idea born 2?815 years ago, with the establishment of what is generally accepted as the world’s oldest university in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

The University of Takshashila or Taxila University was established in about 800?BCE. But the term “university”, or “universitas” in classical Latin, is estimated to have been coined in the period between 1 BCE and CE 1. The name means “a community of teachers and scholars” (universitas magistrorum et scholarium).

The main purpose of a universitas was to protect foreign students against city laws that imposed collective punishments on foreigners for the crimes and debts of their countrymen. To protect themselves, foreign students founded Universitas, which then hired scholars and staff to teach them. The other oldest notable universities include the Plato Academy (Greece, 387?BCE), Imperial Nanjing University (China, CE?258), Nalanda University (India, CE?427), University of al-Qarawiyyin (Morocco, CE?859) and University of Bologna (Italy, CE?1088).

Ever since the establishment of universities, notable philosophers have published enduring definitions and descriptions of what an ideal university should be. They include politician and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1800), Cardinal John Henry Newman (1852), psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1923) and philosopher and writer Robert Pirsig (1928).

A state of mind
Pirsig said in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The Real University has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The Real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It’s a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the Real University. The Real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.”

He further explained: “In addition to this state of mind, ‘reason’, there’s a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a non-profit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address.

“It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money and of responding to legislative pressures in the process. But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the Real University at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favourable for the real church to exist.”

The history of universities shows that the idea of a university was always thought out and/or implemented by monarchs or politicians, academics or philosophers, religious leaders or capitalists.

Our “idea of a university”, or the landscape of the South African higher education system, has been influenced by three main archetypes that are traceable throughout the history of the idea of a university:

• The Prussian model, defined by King Frederick William III and   implemented by Von Humboldt. One of its aims was to spur the ideals of German superiority, especially after the defeat by Napoleon;

• The French model, which soldier and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte defined and politician Jean Chantal implemented. One of its aims was to spur loyalty and patriotism in the French Revolution’s terms; and

• The Anglo-American model that politicians, academics and industrialists defined and implemented, including Thomas Jefferson (politician) and the Rand Corporation (military establishments and industrialists). One of its aims was to meet the needs of society and the markets.

However, on January 17 1961, Dwight D Eisenhower, the former army general and then president of the United States, introduced the term “military-industrial complex” into public discourse.

Unwarranted influence
In a televised address to the nation that evening, he warned his country: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence,  sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

“Corporatised” or “enterprise” universities are quasi-private corporations that serve consumer demands and provide customer satisfaction. The “war economy” of the US at the time, among other factors, seduced these universities – but this is a global tendency. It exists also in our universities, which have commercialised and corporatised the “public good” as part of their financial survival strategies because of insufficient state funding – especially for the arts and humanities.

Some have lost the soul of academe because of financial seduction or academic greed, especially in the short-courses market. This is a condition Professor Henry Giroux described in his book The University in Chains (2007). And let’s not forget that university fees are globally unregulated. Some universities may use prestige to determine higher fees even when another not-so-prestigious university provides a better quality of teaching and learning or student experience at a lower price.

Enterprise universities are now being confused with corporate universities, which are universities wholly owned by large organisations such as the United Nations, McDonald’s, Oracle, Toyota, Motorola, Disney and Caterpillar. The control, ownership and strategic intent of these corporate universities are dictated by companies and their programmes are not for the public, but for those who add value to their competitive advantage.

These universities are not being seduced by finances, but they have been made to serve their masters – though with the same academic rigour of higher learning.

Prepared for downsizing
By taking advantage of skills shortages, especially at the higher levels of national qualifications, some public and corporatised universities have accepted or prepared themselves for downsizing – a process in which they simply get installed within a workplace, even when it is academically painful to fit a full-size university, faculty or university programme into a commercial organisation. 

South Africa’s higher education system has incorporated all the historical university influences mentioned above. These can be summarised as academic freedom, institutional autonomy, teaching, scientific research, social improvement and internationalisation.

Academic freedom, often misunderstood, is about freedom to seek and practise true knowledge, and to allow students, scholars and professors to traverse the world in its quest.

Institutional autonomy, also often misunderstood, refers to ownership and control of a university’s strategic intent.

The ground-breaking Yeshiva case, a 1980 US Supreme Court ruling on a union-related conflict between New York’s Yeshiva University and the National Labour Relations Board, concluded that the Yeshiva staff substantially and pervasively in effect operated the enterprise (the university) and that they had extensive control of academic and non

-academic decisions based on the institution’s central policies. This judgment implies that institutional ownership and control by the state, university council or industrialists can only be exercised to the extent that it does not tamper with academic freedom or search for true knowledge.

The goal of truth
Teaching and scientific research refer to what Pirsig wrote is the primary goal of academic staff, which is to serve, through reason, the goal of truth. This simply means finding truths by scientific research and teaching those truths without restrictions imposed by a university’s control and ownership.

Social improvement refers to the application of truths discovered by empirical methods about the dilemmas within the civic milieu of universities. The internationalisation of universities refers to the richness of scholarship resulting from attracting scholars and professors from diverse academic and life orientations.

As Cardinal Newman wrote in 1852: “A university is a place of concourse, whither students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge. You cannot have the best of every kind everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it. There you have all the choicest productions of nature and art all together, which you find each in its own separate place elsewhere.

“All the riches of the land, and of the earth, are carried up thither; there are the best markets, and there the best workmen. It is the centre of trade, the supreme court of fashion, the umpire of rival talents, and the standard of things rare and precious. It is the place for seeing galleries of first-rate pictures, and for hearing wonderful voices and performers of transcendent skill. It is the place for great preachers, great orators, great nobles and great statesmen. In the nature of things, greatness and unity go together; excellence implies a centre.”

What then should be the essence of regulative principles that define the “idea of a university”? My answer is that a university is a mind-set legally practised at a place – virtual or physical – to balance academic freedom, institutional autonomy, scientific research, social improvement, internationalisation and teaching, in order to provide the education Newman defined: “University education gives a man a clear, conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.

“It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.

A dependable comrade
“He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is ever ready, yet never in the way; he is a pleasant companion, and a comrade you can depend upon; he knows when to be serious and when to trifle, and he has a sure tact which enables him to trifle with gracefulness and to be serious with effect.

“He has the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world, and which has resources for its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad. He has a gift which serves him in public, and supports him in retirement.”

Thinyane Molelle is a senior professional at various corporate universities, founder of the South African Revenue Service Academy and the National Health Laboratory Service Academy, former head of the Toyota Academy and the Lonmin Academy, and owner of the Corporate University Body of Knowledge

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