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Rethinking the Future of the University

David Lyle Jeffrey
Dominic Manganiello

Preface and acknowledgments

David Lyle Jeffrey et Dominic Manganiello

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1By now it is apparent even to the most remote observers of higher education in Canada that here, too, as in the modern technological countries generally, universities are in a perhaps unprecedented state of crisis. In Canada, we do not admit this lightly: the public university has been one of the most enduringly productive and stabilizing influences in a nation that, historically, has not gone out of its way to romanticize or cultivate crisis. But dramatically changing conditions in the economies, ideology, technology and sociology of knowledge, both in its production and its dissemination, have had an impact upon university education worldwide that we have not been able to avoid. The intrusiveness of market-driven curriculum and the incipience of a technolatry Canadians were at one time inclined to view as the “Americanization of learning” (e.g., Howard Adelman and Dennis Lee, eds., The University Game [Toronto: Anansi, 1968]) have by now become a general system; like the Internet, its webs have been spun worldwide and know no cultural boundaries.

2To say that the developments we associate with postmodernity have so far not represented an unqualified benefit to the university would be an understatement. From Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), first delivered to the Conseil des Universités du Québec in 1979, through works as divergent in focus and fashion as the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s symposium Universities in Crisis: A Medieval Institution in the Twenty-first Century (ed. W.A.W. Neilson and Chad Gaffield [Montreal, 1986]), Peter C. Emberley and Waller R. Newell’s Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), Bill Reading’s The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996) and Petrified Campus by Jack Granatstein, David Bercusson and Robert Bothwell (Toronto and New York: Random House, 1997), a veritable chorus of academics—many of them Canadian—has expressed sombre concern that the very future of the University—in particular as it respects the provision of a liberal, humane education—is now in serious jeopardy. So far this concern has not perhaps been as acutely felt among the sciences and engineering faculties, but they are not likely to persist long as an exception: while such disciplines have been able to ride the wave of technological revolution more successfully in the short run, the press of economic downsizing and the effect of technical support shrinkage in these areas too has begun to raise institutional alarm. Challenges both fiscal and ethical now extend into the once sacrosanct sphere of the medical schools. Reassurances, such as David L. Johnston’s 1995 Killam Lecture, “Research at Canadian Universities and the Knowledge-based Society,” have been unable to assuage the resulting anxiety. Much of the predictive element in all these (and many other) studies has been bereft of generally convincing reflection on the future development of our present situation.

3A further complication for universities has been the extensive discrediting of many of the great nineteenth-and early twentieth-century “founders” of scientific method and the formation of the disciplines. To take just a few examples: demonstrations that the reported experiments (and hence the derived principles) of psychologists Freud and Jung were routinely falsified or invented whole-cloth (cf. Paul C. Vitz, Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious [New York: Guilford Press, 1988] and Richard Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994]) have had the effect of undermining confidence in the social sciences generally; the general collapse of Marxist economies has had a similar deleterious effect in the fields of economics, history and political science. In the hard sciences, not even Darwin has stood unscathed: advances in molecular biology (cf. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution [New York: Free Press, 1996]) have begun to call into question the venerable evolutionary model upon which much modern scientific pedagogy and research has been based. The vested interests of senior academics (and indeed of whole disciplines) act as a powerful brake on these and other challenges—yet not without unwelcome side effects. Partly as a consequence of resistance to academic iconoclasm, to use the terminology of Granatstein et. al., both organizationally and intellectually the Canadian university has come to seem to its critics as “petrified”—not only in the sense that it is clinging to an arrested state of development, but that institutionally, its ethos is characterized by fearfulness and moral paralysis.

4To what extent are such assessments accurate? If there is problematic truth to be dealt with in some of the many postmodern challenges to university identity, how best to mount a practical response? And how best to deal with imminent structural instability—for example, the parceling off of both scientific research and cultural and political reflection into industry-dominated projects and special interest think-tanks, developments that threaten to drain off too much of the “cream of the crop” from the next generation of leading university researchers?

5Nowhere, perhaps, is the university crisis more conflictual than within its cadre of younger professionals. Institutional anxieties and petrification are widely mirrored by a fearful and tormented ambition in the ranks of the next generation of university researchers and teachers. All too aware that they have been produced in numbers that have created an almost ludicrously unbalanced academic buyers’ market, they compete for and cling tenuously to mostly temporary positions, striving to overcome professional paranoia and powerful resentment even as they stoop to acquire any and every scrap of herd coloration. Fashion rules. Few are willing to incur the slightest suggestion of noncompliance with trends and “norms” of the moment; conformism has never seemed more necessary for survival. For others, the extremity of our disarray is rarely better instanced than by the evasiveness and ethical vacuity that typically attends faculty discussion of the problem of overpopulated Ph.D. programs: the vested interests of senior professors (who enjoy the kudos and privileges of teaching mostly graduate students) and of administrators (who are under pressure to get undergraduates taught at the lowest possible unit cost) often coincide. What gets advertised in consequence as a purely pragmatic rationale for the status quo is at the same time seen by many graduate students and assistant professors as thinly masked venality.

6Nor should it be imagined that the senior professoriate is necessarily content with their own lot. As measured against cherished recollections of the idealism about teaching and research that drew them to a career many saw as vocation, discrepancies abound and disgruntle. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Carol Shields, professor (University of Manitoba) and Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, addressed the problem of professional malaise in a speech to the quinquennial conference of the Association of the Commonwealth Universities. Not-withstanding that professors work in secure, comfortable surroundings in which they are accorded a high degree of freedom, she observed:

... we meet, every day, disaffected, alienated, embittered
intellectuals who have lost faith with the enterprise...
When have you last heard someone on a teaching staff
of university say, "I am privileged to work in this
extraordinary place"?
(Ottawa Citizen, August 18, 1998)

7Shields’ rhetorical question exposes issues too broad to be dealt with tidily. As she noted in the same speech, diminishment of job satisfaction in the university is complex even as it is general: “Every day we hear of professors or support staff suffering nervous breakdowns, drifting into industry or taking early retirement because, among other reasons, department strife has exhausted them.” But would Prozac and partial pensions or flight to alternative employment be so common if the university’s identity, community character and sense of educational mission were still compelling?

8As is well known, all of these local and institutional concerns have proliferated in the context of a more general debate about the role of higher education in both political and intellectual culture. Much of the most widely publicized debate has focused on the American university. A decade ago Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) established a beachhead in an academic critique that quickly obtained general attention. Early reactions to the politicization of higher education in the U.S. tended to follow Bloom’s lead in seeing the curricular aspects of university crisis as representing a kind of moral as well as intellectual impoverishment: Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free Press, 1991) is the most notorious of such critiques; nonetheless, a more balanced and liberal assessment, that of David Bromwich in Politics by Other Means: The Limits of Institutional Radicalism (New Haven: Yale, 1992), still argued that the underlying issues of intellectual purpose and community value were being upstaged by the more superficial (if intense) squabble about speech codes and “empowerment,” and that the fuss tended to disguise an ominous complicity on the part of "professional" academics with the forces actively undermining the public university. The distance from the “marketplace” once regarded as necessary to its character and legitimate function had been sacrificed to short-term market options. Gratification of certain materialist appetites on the part of institutions and individual faculty members had led directly to something very like the “impoverishment” in Bloom’s inflammatory title.

9What has subsequently emerged in the ongoing conversation about the “future of the university” south of the border is a recognition that any reformation and renewal must take account of the fact of professionalization and the ethos of the marketplace. These, as much as any intellectual trends, have conspired to deprive the university of the spiritual authority so crucial to its historic development and thus, it must be added, diminished its sense of educational mission and identity. This concern is evident in such studies as Jaroslav Pelikan’s review of John Henry (Cardinal) Newman’s The Idea of a University in his The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (New Haven: Yale, 1992), in Mark R. Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and George M. Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). While recognizing that loss of spiritual identity in the contemporary university has emptied it in many cases of resources that would be useful in the present crisis, most of these studies are tentative about how the "soul" of the university should be resuscitated. Soul-searching analysis even from within the sphere of the religious universities and colleges seem better able to describe and diagnose the loss and impoverishment than to propound restorative therapies or cures. The essays collected by Theodore Hessburgh, C.S.C., in The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1994) betray deep divisions concerning the maintenance of Catholic identity in the modern Catholic university, and Mark A. Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) is a poignant history of American anti-intellectualism and widespread resistance within that constituency to the achievement of first-order academic excellence.

10The fact remains that the Western university was born out of a desire on the part of deeply religious Christian communities to explore the intricacies both of creation and of the human mind as an evident obligation of faith. Fides quaerens intellectam and credo ut intelligam—Anselm of Canterbury’s twelfth-century summary of Augustine’s sense of the interdependency of faith and reason—expresses quite accurately the impulse that was propaedeutic to the first universities. But there is another, more recent fact with which to conjure. Along the way, and especially since the nineteenth century, Western universities lost conviction concerning faith and then, more recently, concerning the reliability of the intellect as well. The full effect of this double loss, most widely apparent in the humanities, social sciences, education and law, now for the first time begins to bode ill for public support for the hard sciences.

11A number of discussion groups at the University of Ottawa over the past few years have been directed to consideration of the intellectual future of the University. In one of these, presided over by the then Dean of the Graduate School, Nicole Bégin-Heick, David Jeffrey was a regular attendee and formal contributor. Another, longer-running group (dubbed the Collegium Augustinianum) has been meeting weekly for two hours at breakfast and involves faculty and graduate students from a variety of humane disciplines as well as representatives from the sciences and social sciences at the University. In this second group the question of spiritual identity as well as of intellectual formation has been actively pursued and critically engaged. Both Jeffrey and Dominic Manganiello have been persistent members of and contributors to this latter group. Prompted by reading and discussion of pertinent books and articles (e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre, George Marsden, Jaroslav Pelikan, etc.), we have sought to engage still wider reflection and discussion among our colleagues.

12The McMartin Family Lecture Fund provides for an annual series of lectures (Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, alternating each year), traditionally focusing on the relationship of religious and ethical reflection to the life of the intellectual disciplines. We applied successfully to employ this vehicle as our means of obtaining a complement of distinguished North Americans who have recently given sustained thought to the ongoing life of the university.

13The McMartin speakers were chosen carefully so as to bring both a critical historical context and some of the best of contemporary (postmodern) reflection to bear upon our considerations. Each graciously consented to address the topic we assigned. Most of the lectures were televised (CPAC); each was followed by intensive conversation and questioning. We soon realized that demand for printed texts of the lectures was considerable and undertook to have the speakers revise for publication, following a careful brief for specific points of integration provided by ourselves, especially in consideration of the post-lecture discussions.

14The 1995-1996 McMartin lectures were engaged as a preliminary exercise in rethinking the present crisis in relationship to the historic identity and development of the modern university and, without evading candid assessments of the present situation, as an attempt to imagine ways of reconstructing if not precisely remembering the vital lineaments of our humane, liberal educational tradition. All McMartin lectures here printed were delivered during the autumn term of 1995 at the University of Ottawa, assisted by grants from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa and from the Centre for University Teaching, for which the organizers are deeply grateful. The series organizers have themselves also contributed two 1996 lectures: a version of David Jeffrey’s paper was presented at the University of Calgary’s Symposium on the Future of the Humanities in March 1996; Dominic Manganiello’s was first given at the Ottawa “Univ” Conference on Communication in the University, also in March 1996.

15It is our hope that the vigorous dialogue and debate represented in this volume will contribute to serious conversations elsewhere, and that these conversations will sturdily resist becoming “academic” in the pejorative sense so often attached to the adjective by our contemporaries. It is time now, we feel, for some bolder initiatives at redress, rebalancing and, as may be necessary, recovery of the nobler purposes of the university.


Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of Ottawa, Guest Professor of Peking University (Beijing) and Professor of Art History at Augustine College (Ottawa). He has written and edited books on medieval and modern literature, including most recently A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (1992) and People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (1996)

Professor in English Literature at the University of Ottawa and Professor of Literature at Augustine College (Ottawa). He has written extensively on modern authors and the culture of modernism, including Joyce’s Politics (1980) and T.S. Eliot and Dante (1989)

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1998

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