The University Record, October 30, 1995

Shapiro: Research universities 'society's best hope for change'

By John Woodford
Michigan Today

 Former U-M President Harold T. Shapiro returned to campus last Monday to share his forecast about the impending transformation of the American research university. He titled his speech "The New University? The New Liberal Education?"

Shapiro, who left Michigan in 1987 to become president of Princeton University, said that the most important changes would include those "in pedagogy, changes in educational objectives, changes in the academic organization of the faculty and in the distribution of authority and responsibility."

Shapiro, an economic forecaster who chaired the U-M economics department and served as vice president for academic affairs before assuming

U-M's presidency in 1980, said that some of these changes might alienate faculty and others with "strong, meaningful and understandable attachments to an earlier world." But he also predicted that the "transformed university that will emerge over the next decades will certainly be recognizable to all of us."

"The stable structures in American and most Western research universities are sturdy products of evolutionary pressures exerted by the formation and transition of medieval universities, the Enlightenment, scientific and technological advances and democratic movements.

Although "hanging out on the Internet"---a phrase he used as "a metaphor for a whole series of new systems" affecting academic life---is a major feature of the current transformations of the higher-ed environment, the "new" university will still be characterized "by a geographically coherent community of students and scholars engaged in conversations across the generations aimed not only at understanding our own cultural inheritance and that of our neighbors, but at developing skills, molding character and engaging with others in the pursuit of a better understanding of our natural world and the human societies that inhabit it."

Indeed, the Western world's research universities' successes stem from their combination of durability and adaptability, Shapiro remarked, and these qualities have often made them "society's best hope for change and sometimes for reassurance regarding traditional moral commitments."

"I see few institutions," Shapiro continued, "with such continuing potential to deliver new social dividends to society, and therefore there is little reason to put them on the endangered species list."

In coming years, universities "may have to do with less," he said, and they will "certainly have to conduct a searching re-examination of their programs in the light of contemporary realities." Nevertheless, he emphasized, "their unique potential for learningthat centers around the power of the person-to-person encounter, their demonstrated capacity for largely peaceful interaction across many cultural divides and their continuing ability to challenge the familiar will make the indispensable assets for the future I now see unfolding."

What sort of "new" liberal education will the "new" university provide? Shapiro pointed out that liberal education is freighted with many definitions, some of them seemingly contradictory. It may cover educational curricula in which the institution prescribes students' choices as well as curricula which leave all such choice to the individual students.

There has never been a "right" curriculum or a "right" way of transmitting knowledge and skills to, or developing critical thinking in, students, Shapiro said.

The strength of institutions such as the U-M and other major universities in the Western liberal democracies, Shapiro said, can be more accurately traced to protection and financial support by the state.

"The idea that the state could support institutions that prevent its own monopoly over power and truth from becoming too extreme is, in a historical sense, quite novel," he said. And in light of this distinctive feature, he concluded, research universities play a crucial role in the balancing process that both constrains and empowers the state, and thus play an equally important role in the "appropriate venues and programs for training a large cohort of thoughtful, responsible and independently minded leaders capable of heading the multiple institutions which share power."

A similar dynamic balance characterizes liberal education's humanistic focus, Shapiro said. Here, too, there is a dual focus: liberal education in Western democracies has "granted increasing importance and recognition not only to the needs and desires of individuals and small family units, but to the constantly escalating demands for group rights---demands that have made it increasingly difficult to attain the common agreements which any coherent community requires."

To harmonize these contradictory, and potentially antagonistic, forces requires a curricular criteria that acknowledge the following needs, Shapiro suggested:

The need to discover and explore more deeply the intellectual and moral contests waged in the formation of the "great traditions of thought that have informed the minds, hearts and deeds of those who came before us."

"The need to free our minds and hearts from unexamined commitments (authority of all types) in order to consider new possibilities (including new "authorities") that might enhance both our own lives and, more broadly, the human condition, and build our sympathetic understanding of others quite different from us."

"The need to prepare all thoughtful citizens for an independent and responsible life of choice that appreciates the connectedness of things and peoples. This is especially important in a world where individual responsibility and internal control are increasingly needed to replace and/or supplement the rigid kinship rules, strict religious precepts or authoritarians' rules which have traditionally served to order societies."

Shapiro said that these criteria "are tied to the fundamental liberal notions of the autonomy and importance of the individual and of finding new and better ways to both respect differences and reject domination."

His concept of higher education and the curricular criteria derived from it define an an ideal academic system that is, for him---"together with the judicial and political system and the many civic organizations designed to give it operational meaning---the greatest guarantee of our capacity to most fully realize and give sustained meaning to our human experience."