The University Record, April 15, 1997

University needs to preserve 'intellectual character'

By Jane R. Elgass

Universities must develop a genuine understanding of their fundamental roles---what they teach and for what purposes, what research is done and for what purposes---if they are to combat a continuing public critique that calls for more accountability.

The University suffers from "a kind of centrifugal force that pulls us away from its central functions, " said President Lee C. Bollinger at last week's 30th annual McInally Lecture.

There are large and growing numbers of critics, Bollinger said, "who see universities out of control, departing from their justifiable social mission" and "detached from the real concerns of a world that needs all the help it can get," Universities, they say, need to be "jolted into changing themselves, to re-inventing themselves," as has been done in the auto and health care industries in recent years.

Although Bollinger sees merit in some of these criticisms, he has a fundamental concern with the trend toward "introducing competitive rigor and performance standards to the activities of teaching and research. You cannot really know how to construct a system of evaluation until you know your basic purposes and the values you're trying to impart." What's called for, he said, "is a continuous intellectual discussion of the role that the American university plays in the country. We need a genuine understanding of [its] fundamental purposes---what we teach and for what purpose, what research is done and for what purpose."

We implicitly assume, the president said, that a principle function of the university is transmitting information and knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge. "This is important but doesn't fully account for the role universities play in our national life.

"My objection to the introduction of a competitive model---the `what-have-you-done-for-me-lately' approach---is that it will erode the relaxed atmosphere that allows for exploration of truth. My concern is that this remedy risks overriding and destroying another set of purposes and fundamental functions of the university," those of "nourishing the intellectual habit, of taking joy in the often bewildering complexity of the world, of instilling a sense of intellectual humility in which one is at least as conscious of how little we know as of how much we know."

Bollinger is concerned that the "pressure to exert standards of review will destroy the subtle tone in academe that allows for and encourages a kind of extraordinary looseness or freedom to pursue alternative perspectives and sensibilities, to suspend one's beliefs and to enter into other possible beliefs, to engage in intellectual risk-taking and exploration."

"We need to preserve a kind of intellectual character, a spirit that is rooted in our intellectual traditions," he said. It is critical in our culture "to have the capacity to achieve and foster accommodation across the widely diverse viewpoints that comprise our democracy. This characteristic should not be seen as an end, but rather a means of reinforcing the ways in which we reach compromise and resolution of disputes. . . .The mentality of the university is part and parcel of the effort to create a pattern of thought essential to social stability," he said.

There is a human inclination, Bollinger explained, "to seek out and protect our own comfortable worlds. The major role of a university is to be alert to and counter these centrifugal trends and make the university apparent to itself, to encourage and bring about engagement from within."

Concrete recommendations include move of President's Office
from Fleming Building

Following his discussion of the intellectual character of the university, President Lee C. Bollinger made several concrete suggestions about the U-M that he said are vital to preserving the values important to institutions of higher education.

Any organizational structure of the University should "optimize our ability to live according to the values we espouse and wish to realize in practice," he said.

While generally supportive of value centered management (VCM), he is concerned about the potential for "creating a new impediment to cross-disciplinary teaching and scholarship." He said that the concept of tuition following credit leads away from the intermixing of students, and that this is causing the greatest concern and conflict among members of the University community.

Stating that the "old" system of tuition following enrollment had led to acceptable practices, Bollinger recommended that he and the provost work with the two faculty groups supervising VCM "to consider a return to this approach."

He also cautioned his audience about focusing on "structure and numbers as a measure of what we are trying to do," issuing a warning against making the financial structure too rational, too apparent.

"Very few long-term relationships are built on budget discussions," he said. "In general, it is all a matter of degree and tone. The character of this University will not be determined through its organizational shell. . . . Bureaucratization is one of the most insidious evils for a university," he added. "Rationalizing rather than trusting is the fastest route to a bureaucratic mind."

To bring attention to the discussion of the intellectual character and direction of the University, Bollinger said he is committed to finding resources through reducing administrative growth and redirecting those resources to the academic core of the institution.

This will include augmenting the salary program, which he described as "insufficient in some areas to support appropriate ambitions."

He also will undertake a post-capital campaign fund-raising plan to create a Universitywide fund for intellectual enhancement.

"We need discussions of intellectual strengths and weaknesses," he said, "and recommendations of where we should be going. We need to move to make more vivid to all the intellectual benefits we claim exist, to experiment with particular intellectual ventures from which we have reason to believe new benefits will flow, to make multiculturalism more of a functioning reality."

He also expressed "a strong desire to strengthen our sense of the institution," to seek more intellectual engagement within the University with its heritage.

"Finding better ways to grasp more of the whole," he said, involves both memory and physical presence.

The University should claim its heritage, one component of that being the shared institutional link with "figures of truly exceptional ability," such as Robert Frost, John Dewey and W.H. Auden.

Creating a physical presence that encourages a sense of engagement requires "a new master plan for achieving a true sense of unification," he said. We have four campuses "that seem to plead with us for greater connections. The American university bespeaks a democratic mindset by merging with surrounding communities. Sharp edges we do not want or need."

Bollinger also announced that he will be looking for another office outside the Fleming Building.

"Never has a building been more ironically named," he said, adding that "no university administration---at least one that seeks engagement---should reside in such a bunker-like, repelling structure."

Described as a fortification against attack, he said the building masks a psychology of fear and withdrawal. "It is the wrong building for what we should be seeking according to the values I've addressed today."