The University Record, January 24, 2000

Bollinger: Research is ‘soul of university’

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

The ivory tower is crumbling, says President Lee C. Bollinger, and the cloistered academic world of scholarship and research will never be the same.

Admitting that he is uncertain how universities should react to changes in the traditional relationship between academia and the outside world, Bollinger shared his thoughts and concerns in a presentation last week to the U-M chapter of Sigma Xi, the national scientific research society.

“Research is the soul of the university,” Bollinger said. But he warned of two major phenomena in modern society—increasing engagement of universities with the outside world and specialization of expertise—that will have major implications for research in the future.

As universities become more connected to the world, “we must pay more attention to what the outside world thinks is relevant,” he said. As an example, Bollinger cited close connections between private corporations and academic research in the life sciences.

“It is a reasonable debate to ask whether we have lost a sense of proportion in our emphasis on the life sciences. To what extent should we be influenced by what the outside world sees as news? We must not become victims of popularization,” he warned,

adding that the interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s novels is just as deserving of university resources as gene sequencing of human chromosome 23.

Increasing engagement of universities with the outside world also is a factor in the arts, according to Bollinger. “Many architects, novelists, poets and artists work on university campuses today. Universities have become the Medicis of our time. Is it a good thing to mingle the arts with what’s happening at universities today?”

Development of the Internet and high-speed communications has made it possible to deliver news instantly to people around the world. But the downside of instant communication, according to Bollinger, is that there is no time for reflection.

Bollinger also discussed the increasing specialization of faculty expertise, another phenomenon he believes will have a major impact on the future of university research and academic life.

“When I started teaching in law school, there was one course in constitutional law,” he said. “Now there are three courses on the First Amendment alone. People who understand the First Amendment don’t know anything about the Sixth.”

With increasing specialization comes ignorance and professional boredom, Bollinger said. He recommended more campus seminars by faculty able to communicate with those outside their field of study and more opportunities for people to develop expertise in a new field.

“Attitude of mind is so important. The academic world has a sense of intellectual play that is deep in the human spirit. It is important to have some place in society where this still exists.”