MAXWELL:  Universities should serve the nation

12/18/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As a former teacher at three state universities, I have always been dismayed that American taxpayers and donors make very few serious demands _ outside of insisting on winning football and basketball teams _ on these well-financed institutions. We should place great demands on our universities. These schools, in fact, should be leading the way in solving the nation’s most pressing problems.

Some disciplines, such as those in the sciences, mathematics, agriculture and medicine, naturally contribute to society’s well-being. But other areas _ especially some in the social sciences and the humanities _ fail to serve the citizenry significantly.

How can the university best serve the citizenry? By helping government at all levels establish equitable, sensible public policies and by assisting in improving the quality of life in general. And given the nation’s myriad cultural, economic, social and political crises, the universities, home to our best and brightest minds, should be leading the way in finding real solutions, not providing ideologically expedient studies that serve powerful special interests and politicians. I was pleased, therefore, when Cornell Univer-sity’s newly appointed president, Hunter R. Rawlings,announced recently that one of his primary objectives would be “putting Cornell’s great expertise to work in aiding New York State and the nation.”

As a classics scholar, Princeton University graduate, and current president of the University of Iowa, Rawlings fully understands the larger role of higher education. “So many of our universities, like Cornell, have the highest academic quality, and our society has so many crippling problems,” he told the New York Times. “I would like to convey some of that expertise in the service of the nation.” Rawlings, a former Woodrow Wilson fellow, was referring to Wilson’s 1896 speech, “Princeton in the Service of the Nation,” when he said: “Wilson sounded the clarion call for universities to participate in the service of the nation.”

Why are so many universities failing to work in the service of the nation? They fail for several reasons:

Their presidents, deans, department heads and research professors lack the necessary vision or fail to understand the essential mission of the university itself. These institutions are not ivory towers or Trappist villages. Nearly 100 years ago, Wilson described the appropriate role of the university: “It has never been natural, it has seldom been possible, in this country for learning to seek a place apart and hold aloof from affairs. It is only when society is old, long settled in its ways, confident in habit, and without self-questioning upon any vital point of conduct, that study can effect seclusion and despise the passing interest of the day.

“America has never yet had a season of leisured quiet in which students could seek a life apart without sharp rigours of conscience, or college instructors easily forget that they were training citizens as well as drilling pupils. . . . We can easily hold the service of mankind at arms length while we read and make scholars of ourselves, but we shall be very uneasy. . . . College must use learning as a vehicle of spirit, interpreting literature as the voice of humanity _ must enlighten, guide, and hearten.”

Self-interest and greed motivate many scholars. Untold numbers of researchers quietly receive money and gifts to conduct studies for the sole purpose of validating actions that corporations such as agricultural chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and defense contractors want to take. Many presidents and scholars have literally sold their souls, relinquishing two of the university’s most precious assets: objectivity and independence.

A recent example of such capitulation is the Stanford University president fired in part because he packed tens of millions of dollars of administrative overhead into research conducted for the U.S. Navy. Some of the expenditures included silk sheets and other frivolities. Add to the lure of money the political challenges of getting promotions and tenure, and a professorship at some prestigious university can become a pact with the devil.

Many universities fail to serve the national interest because professors fall victim to the specialization of knowledge. A lot of important research is too narrowly focused, too arcane to be of much use in the real world.

Poor writing, dense prose understood only among small groups of scholars, is another way that universities cheat the electorate and donors. The answers to some of the nation’s most serious problems remain hidden in the pages of scholarly journals that few outside the university ever read. Inaccessible knowledge is dead knowledge.

Obviously, the public suffers when universities fail to deliver. The greatest harm is that think tanks, wealthy organizations staffed by modern-day Sophists and ideologues, eagerly fill the void left by the universities and help to establish the national agenda.

Granted, many think tanks provide ideas and information that help make life easier. But too many _ those deeply in the pockets of special interest groups, unscrupulous private companies and unprincipled politicians with short-term, selfish goals _ hurt public policy.

I am especially troubled by the influence of think tanks in today’s cross-wired political climate. The handiwork of conservative think tanks can be seen everywhere. The Republican agenda for retooling welfare by investing in orphanages, for example, is fueled by the likes of the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve. And, of course, the Democrats and President Clinton rely on think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Progressive Policy Institute.

The major problem is that hardly any think tanks are disinterested, making independent scholarship next to impossible. Essentially, legions of eggheads compete on the Beltway for the biggest purses. I cannot imagine how the public interest is best served when policies are developed by mercenaries who say what they are paid to say. “Paid thinkers rarely marshal evidence and reach conclusions that generate ill-will with the payer,” said Michael Warder, executive vice president of the Rockford Institute, a conservative think tank.

In short, today’s national agenda amounts to what Warder calls the “relation of money and power to thought.” The concept scares me. Think tanks are hardly new; they have been around for centuries. But contemporary tanks, employing the tools of cyberspace and traditional media, are more sophisticated than earlier ones, giving them power far beyond that held by the American electorate.

The university is the only other institution that can ease the think tanks’ stranglehold on U.S. policymaking. But too many universities also are fettered by self-interest. Too many of them have abandoned Woodrow Wilson’s vision.

Until citizens demand that the universities become more assertive in helping to establish viable public policies, we will continue to follow the present fractious course, where solutions to our enduring problems are whatever the most powerful think tanks at a given time say they are.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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