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Universities: Ideopolis for the World

5 minute read

Casting a magisterial eye at the whole sweep and scope of the U.S. university, California’s President Clark Kerr last week spied “an institution unique in world history”—a city of intellect that is not really private and not really public, neither entirely of the world nor entirely apart from it. In delivering this year’s annual Godkin Lectures at Harvard, Kerr gave this institution a new name: “the multiversity”—a cluster of sub-universities spouting ideas at a time when “knowledge has never been so central to the conduct of an entire society.”

At first glance, says Kerr, the multiversity is merely “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.” Where ancient academies had a single soul, “the multiversity has several—some of them quite good, although there is much debate on which souls really deserve salvation.” In form, it is a remarkable consensus of historic patterns—British-oriented undergraduate life, German-modeled graduate studies, American-style service to the state, all of it kept “as confused as possible for the preservation of the whole uneasy balance.”

No More Giants. Kerr’s own colossus of seven campuses and 58,600 students (soon to double) reflects the pattern. Last year the University of California had operating costs of almost $500 million, with almost another $100 million for construction. It employed more than 40,000 people, delivered 4,000 babies in its hospitals, offered 10,000 courses, taught 200,000 extension students, and ran aid and research projects in more than 50 countries. No one man can really run such an establishment, says Kerr. The day of the “giant” university president is past. Now comes the “mediator” trying to keep peace between many power centers and “the Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute.”

What force-feeds the multiversity is federal money—the impact of Government science research that began flooding the universities in World War II. Today the U.S. pays for about 75% of all university research; since it demands the best, more than half the money goes to only six topflight universities, notably California. The result is what Kerr calls the “federal grant” university, responding more to Government needs than to its own desires. Compared with some of his fellow presidents, Kerr is unworried about this relationship, calling it “enormously productive in enlarging the pool of scientific ideas and skills.”

Faculty Y. Un-Faculty. Yet federal grants raise prickly problems. While graduate training blossoms, undergraduate education suffers. Top professors teach less and less, giving their prime loyalty more and more to some Government agency, which “becomes the new alma mater.” Academe’s “eternal class struggles” have worsened: today’s “affluent professor” is the scientist who gets more money and faster promotions leaving humanists behind and bitter. The regular faculty is being jostled by the “un-faculty”—nontenure researchers who do not belong to the faculty senate, but whose projects profoundly affect university planning and financing. “Excessive amounts of expensive equipment have at times been purchased,” says Kerr. “There have been some scandals. There will be more.”

Kerr is more concerned about the congressional grumbles that a few multiversities are too privileged, too attractive to industries that have sprung up around them to feed off their intellectual riches.

In the name of “balance,” the new idea is to spread the research wealth to many campuses. Kerr fears academic pork barreling that might water down all research; he would create a new National Foundation for Higher Education to police federal grants and give more emphasis to such neglected areas as the creative arts.

Scholarly Swarms. Where is the multiversity going? At a time when C. P. Snow estimates that about 80% of the West’s pure science research is going on in the U.S., says Kerr, “good scholars tend to swarm together,” and university centers are coalescing into “mountain ranges” of higher education. Kerr charts three “great plateaus.” The first runs from Boston to Washington, D.C., embraces 46% of the nation’s Nobel science winners and 40% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences. Next comes the West Coast university complex with 36% and 20%, followed by the Big Ten and the University of Chicago with 10% and 14%. “These three groupings of universities currently produce more than three-quarters of the doctorates conferred in the U.S.,” says Kerr. “Another range appears to be in the process of development in the Texas-Louisiana area.”

Such groupings consist of multiversities merging with the “knowledge industry” all around, forming a new “Ideopolis.” The result is “an extraordinarily productive environment,” says Kerr—one that puts the multiversity squarely in the life of society rather than being an inward-looking “house of intellect.” The multiversity cannot go back: “Knowledge is wanted, even demanded, by more people than ever before. Knowledge today is for everybody’s sake.”

Academic purists may fear loss of the university’s integrity, Kerr concedes. “But society is more desirous of objectivity and more tolerant of freedom than it used to be. The university can be further ahead and further behind the times, and further to the left and further to the right of the public, and still keep its equilibrium than was ever the case.” It has problems—to restore undergraduate teaching, to revive faculty loyalty, to handle hordes of new students and yet keep Jeffersonian rather than Jacksonian standards. Kerr believes it will succeed, and that it already is a model for universities around the world.

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