Universities are indeed accountable. But we in higher education need to seize the initiative in defining what we are accountable for. We are asked to report graduation rates, graduate school admission statistics, scores on standardized tests intended to assess the “value added” of years in college, research dollars, numbers of faculty publications. But such measures cannot themselves capture the achievements, let alone the aspirations of universities. Many of these metrics are important to know, and they shed light on particular parts of our undertaking. But our purposes are far more ambitious and our accountability thus far more difficult to explain.
Let me venture a definition. The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future. A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. Universities make commitments to the timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure. Universities are stewards of living tradition – in Widener and Houghton and our 88 other libraries, in the Fogg and the Peabody, in our departments of classics, of history and of literature. We are uncomfortable with efforts to justify these endeavors by defining them as instrumental, as measurably useful to particular contemporary needs. Instead we pursue them in part “for their own sake,” because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness.
We pursue them because they offer us as individuals and as societies a depth and breadth of vision we cannot find in the inevitably myopic present. We pursue them too because just as we need food and shelter to survive, just as we need jobs and seek education to better our lot, so too we as human beings search for meaning. We strive to understand who we are, where we came from, where we are going and why. For many people, the four years of undergraduate life offer the only interlude permitted for unfettered exploration of such fundamental questions. But the search for meaning is a never-ending quest that is always interpreting, always interrupting and redefining the status quo, always looking, never content with what is found. An answer simply yields the next question. This is in fact true of all learning, of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities, and thus of the very core of what universities are about.
By their nature, universities nurture a culture of restlessness and even unruliness. This lies at the heart of their accountability to the future. Education, research, teaching are always about change – transforming individuals as they learn, transforming the world as our inquiries alter our understanding of it, transforming societies as we see our knowledge translated into policies – policies like those being developed at Harvard to prevent unfair lending practices, or to increase affordable housing or avert nuclear proliferation – or translated into therapies, like those our researchers have designed to treat macular degeneration or to combat anthrax. The expansion of knowledge means change. But change is often uncomfortable, for it always encompasses loss as well as gain, disorientation as well as discovery. It has, as Machiavelli once wrote, no constituency. Yet in facing the future, universities must embrace the unsettling change that is fundamental to every advance in understanding.
“Les universités sont en vérité responsables.
Mais nous, dans l’enseignement supérieur, nous avons besoin d’avoir l’initiative de la définition de ce dont nous sommes responsables. […]
L’essence de l’université est qu’elle est responsible envers le passé et l’avenir d’une manière qui peut (doit) entrer en conflit avec les demandes du moment.
Nos engagements sont intemporels et nous sommes mal à l’aise pour les justifier en termes instrumentaux. Nous les poursuivons “pour eux-mêmes” parce qu’ils définissent ce qui au cours des siècles nous a fait humains, non parce qu’ils peuvent accroître notre compétitivité internationale, et ces investissements ont des rendements que nous ne pouvons ni prédire ni mesurer.
Les universités, par nature, nourrissent une culture de turbulence et même d’indiscipline.”
Drew Gilpin Faust, 12/10/2007