university as creation of the future

I was reading a post by Stanley Katz on the impending closure of the University of Florida’s philosophy department and saw that he’d written another article called “The Pathbreaking, Fractionalized, Uncertain World of Knowledge.” This article begins by quoting A.N. Whitehead:

“The task of the university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue.”

This strikes me as an interesting take on the way the university finds its place in history. There are so many other ways of imagining the university’s historical trajectory: It’s the proud offspring of Western Europe, spreading around the globe to bring enlightenment. (This sounds like Whitehead, but is oriented towards transmitting a prior civilization rather than creating a new one.) Or it’s the ruin of an elitist institution, bereft of its mission of teaching reason or national culture, a degraded victim of neoliberal processes of corporatization, privatization, and auditing. Or it’s a cyborg composed of part medieval tradition, part incoherent consumerism, part mega-scientific research, a patchwork of past and present struggling to stay in motion.

Whitehead’s future-oriented vision of academic work seems so completely different from the academic life I experience, so laden with tradition, so self-consciously burdened with the past. But it’s not only an interesting historical vision; it’s also an interesting political vision. To say that the university’s task is the creation of the future is also to argue that universities should have a vast amount of political power, since it amounts to making them responsible for the fate of the world. Or at the very least, it amounts to a claim that the university is a very, very important institution.

To whom does this claim appeal? I looked up the quote on Google, hoping to find a link to some book by Whitehead. Instead I found a fascinating and peculiar list. It became obvious that the quote from Whitehead appeals to presidents, commentators, and fundraisers who hope to make the university seem noble. Or, at least, very, very important. The quote is mentioned in these places:

  • The University of Wyoming’s strategic plan.
  • A speech about universities to Australian journalists.
  • A 2005 commencement speech at the University of Buffalo.
  • A fundraising appeal from the University of Georgia which suggests that “a deferred gift is the best way to help the University create the future.”
  • A speech on environmental quality at the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation. The speech quotes Whitehead in order to praise universities as engines of economic development.
  • An announcement for a speech by Stanley Katz, along with a link to the Chronicle article I started with.
  • A couple of engineering journals that also mention Katz.
  • Finally, the transcript of a speech by Frank Rhodes (ex-president of Cornell University) to the 1998 Commission on the Future at Florida State University. He quotes Whitehead as a way of making the Commission’s task seem more noble, describing Whitehead as “a kind of text that preachers offer at the beginning of sermons.”

What’s especially interesting about this speech by Rhodes is that, after his speech, he answered questions from the floor. One of them was about “what criteria could be suggested for making choices between graduate programs.” That is, what criteria should be used for deciding which programs to fund – or, perhaps, which to kill off. Rhodes acknowledges that the question is painful and wishes that he didn’t have to answer. But he goes on to suggest some criteria for these choices:

  • The current ranking of a program (and how far it would have to go to be highly-rated).
  • The ‘linkage’ to other campus programs or the ‘added value to the rest of campus.’
  • The benefit for the people of the state.
  • The contribution of the program to the intellectual life of the campus community.

I could go on about these criteria, in which the highly contradictory values of administrators are on display, in which the values of the businessman, the legislator, the national ranking agencies, and the traditional campus community are all juxtaposed. But for now perhaps it’s enough to observe that we’re back where we started, with the closure of a philosophy department in Florida. The creation of the future requires killing off the past, perhaps? Let’s remember that philosophy was once alleged – by Kant, for instance – to be the master discipline that was more fundamental than all the others. It’s interesting that this erstwhile master discipline doesn’t seem necessary to the university anymore. It will be interesting to see what kind of resistance is offered to the department’s closure. A departmental petition has garnered 1500 signatures, along with some super-interesting justifications and rationalizations in the comments. My favorite:

How can any university call itself great without a Doctorate in Philosophy? Philosophy, it is “the love of knowledge.” Is the University of Florida’s love of knowledge diminishing? Have the courage to uphold the love of knowledge for its own sake, without regard for the potential of financial return. Remain a great university. (#1525)

And indeed, the administrators have lately changed their decision, according to this page: they now plan to suspend ph.d admissions for three years, rather than to close the program entirely. Incidentally, an article in the Independent Florida Alligator indicates that undergrad philosophy enrollments have risen 10% in the past three years.

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