What is a University For?

The Ohio State University is in the midst of a search for a new president after the departure of the illustrious Gordon Gee.  This has been the occasion for much discussion around the university of what the university is for.  It seems to me that this is in fact a good thing.  Yet many of the faculty I listen to are troubled.  All universities are increasingly facing pressures to effectively and efficiently graduate students able to obtain good jobs that advance our economy.  Many bemoan the fact that it seems that the university is being turned into a job training school.

What seems more difficult is defining what a university is for beyond providing the training and credentials to obtain a decent job.  One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, has long opined on the university–from his essay on “The Loss of the University” in Home Economics to his recent withdrawal of his papers from the University of Kentucky because he feels they have strayed from the purpose set forth in establishing this institution by the Morrill Act. Berry believes this mandates a purpose of the university that continues to study the care of the land and people of the state of Kentucky–a mandate he believed had been sold out to “big coal”.

Ohio State is also a land grant university.  And it least a part of the focus of our governor and others is to address how the public universities in Ohio are contributing to the welfare of the state.  On its face, this seems consistent with the Morrill Act and the university’s original purpose.  But Berry also raises the question of a university caring for the land, the places, the character of the state.  This calls for far more than looking at jobs, wages, unemployment, and business development.  It means asking how well universities are training students for citizenship and stewardship–creating just and livable communities and tending the land and the resources that those communities depend upon, for now and for future generations.

This brings me to another venerable contributor to the discussion of universities:  John Henry Newman.  During the 1850s he gave a series of lectures collected into The Idea of a University.  Our Dead Theologians Society reading group has just begun reading Newman’s work.  He sees these as places that teach “universal knowledge” that refines the intellect and shapes the character of students.  Newman would contend that religious knowledge, theology if you will, is central to this and without this, the other subjects of the university fragment into a myriad of unconnected pieces–sounding much like today’s “multiversity”.

Other than at some private religious colleges, it seems that by and large university’s have given up on addressing the larger issues of life, character virtues, and ethics, aside from the obligatory ethics courses in professional education.  True, many emphasize service but by and large are averse to considering some of these classic aspects of university purposes, and this at a time when some studies indicate student hunger for addressing questions of spirituality and not just job training.

What are your thoughts about “what a university is for”.  What books have you found influential in thinking about the purpose of a university?

2 thoughts on “What is a University For?

  1. One book that has influenced me: Douglas Sloan’s Faith and Knowledge. The Faculty Ministry team read it together several years ago. It traces the rise-and-fall of mainline Christian campus ministries from the 1930s through the 1970s. It sheds light on the purpose(s) of the university, the role(s) that Christian faculty and staff can/should play within them, and what happens when Christians don’t have a solid understanding of how their own foundational beliefs should influence their commitments within the universities.


    • Here is a link to the book Mike recommends. Mike, thanks for passing this along. I recall the claims of many of these ministries to be “relevant” in ways that allowed them to be unthinkingly co-opted by the secularist agenda within the university. It still seems to me important to be aware of the differences between the university’s “narrative” and that which we embrace as kingdom people or a similar demise could face us.


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