Utility of Universities

If you were thinking of setting up a new university or, if in England, just a new HE provider, then you’d want to think about its purpose. I’ve discussed before the challenges of new providers (and will do again) but here I want to look at a challenge from the historical record.

It’s generally agreed among historians of higher education in the USA that the founding of the Johns Hopkins University is a very important step in the development of the research university, now the most prestigious form of higher education on the planet. While some have revised the absolute extent of its influence, it still stands as a key moment. It comes with a well developed creation story, a key part of which is the recruitment of Daniel Coit Gilman as its first President. Gilman is generally placed in a pantheon of the leading college and university presidents at a time of great transformation in US HE in the last quarter of the 19th Century.

Gilman gave a speech on the The Utility of Universities. It was not his speech at the inauguration in 1876 but one given in 1885 when comments made about the university ‘seemed to call for a new exposition of its principles and aims’.

To be concerned in the establishment and development of a university is one of the noblest and most important tasks ever imposed on a community or on a body of [people]*. It is an undertaking which calls for the exercise of utmost care, for combination, coöperation, liberality, inquiry, patience, reticence, exertion, and never-ceasing watchfulness. It involves perplexities, delays, and risks. Mistakes cannot possibly be avoided; heavy responsibility is never absent. But history and experience light up the problem; hope and faith give animation to the buildings when they are weary and depressed.

Gilman, 1898 p45

Gilman recounts the history of universities, noting that some others, such as Berlin, were founded at the ‘close of a sharp social crisis’ (p53). He asks that the new university be judged by many measures, but that ‘a generation is the briefest period for a fair review’ (p54). If the gaps between QAA reviews may now be that long, he also had views on metrics:

Here let me protest against the common method of estimating intellectual work by numerical standards alone. I have heard it said that some [people] are possessed by a statistical devil. They can only think in figures; they will ask … of a library, how many volumes are there; or an orchestra, how many pieces; of a college, how many students. I have known the expenses of an institution made a dividend, and the number of scholars the divisor, the quotient representing the cost of each pupil. All of this is wrong, absolutely wrong. If such a standard were allowable, the largest number of scholars taught by the cheapest teacher would be the greatest success.

Gilman, 1898, p54

Gilman was busy spending the greatest fortune ever given to a university, but had come from California where he had encountered such attitudes. Unless a new provider in England were given such a similar fortune, there would need to be a similar accounting.

Gilman was clear that as well as the benefit to individuals, a university benefited society. They did this through the ‘acquisition, conservation, refinement, and distribution of knowledge’ (p55). A new English provider might not need to address all four of these functions, but Gilman placed the advancement of knowledge first. It is this commitment, that ‘every professor must be a student’, that made Johns Hopkins into a model for the research university.

At the time, however, the major controversy was on the choice of subjects. The American college was firmly moving away from its traditional single course and Gilman explained the ‘circle of sciences’ which should be part of their teaching. But the teaching was always connected back to discovery, to the Humboltdian vision of students and staff in an unceasing process or inquiry.

It’s unlikely that any future new English provider will ever be given as much latitude as Gilman was in Baltimore. Local authorities will box them in with business plans, companies will demand job-ready graduates, the regulator will set them a process that requires at least a year to complete. But, for those willing to try, remember Gilman: the establishment and development of a university is one of the noblest and most important tasks ever imposed on a community or on a body of people.

*Gilman writes solely about men. That was the norm in the late 19th century but I find it problematic in the early 21st century, so I’ve changed it.

Reference Gilman, D C (1898) University Problems in the United States, New York, Century co