Remarks at the Launch of ‘Designing the Future(s) of the University’

November 20, 2013

It is a privilege for me to be here with you today. Under the leadership of Bob Groves—as well as Randy Bass—our community is embarking on a very exciting journey and I am grateful for this opportunity to join you in this work. On other occasions I have shared with you reflections on the emerging threats we face in higher education and the potential opportunities that are present within these threats. I have never been more excited about the promise and potential of higher education and the significance of this moment for Georgetown. But we can never lose sight of the urgent challenges that confront us.

In the discussion that follows these reflections and in the future sessions in which we will engage in the coming months, we will have the opportunity to explore in some detail the kinds of concrete projects we could examine that will address such challenges as sustaining affordability, closing the gap in declining federal support for research, the role of new technologies, the increasing globalization of higher education, among others.

I know many of you have been anticipating the opportunity to join in an effort to reimagine the work of the university. You bring many ideas and deep convictions. What we launch today is an effort to provide some background for important new work that we must confront as a community.

This afternoon, I wish to provide a framework that can help us orient ourselves to these challenges. I have had the opportunity to participate in conversations in countless settings around the world and one insight I bring is the need for us… the need for the Academy… to re-commit ourselves to a bedrock understanding of our purpose—that is, what are our universities for and how should we ensure that we can sustain our most deeply held values in what is perhaps an unprecedented moment.

Part I

The interlocking and mutually reinforcing relationship of the three elements of the university

Universities bring together young people, in a period of profound formation, with older, experienced individuals possessing an unusual degree of knowledge and understanding. The young, we call students; the older, faculty. The young engage in a process of learning; the old are their guides, their mentors. The material that brings together in this encounter is a body of knowledge in which the old have immersed themselves. Faculty seek to understand at deeper and deeper levels some aspect of our selves, one another, our world. A student seeks to grasp these same three dimensions. We call the work in which our faculty seek this deeper understanding, scholarship.

We break down the work of scholarship into categories involving similar pursuits: we call the work of seeking a deeper understanding of ourselves, the humanities; of one another and our place in our social context, the social sciences; of the world, the natural sciences. These, of course, are loose categories and there is certainly a blurring of the lines that demarcate them. Within these categories, we break things down further. The current “departmental” structure of the university reflects these breaks.

Given this, we can identify two different kinds of work. There is an “interior” work—work of formation—in which we seek to understand our selves—our humanity at ever deeper levels. The quest is for “self-knowledge.” The exhortation at the Oracle at Delphi makes it clear: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The maxim, “Know thyself,” also inscripted at Delphi, underscores the point. From the earliest gathering of students—from Plato’s Academy on—the idea that the work of learning involves an interior dimension is essential.

And there is the “exterior” work—that of scholarship, research, the pursuit of truth: the work to which our faculty orient their lives… the work faculty bring into the university while bringing along their students into the flow of their way of seeing and understanding the world. University faculty seek to understand our world, in all its complexity, and dedicate their lives to that endeavor: adopting a way of life that immerses them in the pursuit of understanding.

But this “interior/exterior” distinction doesn’t capture all there is to the work of the university. While at our core we are built upon the interaction of our students and faculty—students engaged in the process of formation; faculty living their lives in a context that provides an open place for what one colleague, Stefan Collini of Cambridge calls “the ungovernable play of the enquiring mind,” (8)—there is a third dimension, a “public” dimension to the work of the university. Universities have a place within society and the expectations of the public within this public dimension are extraordinary.

The expectations of a university in its public role broadly include: preparing a workforce; developing the regional economy; strengthening national identity; enhancing economic competitiveness, both locally and globally; balancing and ameliorating social inequities; developing citizens; contributing social capital; playing a role in constructing the common good. While these expectations ebb and flow, together they constitute the ongoing public and political discourse about the role of universities today. I’ll address this point subsequently.

In essence, however, when the fundamental question is “what universities do”—what are they for?—we acknowledge that, for centuries, there have been three elements that have combined for their mission: providing a context for young people to engage in the work of formation; creating a context for scholars to inquire; offering a public, social institution that confronts a wide-range of expectations for the goods it can provide.

Let me offer a few further reflections on how the three elements reinforce each other.

Students and the Work of Formation

The first element is focused on the young people who spend an important period of their lives immersed in our community. The manifest responsibility of a student is academic and it has a two-fold purpose: first, to establish a foundation—a “general education” and second, to engage in a deeper dive—a “major,” a concentration, in one of the fields supported in the university community.

An underlying idea guiding the university is that immersion in academic life—learning the methods and studying the current state of knowledge both in a core set of disciplines and in an area of concentrated focus—provides an unparalleled foundation for the work of personal formation.

Today students in the contemporary Academy have other “formation” advantages: students study-abroad; immerse themselves in volunteerism and social justice projects; compete in intercollegiate athletics; perform in concerts and recitals; pursue internships and complementary work experiences; launch businesses; model leadership roles in rich, nuanced simulations. Support networks provide a safety net for students engaged in risk behavior. Residential campuses offer a full immersion into the way of life of a university.

All of these influences enable young people to come to terms with the fundamental question of personal formation: what constitutes an authentic life? Each student wrestles with the question of authenticity, a question whose contours are not evident. There are obstacles to decision-making; sometimes actions are not in alignment with core values. The work of personal formation is to secure an interior freedom so that students can achieve a profound degree of authenticity, while they are “forming” their general education.

While “formation” can occur in other settings—the military, a religious vocation, an entrepreneurial venture—what distinguishes a university is our belief in the significance of knowledge. We introduce students to approaches to knowing; to the methodologies of knowing; to different perspectives, different bodies of knowledge. Most important, we try to teach them how to integrate, appropriate, challenge, and critique knowledge—how to see patterns, make connections, identify anomalies. This is our explicit way of supporting young people engaged in the most important work in which they can be engaged: learning to know themselves and identifying the conditions that will provide for an authentic, flourishing life.

Faculty and the Work of Scholarship

Reinforcing this formation work is the role of faculty, who are both serving as guides for students engaged in the process of personal exploration as well as being immersed in their own scholarly projects. The prerequisite that enables them to participate as guides rests on the strength of their project and how it is supported.

Universities provide an environment that sustains faculty in their scholarly endeavors. That is, scholarly work is characterized by uncertainty; it involves many retracings and repeated experiments, and makes great demands on those pursuing this route. Where the university helps—beyond the critical support in providing general and specific resources and a community of good colleagues—is by offering security and protection.

Security entails engendering a sense of confidence that a scholarly project can be sustained over time. There is an enduring quality to universities; the pursuit of knowledge is not time-limited!

Protection, for its part, ensures that the defining dynamic of scholarship—the “ungovernable play of the enquiring mind”—can be given the limitless room for exploration. Faculty must be provided “space” for the “untrammelled quest for understanding” (Collini 60). Nothing—political threats and pressures—can impede this quest.

The Public Role of Universities

Different expectations are projected onto universities, as I have noted. Moreover, the public role for a particular university is often determined by a local set of issues. For example, for a public, land-grant university, the responsibilities for the economic development of a state may comprise a strong commitment to agricultural research, and for urban universities, an emphasis may be placed on educating first-generation, college attendees.

Regardless of setting, however, the public role is intrinsic to the total mission of the university; its role, local or general, is bound to the work of formation and scholarship. The three, in tandem, comprise the university—and cannot be split up.

Indeed, the notion that these roles can be separated is what lies behind so many efforts to make “education more efficient.” For some that efficiency aim is an attempt to “strip out” the formation idea and reduce it to “skills” that can be applied to the workplace. “Education” becomes training—for a job. For others, the aim is to “disrupt education” entirely and introduce a model—which has yet to be figured out—that supervenes the university entirely… and for a profit!

Part II

Let me take these reflections to a more existential level—while again noting how the “elements” reinforce one another.


Starting again with formation: in every university, this work of formation begins with the intellect; this provides the “center” in any university.

In our tradition—in the Catholic and Jesuit tradition, we recognize what John O’Malley has so carefully illuminated—there is also something else going on! This “something else” emerged in the Renaissance with the development of humanism… with its emphasis on character… leading the good life. If the intellect is focused on discerning truth, this second dimension is focused on living the good. This is the origin of the privileged place we protect for the humanities.

This tradition obviously emphasizes far more than the transmission of information, which, if one listens to much of political and “entrepreneurial” chat, is what universities are in fact to do: provide information!

But of course, beyond “information”—which we do provide (no student leaves Georgetown without a head full of dates, places, methods, etc.) — we also impart a way of being… a way of engaging in the world… a way of life… that accompanies the knowledge that one gains, along with the “information”.

Over the past four years in a series of seminars, I have had the privilege of teaching students how to grapple with John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University. Listen to Newman:

Hence it is that [an] education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what … I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. (76)

A “liberal” education, a “philosophical habit,” a way of life, is not achieved by amassing ever more command of information; though “information” is not to be trivialized. It comes through the experience of your presence—the presence of our faculty. It is a kind of apprenticeship—an intellectual and moral apprenticeship, in which young people are oriented into the university way of life that helps them experiment with a way of life to be lived beyond the campus, throughout their lives. This way of life is characterized by the virtues you, the faculty, embody. Wayne Booth, the late, distinguished scholar of the University of Chicago identified five virtues—he called them “habits of rationality” of the scholar in society: honesty, courage, persistence, consideration, and humility (67-74).

For students to appropriate these virtues—to adopt them for themselves—this is not achieved through the transmission of information alone. The most precious gift we can offer our young people is the gift of time—time with you, our faculty—and the learning that comes with such encounters.

As you all know, there will be many pressures for us to adopt new pedagogies. We will be under unrelenting pressure to reduce costs as the rationale for doing so. The purpose of this project, here, is to ensure we bring the greatest care and attention in responding to these pressures. Essential to that care and understanding is that we can never forget that in the work of formation, time together is the sufficient condition.


This brings us back to scholarship. Again, Newman provides an important insight into the conditions for scholarship:

This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning…An assemblage of learned [women and] men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes… (76)

The work of scholarship is strongly sustained by a sense of place—where we and our work are. Of course you engage in joint scholarship with co-authors and research partners, aided by new technologies, and in far-flung settings. But a sense of place enables all of us to build and sustain a community, a community held together by a shared set of convictions: where our core work is done.

Animating this conviction is, again, a phrase from a recent essay by Stefan Collini capturing the nature of inquiry that we sustain here in the Academy—as I mentioned earlier, by what he described as “…the ungovernable play of the enquiring mind.” (8) By “ungovernable” Collini means “there is no predicting where thought and analysis may lead when allowed to play freely….” (56)

Much is at risk in sustaining—and securing—this quality of the university. We are being challenged to be more relevant, more applied, more useful. No doubt there are ways in which we can be more relevant, more applied, more useful. There is a world filled with great needs and if we have resources that can contribute to the betterment of humankind, we have an obligation to provide them. But we cannot do this to the detriment of our core purpose.

At the heart of our identity as a university since our founding, present right there on our shield, are the Latin words, Utraque Unum: Both into One. This phrase has captured different efforts at reconciliation over our two centuries. In this moment, we face an urgent challenge to respond to the demand for relevance in our engagement in the world with a respect for a core aspect of our identity.
Again, Professor Collini:

…it is a question of whether enquiry…is being undertaken under the sign of limitlessness—that is to say, not just, as with the development of all knowledge, subject to the testing of hypotheses or the revision of errors, but where the open-ended quest for understanding has primacy over any application or immediate outcome. (56)

Common Good

The third element of the work of the university, common good, is perhaps the most challenging to both articulate and clarify—and defend.

As a university we have institutional agency. We enrich and we serve. We enrich the public discourse and we serve—we seek to respond to the needs of our communities. And we do this as part of our work of formation and scholarship.

What we in the university do—the contributions we make to advancing knowledge, the young people we prepare for lives of meaning and service—we do for the common good too. As much as we do it for the students who happen to be on campus and the faculty there to engage them and their own scholarship efforts, that effort extends beyond the campus.

And, as I noted, there are expectations placed on us: we are to provide “expertise” via our faculty (how many of you are regularly interviewed for insight!); we are to be hosts of events for the community—indeed, we are looked upon to create these events; we are to be the places for continuing education for everyone, not just the formation of young people…and so on. The list of demand-assumptions is long.

This demonstrates how we—universities—contribute to the common good through our commitment to what Martin Wolf clarifies as public goods:

Public goods are the building blocks of civilization…The history of civilisation is a history of public goods. The more complex the civilisation the greater the number of public goods that needed to be provided. Ours is far and away the most complex civilisation humanity has ever developed. So its need for public goods—and goods with public goods aspects, such as education and health—is extraordinarily large. (Wolf)

What Wolf is saying is that the university—”education”—is itself a public good and must be supported as such. The very provisioning of “common good” by the university itself needs defending and support.

Yet, there is a distinct lack of interest in—even rejection of—public goods these days in general, and in education-as-public good in particular.

Indeed, in various fora and settings in which I’m involved, I find that I am actually defending public higher education and its support by the public. It is important to remember that nearly 80% of higher education takes place in public institutions.

A case in point: this summer, at a conference, I engaged in a public conversation with Bill Powers, the President of the University of Texas at Austin. What I learned was the real impact the decline in state support has had on our public universities. The facts are clear: in 1975, states contributed 60.3% of public postsecondary spending and it is now at 34.1% (“State Funding”). For UT Austin, support has dropped from 47% to 13% over the past 29 years (“Why We Need Your Support”).

Moreover, among many people participating in discussions about the future of higher education, a core assumption is that no more money will be forthcoming from the government, state or federal.

Let me repeat: in some of the most significant discussions taking place, these smart, networked players are asserting that there will never be one government dime more in support of public higher education. “Education” is to become the purview of foundations and for-profit companies.

We have lost the sense of education as a public good. The challenges faced here are impossible for us to ignore. The damage being done to our public institutions and our colleagues within them is incalculable.

There is a common good that must be defended—by all of us, as citizens and as members of a university, and this university in particular.

We need to emerge as strong advocates for higher education as a public good. This reflects a commitment to the idea of common good—something that can only be achieved when we acknowledge—and live up to—our shared responsibilities. It acknowledges that there is truth to be discovered and good to be realized when we engage in this work together.

We have to realize that education is more than dumping “skills” in students’ laps and laptops. The knowledge that we are committed to discovering and communicating comes about when students, scholars, and the broader public are mutually engaged, in their different but reinforcing ways.


These reflections are offered as we begin a campus-wide conversation on how we can respond to the challenges and threats that characterize this moment for higher education. I believe it is urgent and important that we recognize the:

I look forward to joining with you in a conversation that we begin today and will continue over the coming months and am grateful to have had this opportunity to share these reflections with you.

Provost Groves and I will now discuss what the context I just outlined, and the Designing the Future(s) of the University process, mean for Georgetown.

Thank you.

Works Cited

Booth, Wayne. “The Scholar in Society.” The Vocation of a Teacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.

Collini, Stefan. What are Universities For?. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. Print.

“State Funding: A Race to the Bottom.” American Council on Education, Winter 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. <>.

“Why We Need Your Support.” University of Texas at Austin, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. <>.

Wolf, Martin. “The world’s hunger for public goods.” Financial Times 24 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. <>.