Classical Ideals in the Modern Research University

In: Danish Yearbook of Philosophy
Author: Hans Fink1
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In 1988, at the celebration of the 9th centenary of the University of Bologna, all the rectors present signed a solemn document in Latin, the Magna Charta Universitatum, formulating four fundamental principles “which must, now and always, support the vocation of universities.” This document has by now been signed by the rectors of 889 universities from 88 countries and is available in 49 languages. In abbreviated form the four principles are: 1) Universities are autonomous; 2) Teaching and research are inseparable; 3) Freedom of research and teaching are to be respected internally and externally; and 4) Attainment of universal knowledge and universal sharing of knowledge are the highest goals.

These principles, of course, represent ideals that universities have never fully lived up to. Universities have always been deeply dependent on external authorities, research and teaching have often in reality been separated, both research and teaching have at times been strongly determined by political or economic interests, and narrowness in scope and secrecy about new ideas is not unheard of. For centuries universities were rather conservative institutions; the most important results of the Renaissance and the scientific revolution were achieved outside universities and only belatedly and reluctantly accepted by them. Avoiding the fate of universities under fascist and communist rule must have been crucial for the rectors assembled in Bologna. Nevertheless, or precisely therefore, these principles could be said to represent the classical ideals that all universities worth their name have been trying more or less successfully to live up to and to defend against external interference and internal corruption under highly different social conditions.

The late 1980s was an optimistic period for the European Union and for European universities. The Magna Charta stated that the signatories were “looking forward to far-reaching co-operation between all European nations and believing that people and states should become more than ever aware of the part that universities will be called upon to play in a changing and increasingly international society.” Their wish that states should become “more than ever aware” of the social role of universities was in a way already coming true. During the 1970s and 1980s much political energy and large sums of money had been invested in making the university sector grow, both in terms of the number and size of institutions, and this tendency continued over the next two decades. This political embrace and the rise in the social importance of universities have, however, given rise to rather new types of challenges to the principles of the Magna Charta, challenges that are very much with us today.

In his book A Diary from a Bad Year (2008) the Nobel prizewinner J.M. Coetzee has an entry summarizing his pessimistic view of the situation:

It was always a bit of a lie that universities were self-governing institutions. Nevertheless, what universities suffered during the 1980s was pretty shameful, as under threat of having their funding cut they allowed themselves to be turned into business enterprises, in which professors who had previously carried on their enquiries in sovereign freedom were transformed into harried employees required to fulfil quotas under the scrutiny of professional managers. Whether the old powers of the professoriate will ever be restored is much to be doubted.1

This picture of the effects that Thatcherite new public management had on universities may be a caricature, but it does have a point, though the lure of extra money has probably been at least as effective in bringing about the changes as have threats of cuts in funding. For those of us who in the 1970s trusted that the Welfare State would guarantee the political and economic autonomy of universities, it is thus rather ironic that precisely the Welfare State has been the agent in a series of reforms creating structures and temptations subtly, or not so subtly, undermining the ethos uniting the four principles of the Magna Charta. Rich, private, American universities seem to have been somewhat better able to stand their ground.

The situation is different from country to country, but insofar as Danish universities exemplify a general tendency, universities have indeed grown into business enterprises with yearly turnovers of several billion kroners. This has been due partly to a large growth in the number of students, most markedly in the humanities and the social sciences, and partly, and more importantly, to a dramatic rise in the number of individual research projects in medicine and the natural sciences financed by or co-financed with external public or private agencies and won in competition with other research institutions. In many universities more than half of the total funding is now provided in this way, placing decisions of strategic importance at scattered points outside of universities, and making the strategic decisions of the universities themselves focus largely on how to go on attracting funds from the outside. Seen from the point of view of the bnp, this development is probably a good thing, and a lot of worthwhile research is no doubt being produced, but seen from the point of view of the classical ideals it does raise worries that are not just an expression of nostalgia for the lost power of the professoriate in its ivory tower.

The growth of the universities has been accompanied by politically dictated reforms of their internal government to the effect that members of the university no longer choose their own leaders, not even at the lowest levels. A board of directors with a majority of external members chooses the rector who chooses the deans who chooses the heads of department. All formal responsibility in the system is thus to the level above, and a potential conflict between leaders and those they lead has been installed. The very idea of tenure has at the same time been undermined by making the sacking of staff much easier than earlier. By and large the boards of directors have so far been loyal to their institutions, actually protecting them from more direct political interventions, but the idea of even relative autonomy has nevertheless been much more narrowly circumscribed at all levels than it was in 1988.

The growth in external funding has also led to the growth of a precariat of untenured researchers who do not teach, and of untenured teachers who have no paid time for research, thus making it also “a bit of a lie” that research and teaching are inseparable. At the same time teaching has for better and for worse been forced to be much more school-like and exam oriented than before. Students are not effectively given personal responsibility for their own learning until they enter Ph.D. schools.

In a number of reported cases, researchers working on projects for external private or public agencies have been under pressure to suppress results deemed unfavorable by those funding the research, thus giving rise to the suspicion that policy-based evidence making stands in for evidence-based policy making. Cases like that, together with some highly publicized cases of direct scientific fraud, tend to undermine the credibility of university research. In order to retain or regain public confidence, there has been increasing focus on measures meant to safeguard the freedom and integrity of research. Codes of conduct on international, European, national, and local levels have thus been agreed to, and quasi-legal boards have been set up to deal with suspicions of misconduct. This is all important and necessary, but it is surely at the same time a sign that the much deeper economic involvement of universities with the surrounding society together with tougher personal and institutional competition make the temptations to tamper with research processes much stronger than they were earlier.

Universities have become business enterprises, but arguably the last thing that other business enterprises and the wider society need is for universities to become just like other business enterprises. The “brand” of a university should be its incorruptibility, and the safest way to uphold a reputation for incorruptibility is actually to be incorruptible. A lot of research nowadays takes place outside of universities in industries and in a growing number of more or less ideological think tanks, but the quite special responsibility of a university is and ought to be the search not just for new knowledge, but for new scientific knowledge in the broad sense of Wissenschaftlich. The normative ideal of science as adding to a comprehensive, coherently organized system of knowledge both within and across scientific disciplines is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to adhere to in a situation where university research is more and more specialized and increasingly produced and transmitted “in bulk,” as it were, and under a regime designed to maximize the quantity of output. The question of how results hang together is most often left to answer itself.

The modern European research universities of 2019 have thus in a number of ways outgrown the framework of the University envisaged by the Bologna Magna Charta. This transformation is probably irreversible and not wholly for the worse, but it remains important that the four principles are not just forgotten or merely hypocritically appealed to on festive occasions. It is up to the present generation of members of the Universitas magistrorum et scholarium, the union or corporation of masters and students, which has given the University its name, to strive to realize and defend these principles under the new social conditions to the best of their abilities. No one ever promised that it would be easy.


Coetzee, J.M. Diary of a Bad Year (London: Vintage, 2008). 35.

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