The Sticking Place

The 214th Columbia University Commencement Address

Richard Hofstadter
June 4th, 1968

For a long time, Columbia University has been part of my life. I came here as a graduate student in 1937, returned as a member of the faculty in 1946, and have since remained. In these years, I have had at this University many admired and cherished colleagues, and many able students. In this respect, I am but one of a large company of faculty members who, differing as they do on many matters, are alike in their sense of the greatness of this institution and in their affection for it. In this hour of its most terrible trial, it could surely have found a great many of us willing to speak. Quite frankly I have never been very much interested in Commencements, although I recognize their important symbolic function. But it seems to me entirely appropriate, and also symbolic, that on this unusual occasion a member of the faculty should have been asked to speak. Trustees, administrators and students tend to agree that in ultimate reality the members of the faculty are the university, and we of the faculty have not been disposed to deny it.

Yet while I hope I am speaking in the interest of my university, it would be wrong to suggest that I am precisely speaking for it. It is in fact of the very essence of the conception of the modern university that I wish to put before you that no one is authorized to speak for it. A university is firmly committed to certain basic values of freedom, rationality, inquiry, discussion, and to its own internal order; but it does not have corporate views of public questions. Administrators and trustees are, of course, compelled by practical necessity to take actions that involve some assumptions about the course and meaning of public affairs; but they know that in so doing they are not expressing a corporate university judgment or committing other minds. Members of the faculties often express themselves vigorously on public issues, but they acknowledge the obligation to make it clear that they are not speaking in the name of their university. This fact of our all speaking separately is in itself a thing of great consequence, because in this age of rather overwhelming organizations and collectivities, the university is singular in being a collectivity that serves as a citadel of intellectual individualism.

Although I mean to say a few things about our prospects at Columbia, let me first suggest to you how I think the modern university as such ought to be regarded.

A university is a community, but it is a community of a special kind – a community devoted to inquiry. It exists so that its members may inquire into truths of all sorts. Its presence marks our commitment to the idea that somewhere in society there must be an organization in which anything can be studied or questioned not merely safe and established things but difficult and inflammatory things, the most troublesome questions of politics and war, of sex and morals, of property and national loyalty. It is governed by the ideal of academic freedom, applicable both to faculty and students. The ideal of academic freedom does indeed put extraordinary demands upon human restraint and upon our capacity for disinterested thought. Yet these demands are really of the same general order as those we regard as essential to any advanced civilization. The very possibility of civilized human discourse rests upon the willingness of people to consider that they may be mistaken. The possibility of modern democracy rests upon the willingness of governments to accept the existence of a loyal opposition, organized to reverse some of their policies and to replace them in office. Similarly, the possibility of the modern free university rests upon the willingness of society to support and sustain institutions part of whose business it is to examine, critically and without stint, the assumptions that prevail in that society. Professors are hired to teach and students are sent to learn with the quite explicit understanding that they are not required to agree with those who hire or send them.

Underlying these remarkable commitments is the belief that in the long run the university will best minister to society’s needs not alone through its mundane services but through the far more important office of becoming an intellectual and spiritual balance wheel. This is a very demanding idea, an idea of tremendous sophistication, and it is hardly surprising that we have some trouble in getting it fully accepted by society or in living up to it ourselves. But just because it is demanding we should never grow tired of explaining or trying to realize it. Nor should we too quickly become impatient with those who do not immediately grasp it.

We are very much impressed now not simply by the special character of the free university but also by its fragility. The delicate thing about freedom is that while it requires restraints, it also requires that these restraints normally be self-imposed, and not forced from outside. The delicate thing about the university is that it has a mixed character, that it is suspended between its position in the external world, with all its corruption and evils and cruelties, and the splendid world of our imagination. The university does in fact perform certain mundane services of instruction and information to society – and there are those who think it should aspire to nothing more. It does in fact constitute a kind of free forum – and there are those who want to convert it primarily into a center of political action. But above these aspects of its existence stands its essential character as a center of free inquiry and criticism – a thing not to be sacrificed for anything else. A university is not a service station. Neither is it a political society, nor a meeting place for political societies. With all its limitations and failures, and they are invariably many, it is the best and most benign side of our society insofar as that society aims to cherish the human mind. To realize its essential character, the university has to be dependent upon something less precarious than the momentary balance of forces in society. It has to pin its faith on something that is not hard-boiled or self-regarding. It has to call not merely upon critical intelligence but upon self-criticism and self-restraint. There is no group of professors or administrators, of alumni or students, there is no class or interest in our society that should consider itself exempt from exercising the self-restraint or displaying the generosity that is necessary for the university’s support.

Some people argue that because the modem university, whether public or private, is supported by and is part of the larger society, it therefore shares in all the evils of society, and must be quite ruthlessly revolutionized as a necessary step in social reform, or even in social revolution. That universities do share in, and may even at some times and in some respects propagate, certain ills, of our society seems to me undeniable. But to imagine that the best way to change a social order is to start by assaulting its most accessible centers of thought and study and criticism is not only to show a complete disregard for the intrinsic character of the university but also to develop a curiously self-destructive strategy for social change. If an attempt is made to politicize completely our primary centers of free argument and inquiry, they will only in the end be forced to lose their character and be reduced to centers of vocational training, nothing more. Total and pure neutrality for the university is in fact impossible, but neutrality should continue to define our aim, and we should resist the demand that the university espouse the political commitments of any of its members. This means, too, that the university should be extraordinarily chary of relationships that even suggest such a political commitment.

The university is the only great organization in modern society that considers itself obliged not just to tolerate but even to give facilities and protection to the very persons who are challenging its own rules, procedures and policies. To subvert such a fragile structure is all too easy, as we now know. That is why it requires, far more than does our political society, a scrupulous and continued dedication to the conditions of orderly and peaceable discussion. The technique of the forceable occupation and closure of a university’s buildings with the intention of bringing its activities to a halt is no ordinary bargaining device – it is a thrust at the vitals of university life. It is a powerful device for control by a determined minority, and its continued use would be fatal to any university in the next few years the universities of this country will have to find the effective strategy to cope with it, and to distinguish in sharply and permanently from the many devices of legitimate student petition, demonstration and protest.

This brings me to our own problem. Our history and situation our own mistakes, have done a great deal to create this problem but it must not be regarded as an isolated incident, since it is only the most severe, among American universities, of a number of such incidents. We are at a crisis point in the history of American education and probably in that of the Western world. Not only in New York and Berkeley, but in Madrid and Paris, in Belgrade and Oxford, in Rome, Berlin and London, and on many college and university campuses throughout this country, students are disaffected, restive and rebellious.

I cannot pretend to offer a theory that will pull together all these events in a single coherent pattern. Nothing could be more dissimilar, for example, than the intramural situation of student at Columbia and students at the Sorbonne – nor, for that matter than the response of the community to their actions – and yet the common bond of dissatisfaction is obvious. It is easier to account for the general rise in activism on American campuses, for all our students are troubled today by two facts of the most fundamental consequence for all of us – the persistence at home of poverty and racial injustice, and abroad of the war in Vietnam. It is the first of these that we will have to live with the longer and address ourselves to much more fully, imaginatively and generously than we have so far done. But in the short run the escalation of this cruel and misconceived venture in Vietnam has done more than another thing to inflame our students, to undermine their belief in the legitimacy of our normal political processes, and to convince them that violence is the order of the day. I share their horror a this war, and I consider that the deep alienation it has inflicted on young Americans who would otherwise be well disposed toward their country is one of the staggering uncountable costs of the Vietnam undertaking. This war has already toppled a President; but its full effects on our national life have not yet been reckoned.

Here at Columbia, we have suffered a disaster whose precise dimensions it is impossible to state, because the story is not yet finished, and the measure of our loss still depends upon what we do. For every crisis, for every disaster, there has to be some constructive response. At Columbia the constructive response has been a call for university reform. I have spoken to no one who does not believe in its desirability, and I believe that the idea of reform commands an extraordinarily wide positive response in all bodies from trustees to students, although when we come to discussing particulars, we will surely differ sharply about them. 
Our foundation dates from the eighteenth century, and although we have made elaborate and ingenious improvisations upon it through the generations, we have never had a decisive, concerted moment of thorough and imaginative reconsideration of our procedures. Powers need to be redistributed. Some new organs of decision and communication need to be created. A greater participation of students in university decisions seems to me to be bound to come here and elsewhere. Some students call for student power-others shrink from the term because they have some sense of the arduous work, the sheer tedium, the high responsibilities that are always a part of administrative power. I would suggest that, except for certain areas in which student decision has proved workable, what students need and should have is influence, not power; but they also need formal channels to assure them that their influence is in fact effective.

About university reform certain guiding principles ought to be observed. Columbia has been a distinguished university these many decades because it has been doing some things right. Plans for the future should be based upon an evolution from existing structures and arrangements, not upon a utopian scheme for a perfect university. The business of reforming a university takes time, requires a certain willingness to experiment and to retreat from experiment when it does not work, and indeed a willingness not to undertake too many interlocking experiments all at once. As reform demands time, it demands peace of mind, the ability to exchange views and proposals in a calm and deliberative spirit. It cannot be carried out, although it can be begun, in a moment of crisis. It cannot be carried out under duress.

What we need then is stability, peace, mutual confidence. The time will soon come when the first halting gestures toward conciliation can be multiplied and strengthened, when we can move more rapidly toward the reconstruction of the frame of trust.

Friends outside the university who know how serious is the damage we have suffered have asked me: How can Columbia go on after this terrible wound? I can only answer: How can it not go on? The question is not whether it will continue but in what form. Will it fall into a decline and become a third- or fourth-rate institution, will it be as distinguished as it has been for generation past, or will it somehow be made even more distinguished? Columbia is a great and – in the way Americans must reckon time – an ancient university. In this immense, rich country, we have only limited number of institutions of comparable quality. We are living through a period in which the need for teaching and research – for the services a university performs and the things it stands for – is greater than it ever was before. What kind of a people would we be if we allowed this center of our culture and our hope to languish and fail? That is the question I must leave with you.

(PDF from The American Scholar, Autumn 1968 here. More details, and a recording of the speech, here.)

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