The Sticking Place

Who Cares for Columbia?

Allan Silver
New York Review of Books
, January 30, 1969

Crisis at Columbia: Report of the Fact-Finding Commission Appointed to Investigate the Disturbances at Columbia University in April and May, 1968
Knopf (Vintage), 222 pp., $1.95

Up Against the Ivy Wall
by Jerry L. Avorn. Other Members of the Staff of the Columbia Daily Spectator
Atheneum, 297 pp., $3.25 (paper)

The Closed Corporation: American Universities in Crisis
by James Ridgeway
Random House, 273 pp., $5.95

In 1965, my second year on Columbia’s faculty, I was invited to the University’s annual Yule Log Ceremony. Two students, dressed in Colonial costumes and wigs, carried a log across the campus, past a statue of Alexander Hamilton (an alumnus), and into a panelled room with a fireplace. On its walls hung a full-length portrait of George II, who had granted a charter in 1754 to the ancestral King’s College at which Hamilton had been a student. The afternoon’s ritual featured a discussion of Columbia traditions and a reading of ” ‘Twas the Night before Christmas.” Its author, I learned, had been a student at the Columbia of post-revolutionary New York, and later a devoted trustee. President Kirk made some good-humored remarks, and lit the log. A Negro in the uniform of Columbia’s security police was standing to one side of the President. He was there to keep the fire within safe limits and he busied himself with it while a student chorus sang carols. The thick windows and the students’ voices dulled the roar of the trucks and buses outside on Amsterdam Avenue.

This scene kept re-forming in my mind during the crisis last spring. Columbia’s official image was that of a community of teachers and students, older than the American nation. Its location in New York made it uniquely central and exciting among American universities. But its place in the city had always been odd.

At the beginning of the century, the school had moved to the city’s edge, rebuilt itself as a modern university housed in something like a Roman forum, with such features as a Temple of Learning (Low Library, long the seat of administration), and a civic goddess (a statue of Alma Mater). The ancient forums, of course, had been at the heart of their cities; but in spite of Columbia’s evident eagerness to merge its greatness with that of the metropolis, the city itself was held at a distance. In a book on Columbia published in 1914, Dean Frederik Keppel wrote: “Now that the growth of the city has blotted out the outlook upon the Hudson to the west, one of our valued academic possessions is the fine view from the President’s house over Morningside Park, across the city, and to the hills of Long Island.” Decades later, this had become a view over the black ghetto, and in the crisis last spring the prospect of Harlem militants attacking the campus seemed at times a real possibility. Columbia was still holding the city at bay by extending its boundaries, with little concern for what effect this would have on the life of the surrounding neighborhood. Although its official name is “Columbia University in the City of New York,” the city that the University chose to be “in” was the New York of the arts and publishing, of law and finance, a cosmopolitan city, not the New York that unexpectedly followed it uptown, surrounded it, pressed in upon it.

Last spring, Columbia’s long-standing deficiencies became acute. In some part, these deficiencies can be traced to an undergraduate college that was too weak to counteract the fragmenting influences of departments, institutes, and specialized careers. According to Columbia mythology, the College had been the historic kernel of the University; but, in fact, Columbia University had been re-created by men like Nicholas Murray Butler and John W. Burgess as a modern center for graduate and professional education. Moreover, the Columbia faculty did not exist as an entity even in the “arts and sciences.” It was divided into three separate Graduate faculties — which exercised little influence over individual departments and institutes — and a partly overlapping College faculty. The latter was the only part of the “arts and science” faculty that recently met as a whole and, in the years preceding last spring’s convulsion, it was the only official faculty group that concerned itself with some aspects of the accumulating crisis. But this was not a substitute for sustained concern by the faculty of the whole university or by its constituted representatives.

“This is not to say that the faculty lacked power if it chose to put its hands on the levers,” as the Cox Report observes. “But its older members preferred individual autonomy to collective responsibility, and the junior members had little influence.” Of the age of autocracy under Butler, the Cox Report says, “The important point is that the faculty did not participate. It was left free for scholarship and instruction. There was extraordinarily high intellectual kinship and morale, but little encouragement of a strong sense of institutional responsibility.” Kinship and morale were to decline, leaving the University with even fewer resources to face the spring crisis.

But one wonders whether, even before the crisis, the faculty could have exercised institutional power “if it chose” or whether, in fact, the academic administrations and the faculties had agreed to leave each other largely alone. American professors won academic freedom, in the first instance, not from state or church, but from their own trustees and administrations; the victory took the form of a division of labor and privilege that still persists.

Nowhere was this more true than at Columbia, where Butler’s aloof, secretive, and arbitrary administrative style persisted after the forty-three years of his incumbency, although the power of the central administration to shape the development of the institution itself declined. The Cox Report and the Spectator volume both amply document this style. For example, reports on such critical matters as student discipline and rights, or on faculty housing (a major issue for an urban university seeking to induce its faculty to live near the campus), evoked no visible response from the administration. Administrative officers were reluctant to discuss such issues as links with government agencies and were uneasy and evasive when they did. Indeed, the Administration often seemed unable to address itself on matters of great campus concern except to audiences outside Columbia. President Kirk reserved his criticism of the war in Vietnam and his view of student discontent for a speech in Virginia and as a student of mine observed, during the spring crisis the Administration often seemed to be addressing less its own disrupted community than the larger, watching world.

In Up Against the Ivy Wall, Professor Herbert Deane, until recently Vice Provost of the University, remarks of Columbia that before the spring crisis, “Many of its administrative officers and some members of the faculty had, for years, been aware of the need for revisions and reforms and had spent countless hours in discussing the necessary changes and bringing some of them into being.” But little of this concern was evident, not only to students but to many faculty; and too few were involved in these efforts  — indeed, I don’t know what they were — for them to have any discernible effect on life at Columbia. When the crisis came, neither the faculty nor the Administration could adequately represent the idea of a university as a distinctive and precious enterprise, with special claims on its members in a time of intense political and moral stress.

The Cox Commission understood this. Set up by a Columbia faculty committee that was created the day after the police cleared the occupied buildings, the Commission was headed by Professor Archibald Cox of the Harvard Law School, and its other members included another law professor, Anthony G. Amsterdam (University of Pennsylvania); a psychiatrist, Dana L. Farnsworth, Director of the Harvard Health Services; Professor Hylan Lewis, a sociologist at Brooklyn College; and Judge Simon Rifkind, formerly a US District judge and long an eminent New York lawyer. The report, subscribed to by five notable and distinguished men, makes it difficult to think of the Columbia crisis, or its counterparts elsewhere, as essentially the result of radical plots or the immaturities of spoiled youth.

That is not a negligible contribution; so limited was the understanding prevailing in many circles at Columbia that it may, in fact, be a crucial one. But we must ask how adequate an analysis is the Cox Report — liberal, humane, “concerned” though it is, in the best senses of these abused words — as an account of the major political upheaval in the history of American higher education.

To begin with, its virtues involve a cost. It is concise, knowing, elegant, often sharp. Its sparse analysis is concerned less to render the texture of events than to anatomize them, but the politics of passion — and not only on the part of the rebellious students — can be understood only in part by such a style. To say of events during which a faculty group persuaded and pressured the Administration to rescind a summons to the police, sixty hours after the students had begun to occupy University buildings: “The emotional tension of the scene is beyond our powers of description,” is surely unsatisfactory.

On the other hand, if one wants to know what it is like to live through a political and moral convulsion at an American university these days, I know of no better source than Up Against the Ivy Wall. It is distinguished by clear exposition, an extraordinary degree of accuracy about confused events, and a concern for the University’s welfare that is all the more moving for being largely unspoken. The students who wrote it make running judgments: the Administration is largely inept, uncomprehending, or worse; the faculty inert and, when aroused during the crisis, ineffectual. The leaders of the rebellion were often blemished by indulgent romanticism and manipulatory tactics; the condition of the University disastrous to the point of making rebellion plausible or inevitable. The book’s great virtue is that the reader may find his way around these views, if he wishes, to the substance of events, and make his own judgments. In matters as complicated as the Columbia crisis, this is a considerable, and valuable, achievement.

The Cox Report, as I have said, stands at a far greater emotional distance from events, and is a wider, more interpretive study. It concludes that the spring crisis was largely an exercise in symbolic politics by students passionately concerned with issues of war, race, and the authority of institutions over their lives. “The avowed objectives of the April demonstrations,” it says, “stripped of their context and symbolism, were inadequate causes for an uprising.” Columbia’s formal affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analysis “had little practical importance [and] was being reviewed by…[a] committee…” Its chief significance is that it enabled many people, “especially students, to transfer to the campus their intense moral indignation against the Vietnam war.” As for the gymnasium in Morningside Park, the “issue was more complex, but it too was a symbolic issue.”

Questions of student discipline, according to the Report, were more substantial. Neither students nor faculty had a role in disciplinary matters at Columbia, and the Administration’s reluctance to delegate its statutory powers in this field inflamed the crisis. Moreover, a rule against indoor demonstrations, which precipitated the crisis as did the rule at Berkeley which prohibited political activity on a famous strip of land adjacent to the campus), was handed down by the President in a caricature of the Administration’s customary manner: without consultation with students or faculty, and against the recommendations of a committee report whose contents were not even known to the campus because the President had refused to publish it. Thus the Cox Report finds that the Administration’s distant and arbitrary way of running things weakened many students’ commitments to its rules. This made it easier for many to attack the University as a convenient “surrogate” for more remote and substantial centers of power.

In its earlier sections, however, the Report gives perceptive accounts of how issues like the IDA and the gym could not, in fact, be isolated from their context. Indeed, it is critical of the Columbia Administration’s failure to understand that an arrangement with Harlem’s leadership made ten years ago to construct the gymnasium was untenable in the changed racial climate of today. It is true that the radical student leaders often distorted the IDA and gym issues, and tended glibly to refer to themselves as “oppressed,” like ghetto dwellers and colonized peoples. On the other hand, the Cox Report fails wholly to take into account that, particularly at universities, politics very often is — and must be — a politics of symbols. In a setting that stresses ideas, and is removed from the centers of power and political action while sensitively responding to them, the objection that an issue is “only symbolic” is misplaced.

In other respects, too, the Report’s understanding is incomplete. Many students come to the University not as transients en route to careers elsewhere, but with the thought or hope of becoming academic men themselves. In recent years (according to research by Stanley Raffel, a Columbia senior), about half of Columbia College students, when asked about their plans before entering the University, said they wanted to become professors. Their reasons, I think, have much to do with wanting to own their own minds, to escape routine, bureaucratic, and unsatisfying work. The university is among the few American institutions that hold forth the prospect that one can own one’s own mind, but the prospect is too often not realized. The university often appears less a liberation from controlled and meaningless work than another instance of it. For some students, concerned to “express themselves” or to find immediate “relevance,” the discipline of academic work is often seen as oppressive. Too often, professors fail to provide a model for emulation, not because many of us are boring or narrow (when were most of us otherwise?), but, even more, because they are so often unavailable — unable or unwilling to work with students in ways that justify the promise of the university.

According to Mr. Raffel’s research, the student who would like to follow an academic career is most likely both to complain about the quality of student-teacher relationships, and to become discouraged. Perhaps such students would behave in these ways in any case; but the fact remains that those who wish to avoid or change the world outside the university are among those most likely to be disappointed and put off by what they find within it.

I do not mean to deny that the students’ political and moral concerns are usually impressive and authentic. I do mean that their attack on the university — whether as surrogate for society’s sins, or for its own peculiar failings — has something to do with the desperate search for a livable home in America. For if not at the universities, then where? The options are thus far few and unsatisfactory: the “free universities,” counter-cultures parasitically attached to campuses, various ways of dropping out. These options are pitiful when compared to choices available to those who have found the university uncongenial or unwelcoming in Europe: the counter-universities of Marxism, psychoanalysis, or churches; teaching in lycées, gymnasia, or public schools; the demands of political parties for experts and ideologists; a more attractive higher civil service. Some of the strain within the universities would be relieved if the rest of the occupational landscape did not look as bleak as it does to many sensitive students. In such a setting, political commitment and intellectual disappointment coalesce. More than reactions to police violence at Columbia, educational frustrations and dissatisfactions generated support for the demonstrators’ tactics last spring. The strongest force for “radicalizing the campus” may not, after all, be the Cossacks’ whips, as many radical tacticians — including those at Columbia — have thought; but, rather, the educational failures of “great” universities which seem to offer so much to so many, and end by giving so little to so few.

Matters at Columbia were exacerbated in the years before the crisis by a kind of “antagonistic cooperation” between the radical leadership, which was increasingly concerned to demonstrate the repressive character of the university, and an Administration which defined the situation as a crisis of authority. Threatened authority often becomes rigid, seeking less to renew itself than to demonstrate authority by exercising it vigorously. The style and history of the Columbia Administration, however, left it with dangerously little support for any strong actions it might have taken. Perhaps in recognition of this, perhaps to avoid crisis when possible, it sometimes alternated unpredictably between strong action and flexibility. For example, a rule against indoor demonstrations was enforced ambiguously and inconsistently, thus concealing the location of the trip-hammer.

A rather small number of the faculty who wanted the University to take positions on such questions as reporting class-ranks to draft boards and allowing military and industrial recruiting on campus darted back and forth between Administration and radicals. Most of these (myself among them) were in close touch with undergraduates. Many others were insulated from undergraduates by Columbia’s system of separate faculties or by their own inclinations. Conservative, conventional, or apolitical students stood on the sidelines, occasionally erupting in recrimination or violence against disruptive student protestors. It was this chronic situation that suddenly blew up into a grotesque drama last spring.

The SDS leadership soon found themselves with an enormously enlarged constituency of collaborators in the occupied buildings and among sympathizers outside, few of them committed to radical doctrines. The “radicalization” of this group and of the less committed audiences on campus — both students and faculty — became the main goal of SDS. The “production of consciousness” was an explicit activity, nowhere better described than in Mark Rudd’s appended statement in Up Against the Ivy Wall:

The communes [i.e., occupied buildings] were the locus of political power. This was one of the first times in our experience that “participatory democracy” had been put into practice. Questions such as negotiations, the demands, whether to resist the cops, the goals of the strike, the goals of the movement were debated fully by nearly everybody in the commune. The original Strike Coordinating Committee had an understanding that no major policy could be changed or initiated unless each of the four liberated buildings agreed. That meant hours, even full days, before decisions could be made. It also meant intense discussion, sometimes lasting as long as twelve hours, in which people participated and grew in their political understanding.

It also meant that, by a mixture of accident and design, it was extraordinarily difficult — if not impossible — to alter the rebels’ initial demands, formulated hastily in the first hours of the crisis when Acting Dean of the College Henry S. Coleman was trapped in his office. The rebelling students represented by the SDS-dominated Strike Coordinating Committee were distributed through four occupied buildings — they were largely sequestered from events and one another. An intense communal life emerged, in which students at last enjoyed the shared commitment and purpose that the “normal” functioning of the University denied them. This enjoyment became one of the chief purposes of the uprising, something that could not easily be bargained or negotiated away.

In each building there was a markedly different political climate, ranging from liberal to Maoist, but no building to the “right” of the hard-liners could publicly take an independent line without betraying the moral pioneers of SDS, who dominated the Coordinating Committee through which all messages flowed. The mechanisms of “participatory democracy” in this instance helped, in fact, to deadlock the situation, for they prevented any change in the original demands. It was, then, an ideal situation for what a colleague of mine tersely called “manipulatory democracy.” By trying to abolish formal authority among the “revolutionaries,” radical leaders concealed their own power over a large group of students, many of whom were new to the crises and exigencies of extreme political action.

Of the rebels’ original demands, the critical one was for “amnesty”; this was made a precondition for further discussion. The word “amnesty” was misleading. In fact, this was a demand for political justice, on the grounds that the revolution was justified and therefore should not be subject to any discipline whatever, even under new procedures that would delegate judicial authority largely to faculty and students. By this demand, the students also sought to create a precedent that would permit future mass actions within the university. Taken literally, this position was a tempting political fantasy — and, indeed, some rebelling students really seemed to expect the University to collaborate cheerfully in its own demise.

But the demand for amnesty was not to be understood literally. At one point, for example, the “Menshevik” rebels in Fayerweather Hall proposed that the “amnesty” demand be qualified, on grounds of logic (“revolutionaries don’t demand amnesty from illegitimate authority”) and tactics (“greater flexibility was needed so that high-ranking faculty would be behind us”…the leaders were “not facing political reality by demanding amnesty….”). Responding, the radical leadership made its purposes explicit:

…amnesty was not [really] being demanded from the present powers;…the fight for amnesty [sic] makes the formal structure real by politicizing the students and by making our position crystal clear; new [University] structures may have to be acted against and…a political principle must be established of being able to act against illegitimate authority…the time had not come for negotiations, if there ever was such a time…we are seeking to form a radical faculty group which will encourage the faculty to move towards the left.

Thus the radical leadership was playing an all-win-no-lose game. They would, on the one hand, remain in the buildings and refuse genuine negotiations until their numbers and support grew, making it impossible for an Administration which was increasingly alienating the students to send in the police; the radicals would then emerge in triumph. Or the police would be called, would use excessive violence, and shock and radicalize men of conscience and tender mind. The police came, as the radical leaders were told they would. Such was the moral armor worn by the radical leaders that they refused all responsibility for this predictable outcome, and saw it only as a confirmation of the “true” character of the university — ultimately made of the same stuff of violence as Leviathan itself.

In this way, the radical leaders lived up to Max Weber’s characterization of the ethic of ultimate ends: “The responsibility for the consequences does not fall upon me but upon the others… whose stupidity or baseness I shall eradicate.” Indeed, when faculty mediators — including myself — tried to describe the probable consequences of police action, we were reported to their following by the radical leadership as “threatening us with the cops.” A horror of violence at the university became a sign of false consciousness, of liberal decadence. During the course of discussions with the student representatives, I described a tense and dangerous scene at Fayerweather Hall at which several professors had dissuaded a large group of furious counter-demonstrators, who sought to enter the building and “clean out” the students inside. This was later met by Mark Rudd with contempt: the students inside were prepared to deal with invaders, and the faculty was nervous and soft. The sins of the university were to be burnt and purged away, and all attempts at mediation — including those that would have gained the rebels the honor of having sought to avoid bloodshed at the university — were rebuffed.

The gain would have been all the greater because the Administration also revealed little sense of responsibility for the gratuitous violence that the police visited upon Columbia during April and May. It did attempt to take some precautions against police violence, but these were naïve and ineffectual. Even more striking was its failure to show public compassion for a university bleeding in body and spirit: the fault was ascribed wholly to the rebels.

The theme of violence was first introduced into the crisis not by the intervention of police, but by the occupation of one building by black militants, who ejected the whites. The emergence of cohesive, determined militance among the black students was decisive. It set a standard that the whites, already shaken by their expulsion, sought to match. Weapons had been seen in the black-occupied building, brought in by militants from the city (these apparently vanished once the black students organized their extraordinarily disciplined operation). There were rumors of an invasion of the university from Harlem. But the Harlem-based demonstrations that occurred — they are brilliantly rendered in Up Against the Ivy Wall — were both welcomed and carefully controlled by the occupying black students.

The Cox Report, I think rightly, understands the action of the blacks as a determined show of permanent strength, to be satisfied only by a full confession of sins by the University, which they hoped not to damage but to join, on terms providing for the rights and interests of black students and citizens. But the Cox Report is inadequate, I think, when it sums up the problem in this way: “Their [black students’] social, economic, and educational backgrounds create very real practical problems of adjustment. Yet nothing effective is offered to ease the transition. Until this is changed, the more that is done to enable promising young men from rural areas or urban ghettos to obtain a university education, the deeper the dilemma grows.” This emphasis upon a faulty “adjustment” mechanism — an old motif in American social thought — trivializes the matter. Further observations in the Report about discrimination, the insecurity of being few in number at white institutions, the “irrelevance” of the curriculum to black experience, and the need of the black students to justify themselves in view of black militance and misery elsewhere, do not make up for this failure of understanding.

I believe that in such events as the Columbia crisis, black students are discovering the university as the place where black militance and political consciousness can be sharpened faster and more effectively than anywhere else in American society. In this, they resemble, but are not the same as, the white student radicals. The latter are, indeed, children of the academy: given all the alienation that middle-class society is producing in its young, white radicalism today is inconceivable without the university as its womb and target. Universities have become, in this sense, something like the capitalist factories of classical Marxism — gatherers of the people in sufficient density to create the conditions of their own destruction.

For blacks, the conditions of struggle are hardly so intimately linked to the university. But only the university puts black Americans in a prolonged encounter with a major white institution which both frustrates them and promises much, is vulnerable to internal pressure and therefore responsive, is thoroughly dominated by the liberal ethos, and reluctant to use force against them even as a last resort. (At Columbia, the Administration was far more concerned with protecting the blacks from the police than the whites.) The universities, moreover, seek to gather the brightest and most promising black students, who, unable to make the expected “adjustment,” are often easily recruited by the militants. The university offers far greater possibilities of asserting more power than the ghetto itself. When the blacks emerged as a unified force at Columbia they transformed an improvisation into high drama.

If the Administration’s authority at Columbia had badly eroded, as the Cox Report suggests, why does the Report state that during the crisis the only proper course in the University’s best interests was to support the decisions of the Administration? Since, as the Report documents, the Columbia faculty did not exist as an entity before the crisis, it had to invent itself quickly or play no role in events crucial to the university. On the second day of the crisis, a few hundred teachers improvised an “Ad Hoc Faculty Group” (of which I was part) and tried to mediate the crisis from a position independent of both the rebelling students and the Administration. Although many of us were concerned about the broader causes of the crisis, about which we might well disagree, our immediate aim was to find a settlement that would not only help to resolve some of the issues in the dispute, but avoid police action and the violence we believed must follow.

We failed — in large part, I think, because we could not, in a crisis, establish the trust that the faculty as a whole had already failed sufficiently to create. By this, I do not mean that we would have had to agree with the aims and tactics of the rebels. I mean that a sufficient number of the faculty had not been publicly concerned with the real problems of the University before they erupted — problems of curriculum, political conscience, and (perhaps most important of all) perfunctory contacts with serious and able students who are demanding stronger relations with their teachers. A faculty which had been as inert as Columbia’s before the convulsion could not play a decisive role during it. Moreover, the inaccessibility and chronic overwork of many professors meant that far too few students had the sustained experience of taking part in serious scholarship. In fields to which many of the rebels are attracted — literature and the social sciences, especially — they reacted against what they saw as aridity, pedantry, and an insufficiently critical view of American society. Too many students felt that the canons of academic freedom were being used mainly to sustain the occupational privileges of professors. Had all this been less true, the teachers seeking a peaceful and mediated solution would not have met with such distrust within the ranks of rebelling students; and the radical leadership might have had to talk with us seriously, if only for tactical reasons.

The Cox Report finds that the leaders of the Ad Hoc Faculty Group “had a much truer understanding of the issues and nature of the conflict than any revealed by the Administration or Trustees.” But it concludes that the Group’s conduct was at best misdirected gallantry, and at worst a contribution to the further breakdown of order, and, eventually, to violence on an enlarged scale. “Although perhaps the effort had to be made,” the Report observes, “there was never a significant chance that the Group could negotiate a peaceful withdrawal from the buildings.” After the event, one may well make this judgment (although no one can be sure that it is accurate); at the time, the effort had to be made. Moreover the attempt to mediate helped to reveal the true condition of Columbia: the weakness of the faculty; a distant and staggeringly uninformed Board of Trustees; a rigid and unimaginative Administration; a radical leadership obsessed with tactics and largely impervious to a sense of the moral dilemmas involved in all political action.

That condition, however, is hardly peculiar to Columbia, and much of it lies in the lack of an adequate rationale for the American university in an unprecedented time of semi-mobilization for war. Here, the Cox Report, focused on the crisis itself, merely points to the problem: “…the universities are in a state of transition where they, consciously or unconsciously, face exceedingly complex yet fundamental issues concerning their functions and curriculum. The lack of accepted answers to such basic questions not only impairs institutional cohesion within the university as a whole, it also promotes student dissatisfaction and unrest.” True enough; but the trouble is greater still: not that there is a “lack of accepted answers,” but that too many — especially among faculties — believe the answers that are now offered are adequate.

The history of American universities has in some ways prepared them poorly for the political tidal waves now surging across their campuses. Their major ideological defense — the doctrine of academic freedom — was developed while the national state was weak and remote, and the major enemies of academic self-determination were the local forces of religion, economic interests, and conventional opinion. Such was the scene from which the modern university emerged in America, between the 1880s and World War II.

The formal doctrine of academic freedom was partly codified in the 1915 statement of the American Association of University Professors. The doctrine, as it developed, pictured the university as institutionally neutral on all controversial matters. Its professors are free to work and teach, guided by the standards of their disciplines; neither their professional work nor their free exercise of all the ordinary rights of citizens may prejudice the neutrality of their institutions. In return for institutional immunities and professorial privileges, the universities undertake to be useful: to mold the character of students, train professionals, offer opportunities for the ambitious, produce technology, render public service, and pursue knowledge.

The doctrine was partly elaborated in response to a succession of scandals involving professors whose activities had embroiled them with churches, donors, politicians, and interest groups and whose administrations had moved against them. It sought to insulate American universities, dependent on private and public generosity, from the costs of controversy. But such a doctrine made no special provision for the nation-state. It did not contemplate a long and intimate relation between the universities and the US Government. Least of all did it contemplate such an association in the setting of international struggle and war.

In this, American universities are unique in the West. In England, Oxbridge has been linked with government through overlapping elites, and political parties have recruited leadership directly from those miniature parliaments, the Oxford and Cambridge Unions. (In America, universities link their students directly to professional football, medicine, and other professions; but the injunction to students to “go into politics,” to do something about social wrongs, has always had the ring of generalized piety.) In France, the universities were created and administered by the state; in part, they existed explicitly to select and train its administrative elites. In Germany, political authority in the nineteenth century sustained academic freedom to an extent not then approached in the United States, but at the cost of requiring professorial timidity before the state itself. In South America, universities have been widely engaged in politics, and distinctions are weakly made between academic work and political struggle.

Thus, the unprecedented relationship between American universities and government that emerged after World War II could be treated ideologically as if it were only an extension of older notions of public service, according to which the university could render services of widely acknowledged usefulness — like improving American agriculture — without compromising its political neutrality or creating exacerbated strains within the universities. Nothing could be more non-political, and, therefore, at the same time political. For universities could become central to the government’s purposes and policies without their staunchest defenders — the professors, for whom the principles of academic freedom were sacrosanct and sufficient — being alerted to danger, as they were by the older type of threat represented by Joseph McCarthy, Governor Reagan, or the House Un-American Activities Committee.

To treat the nation-state “as if” it were only another “outside agency,” from whose purposes the universities may remain institutionally neutral, is indeed naïve when so much university work is dependent on — if not actually sponsored by — the state, and when men have come to disagree about the state’s purposes and means as passionately as they once did about God’s. Nowhere is this naïveté clearer than in the total surprise and high indignation of many academic men when protesting students have recently made little distinction between the nation-state and the university.

To James Ridgeway, in The Closed Corporation: American Universities in Crisis, the distinction between universities and business or the state has largely vanished. His concluding chapter opens:

The idea that the university is a community of scholars is a myth. The professors are less interested in teaching students than in yanking the levers of their new combines so that these machines will grow bigger and go faster. The university has in large part been reduced to serving as banker-broker for the professors’ outside interests. The charming elitism of the professors has long since given way to the greed of the social and political scientists whose manipulative theories aim only at political power. Meanwhile, the undergraduate students lie in campus holding pens, while graduate apprentices read them stories. The stories are boring, and students turn to making their own “free universities” or spend their time hatching political revolutions on the outside.

From this one might conclude that Ridgeway’s book treats the internal conditions of the universities, but this is not its announced purpose: “This book is an inquiry into the different sorts of relationships universities and professors have with the rest of society, carried forward in large part to find out what their impact is and whether there is anything to the notion that the university is central to industrial activity.” In fact, we learn little about the central role of the university in industrial activity, but much that makes the universities seem more like industrial enterprises themselves. The book reads like a series of Drew Pearson columns from the New Left: the style of the American muck-raking tradition, with business and government as targets, has been adapted to the universities. High indignation is sustained by scandalous case histories — assiduously investigated, revealed in triumphant detail. Many of these are interesting and most are important. One isn’t likely to learn of them from writers less indignant or more respectful.

The catalogue is long and varied. Universities are seen as centers of inaccessible power in their local settings — prime instances being Columbia and the University of Chicago. They are research and service centers for the war machine. Pursuing money, they become involved in shady deals: they and their faculties support drug companies’ efforts to extend patent rights to drugs developed through publicly financed research, because many universities also hold such patents. Columbia’s trustees became, several years ago, the sponsors of an inadequately tested cigarette filter that purported to reduce the risk of cancer. Professorial entrepreneurs create “spin-off” profit-making firms, building on techniques and knowledge acquired through university research. Trustees profit from their knowledge of university plans, and are involved in conflicts of interest between their business and university commitments.

Much of what Mr. Ridgeway says along these lines is sharp and important, although he does not seriously connect his revelations with the educational deficiencies of American universities, except to suggest that many professors seem more interested in making money and doing research for the government than in facing students. That is true, but of at least equal importance are the extraordinary demands for higher education, more and better students than ever before, and a genuine shortage of able teachers and of cash. In short, Mr. Ridgeway’s portrait is unsympathetic not merely because he regards universities largely as money-grubbing holding corporations for professorial entrepreneurs, but because he does not include in his account of their crisis many of the problems that they face.

I agree with Mr. Ridgeway that investment companies should not increase their profits by combining resources with those of tax-exempt universities. Conflicts of interest among trustees and professors certainly should be revealed to the public. Secret research has no place at universities, and they should have nothing to do with organizations like the Institute for Defense Analysis.

I think, however, that the bored and rebellious undergraduates whom Mr. Ridgeway sees as fodder for the labor market will continue to be bored or rebellious in spite of all his proposed reforms — including their participation in university governance. For Mr. Ridgeway has little or nothing to say about the educational failures of the American university. These will not be solved only by correcting the universities’ relationships to business, government, and politics, nor by extensive changes in academic governance. How can academic work become more “relevant” without succumbing to faddism, the cult of experience, or impatience with the discipline (as distinct from the ritual and pedantry) of scholarly work? How can professors respond to the personal needs of students without playing psychotherapist or abandoning a sense of the scholarly calling which must be grounded, in some irreducible way, in specialization? How does one change things so that an intelligent and serious student meeting with a professor in his office need not feel under pressure to talk only about “the course” while five others like him wait outside? These are the kinds of questions that Mr. Ridgeway’s approach to the universities overlooks.

Under present conditions, the best of American youth are turning in unprecedented numbers to the universities for larger meanings — wisdom, if you will — that were previously sought or accepted from sources that are now weak or discredited in the eyes of these students: family, religion, class, nation. Experience at the university becomes the last hope of coming to terms with America on any grounds other than deep hostility. When the university fails these students, it becomes their first target—not only, I think, because it is vulnerable and closest at hand, but because the last hope has proved so disappointing.

© Allan Silver/New York Review of Books
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders