The Idea of a University

October 15, 2003

Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

This week, Columbia University begins a year-long celebration of its 250th anniversary. Founded by Royal Charter in 1754, eight students and one professor (who also served as president) met in the vestry of Trinity Church, near Ground Zero, to begin an institution that today is the fifth-oldest university in the United States and, by any measure, one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the world. For these academic pioneers the world was a very different place -- and ours would have been unimaginable. There was no United States, and the global population had not quite reached 500 million, with New York City boasting a mere 11,000 inhabitants.

The celebration of Columbia, so intimately connected to everything around it, will essentially be a story of how our world has become what it is today -- and how so many of our faculty and alumni have been ahead of their time. Columbia University in the City of New York, as its official title proclaims, has been intertwined with the fortunes of the city.

Everything from the sewers (Charles Frederick Chandler), to the 12-avenue, 155-street grid system (Gouverneur Morris), to the subway (William Barclay Parsons), to the parks and highways (Robert Moses), to the public school system (De Witt Clinton), to Broadway (Rodgers and Hammerstein), to Wall Street (Warren Buffet), to the Yankees (Lou Gehrig), to the mayor's office (one-seventh have been Columbians) -- every facet of the city has been created and shaped by Columbia faculty or graduates. And the same is true of the country: the drafting of the Declaration of Independence (Robert R. Livingston) and the Constitution (Gouverneur Morris); the authoring of the Federalist Papers (Alexander Hamilton and John Jay); the office of the president (both Roosevelts and Eisenhower) and the Supreme Court (nine justices, the most recent being Ruth Bader Ginsburg) -- and on and on.

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But an anniversary such as this implicitly asks fundamental questions: What accounts for the extraordinary longevity and successful evolution over time of American colleges and universities? (Very few organizations last as long.) And where are we headed in the future?

There are many reasons why universities have endured the test of time, but a few are fundamental. Foremost is the purpose they serve. Universities remain meaningful because they respond to the deepest of human needs, to the desire to understand and to explain that understanding to others. A spirited curiosity coupled with a caring about others (the essence of what we call humanism) is a simple and unquenchable human drive, certainly as profound an element of human nature as the more often cited interests in property and power, around which we organize the economic and political systems. Moreover, universities at their best have nurtured a distinctive intellectual atmosphere in which one is forced to live in a world of seemingly infinite complexity, while holding onto the natural but quixotic hope that someday it all will be resolved. If the pursuit of understanding is your mission, you simply cannot avoid confronting the immense variety of perspectives out there and, ultimately, how much we don't know, our sheer ignorance. You cannot rely on the comforts of common sense and of having a point of view. Learning to live comfortably in this very uncomfortable mental environment, with all its confusions and disorder and possibilities, defines the intellectual character of the modern university.

And this has great significance for shaping the intellectual and emotional character of open, democratic societies. Just as instilling an entrepreneurial spirit is difficult and takes time, so does the creation of a democratic personality. The instinctive impulse in the marketplace of ideas is to stick with what we think we know, to find others who think similarly so we can mutually reassure ourselves of the correctness of our beliefs, to avoid situations where we might have to justify our ideas and to resort more and more to certitude as the best defense when under attack. These impulses, natural as they may be, are of course devastating to society. With all the pressures toward the closing of our minds that come with conflict in the public arena, it's not a bad idea to have special communities like universities distinctly dedicated to the open intellect.

Other features of universities also contribute to their success over time. The respect government has accorded universities, embodied in the principle of academic freedom, has been crucial. The decentralized structure of universities has established that a substantial autonomy, coupled with a high and natural purpose, can also be an extraordinary motivator for organizations. The fact that universities have become pieces of our identities that we carry with us through life is important. And perhaps the greatest cause of success is that all this takes place in the company of the next generation.

Columbia, like every other university, celebrates its contributions to knowledge: 64 Columbians have won the Nobel Prize (with Columbia College having graduated more laureates in science than any other American college); and whole fields (anthropology) and theories (plate tectonics) were conceived at Columbia. But none of this satisfies quite as much as the noble role of conveying to youth what we have come to know, and to do that in the intellectual atmosphere of the modern university.

Where are universities going? New areas of knowledge and needs are opening before us -- the revolution in genetics, the continued building of democratic societies, the phenomena of globalization. Throughout the year Columbia will have symposia on these issues. But, if I had to select one change in the years ahead, I would point to the growing internationalization of our universities: More students from abroad (especially at the undergraduate level), and more research and teaching on global issues (trade, international institutions, poverty, environment, etc.). These will be the defining characteristics in coming decades. And just as the influence and involvements of Columbia have steadily widened over the last 250 years from the local (New York City) to the national, so will they now do so at the international level as well. The fundamental purposes and structure will not change, for they are enduring. But the problems to be solved and the pool of talent to solve them will broaden. This is our way to ensure we remain vigorous, and relevant, in a mercurial world.

Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal copyright 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.