By Judith Rodin

In this essay from the book, Public Discourse in America, Penn’s president lays out a vision of universities as “exemplars of a new kind of thoughtful civic engagement and robust public discourse.”

On September 26, 1999, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial addressing the controversy over Australian ethicist Peter Singer, newly appointed to the Princeton faculty, whose views—particularly on euthanasia—had excited protest. “What’s the point of a university?” the editorial begins. “Is it only to cram a society’s settled opinions into the minds of young adults, to prepare them to ease smoothly into the workplace once they’ve snagged a diploma? Or is it also to spur those minds to become more agile and powerful, capable of challenging and improving upon the received wisdom, able to stretch the boundaries of theory and research?”

The failure to address this fundamental question marks some of the most dangerous episodes in the modern history of American higher education. It certainly should have been asked more strongly during the era of McCarthyism and witch-hunting for communists in the 1950s—and whenever a culture of political correctness becomes a reality of intellectual coercion.

Indeed, the question of what a university is for is a perennial one. “Spurring minds to become more agile and powerful” sounds just like the business universities want to be in. And, by some measures, universities are succeeding in this endeavor. Undergraduate applications continue to skyrocket, research advances garner headlines and greater funding, college graduates have multiple career opportunities, and endowments continue to grow. But have we challenged ourselves to answer the question, “What is a university,” for the new century?

As he began a life sentence in South Africa’s Robben Island prison, Ahmed Kathrada, an apartheid political prisoner with Nelson Mandela, wrote to his family: “When Ma or anyone at home starts worrying about me, they must just imagine that I’m not in jail but at university.” This was more than hyperbole or a way to calm his parents. What is a university at its best, after all, but people learning from one another, communicating, and thinking, even if they are breaking rocks on a chain gang? Indeed, Kathrada would later become the first prisoner to earn a university degree while incarcerated at Robben Island.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

The University as Discourse Community
By Judith Rodin
Illustration by David Hollenbach

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