Three things a university might be for

Thoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by reading a little book full of very big ideas: Páll Skúlason’s A Critique of Universities (University of Iceland Press, 2015). Skúlason was a philosopher who served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and for 8 years as Rector, of the University of Iceland. A Critique of Universities (his last English-language book*) collects some essays and thoughts on the nature, aims, and organization of universities. The book is thought-provoking and extraordinarily lucid. In the series I’ll share a few points from the book, with my own thoughts, but these in no way substitute for reading the book yourself (links below the post).

Three things a university might be for

Universities are odd places. Despite the fact that an increasing large fraction of the public has spent at least some time attending one, I’d guess that very few people could enunciate concisely what they’re for – and among those who could enunciate something, there would be little agreement. Perhaps more surprisingly, I’d have the same problem. I’ve been studying and/or working in one university or another for 32 years. I’ve been an undergraduate, a grad student, a postdoc, a faculty member, a department Chair, and an acting Dean. I know a lot about the many things a university does, but that isn’t quite the same thing as what a university is for.

Reading A Critique gave me an Aha! moment. Not because Skúlason told me what a university is for, but because he suggests that my confusion is widely shared, and exists for a good reason. In fact, as the modern university developed in 19th-century Europe, it developed in (at least) three different countries and with three somewhat different notions about what it was going to be for. In each case, the university was to be in service of the nation-state; but not in quite the same way (Skúlason explains):

  • The French (”Napoleonic”) concept: In France, Napoleon founded l’Université de France in 1806**. In the Napoleonic model, the purpose of the university is to provide the knowledge and expertise needed by the nation. The central activity is then deriving that expertise (medicine, law, horticulture, zoology, and so on) and equipping professionals with it so that they can act in support of society. Because this concept is quite utilitarian, the university can have (and did have) a strongly top-down organization.
  • The German (“Humboldtian”) concept: In Germany, the Kaiser decided to build a strong national university in Berlin, and in 1807 asked Wilhelm von Humboldt to develop its structure. The Humboldtian model sees the university’s purpose as the advancement of science (and scholarship more broadly). The central activity is then basic research with the broadest of aims, along with the training of students to participate in this enterprise. Because there is no a priori direction to how knowledge is best expanded, the Humboldtian model lends itself to collegial governance, with scholars directing their own activity.
  • The English (“Newmanian”) concept: In England, the universities may have developed with less explicit direction. The concept that evolved was described by Cardinal John Newman in The Idea of a University (1852). In the Newmanian model, the university’s purpose is to provide the nation with the trained personnel needed to run it (and its empire). This makes the central activity training, with the focus on the needs of the individual student and with governance heavily flavoured by the way educational institutions (not just universities) are professionally managed***.

If any one of these concepts captures what a university is for, then a whole bunch of things follow fairly obviously: what spending is prioritized, who should be in charge, what facilities are most needed, and so on. The problem, of course, is that the three have now become hybridized, or perhaps overlain on each other****. This produces the confusion I described at the beginning of this post, and more seriously, tension – tension between the three aims, and also tension between people.

The tension between people, I think, develops because each of us has our own intuitive ideas about what the university is for – but we aren’t necessarily aware that there are other ideas. For example, I think I conceptualize my existence as an academic mostly in a Humboldtian way; but before reading A Critique I didn’t know that, or know that there were Newmanian and Napoleonic concepts too. My Humboldtian understanding doesn’t mean I ignore the other aspects, of course; for instance, I teach (and value teaching of) professionals, not just new researchers. But it’s certainly true that the first thing I think of when I do my job is the advancement of human knowledge. Others with concepts of the university more along Napoleonic or Newmanian lines may value pure research, but think first of more applied expertise or of training professionals. Understanding that we may not be all on quite the same page, and that there are good reasons for the existence of the different pages we might be on, should presumably help us talk with each other instead of past each other. That may be one big contribution of A Critique.

© Stephen Heard ( February 1, 2016

A Critique of Universities is published by the University of Iceland Press, and is widely available as an inexpensive e-book (print copies seem to be more of a challenge). Here are some links:

United_States USA, via

Canada Canada, via

150px-Globe.svg Rest of the world, via Google Books (or search through your local bookseller)

*Sadly, Páll Skúlason passed away in 2015 (his very last book, an Icelandic work called Meaning and Purpose, came out in November 2015).  I never met him, but I did have the enormous pleasure of spending two months at Hólar University College, another Icelandic university, where my hosts included Páll’s brother Skúli. Skúli has served as Rector at Hólar, and I wonder if Páll and Skúli might be unique as a sibling pair of university Rectors (in North America, we usually use the term President for the same office). During my stay I had many pleasant discussions with Skúli (and his colleagues) about universities, about writing, and about science.

**There have, of course, been universities in existence for much longer than this. But the modern public university, Skúlason would argue, traces its roots and its structure here.

***If you find the distinction between the Napoleonic and Newmanian models subtle, so do I; but I think Skúlason would say that production of knowledge and expertise is not quite the same thing as production of people bearing that expertise. The Humboldtian model is much more clearly set apart.

****Skúlason argues that in Europe, this hybridization has been institutionalized via the Bologna process (of harmonizing degrees and course standards); but I don’t think the North American perspective is any different.


4 thoughts on “Three things a university might be for

  1. Markus Eichhorn

    Thanks, this sounds like an interesting book. I’d also recommend Stephan Collini’s excellent book ‘What are Universities For?’ if you haven’t already seen it. This is particularly directed towards the UK and the political pressures being placed on our system, but still addresses the general question of the title in a convincing fashion. One thing it does well is to address the many issues with Newman’s thesis, some of which derive from the original, but mostly from misrepresentation and selective quotation by those with idealogical agendas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The globalization and provincialization of universities | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  3. Joachim

    ASAI understand, Wilhelm von Humboldt held a neo-humanistic ideal aiming at the fulles development of all the faculties of an individual. To say: “The Humboldtian model sees the university’s purpose as the advancement of science (and scholarship more broadly)” seems like an abridgement to me.

    Some of Humboldt’s ideally “gebildete” (educated+cultivated) personalities would surely become researchers, however, others would become merchants, politicians, etc. None, however, would be narrow minded specialists and all would have an interest in science, arts, economy, … and also be sportive and healthy. With this ideal, IMHO, universities cannot be ebony towers for reseach and scholarship, but teaching will be an integeral part. On the other hand, that teaching will not be focussed on the job market and applicability of the taught (no Napoleonian or Newmanian university).


  4. Pingback: The university as an organization: collegial or hierarchical? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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