Faculty Forum Papers
"THE UNIVERSITY: WHAT DOES IT DO?"
David A. Bella
Department of Civil Engineering
Oregon State University
This has been a bad year for universities. We've been criticized at the national and state levels and our
responses to such criticisms have not been convincing. It is time for reflection. What qualifies us to be called a
University? What is essential?
One cannot make sense of Universities by examining their organizational charts or reading the description put
out by their administrations. Rather, one should wander around the University and take note of what is actually
going on. Let me illustrate.
It's a beautiful afternoon. As we move through the many floors of the University library, we observe similar
behaviors at all locations. People, most of them young adults, are studying behind desks and long tables.
Books, notes, and papers are sprawled on nearly every available surface. People may be working alone or in
small groups. Their voices are kept to low whispers so as to not disturb others. At first, each section in the
library looks very much the same, each characterized by a quiet intensity. But upon closer examination, one
finds an almost unbelievable diversity of activity. Here, the intensity is directed toward ancient history; there,
modern physics; nearby, toxic wastes; to the left, English literature, to the right, the U.S. Constitution. A young
woman studies differential equations while her boy friend, at the same table, studies the parables of Jesus.
Later, we go to a coffee shop just off campus. It is crowded. People are at tables huddled over books and papers,
much like the library, though the sound level is higher. At some tables are clusters of two to four people. If you
listen, you'll hear one group arguing about artificial intelligence, another, checks and balances in government, while
another group is complaining about a recent test in organic chemistry. At another table, we find a professor; he
looks frustrated. He's struggling to redo his lecture notes and he's obviously not satisfied with what he has. "How
can I explain this?", he asks himself. In another corner, a student is going over her lecture notes. She, too, looks
frustrated, "What was he trying to say?" she asks. At another table, two students are discussing a test. "How
did you answer the second question?" one asks.
Our trip through the University continues. We attend a seminar at which an intense argument arises over the
use of social discount rates in resource management. We attend several lectures on professional ethics, vector
algebra, organizational behavior, religion, literature, and several topics beyond our own comprehension. We arrive
at early morning to see our professor still trying to get his lecture prepared before his morning class. We come
late in the evening to hear several graduate students trying to explain why a piece of laboratory equipment won't
We spend one day simply watching a blackboard. It is filled with equations, diagrams, and notes, and then
erased at least a dozen times. In the evening it is cleaned of its daily residue to prepare it for the same treatment
the next day.
Each day literally tons of old homework assignments, graded tests, scratch paper, notes, drafts of papers, and
computer output must be hauled away for recycling or disposal. Look through this waste and you'll find dead
ends for a mathematical derivation, rejected drafts for a paper on existential philosophy, graded tests on American
history, or computer output on the simulation of aquatic ecosystems.
There appears to be little overall supervision in this elaborate system. Most people aren't forced to attend seminars.
Attendance is rarely taken to class. A supervisor won't check up on our frustrated professor's lectures. Nobody
appears to be needed to make sure that the people in the library remain quiet. Nobody organizes the discussions
in the coffee shop. And yet, this is a system of constant evaluation and intense discipline. Papers and tests are
graded. Professors are evaluated by students. Laboratory data are checked over. Mathematical derivations are
examined. Philosophers, ancient and modern, are critiqued. Everybody seems to be asking everybody else to
explain what they mean. The demand to "explain," to "make sense," is placed on the teenage freshman as well
as the tenured professor. Throughout such explaining, the spirit of youth and the discipline of experience confront
and complement each other; without either there would be no University.
If you don't see these kinds of situations, then you haven't seen the University. If you want to know what a University
is, then you have to make sense of what I have described.
THE UNIVERSITY BACKGROUND
Institutions are social entitles within which certain behaviors are socially reinforced. The University is no exception.
The essential character of an institution is given by a background of expectations that pervasively and persistently
influence the behaviors of people within it.
We can make sense of the University by identifying those background expectations that bring forth the behaviors
that we observed as we wandered through the University. I suggest five background expectations that sustain such behaviors.
1. Regardless of rank, all persons (students, faculty, guest lecturers, authors, etc.) are expected to
explain; to be held accountable for their claims through exposure and inquiry.
2. Explanations are tested through such questions as:
3. Expectations 1 and 2 (above) are to be applied to all areas of knowledge; no topic is exempt.
a) What do you mean?
b) Does this make sense?
c) Does the evidence support this?
d) Is this reasonable? Just? Trustworthy?
e) Is this supported by our most trusted knowledge and experience?
4. That which has provided insight through the history of such inquiry demands respect; study is an essential
expression of such respect. 1
5. The purpose of lectures, laboratories, libraries, classrooms, seminars, tests, homework, conferences,
workshops, administration, and tenure is to assure the above expectations are persistently and pervasively met
with spirit, honesty,and discipline.
The University is a social institution defined by the pervasive and persistent influence of such background
expectations. Strong arguments can be made in support of other activities such as job training, obtaining grants,
enhancing economic development, and developing a competitive athletic program. However, when such activities
limit or undermine these essential expectations, when such activities are employed to justify a university and
sustain its identity, then, they are in conflict with the real University.
Common misperceptions arise when the University is seen as a technological institution. From this misperception,
university education is seen as an activity through which knowledge is transferred from the teacher to the student;
quality control is assured by testing the students and evaluating the productivity of the professors. Incoming
students are raw resources and graduates are finished products. Teaching and research are seen as separate
marketable services; both are specialized. The goal of proper management, despite much rhetoric to the contrary,
is seen as increasing the productivity of the process, sustaining capital investment, marketing goods and services,
assuring quality control, and securing funds (ref.1-3). The use of television, video tapes, teaching machines,
productivity evaluations, marketing techniques, and faculty incentives to secure outside funding are seen as
essential means for attaining such management goals. In other words, the university is seen as a knowledge
industry with essentially the same requirements as any other industry. Knowledge is seen as a technological
In contrast, the University background (described previously) provides an alternative view of the University. From
this view, the testing of students, while important, is secondary to the care of knowledge itself. Throughout the
University, knowledge from all fields is continually exposed to questions such as, "what does this mean?" and
"does this make sense?" Knowledge claims that cannot survive such critical inquiry tend to be either transformed
(often after much controversy) or forgotten (if not by the faculty, then by the students). The University is not primarily
concerned with the efficient production, distribution, and utilization of information. Rather, the University is primarily
concerned with discovering and sustaining that which is worthy of being called knowledge. Never forget, "knowledge"
is much more than "information" or "inputs" and "outputs". The title "knowledge" makes a moral claim on those
who hear it; knowledge demands respect and because of this moral claim, any power (political, economic, etc.)
can be confronted by knowledge and any distortion of knowledge by such power is declared a grievous moral wrong.
It is the University's business to foster those practices that protect the legitimacy of such moral claims.
University faculty are not concerned with training students to do what we tell them. Rather, faculty seek to prepare
people to do more than what we tell them. The primary means by which Universities transfer knowledge to other
institutions is not through the reports submitted to granting agencies. Rather, Universities transfer people -- our
students -- and because of their University involvement, these people have the background, spirit, discipline, and
virtues (5) to nurture and care for knowledge in more trustworthy ways.
WHAT DOES THE UNIVERSITY DO?
Industry can train people for its jobs more efficiently than the University. Consulting firms can better provide timely
technical reports that address the specific objections and needs of funding agencies. Television can provide more
entertaining and efficient information transfer. Just what is it that the University does best that our society really
In his best seller, Megatrends
, Robert Naisbitt (6) reminds us that we live within an "information age."
"In the information society, we have systematized the production of knowledge and amplified our brainpower.
To use an industrial metaphor, we now mass-produce knowledge and this knowledge is the driving force of our economy."
Now try a simple experiment. Substitute the word "propaganda" for the word "knowledge" and re-read this same statement.
"In the propaganda society, we have systematized the production of propaganda and amplified our brainpower.
To use an industrial metaphor, we now mass-produce propaganda and this propaganda is the driving force of our economy."
Now the statement sounds like something from Orwell's "1984"! The function of the information produced is to
"propagate" the system that produced it. That's what propaganda is. There's nothing in Naisbitt's book that
distinguishes between knowledge and propaganda so, why not substitute one term for the other? Both are
information outputs. What's the difference? But, of course, there is an essential moral difference! But how does
this moral differentiation occur? Unfortunately, it is far too easy to deceive ourselves. After all, the most effective
propaganda is quite convincing.
We expect industry to train people to propagate itself and its products. It is no secret that the assessment
studies (environmental impact studies, benefit-cost analyses) of funding agencies are slanted to propagate the
agencies and the projects that these agencies depend upon (7). Look at television! Can there be any doubt that
television seeks to propagate itself and the products that sustain it?
Where then can we find the nurturing of those behaviors that make possible a meaningful distinction between
knowledge and propaganda? What kind of background, discipline, spirit, and virtues are needed? What should
people do in order to prepare themselves to make such distinctions? How must a culture prepare each generation
to sustain this essential distinction?
No institution, including the University, can place itself as the final judge. But there are certain practices that can
allow a citizenry to make meaningful distinctions between propaganda and knowledge, including propaganda
produced by universities. Indeed organizations calling themselves "universities" have produced information to
propagate themselves and they've been called on it as they should be! But it seems to me, these very challenges
point to the essential character of the real University.
The essential character of the real University is to be found in the practices that it expects of its members (the
"University background"). Look again at the expected practices that characterize the University. Is it possible
to obtain a meaningful distinction between knowledge and propaganda without such practices? I think not. The
distinguishing practices are essential!
Information that is able to survive and thrive within a history of such distinguishing practices deserves respect.
Knowledge is the name we give to convey such respect and study is an act of respect. If a culture is to be able
to distinguish between knowledge, which deserves respect and propaganda, which does not, it must sustain
from generation to generation a history of such distinguishing practices. Without such caring practices, nihilism,
which comes in many forms, becomes our legacy.
One should never claim that the University is the only place where such distinguishing practices occur (4). It is not.
But, if we look to an institution that holds such practices paramount, if we look to an institution that instills such
practices within each new generation, and if we look to an institution that has somehow managed, for better or
worse, to sustain these practices for many centuries (8), then we look to the University. Let's be one.
- I have in mind the classics, history, and fundamentals (conversion of energy, checks and balances
in government, etc.) that provide a common ground for reasoned discussion among people who do not share the
same personal interests, ambitions, and preferences. An understanding of context, the world we live within
(technology, institutions, etc.), is also essential.
1. Eisenberg, E. and Galanti, A.V., "The Engineer and Academia," Engineering Education
, pp. 232-234,
2. Professor X, "So You Came Here to Teach?" Civil Engineering
, Vol. 56, No. 8, pp. 40-41, August 1986. (Note: the author, who insisted on remaining anonymous, has more than 25 years of experience in engineering practice, research, and teaching. He currently heads a University department of Civil Engineering.)
3. Bella, D.A., "The University: Eisenhower's Warning Reconsidered," Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering
, American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. III, No. 1, pp. 12-21, January, 1985.
4. Bella D.A., "On the Obsolescence of Students, Teachers, and Other Human Beings," Honors Seminar, The Computer as Psychopath
, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, 1985.
5. MacIntyre, A., After Virtue
, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1981.
6. Naisbitt, J., Megatrends
, Warner Books, New York, 1982.
7. Matzke, G., Weir, R., Steward, Radford, R., Lawler, J., Dorris, T., Dodder, R., Carney, G., and Butler, C., "An Examination of the Moral Dilemmas of University Scientists Participating in the Preparation of the Environmental Impact Statements," Report to the National Science Foundation
, Ethical and Human Values Implications Program, 1976.
8. Minoque, K.R., The Concept of a University
, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1973.
Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.