Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The university ideal

The idea that an artist should live in a garret (unless, of course it is a ''loft'') has long been discredited; nor is a professor expected to take vows of poverty. But it comes as something of a shock, nevertheless, to learn that professors have been getting fees as high as $125,000 a year for consulting services. It seems that everyone wants expert advice today. Nobody wants it so much as big business or big government when being prosecuted or when defending itself in a major trial. Such advice comes high, especially from professors of economics or law, and the large organizations of today's world are quite able to pay the fee. But what about the student? And what about the ideals of scholarship and of disinterested research?

The issue was recently raised by the publication of fees in a government document and their dissemination in a newsletter of the North American Newspaper Association. The New York Times very sensibly went to see Dean Rosovsky of Harvard. The dean, it turned out, had himself testified in a major trial. A man of judgment and unchallengeable integrity, Rosovsky defended the right both of a large company to seek expert advice from the scholarly world and the professor's right to give it. He admitted, however, he was surprised by the size of some of the fees paid. Others in academia averred that their opinions could not be shaded by the fact that they were testifying for high stakes - the opposing lawyers would find them out if they were inconsistent with their previous writings. At least one said his horizons were enlarged and his mind stimulated by the process.

About these ads

I was a college teacher once, in a lowly position and for a brief time. In those days the salaries of professors really were low, and no one had yet conceived the idea that they should bear a parity to salaries paid by business. It was rather naively supposed that the pleasures of living in an academic community, pursuing one's own thoughts in the company of wise men and philosophers, compensated for the kind of material benefits others enjoyed. Franklin Roosevelt was then seeking his own experts, which the press somewhat derisively dubbed a ''brain trust''; but no one supposed that these visitors to Washington or Hyde Park would grow rich. For most of us the scholarly life, whether in the humanities or the social sciences, was a kind of addiction, which we hoped to impart to the often unsuspecting students in our classrooms.

I would not suggest a return to those days, but I think that anyone caring about the intellectual life and the traditions of our universities has a right to be puzzled by current practices. A man cannot serve two masters, or at least he cannot serve both of them equally well. I wonder whether students get a fair share of attention from people who are busy preparing testimony for IBM or the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. I recall my beloved professor at Yale, Robert D. French, tapping out, before each of his incomparable lectures on Chaucer, a fresh series of notes. I think I would not have had the same feeling about the place if he had been typing out a brief for some arcane but well-heeled institution.

The deeper question is whether men like Professor French can continue to exist under the circumstances revealed as being current today. Money, if it does not corrupt, certainly guides men subtly into fields where it may be found. The humanities face many obstacles, and not least of them is the fact that ambitious people are not likely to grow rich in their pursuit. When the monetary rewards of becoming experts in economics are so considerable, it takes a singular spirit of self-denial to become an expert in Plautus or Terence. The social scientist may not alter his views in order to prove an acceptable witness; but the man who is today discoursing on business efficiency may have altered at some time in the past his choice of subject matter and his goal as a scholar. If consulting fees are going to become routinely excessive, the whole universe of learning may be thrown off balance.

The ideal of the university is very old, and it cannot let itself be falsified by the outside influences that now tempt and seduce the professor. The essence of that ideal is disinterestedness of spirit: not merely honesty, not merely that elusive and sometimes ugly thing called objectivity. It is a conviction that truth has its own value and its own reward, and that it requires in its seekers a willingness to transcend, or even to ignore, the cries of the marketplace. When so much depends on having a few men and women in our civilization who see beyond, and stand outside of, the propaganda, the special pleadings, and the litigations of the passing day, anything that even remotely threatens the university ideal is to be fought as we would fight a plague.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.