Universities today must be better than perhaps ever before at explaining and defending their place in society. Such was the message delivered by Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, at the 2018 Newman Lecture.
The Newman Lecture is a major annual address co-hosted by the three Catholic Permanent Private Halls of Oxford: Campion Hall (Jesuits), Blackfriars Hall (Dominicans), and St Benet’s Hall (Benedictines); it provides a platform to consider topical questions of moral and social concern in the tradition of Oxford’s own John Henry Newman. Indeed, Newman’s presence loomed large over the Chancellor’s remarks, coming as they did nearly 170 years after the famous convert to Catholicism’s celebrated monograph on “The Idea of a University”, which argued that the university must be “a place of teaching universal knowledge” for the good of society at large. Newman was reacting against the professionalization and technicalization of knowledge in his time; for Lord Patten, these dangers, and others besides, are only more acute in the 21stcentury.
In particular, the Chancellor highlighted the political pressures facing universities today. Given that they constitute a key “bulwark” of that all-important buffer-space between the individual and the State commonly referred to as ‘civil society’, universities help to inform the mores, habits, and civic virtues that make life in a liberal democracy possible. Universities fulfill this role by their commitment to principles like fact-based argumentation, the open flow of information, meritocratic social mobility, and—most of all—academic freedom. This helps to explain why, since 2000, a growing number of countries have seen fit to target universities as part of broader efforts to impose ideological unanimity. As examples of this, Lord Patten mentioned: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s demand that Chinese schools “serve the Communist Party” and reject “Western values”; Viktor Orbán’s efforts in Hungary to shut down the Central European University; and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attacks on Turkish universities which fail to act in line with what he calls “national values”. As long as universities remain places of free inquiry, they represent a threat to despots and strongmen.
Of course, those are the dire cases, but, for the Chancellor, they are not wholly unrelated to certain social trends prominent in America and the United Kingdom today. Here Lord Patten reserved his harshest words, as he has in the past, for the rise in so-called “PC Culture”, which he labeled a kind of illiberal “colonization” of the university’s legitimate space in society. If the university’s commitment to discuss—and indeed debate—those questions upon which thoughtful citizens can reasonably disagree lies at the heart of what makes it dangerous to totalitarian regimes, then the censorious impulses of the various “no platforming” movements represent a threat to the university’s fundamental purpose, said Lord Patten. Administrators and educators must resist the demand for “safe spaces” in favor of creating environments where students are—within reasonable limits—challenged to engage one another. The Chancellor also took aim at the tendency to treat students like customers, to teach merely to a test, to replace face-to-face teaching with amorphous digital services, and in general the drive towards applying an overriding metric of “usefulness” when judging academic value. Populism only compounds these pressures.
While not, of course, simply equating the attacks upon free speech in places like China with the disagreements among students in the UK about what qualifies for legitimate debate, the Chancellor was clear that these crises of confidence at the university-level, whatever their causes, ultimately jeopardize the crucial role that such institutions play in society. In question-and-answer, the Chancellor identified further causes for concern, especially deep cuts to government support and the much too-low levels of corporate investment in higher education. He praised the work of vocational schools which, he said, need not violate Newman’s idea of a university committed to knowledge for the common good just because they train in specialized competencies. And he lamented the recent cuts to funding for part-time and distance learning schools like the Open University, which announced last year that it would have to slash up to £100 million from its annual budget.
All these factors encourage retrenchment and retreat among the defenders of the university, but Lord Patten counseled courage. Precisely in the midst of such troubled times, liberal societies need the university, and the humanities in particular, to “inform our moral sense”, as Newman put it. To those hard-nosed utilitarians who can’t see the point of a degree in the so-called ‘soft’ sciences, much less the humanities, the Chancellor had a simple rebuke: “We must support the humanities because we’re human”. Without the broad sense of life that the humanities help to cultivate in students, the next generation will be hardly able to ask the right questions, let alone provide the answers needed to meet the substantial challenges—social, economic, and political—facing them.