The Shape of the University

by D.M.R. Bentley


The university, as everyone knows, stands with its great gates on Plutoria Avenue, and with its largest buildings, those of the faculty of industrial and mechanical science, fronting full upon the street.
     These buildings are exceptionally fine, standing fifteen stories high and comparing favourably with the best departmental stores or factories in the city ....
     But the older part of the university stands so quietly and modestly at the top of the elm avenue, so hidden by the leaves of it, that no one could mistake it for a factory. This indeed was the whole university, and had stood there since colonial days ....
     [T]he change ... of character ... was the work of President Boomer. He had changed it from an old-fashioned college of the bygone type to a university in the true modern sense. At Plutoria now they taught everything ....

Stephen Leacock, Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich 45


"So, what kind of shape is the University in these days?" It was only after I had answered my neighbour’s kindly question in the manner dictated by the circumstances of its asking – the annual pot-luck supper of our mutual community association – that I recognized and began to ponder the spatial implications of what he had asked. What kind of shape are Canadian universities in these days? Or, to put it differently, is there a university structure that can be envisaged and, if so, what are its characteristics, its origins, and its likely future? 

A glance at almost any eighteenth or nineteenth century engraving of a university in England, Germany or the United States (the three countries in which the Canadian idea of the university has its deepest roots) will reveal the shape of the university as it was and residually remains: the college with one of Matthew Arnold’s "dreaming spires"and, as likely as not, a grassy quadrangle surrounded by the "rooms" of faculty and students. Whether mediaeval, Tudor, neoclassical, or gothic in style, the architecture of such a college reflected its identity as a religious foundation and an intellectual community whose residents attended at least as much to one another as to the realm outside their jealously guarded quadrangle. Consisting of the three professional faculties of Theology, Medicine, and Law, and a fourth faculty, Philosophy, composed of the Arts and Sciences, the early modern university was funded primarily through endowments rather than grants or fees, a situation that allowed – indeed, encouraged – colleges to remain small and self-contained, to function with a minimal administrative hierarchy, and to exercise great autonomy with respect to the subjects that they taught and the students that they admitted. According to Immanuel Kant’s well-known analysis in The Conflict of Faculties (Der Streit der Fakultäten), the animating and most socially valuable feature of the early modern university was the freedom of the Faculty of Philosophy to pursue truth "independent of the government’ s command" and, thus, in a manner that would ultimately benefit the government and society at large (27, 29). In practice, of course, the relative independence of early modern colleges and universities led to the languidness and indifference among faculty and students that elicited expressions of dismay from Edward Gibbon (see 29-31), Robert Southey (see 3: 85), and others, and prompted Adam Smith to call for the reform of Oxford and Cambridge through the introduction of a scheme whereby professors would be paid by the students who attended their lectures (see 2: 284). 

Reforms of the sort envisaged in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations were in place at the University of London and elsewhere in the early nineteenth century, but they were only a small part of the process that led very gradually to the emergence later in the century of the high modern university. When William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones attended Oxford in the eighteen fifties, universities were still, in the latter’s words, primarily "instrument[s]" for the education of "professional m[e]n" (Burne-Jones 1: 71-84). Only in degree would this change for several decades, and, of course, its footprint is still evident on any campus that has a law school, a medical school, or a theology programme aimed at producing ministers for a particular religious denomination. Because universities are in their very nature conservative as well as progressive, the history of post-secondary education is a story, not of abandonment or expulsion, but of incorporation, expansion, and reconfiguration: law, medicine, and theology would not be cast out of the quadrangle but, rather, joined by a proliferation of disciplines and fields from within the Faculty of Philosophy. The second half of the nineteenth century saw vigorous conflicts between traditionalists such as Arnold and John Henry Newman, who argued for the foundational nature of Christian-humanist values in shaping the character of the university curriculum (and, ergo, its products), and progressivists such as T.H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer, who argued that the physical sciences were at least as important a component of a modern education as the classics, but the result was neither a full victory for the forces of progress nor a complete defeat for the forces of tradition; rather, it was a tense truce between the two cultures, a grudging acceptance of competing aims that would eventually lead to the icy insularity chronicled by C.P. Snow in his 1959 Rede lecture "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" and, in the meantime, necessitated a re-thinking not only of what and how subjects would be taught at the post secondary level, but also of the function and form of the modern university. 

If there is one statement that succinctly captures the nature of what emerged from that rethinking, it is surely Adolf von Harnack’s endorsement in 1929 of the concept of the "research university" that, as Jaroslav Pelikan observes, was over a century earlier with establishment in 1810 of the University of Berlin under the leadership of Wilhelm von Humbolt and the rectorship of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (84). "Never must our German universities and institutions of higher learning change their character of being devoted both to instruction and research," declares von Harnack as he propounds the "mutually fructify[ing]" relationship between "research and instruction" as the defining characteristic of "German institutions of higher learning": "[in some countries,] the chief emphasis lies in introducing students to the results of scholarship. But in [German] universities we want to introduce them to scholarship, and to teach them how one arrives at the reality and truth of things and how one can advance the progress of scholarship" (qtd. in Pelikan 84-85). Because the "defining characteristic" of the Humboltian German university was also the defining characteristic of the high Modern university in Europe and North America, its characteristic architectural structure – the classroom block with research facilities and faculty offices – became ubiquitous on both continents as well as elsewhere. Only a few Canadian campuses today (and these are usually religious and or liberal arts schools modelled on the early modern pattern) are without their purpose-built Physics Building, Arts Tower, or Natural Sciences Building. 

One consequence of the existence of these "silos" (for once, the cliché seems more apt than banal) was and is a severe curtailment of the sorts of liberating discussions between Philosophy (the Arts or Humanities) and the other faculties envisaged by Kant – in other words, the gradual emergence and intensification of the wintry isolation identified by Snow. But the compartmentalized high modern university did not take shape solely because of the conception of research-teaching that it embodied. Less isolated from the surrounding society than its originary and still very vital early modern component, it gained its less visible shape – the pyramidal administrative structure that it still exhibits today – by absorbing a combination of the collective and laissez-faire tendencies that, as numerous cultural historians have recognized, constituted the warp and woof of the intellectual world in which its foundational principles gained their superstructure. What happened, in brief, is that, even as nineteenth-century collectivism led to the emergence in universities of a strong social mission, corporate identity, and central administrative bureaucracy, the Romantic individualism and libertarianism of the period caused scholars, departments, faculties, universities, and, ultimately, university systems to insist on their freedom to pursue their own research and teaching agendas. In this way, academic freedom was secured, but within a centralized and fairly rigid administrative system. 

Perhaps best visualized as a vertical version of research-teaching-office building with the chair’s, dean’s, president’s "power office" in the corner, the high modern university is a pyramid characterized by a high degree of self-similarity across the system – that is, the top-down and bottom-up relationship of the central or senior administration to the university as a whole is replicated as the faculty and department levels. Visualizing the university as a series of smaller and smaller pyramids within a large pyramid is not an idle exercise because it helps to clarify the way in which the central or senior administration in its capacity as the university’s principal point of contact with the surrounding society and, above all, with the government came to function as a normative agent of transmission, negotiating and, at least as often, just accepting government financial formulas and dispersing monies downwards through the system according to similar formulas based on such things as Basic Income Units, Weighted Teaching Units, and Enrolment Targets. Closely related to this development and process was and is the centralization (or pyramidization, if there were such a word) of procedures and standards governing entrance requirements, academic programmes, tenure and promotion, and the emergence almost inevitably of at least the appearance of a top-down management model and its corollary, the "them" and "us" mentality that is so amenable to translation into the employer versus employee dynamic of trades unionism.1 

At the present time, the collegial-cum-managerial pattern that developed in the course of the last century through a combination of early and high modern elements continues to serve most Canadian universities quite well. About a decade ago, however, there were signs of shifts both outside and inside the universities that have led to additional modifications in the shape of the institution and new problems to be confronted and solved. One of these shifts was heralded in Ontario by the 1991 Stuart Smith Report, a document that struck at the foundations of the high modern university by proposing to enhance the quality of teaching in Canadian universities by, among other things, severing its connection with research. A staunch resistance to the Report was mounted on many fronts and it gradually wilted into oblivion, but by the middle of the decade other sundering forces were coming to bear on the research-teaching symbiosis in the form of (1) severe cut-backs in government funding to universities; (2) strategically targeted federal and provincial research monies; and (3) increasing pressure on the universities to match such targeted monies with donations from the private sector. In many universities, the effect of these factors has been a reduction in the number of tenured research-teachers and an increase in the number of untenured instructors whose duties do not include research and administration. In larger universities especially, the second and third factors – i.e., the targeting and matching of funds for research – has led to the creation of research centres and institutes whose faculty members are largely or entirely relieved of teaching, an exemption also built into the federal government’s Canada Research Chairs programme. When added to the already existing tendency in nearly all universities to privilege research over teaching in tenure and promotion decisions, these and similar developments have effectively institutionalized a distinction between, on the one hand, undergraduate teaching in the so-called "core" teaching faculties (Arts, Sciences, Social Sciences) and, on the other, graduate teaching and research. In short, the interdependence of "research and instruction" that was the pride of the high modern university is now honoured more and more in the breach than in the observance. The up-to-date version of the classroom-laboratory-office building is as likely as not to contain at least one high-tech superclassroom in which a 3M Fellow ministers to several hundred students while his or her colleagues do the "real" work of research and supervision in much more intimate settings. 

Increasingly, too, those intimate settings are to be found in structures designed and built to house a particular research project or sub-unit of the university. Whether free-standing or annexed to an existing building, such structures are almost invariably emblazoned with the name of the corporate or individual donor whose generosity they reflect. For a variety of reasons, not least the fact that a pre-condition for their existence is usually a contribution from the university to match that of the external donor, edifices with names like the Lagado Centre for Energy Research arouse resentment and even anger in some quarters of the university. (A few years ago, when a British businessman offered Oxford University a large donation for a business school to bear his name some faculty members suggested that the university give him an equivalent amount to start his own business school outside the university.) There seems to be little doubt, however, that dedicated and privately/publicly funded extensions to (or implants in) the university are here to stay and, moreover, that their presence on Canadian campuses is re-shaping the landscape of post-secondary education as surely as did the emergence of the high modern university in the preceding centuries. Perhaps more than any other architectural structure, the late modern university resembles a superblock or megastructure: a massive, centrally managed unit of urban real estate that reflects and embodies a complex combination of public, private, and public/private institutions and entities, and, as a result, has the capacity within certain spatial limits to accommodate an enormous diversity of interests and amenities (see Banham). 

An indication that this is so can be seen in the fact that much of the tension on Canadian university campuses today can be felt in the vicinity of their new buildings and extensions. The negative responses of traditionalists and leftists to the monied interlopers are one source of such tension, but there are others that are as important, though perhaps less visible because more often than not they manifest themselves in senate planning meetings and in meetings between members of senior/central administrations and the directors of new privately/publicly funded research centres. Most frequently at stake, of course, are matters directly or indirectly linked to funding: differential fees (the most public of the issues in contention), fund-raising activities, intellectual property rights, and the commercialization of research. Should the Lagado Centre be able to set its own fees and solicit donations independently? Who owns an idea and who should benefit from its development? These and questions like them arose in the high modern university, but in the later modern university they have been exacerbated not only by the presence of competing but overlapping centres within the university, but also by the pervasive presence in the surrounding culture of the entrepreneurial ethos and its concomitant emphasis on research, innovation, and development as the keys to prosperity and social well-being. "‘We are not necessarily incompatible’," said Larry Tapp, the departing dean of the Ivey School of Business, in May 2003 of his institution’s relationship with the University of Western Ontario: "‘[Ivey] need[s] flexibility to adapt and change and move quickly as the market changes, and that is not something the universities traditionally do ... [We have] a healthy tension and that’s not necessarily bad’" ("Departing Ivey Dean" B6). 

One hypothetical example in the area of intellectual property rights will illustrate the complexities of the situation. According to the Lockean principle to which current property law is ultimately traceable, rights in "[w]hatsoever" accrue to a person when he or she "mix[es] ... Labour with [it]" and, by so doing, "removes [it] out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in" (134). Or, as David Hume put it half a century later: "[w]here a man bestows labor and industry upon any object which before belonged to nobody ... the alteration which he produces causes a relation between him and the object, and naturally engages us to annex it to him by the new relationship of property" (125-26n). Under many circumstances (including those of a settler colony) rights in property thus conceived can be contentious, and this is certainly the case in a university setting, where the "[w]hatsoever" or "object" with which a researcher’s labour is mixed does not occur merely in "the State that Nature hath provided" but in a state wholly or partly provided by the university and, more likely than not, investigated with the assistance of funds from the university and/or a government granting agency and/or the private sector. Suppose for a moment that Professor Blimber, who has been seconded from the university proper to the Lagado Centre and holds grants from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Acme Foundation, discovers a method whereby sunbeams can be extracted from cucumbers, stored in hermetically sealed vials, and released to warm the air and lift the spirits during inclement weather. Suppose also that Professor Blimber lands a contract of $1,000,000 to develop a workable system of Cucumber Energy Storage (CES) for a consortium consisting of two Anglo-American private sector companies and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. To whom do the rights in and earnings from Professor Blimber’s discovery and invention accrue? To Professor Blimber? To the University that employs him? To the Lagado Centre that houses his lab and purchases his cucumbers? To NSERC and the Acme Foundation? To a proportional combination of some or all of these interested parties? If so, which parties and in what proportions? Such are the issues that face faculty members and administrators in parts of the late modern university. 

That several of the issues to which Canadian universities are now responding are dismaying to some faculty members and exciting to others is only to be expected, but extreme reactions to the changes that are occurring can perhaps be avoided by their contextualization in a history of change that at every stage provoked a similar spectrum of reactions. No university, let alone "the university," was ever a stone keep capable or even entirely desirous of resisting the incursions of the new; on the contrary, they were and are structures whose combination of conservatism and progressivism has shown itself to be remarkably capable of adapting to new pressures from without as well as from within by the process of absorption and persistence that made the early modern university part of the high modern one and will make both part of the university that has already begun to take shape. Whether in the realm of differential fees or intellectual property, fund-raising or the commercialization of research, universities are by their very natures capacious enough to accommodate all "thought styles" (Douglas xii) and all "political cultures" (Schwarz and Thompson 61), be they hierarchical, individualist, communitarian, or fatalistic. And being so, they can and must recognize that their various components function according to differing cultural models whose underlying assumptions about everything from hiring procedures, merit allocation, and administrative decision-making to governance structures and educational, economic, and social practices, contexts, and goals are always in tension and frequently in conflict. If today’s universities are not able to recognize and accommodate their own manifest intellectual and cultural diversity, then they will fail present and future generations as surely as the early modern university failed Gibbon, Smith, Southey, Morris, and Burne-Jones, and the structures that facilitate ideation, discovery, creativity, and innovation will be built elsewhere, or not at all.




  1. For a discussion of recent American evidences of this dialectic, see Benjamin Johnson et al, Steal This University: the Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement, passim. [back]


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