The Best Idea of the University

October 01, 2012

In the late 16th century, Bartolomeo Cesi painted a fresco of courtiers kneeling and gesturing before their king. It hangs today at the end of a long, rectangular room that once served as a nunnery's dining hall and is now among a complex of graceful buildings and courtyards housing the department of archaeology of the University of Bologna, considered by many to be the oldest university in the Western world.

Cesi's life-size figures served as a backdrop in September to a conference of the Magna Charta Observatory, an organization founded to uphold the values of academic freedom embodied in the Magna Charta Universitatum, which was signed by 388 European-university rectors in Bologna, in 1988, on the 900th anniversary of the university's creation.

The Magna Charta of the European Universities declares that "the university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies," whose "research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power." It also says that "teaching and research in universities must be inseparable," and that freedom in both is "the fundamental principle of university life."

Eleven years later, in 1999, the city was the site of a second major higher-education declaration: the Bologna Process, an international compact that seeks to standardize degree cycles and credit-granting as part of the larger project of European integration.

The first document asserted the fundamental autonomy of the university from the concerns of politics. The second subjected it to a grand political project. For a long September day, learned scholars and officials mulled over the tensions and contradictions between the two.

It's hard to imagine a better setting than Bologna. The newly opened Museum of the History of Bologna is in a grand palazzo built by a family that made its fortune changing money—specifically, the various currencies brought by students who arrived at the university from the far reaches of the peninsula and beyond. Financial exploitation of college students is an older game than I realized. Future historians may gather in the Palazzo Sallie Mae.

The museum's master narrative is one in which, through sacks, plagues, papal feuds, and world wars, Bologna and its university live on. The city's famed medieval towers rose, leaned, and mostly fell. Napoleon and other conquerors came and went. The location of the university itself moved through the centuries, from where the first informal groups of students from different nations hired scholars for teaching, to today's graffiti-marked campus near the city center, a little worn and grimy in the good way that bespeaks an abundance of youthful carelessness, defiance, and vitality.

In the interim—that is, from 1563 to 1803—the university was housed in the Archiginnasio Palace, built after the Council of Trent to unite disparate schools of law, mathematics, physics, and medicine in a single building of classic proportions. Surgeons taught and practiced in a wood-paneled operating theater containing two marvelously wrought carvings of skinless anatomical men. The adjoining chapel featured religious-themed frescoes by Cesi until they were all but obliterated by Allied bombers, in January 1944, part of a campaign that dropped tons of ordnance on Bologna in an attempt to crack the city's transportation hub. Today the palace's stone corridors are crowded with plaques and tributes to professors from centuries past, as well as a new exhibition on Charles Dickens, who said of Bologna, "There is a grave and learned air about the city, and pleasant gloom upon it."

Bologna is a monument to the enduring university idea, a notion whose simplicity and logic—students and scholars, together, free—has stood every test of time, just as the perfect proportions and tonal harmony of a Renaissance fresco remain the standard of beauty five centuries after their creation. All of the people at the conference seemed to feel this in their bones. This is commonplace. As much as professors and administrators like to complain about their institutions, they believe in them, or at least the best idea of them, profoundly.

And yet the notion of higher education independent of all political authority and economic power seems more than a little absurd. The humanistic and aesthetic ideas advanced by Petrarch, Dante, and other Bologna alumni have been embraced by societies governing more people than the ancient scholars could have imagined. (Indeed, the university now claims all college graduates as descendants, having adopted the motto Alma mater studiorum—Nourishing mother of education.) Higher education is no longer confined to, or needed by, only small groups of students and scholars working in cloisters, independent of the world.

In other words, the endurance and the triumph of higher education have created an existential challenge for the university idea itself. How can higher education be for everyone, or at least most people, and keep the core of what it has always been? Students can't be left to the mercies of money-changers anymore. Mass higher education means public subsidy and thus politics, bureaucracy, regulation, and other threats to the classic autonomous university design.

Some conference goers saw this contradiction as less dire than it seems. As the keynote speaker put it, economic growth requires creativity, which requires freedom, which requires places built with both qualities in mind: universities.

Perhaps. I'm wary of arguments that cleverly reframe problems away. In the American context, institutional autonomy often seems like an excuse for taking large amounts of public money with little accountability in exchange. Teaching and research seem obviously separable for the majority of today's university courses, particularly at the undergraduate level. Academic freedom gives voice to the brave but also comfort to the mediocre. The world of mass higher education is different, unavoidably, and maybe universities must be, too.

And yet whenever I visit university campuses, particularly those that have settled into the landscape and seen communities grow up around them, I'm always struck by how perfect and slightly miraculous they seem, oases of hope and civilization in the deserts of a too-often cruel and vulgar world. A millennium of history needs to be respected, as must an idea that has meant so much for so long.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.