There is an old story, much loved by academics, that in an address to the Columbia University faculty in 1948 Dwight Eisenhower, then President of the university, prefaced his remarks with the phrase: “Now, you employees of Columbia University . . .”

A member of the faculty interjected to correct Eisenhower—“Mr. President,” he said, “We are Columbia University.”

(In another version of the story it was Isidore Isaac Rabi, a Columbia physicist and 1944 Nobel Laureate who later became Eisenhower’s Science Advisor, who made this remark in a slightly different context.)

What does it mean to say this, that the faculty of a university are the university, and therefore not employees of it?

John Henry Newman suggested an answer to this question in The Idea of a University:

If I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot. . . . Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.

The Latin designation Newman appeals to derives from the earliest days of the modern university, whose source is in the Middle Ages: the historian Hastings Randall writes in The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages that the medieval university “was originally a scholastic Guild, whether of Masters or Students”:

Such Guilds sprang into existence, like other Guilds, without any express authorisation of King, Pope, Prince, or Prelate. They were spontaneous products of the instinct of association which swept like a great wave over the towns of Europe in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

On this understanding, the institutional structure of the modern university, and its oversight by administrators, politicians, and Boards of Trustees, are inessential to what it is. They are mere trappings around its fundamental core, the guild of scholars dedicated to the activity of universal learning.

Yet this idea of a university is under attack, and may have been an anachronism even when Newman appealed to it in 1852. Consider the controversy presently swirling around Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a Catholic liberal arts college whose president, the MBA-possessing former private equity executive Simon Newman, earlier this week fired two faculty members, one of them tenured, for what was described in their letters of termination as a lack of “loyalty” to the institution. In this case “loyalty,” it seems, required keeping quiet about Newman’s plan to dismiss twenty to twenty-five freshmen students—about 5 percent of a typical entering class at the Mount—in order to boost the university’s retention statistics, which play a large role in how colleges are ranked. The dismissed students, identified within the first few weeks of the semester as especially likely to fail or drop out, would be sent home with tuition refunded; meanwhile, the university would not have to count them against its count of incoming freshmen in the statistics reported to the federal government.

If this sounds cruel, it’s because it obviously is. If it sounds inhumane—Newman addressed that matter with a faculty member who raised this objection, telling him that “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies . . . put a Glock to their heads.” Man or woman as Imago Dei, indeed.

Thankfully, the plan to dismiss at-risk students was halted, but it’s apparently for their role in stopping and then helping to publicize the president’s failed efforts and the callous attitude toward student welfare that is behind them, that Newman removed two administrators, former Provost David Rehm and Dean of Liberal Arts Joshua Hochschild, from their positions and then fired the faculty members, philosopher Thane Naberhaus and Pre-Law director Ed Egan, for their absence of “loyalty.” (Egan was also the faculty advisor to the student newspaper that first broke the embarrassing story, including publishing the now-legendary “drown the bunnies” quote. The implications here are truly chilling.) The university’s Board of Trustees, which includes several bishops (among them William Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore, the Mount’s home diocese), has been mostly silent since the firings, but when coverage of the “bunnies” incident broke they quickly issued a statement expressing “a unanimous resolution of full confidence in President Newman” and blaming the negative press on the efforts of a group of faculty and alumni working in secret to undermine him. Less than a month later, two of those faculty had lost their jobs.

What is a university, that faculty are not employees who can be fired in this way? What is a university, that students are not customers who can be dismissed when serving them is judged bad for the bottom line? What is a university, that administrators aren’t bosses to whom faculty and students have to answer? What is a university, that faculty—and their students—are the university, and not just those who work, and pay tuition, on its behalf?

Newman gave one answer, rooted in the noble history that gave the very idea of a university its content. Here is another, meant as complementary to his and so not at all opposed.

Unlike a factory, farm, or typical white-collar business, the work of a university is not in any kind of production—of discoveries, degrees, or books and articles. That a university typically does produce these things is incidental to its true work, which is the pursuit and attainment of truth, goodness, and beauty through intellectual exchange and the expressive power of art. It is in the life and labor of faculty and students that these things are pursued and attained. This life is a useless life: if adherence to it sometimes leads us to wealth or power, that is only because wealth and power sometimes come to those who are good and know the truth. But still this life is valuable not because of this eventuality, but because truth, beauty, and goodness themselves are valuable—we desire these things simply for what they are, not because of what they do for us, or we with them.

If this is what a university is, then it makes some sense to say that the faculty and students are it, are not just those who work at and attend it. Unlike a business in which employees exist to make profits for bosses and shareholders, and customers contribute money or goods in exchange for what they produce, in a university the administration is there to facilitate the communal activity of the faculty and students. Faculty and students can fail in their roles, but these failures and successes are determined in relation to the measures of beauty, goodness, and truth, not the profit motive or the duty of loyalty to any higher-ups. Thus donors and trustees do not “own” the university, nor do administrators “run” it, any more than the blessing of King, Pope, Prince, or Prelate was the measure of the communal activity of the scholastic guilds in medieval Paris or Bologna.

If this is what a university is, then we see why the governance of a university must be shared governance; why the dismissal of faculty, which of course will be demanded in any number of cases, should respect due process and rest on consultation with the dismissed professor’s colleagues; why students, once accepted to the university, should not be dismissed unless they are demonstrably failing to contribute to the activities that define it.

If this is what a university is, then we see why the loyalty owed by faculty is a loyalty to their students, and to the things they and their students seek together to attain. It is thus a loyalty to the university that they are rather than one defined by the policies of those above them.

If this is what a university is, then Simon Newman’s Mount St. Mary’s is well on its way to being a university only in name.

John Schwenkler is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He taught at Mount Saint Mary’s from 2010-2013.

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