The University and a Civil Society

Dr. Judith Rodin's Address as Visiting Chubb Fellow at Yale University, delivered October 12, 1999

Like many in the room today, I have spent my entire adult life at universities, as a student, as a faculty member, as an administrator, as a president. That may not qualify me for a number of things I would like to do--piloting the space shuttle, for example--but it has given me a number of thoughts and a broad perspective on these institutions we love so well and on their roles and responsibilities in society.

I'd like to share some of those thoughts with you today.

A couple of weeks ago The Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial addressing the controversy over Australian ethicist Peter Singer, newly appointed to the Princeton faculty. The first line of the editorial was the question: "What's the point of a university?" Supporting Singer's appointment, the editorial proceeded to ask, rhetorically, "Is it only to cram a society's settled opinions into the minds of young adults, to prepare them to ease smoothly into the workplace once they've snagged a diploma? "Or is it also to spur those minds to become more agile and powerful, capable of challenging and improving upon the received wisdom, able to stretch the boundaries of theory and research?"

We would all agree, I am sure, that the latter goal is paramount. "Spurring minds to become more agile and powerful" sounds like the business we want to be in. And, judging by contemporary results, we're doing it well in many ways.

At places like Yale and Penn, undergraduate applications continue to skyrocket, research advances garner headlines and greater funding, our graduates have multiple career opportunities, endowments grow to levels we never dreamt of, and other markings of success proliferate. But have we challenged ourselves enough in answering the question--what is a university--a question first posed by Cardinal Newman in his polemic on the idea of a university?

In a recently published book, Letters from Robben Island, Ahmed Karthrada, who was an apartheid political prisoner with Nelson Mandela, wrote during his ordeal to a friend, "Tell my family I'm not in prison, but in a university." Was this hyperbole or just a way to calm his parents? I think not. After all what is a university at its best but people learning from one another, communicating, thinking, even if they are breaking apart rock on a chain gang. And just as a prison can be a university, so too can a university be a prison. A prison whose bars are orthodoxy, indifference, or disrespect for the civic polity.

And while universities currently share in the nation's prosperity, the world is still a dangerous place. Times change, and our need to prepare our students for a mercurial society and an unpredictable future is as great as it ever was--perhaps even greater.

Just consider the following:

  • While we enjoy peacetime, millions around the globe are locked in conflict: Kosovo, East Timor, Chechnya, Colombia, the list goes on. And the electronic technologies that let us day-trade from home can put those conflicts on our computer screens, if we choose to view them. While NATO was bombing Serbia, American school children were exchanging e-mails in real time with kids in Belgrade.
  • Our own domestic tranquility is regularly shattered by violent eruptions, Columbine being the most notorious of many examples. Two months ago in a suburban supermarket parking lot outside Philadelphia, a mother of young children was shot and killed at random in the middle of the day as she loaded groceries into her station wagon. Her assailant, a complete stranger, was described in too-familiar terms as a "disturbed loner."
  • According to Time Magazine, the number of Americans entering treatment centers for heroin addiction surged 29% between 1992 and 1997. "I'm seeking the widest possible range of human experience," a recent Ivy League graduate told the magazine, by way of explanation.

In the face of such events--with all their attendant risks--I no longer believe, as perhaps I once did, that it is enough for us to expand the intellect and talents of our students. It is not enough to provide a great education. That is still central and important to our mission--but it is not nearly enough.

We cannot hope--as individuals or as a society--to cope with the kinds of complex threats and challenges I have just described, if we silo our knowledge, or our students, inside carefully constructed and vigorously defended disciplinary walls. Our problems are too complex and there are too many other things--about the world and about themselves--that our students need to learn--and that we need to learn from them.

It is not enough for us to produce brilliant, imaginative doctors, lawyers, scholars and scientists who will press the envelopes of their disciplines or professions if we do not also engage them in the larger issues of our day, in the ferment of our times and our society.

These days there is much talk that cynicism is sweeping over the American spirit, that people are losing faith in institutions, that they are coming to believe that action and involvement are futile. Just look at politics. Why would anyone want to enter that mean-spirited and dispirited arena? Look at the media. Why would anyone want to join a profession that seems to wish to hasten our destruction just so it can report on it?

I have heard the cynics. And I have heard the deafening silence of the indifferent. But that is not all I have heard across the nation's campuses. I have heard students speak with compassion about the plight of kids in urban ghettos, as well as Bosnia and Somalia. I have watched them do something in response. I have heard faculty explain their research with passion and their constant search for new ways to make teaching a more magical experience. I have heard the loyal dedication of staff members to both the ideals of education and the care of "their" students and faculty. I have heard and been moved by neighbors reaching out for partnerships in our communities.

Building on these impulses, we can be the exemplars of a new kind of civic engagement. The kind of civic engagement I have in mind is neither easy nor accidental. It is strategic, comprehensive, intense, and purposeful. At its best, it weaves itself in and through every aspect of campus life, from medical research and particle physics to classical studies, student volunteerism, and economic development.

It must become not a second thought, not an afterthought, but a matter of fore-thought and persistent commitment. Though the culture of higher education is notoriously resistant to change, this kind of civic engagement can--and must--become part of the ethos of higher education in the 21st century. Active citizenship is an old idea but today it must contend with new challenges.

Here are some examples of what I have in mind for a university's role.

The first involves the continuing development of academic "service-learning" courses that find synergy in the combination of scholarship and service. Such courses feature a direct and conscious link between the application and social value of knowledge and the academic core of the University. These are not second-rate, watered-down, "applied" field sessions. They are not academic credit for what should properly be volunteer activities. When well-conceived and implemented, they are high-order creations of intellectual sophistication and a precious public spirit.

At Penn we have developed "service learning" courses that go well beyond the alleviation of individual misery--beyond feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, or tutoring the "slow learner"--to bring about structural, enduring community improvements such as effective public schools, neighborhood economic development, and vital community organizations.

These academic programs find synergy in the combination of scholarship and service, in their application of theories in practice. The interaction of theory and practice is a part of Penn's "genetic material" from our founder, the great statesman and scientist, Benjamin Franklin. In a typical Penn program, a student performs service as part of an internship that is coordinated with scholarly research--to the mutual benefit of research and service.

This point is well-illustrated by the work of Robert Giegengack, a geologist, chair of our department of Earth and Environmental Science, and a past director of Penn's Institute for Environmental Studies. His class in Environmental Studies covers basic research in environmental toxins. Then members of the class help public school students and their families, most living below the poverty line, to identify sources of lead in and around their homes.

The undergraduates work with students from a nearby middle school to test soil samples from their yards, and dust and paint samples from their homes, and assist in mapping the risk of lead exposure in the neighborhood. In addition, the middle school students work with the undergraduates to design materials that are disseminated to parents and neighbors warning them of the dangers of lead exposure and how to decrease the chances of lead ingestion by the group most at risk of its ill effects, pre-school toddlers.

As a short-term program of outreach and information dissemination, the program has been a dramatic success. School children are now far more knowledgeable about the problem of lead exposure in their homes and neighborhoods, and middle schools now have a unit of study installed in their curriculum that focuses on the lead problem.

And the educational benefits to our undergraduates are enormous. Moreover, the findings of the program are enabling us to better understand the epidemiology of lead exposure in Philadelphia and other cities and may well help other schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere to adopt the program with similar success.

There are many other examples. What is important is that all these courses connect the campus and the world outside in transformative ways.

A second critical form of civic engagement is the commitment that universities, as citizens themselves, make to the quality of life in their neighboring communities. Universities shoulder extensive civic duties, and the manner in which they do so, once again, is an example to their students and to other institutions. The willing participation of universities and their neighbors in the conversations of democracy--which are rarely smooth and rarely easy--is the only way to gain the long-term benefits of mutual trust and mutual understanding.

At Yale, at Penn and at universities across the country--particularly urban universities--progress has been made in this arena. But we must understand that this progress requires regular nourishment. Real progress takes a different mindset, asking not what we do to the community, or even for the community, but rather what we do with the community. The conversations must never stop. I am convinced that sustained community partnerships will help define successful universities in the 21st century, and such partnerships will fail in the absence of a continuous civic dialogue.

In West Philadelphia today, Penn, the public school district, and the teachers' union have formed a unique partnership to build a new university-assisted preK-8 neighborhood school. It will feature small classes and learning communities, active professional development for teachers, a cutting-edge curriculum and other important innovations. It is not a Penn lab school. It is not a charter school. It is a neighborhood public school intended to bolster efforts to enhance the West Philadelphia community. We also intend to build a magnet science and technology public high school near the Penn campus.

In a different type of intervention, we are requiring that all our University construction projects create substantial access for women and minorities and we are investing in small businesses that create opportunity for welfare to work recipients and other members of our local community. Indeed, our Wharton entrepreneurship program is helping to develop their business plans. We are working to build community capacity and infrastructure, and we have become a forceful catalyst for change.

Derek Bok recently spoke of the opportunity--and the need--for another community-building role for universities, that is to act as credible information clearinghouses in this age of information overload. He believes--and I agree--that there is an important role for universities to play in helping to sort out what we know and what we don't know so that people can make sense of all the data. By helping to provide clear information, in certain cases, we may help to explode negative popular myths that breed unfounded cynicism, and we help to provide good data to inform public policy debates.

For example, in its well-known national survey in 1996, The Washington Post found that millions of Americans believe the country's environmental problems have worsened in recent decades, although in fact air and water quality actually have improved. The same survey polled residents of Levittown, Pennsylvania and revealed that their leading source of anxiety was fear of violent crime, fueled by a perception that such crime had significantly increased. The truth, on the other hand, is that violent crime in Levittown has actually decreased by 20 percent over the past generation.

People who believe things are worse than they are make bad decisions. University students who believe most of their peers binge drink--even though the truth is most do not--are much more likely to behave self-destructively themselves.

So, I think Derek Bok is right. Universities could do more to interpret and publicize the fruits of their research to the general public--to clarify what is true and what is false--and greatly benefit public policy and the common good.

But in the end, the most important form of civic engagement on the part of universities may be their own evolution as strong and lively "discourse communities," forged from the crucible of intense engagement by their members over issues of personal and public moment.

As I see things, we can only create real, solid community by debating--even arguing--with each other over important matters, not by ignoring or suppressing them, especially when we disagree.

Led by this conviction three years ago, I convened the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture, and Community--a group of 46 scholars, political leaders, and shapers of public opinion, including your own David Bromwich--to consider ways to foster a more robust and reasoned public discourse.

The Commission has thought a lot about the fragmentation of communities over issues of race, class, ideology, ethnicity, and special interests, and a current culture of intolerance that too often dominates our public discourse.

As we discussed the problems of incivility, intolerance, and community fragmentation, we quickly came to a consensus that the surface manifestations of incivility are not a new phenomenon in American history, though they are certainly amplified by the advent of mass market entertainment, mass media, and instant, global communications.

They are, in fact, probably less worrisome than the absence of a richer, more engaged, more honest, public dialogue. In the past, such an energetic discussion surrounded and contextualized the same kinds of incivility and intolerance that now seem so dramatic and overwhelming.

So, in contrast to some of the other national groups concerned with civility and civic renewal, we have articulated our broadest objective as one of creating "a robust and diverse public culture in which reasoned and reasonable discourse can flourish"--not condemning incivility or moralizing about it.

In fact, we believe that frank, robust--at times, even, uncivil--conversations about issues that really matter to people, are an essential step in the formation of the kinds of inclusive communities that we all desire. For example, think about the often uncivil and certainly robustly engaged conversations the Founders had over independence, slavery, federalism, taxes, and other issues, through which they brought thirteen colonies together to form a single nation.

As part of its work, the Commission has examined a range of communities that create dialogue, engagement, and a sense of shared consequences across serious group boundaries.

Importantly, such communities seem to emerge less often from a controlled, "civil" conversation and more often from the raw, ragged interactions required when people are thrown together with unavoidable common tasks, "with work to do together," to use historian Tom Bender's phrase.

Compare the trite dialogue of President Clinton's national conversation on race--where participants worked toward no outcome--with the extraordinary manner of discourse in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission--where all shared in a common, crucial task.

Such conversations can be--must be--precursors for inclusive, sustainable communities. Such formative conversations are often difficult. They require more than just "rational argument" or "reasonable behavior," and too much "civility" and "politeness" can be positively destructive.

Rather, good communal conversation involves integrating personal narratives, life experiences, strong emotions, and empathetic listening, with the more traditional norms of rational argument, reasoned debate, and rules of evidence. It is only by risking both our minds--and our hearts--that we can break down the barriers that divide us and form the kinds of communities we so desperately need.

What are the civic tasks in which university communities must engage if they are to be real communities? We must form communities of serious conversation around the most compelling issues of the day--issues like affirmative action, immigration, and health care. Where is the discussion of hot-button, compelling social issues more likely to bear fruits than on our campuses? In doing so, we will offer our students valid experiences of active, engaged public discourse and civic involvement that may serve as life-long prototypes.

When discussions grow hot and ill-tempered, we will show that heat and anger can be handled. We may also show we cannot legislate away bad behavior and incivility with codes, policies, and regulations. I would like to spend another moment on this.

Campus speech codes and similar regulations were not able to reduce the level of intolerance or incivility, as we found so painfully at Penn, and they certainly will not moderate the ideological polarizations of our politics. I abolished the speech code at Penn because I believe that such measures fundamentally send the wrong message, a message that reinforces the sense of powerless individuals and of monolithic institutions, of cultural orthodoxy and paternalistic authority, and of ideological conformity and political correctness.

We must learn to use the freedom of ideas and expression to educate rather than to wound. The University administration's job, in my opinion, is to support such dialogue and debate, not to cut it off; to create an environment in which we can educate each other, not one in which doctrine or orthodoxy are legislated from on high.

Must I provide "moral leadership" to the Penn community? Absolutely. But moral leadership requires suasion not censorship, conscience not coercion. Most of all, it requires insisting that we--all of us--talk about what troubles us. Words are the life-blood of a university. For all their limitations, even if they sometimes drive us apart, words are what bind us together in the academy.

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words. He believed that we must use them to talk about the difficult and painful issues that divide us, about race and about religion, about politics and about power, about gender and about identity.

Free and robust expression or debate is essential to an academic community. Tempting as the mantle of moral leadership may be, it is too often a comfortable excuse for imposing quietude and conformity, where raucous debate and energetic engagement should flourish. And I think we academic leaders--and many of our constituencies--too often feel this temptation and fall prey to it. But we must not. And the students cannot retreat to their computers, their courses, their careers. We all have to engage.

If we can learn this lesson and put it into practice, then we can create together a model community at our universities in which individual and group differences form a mosaic that shows the beauty of our differences, not a melting pot that tries to mask them in a homogenous mix. We are a community of different identities, and we must create a context in which a true diversity of views and opinions, persons and groups, politics and perspectives, is nurtured, valued, and shared. We must openly celebrate our differentness as well as our similarities, and engage one another across all the boundaries of race, ethnicity, nationality, age, religion, gender and sexual orientation, politics and expression.

But we must raise the level of the discourse and each take more responsibility for all the members of our community.

Basic academic values that we already hold, values like respecting complexity, posing substantive rather than rhetorical questions when framing a discussion, welcoming real input and participation, holding open the possibility that we may be in error, and, of course, refraining from ad hominem arguments--these are not only guidelines for good public discourse, but they create in modern universities a readily accessible model for workable communities. By modeling this kind of public discourse and behavior in our universities, I think we will have taken an important step toward fulfilling our leadership responsibilities.

College should be a transformative experience. And it should come as no surprise that, in transforming our students, universities transform the faculty as well, and in transforming our students and ourselves, we surely have the opportunity to experiment with alternative approaches, to test and to tinker, to model transformative experiences for the larger democratic society.

We have the capacity to change people's expectations of others and of themselves, and I believe fervently that by changing expectations we can set in motion a dynamic that has the potential to begin to influence our society.

If Mandela and his fellow prisoners in their university of the mind can conceive of new forms of democracy while breaking rocks, imagine what we--in our real universities--have the potential to create.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 12, November 16, 1999