What is a university?

The answer may enrage you.


Having posted over a hundred entries to this blog on university affairs, I may seem foolish asking a question like “what is a university?” Shouldn’t I know? Isn’t it obvious? Does it really matter?

As some philosopher said regarding time, I know what a university is — so long as nobody asks me, so I was curious as to what my own definition would look like if I tried to spell it out. The answer is not obvious, though, because a university has not always meant the same thing over the centuries, and it does not necessarily mean the same thing to everyone now. And it matters because very often the arguments we have about universities turn on our assumptions about what universities are and what they ought to be. Recent debates over certain religious universities in Canada, provide one obvious example. What follows then is my initial, and admittedly provisional attempt to define what we ought to consider a university in this country. I hope it provides readers with some food for thought and some opportunity for debate.

1. A university has two principal functions: providing instruction on matters of intellectual importance and conducting research on those same matters.

2. These two functions, to the extent reasonably possible, should support one another. University teaching, therefore, is distinguished from other modes of education not only by seeking the highest levels of sophistication, but also by deriving its vitality from the atmosphere of on-going discovery fostered at the institution. For this reason, most, if not all courses at a university should be taught by faculty who are active researchers in the disciplines in which they teach. Conversely, research ought not to be done in isolation from teaching. Researchers should be open to allowing issues that arise in teaching to suggest new research questions and, where feasible, students, both undergraduate and graduate, should be given opportunities to participate in research.

3. Because strong intellectual work can only be done in an atmosphere where scholars feel free to take risks, challenge conventions, and change their minds, universities must foster an environment that prizes intellectual freedom. Except in cases of illegal conduct, violence, or flagrant abuse of the trust placed in faculty members, universities should never seek to sway, silence, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise influence faculty members to take, renounce, or be silent on any particular position, nor to control or monitor controversial actions. Indeed, universities should take all legal action necessary to defend the academic integrity and freedom of the scholars associated with it. Academic freedom is a right of individual scholars, not of universities themselves or their administrations. Therefore, no university should seek to impinge on the academic freedom of a scholar by claiming it has an institutional freedom to do so.

4. Though university education should provide the kind of intellectual enrichment that would serve any graduate well in the working world, university education should never be construed solely or even primarily as a path to employment. Even in disciplines with obvious professional connections such as education or law, the university should first aim to teach the history, theoretical underpinnings, crucial knowledge, and critical skills necessary to build a profound understanding of the discipline. A university law program, for example, should aim primarily to produce graduates with a profound understanding of law, rather than lawyers, per se.

5. A university has one additional secondary function: to serve as a cultural touchstone in its community to encourage all members of the public to participate in the life of the mind. Universities should, within reasonable limits and without needlessly detracting from its primary missions, sponsor and host artistic performances and displays, public talks, open debates, and other events that excite interest in intellectual pursuits, broadly construed.

This to me seems like a good starting point for a real, meaningful debate on what a university should be. Some readers might object and say that I have simply described Canadian universities as they are. To the extent that that is true, we should consider ourselves lucky, and seek to conserve and develop what we already have. But as the case of Trinity Western and Redeemer have demonstrated, not all institutions that consider themselves universities would sign on to all five of my criteria — particularly the part about academic freedom. Quest University, the new private institution in BC, would certainly not qualify because it does not expect its profs to be researchers, for example. And it’s not just those universities: I think you would be hard-pressed to find many university administrators or any politicians who would endorse number 4.

In any case, what we mean by the term “university” is a debate that we have to continue to have in this country. Have at it.  


What is a university?

  1. I have no idea why these 5 points would enrage anyone. Makes sense to me.

  2. Well, there are some universities that do not engage heavily, if at all, in research. So people teaching or taking classes at those universities might take exception to the “research” criteria.

  3. While Mr. Pettigrew has made a reasonable first attempt at the definition of a modern university, he has failed journalism 101 by writing about things he has not researched. Quest University faculty most certainly do research of the highest order. Furthermore, Quest satisfies his criterion number 2 far better than most universities (e.g., a recent math class discovered an error in a 200-year-old proof in a student-led discussion, and the result will appear in this faculty members upcoming book.). Indeed, at most universities, criterion number 2 is not even approached. The reward system is so heavily skewed toward research that it even infects the language — we talk about teaching “loads” and research “opportunities” but never the reverse. At Quest, we achieve a far healthier balance. Furthermore, we eschew departmental silos of knowledge in favor of an academic environment that fosters the interdisciplinary intellectual approach to knowledge that should define a univers-sity.

    • Dr Helfand may, in fact, be quite correct in pointing out that Quest’s faculty may, in fact, be fine researchers. But when I said that Quest does not expect its faculty to conduct research, I meant that it is not required of its faculty as it is at most universities. I know this because I asked about it specifically when I was asked if I was interested in applying for Helfand’s job.

      The right balance between teaching and research is, of course, an important issue that bears further discussion.

  4. Having all courses taught by researchers from the university is exciting. Being in my third year I however have to disagree with them teaching all courses. Many researchers lack the training and social skills to deal with first and second year courses which are filled with many students that do not take their studies seriously. Researchers most generally lack the ability to transfer their knowledge and passion to students. Further researchers are generally tenured and see teaching as a necessary evil to getting their funding. Leading directly to why many students prefer nontenured or non research professors.

    For upper year courses in third and fourth year I see great worth in learning from poorly communicated researchers. I don’t see the value in researchers teaching lower level classes, that they don’t want to teach.

  5. @Andrew: There are very few non-researcher professors. It’s a pre-requisite of nearly all universities to have a PhD. The PhD does not train you to be a teacher, it trains you to do research.
    Researchers are NOT generally tenured. They are the tenure-track, the adjunct, and the lecturers. They are even the TAs that teach you.
    Seriously, you’re just perpetuating the myth that there are “teachers” at universities. At most universities, there are only researchers (who teach) and staff.
    Most tenure-track contracts have a break-down like 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. I’ve never, ever, heard of a tenure-track contract at a Canadian University that did not contain research.

  6. Just curious…where is the source for this definition of a university…is it the author’s original opinion?

    • CL, while I cannot claim to have invented notions like research and teaching, or, indeed, university, the particular formulation here is my own.

  7. I have to say, at the U of A, I had one “teacher” in a third year course who did not hold a PhD, nor did this individual even hold a Masters degree! This person was a Masters student in a certain department.

    When it came to certain topics covered in the course, I knew more than this so-called “teacher”! The notes this person provided were rife with errors and typos, and I felt like I was truly wasting my tuition on that course.

    I think that this type of thing should be avoided at universities. It is truly an embarrassment to be “taught” by someone who has less knowledge of the subject matter they are teaching than some of the students!

  8. I appreciate your thoughtful understanding of a university. I would like to underscore one of your points and contest a second. I share your emphasis on the university engaging in foundational education rather than training. I am concerned that the general public, and more worryingly, politicians, do not share your view that university education is primarily for “intellectual enrichment” as opposed to “a path to employment.” The latter view gives rise to the same short-term thinking in programming and program funding as we have seen in the corporate sector’s decision-making. We have begun to see the results of this decision-making in corporate enterprises such as Enron, and the American financial companies. Education has longer term impacts and so we won’t see impact for a generation or two of a university system shifting from “a profound understanding of law” to training lawyers.

    I would like to contest the implication that intellectual freedom is impinged when an institution makes its worldview perspective overt. I actually appreciate this approach as opposed to the more common approach of universities to place covert expectations on faculty and students. As an example, I recently compared the reading list of two courses addressing the same topic in the same faculty department at two public institutions and found no common authors listed. The topic area is narrow but divided into two camps and these two institutional departments held to opposing camps. As I explored the department faculty member backgrounds it was apparent that there were no dissenting voices within the respective institutions. This seems to imply that intellectual freedom was not at the individual faculty member level, rather the boundaries of intellectual freedom were determined by the faculty selection committee. So, I would contend that this type of covert censor is far more insidious than a “religious university” (not sure a university can be religious) overtly stating its general orientation and inviting scholars to explore their discipline from that orientation.

  9. There are many ways to slice an apple.

    Functionally speaking, a university is a business that sells courses to students, and does so at a profit. That drives much of what takes place at a university – from selling, to collection, to delivering courses, diplomas, and all the staffing and support staff and infrastructure required to do so.

    Yes, there is often subsidy involved and that inlcudes government funding, alumni affairs and fundraising.

    So at it’s core, a university is an organization that is selling a service & product and organizing the resources to do so, and do so profitably. Some are now billion dollar businesses, with massive real estate assets, so to ignore this foundation underlying the intellectual aspect is foolish.

    As well, if professional training is not included, then again, you are ignoring a crucial aspect that underlies much of the government subsidy and the realities of MASSIVE student debt to participate. Kids are betting that their improved future employment value will pay back this debt….so practically speaking, this better be part of the considerations as well. That is what our students value when they choose to participate.

    Intellectual growth through teaching and research is key – but for me, I like to think of a university’s core function as a place to open doors, of the mind, but also to opportunity. Students PAY for a chance to participate, learn, grow, practice and gain credibility, so future doors will be opened to them, upon their exit. Yes, it could be intellectual epiphany, but also practical doors to relationships, skill sets and careers.


  10. I’m turning green!!

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