Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space”


I intend to use A Free and Ordered Space, by A. Bartlett Giamatti as a vehicle to explore some current issues in higher education.  In this posting, I explain why I am doing this and I briefly introduce a Free and Ordered Space. In my next post, I will continue the introduction.


A Free and Ordered SpaceIn the coming months I plan to use “A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University” by A. Bartlett Giamatti as a source and sounding-board for my thinking about higher education. In the spirit of Mortimer Adler, I hope to engage with Giamatti through his writings and perhaps through this public forum engage with others as well. I intend to methodically embrace the text; teasing out its explicit messages, its latent meanings, the patterns that are formed within, and their relevance to what we presently see about ourselves in higher education. I also hope to extend in some way Giamatti’s thoughts and observations by simply building on them and applying his logic to what is currently happening within and without the university. At the very least, the ensuing posts will anchor and catalog my thoughts, but potentially others will join privately or publicly in an effort to make sense of some enduring issues.

Although I am happy to simply step through the book and share my thoughts, I also want to extend an invitation. While at one level I of course invite comment and conversation, I also invite other forms of participation. If anybody reading this blog has special insights or interests in the topics treated and would like to share their perspectives, I would be happy to expand the discussion with guest postings.
A Free and Ordered Space is a collection of presentations, which are organized into three thematic areas. Giamatti groups his presentations into the following formal sections:
  • The Nature and Purpose of the University
  • The Earthly Use of a Liberal Education
  • The Private University and the Public Interest
In addition to the 23 addresses in the book, Giamatti includes some introductory materials. I will try to treat an address/presentation (chapter) each week or so, but anticipate that some will require more time to appropriately prepare. Most of the addresses include multiple themes, each of which may merit separate posts. I will almost certainly find the need to pause occasionally to summarize and reflect a bit, share additional thoughts, and make modifications to prior posts. In addition, I fully anticipate some interruptions as professional workload ebbs and floods (right now it is mostly flooding) and personal commitments demand, so this project could extend throughout the coming year.


As indicated above, methodically treating A Free and Ordered Space may be a nontrivial activity. I’m a pretty busy guy. Like most folks, I have professional responsibilities and personal commitments, which leave me with little extra time. So, why should I spend it this way, and why would anybody decide to spend their time engaged with this project, even to passively follow along? For me, the answer is sort of simple. I am troubled. I am troubled by the way many colleges and universities are reacting to a variety of changes within the University and without. I am seeking a way to to better understand what is happening, a better foundation from which to interpret what others are writing, a more grounded perspective to interpret regulations and policies, and a principled footing to better contribute to my chosen profession and avocations. Frankly, I have found that reading current events in publications that treat higher education is not doing the trick.

A number of months ago I reached out to Dr. Marcelette Williams to exchange a few words about what I was reading and thinking about on the topic of liberal education and the university. At the time I had recently read The University: An Owner’s Manual by Henry Rosovsky, and was working through Newman’s Nine Discourses in The Idea of a University. Marcie recommended that I read a Free and Ordered Space as Giamatti was one of her favorite published voices on the topic. I had reported to Marcie for 3 years while serving the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Williams serves as the Senior Vice president for Academic, Student, and International Affairs at the University of Massachusetts, and stands as one of the most thoughtful and humane figures I have worked with in higher education. Given my relationship and respect for Marcie, I was thankfully predisposed to take her advice.
I know that I was reaching out to Marcie to fill a gap. I had recently left UMass to join a start-up company and found myself among a small group of intensely smart managers planning to sell services to universities. Even though I had served as a university administrator for nearly to 2 decades, surrounded by managerial types (and functioning as one), things felt fundamentally different at the start-up in ways that I had not fully appreciated or anticipated when I first joined the organization. The nature of the conversations took the colour of efficiency and scale. Student services were framed as instrumental means, while student development, discovery, civil advancement, and service of the common good were largely absent in our dialogue. It was, perhaps rightfully, assumed within the company that not only were these concerns those of the university, but their clear articulation could be principally absent in an education service provider. I am of course not being critical of the organisation. After all, a college or university outsources services when an external organisation possesses characteristics or capacities that do not or ought not exist within the college or university. I should have known that this was going to be the case, as this company was designed to “take care of business,” and that its value is located in its ability to do things that the universities themselves could not. Yet I was taken unawares by just how differently my working colleagues viewed the purpose and nature of the university than had I.
It was these experiences that punctuated the feeling that I had personally strayed from the reasons that I had first decided to pursue a career in higher education. I believe that there is a gap, which I had allowed to grow, that I am starting to explore with this project. Although I have since move back into the University, am serving the University of Southern Queensland, and feel very much as if I am in my professional home, the gap still has meaning.


A Free and Ordered Space was published posthumously in 1990, and is a collection of addresses that Dr. Giamatti had made to a variety of groups while he served as president of Yale. Most of the addresses were given between 1980 and 1985 and many were presented to undergraduate audiences of incoming and graduating students. I will provide more detail in the following post. For those colleagues who may be interested in reading along, you can access the book through many libraries or purchase the book through the usual channels. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down open versions of many of the addresses, but I will continue to look. If they exist, I welcome any suggestions about sources for open and other types of relevant resources. I will maintain a page dedicated to resources, and perhaps, time permitting, will keep a annotated reference list. I will for the benefit of casual readers start each post with a summary of the address, but I am sure that my efforts in this regard will fall short.
As this post was going to get a bit too long, so I have decided to split it in half and will post the reminder during the next day or two. In the following post I will outline why I think that Giamatti, through a Free and Ordered Space, will serve as an excellent guide who provides touchstones to interpret some activities and events in higher education.


Giamatti, A. B. (1988). A free and ordered space: The real world of the university. New York: W.W. Norton.

Adler, M. J., & Van Doren, C. L. (1972). How to read a book (Rev. and updated ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Newman, J. H. (1959). The Idea of a university. Garden City, N. Y.: Image Books.

Rosovsky, H (1990). The University: An Owner’s Manual. N.Y.: W. W. Norton.

The University of Southern Queensland

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