Ruminations on University Presidency: The University’s Voice


The second part of the Introduction to A Free and Ordered Space, Ruminations on University Presidency moves from a  beautifully crafted parodical description of Giamatti’s presidency to a doorway that invites us to view what remains constant about the university, what has changed, and why it has done so in such an unsettling way. It also points us to the public role of the University and its faculty. This is the second part of a two-part sequence that is preceded by Ruminations on University Presidency: evil is abolished and paradise restored.



The university is the place where the seeds
of speech first grow and where most of
us first began to find a voice.

The second half of the Introduction to A Free and Ordered Space is a lot less playful than the first. Here Giamatti points to the nature, purposes, and failings of the University, preparing the reader for the body of work included in the book.


For Giamatti the university is conversation. It is important to note that he does not choose to define the university as an institution in which conversations happen, or as a place friendly to conversations, or that it is a place that incites conversation – although it clearly has these qualities, instead, he defines the university as a conversation. As mentioned in my last posting, Ruminations on University Presidency: evil is abolished and paradise restored, at the very end of his parody tenure as president, Giamatti was finally engaged by some group of “clergy” from the community that was interested in discussing “The problem of evil and the Restoration of Paradise.” The group’s interest surprises Giamatti who informs them that he had issued a memo on the topic years ago when he first started as president and that he had tried to solve that problem. To which his guests let him know that they were not there years ago. And so the conversation started. Although we never learn if paradise was restored in New Haven (or any of our campuses), we do learn that according to Giamatti, it is these types of splendid and serious conversations that is a great university.


Giamatti completes the introduction of his book by explaining what the consequences are when the conversation goes quiet. The university conversation is one between students and faculty, across ages, overlapping with itself building and challenging culture, while over time associating ideals with realities. Conversation is the slow and steady way that higher education grows knowledge. And it is through this conversation that the university contributes to sustained civilization.

So, what happens when the conversation goes silent? Giamatti is not referring to absolute silence, but instead, he is referring to the absence of critical and reflective dialogue. A dialogue that the university needs to have about itself with itself and with the public, without which the university loses its vitality. He speculates that the silence may be due to smugness within the university itself, making it unnecessary to explain itself because its value is self-evident, its mission so obvious that it does not need to be explained, and its purpose so virtuous that it needs no defense or justification. If this is the case, there is no need for the university to reflect on its purpose and there is no value in communicating outwardly even if something were to be discovered through critical reflection. No matter what the reason is for the silence, self- satisfaction or otherwise, Giamatti was seeing evidence of disconnection in the 1980’s. And by this time, according to Giamatti, for more than a generation the University had failed to engage with the public and itself, which had two profound results.


First, without engagement with the public about the nature and purpose of the university, the problems it is facing, and how it is responding, a vacuum is left where the conversation needed to be. The empty space is filled by others from outside of higher education for their own purposes; commercial, political, personal, or otherwise. And when the void is filled by politicians, profiteers, and even the well meaning, but uninformed, without any commentary from the university what is the public to think? The University should not be surprised when its identity is distorted, and framed by others without consideration for its purposes, now left dispossessed of its traditions and culture. Giamatti not only places blame on the university for its current state, but also accuses the university of failing the public in its educational role. Because higher education has failed to engage in and lead the conversation about itself, he asserts that,

When those who know best the realities and ideals of higher education fall silent, for whatever reason, or believe themselves only manages, not leaders, then the public is denied access to higher education in a fundamental sense, access to its thinking about what is going on and what it is for.


The second result of the generation-long silence is that the university looses touch with the publics it serves. What has resulted is a disconnection with other institutions and a disconnection with itself. Without a sense of identity, without the critical and reflective conversation to provide both rudder and anchor, university mangers look-up, embarrassed by how out of touch they have become. Not knowing what else to do, they cast about, jumping from fad to fad, while losing track of what is and has been important. Along these lines, Giamatti warns that

When the university lurches spasmodically rather than changes in a patience, inefficient, and purposeful way, a larger society that hears nothing about the principles and purposes of higher education from clear voices within higher education also sees a whole class of institutions as floundering…” 

What we see here is not only the university losing touch with its contemporaries outside of the university, but we also see a class of institutions loosing touch with themselves.

Taking a step back for a second, what really draws a smile from me is Giamatti’s assertion that universities ought to approach change “in a patient, inefficient, and purposeful way” striking a discordant note with how many other organization types are expected to approach change. This notion is probably worth holding on to and thinking about.


The final point Giamatti makes is about the relationship between universities and their role in teaching moral values. This question was raised within the context of the university being out of touch with public expectations and not effectively engaging in the conversation with the public. The university has not been an important part of this conversation, failing to inform those participating that although universities do teach moral values, they do so through their actions (and inactions). In our best traditions, we teach moral values through our fidelity to the truth, our tolerance for the search, and our commitment to do so through civil discourse rather than through coercion. Giamatti uses the topic of “moral values” to pull together the central themes in his introduction noting that

Silence does not make the point that families are where moral values… are first and longest implanted; that churches or synagogues or other houses of worship are where moral values are supposed to be taught; and that the classroom, or the academic part of the university, is where values of all kinds are meant to collide, to contest, to be tested, debated, disagreed about-freely, openly, civilly… 

Giamatti clearly articulates his perspective on the shared responsibility of moral value formation among different parts of society and the unique role that higher education plays. He also illustrates why it is important for universities to break the silence and set expectations that stop the purpose of higher education from being recast inappropriately.


It is worth noting the long-standing role of universities as unique places with responsibilities to support academics engaging in civil and public critical discourse. In very many ways this strikes at the core of academic freedom. The AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure clearly creates a moral commitment for universities to enable and support the public expression of ideas in the pursuit of truth within the discipline and providing protection to faculty for expressions made as private citizens. With this, the academic has responsibilities to fairly represent their knowledge and how it does or does not relate to their scholarship, role at a particular university, and status within the academic community.

Academic freedom is intended to create protections for faculty to exercise rights of expression and by extension creates a reciprocal responsibility to act on that right. A tidy logic plays out here.

  • As it is the academic staff and students that constitute the university, and
  • as discussed in this post, for Giamatti the university is conversation, and
  • as the principles of academic freedom are intended to ensure that academic staff have the right to participate in the conversation,
  • the exercise of academic freedom through acts of public expression becomes essential to the existence of the university.

It simultaneously creates the rights, expectations, and protections for the university to take place.

Through his work with the Public Intellectual Project on TruthoutHenry Giroux seems to take the responsibility a step further for academics, not only asserting that there is a responsibility that all academics share to act as public intellectuals and to engage in the conversation, but also doing it in a way that is accessible and meaningful (effective). That is, the academic has an affirmative responsibility to exercise her or his right to expression as an act of academic freedom. And the conversation should not be restricted to peers, where public dialogue is needed. In the statement of purpose Giroux crafted for the Project, he points to the problem of academic abstraction and aloofness, both reducing the impact of academics engaging in, informing, and intellectualizing the public conversation. His call is to raise and perhaps radicalize the discussion in ways that are accessible and relevant. He sets the purpose of the Project stating that

Within the last few decades, the emergence of public intellectuals as important cultural and social critics has raised fundamental questions not only about the social function of academics, but also about the connection between higher education and public life, between academic work and the major issues shaping the broader society. Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project will provide progressive academics with an opportunity to address a number of important social issues in a language that is both rigorous and accessible. All too often, academics produce work that is either too abstract for a generally informed public, or they separate their scholarship from the myriad of issues and contemporary problems that shape everyday life in the United States and abroad.

Although Giroux clearly indicates that there is a gap in effective engagement, which the Project is intended to address, he goes a step further in an interview conducted by Victoria Harper titled Neoliberalism, Democracy and the University as a Public Sphere, in which he points to much more serious concerns about the changing nature of the university and the corruption of its purpose from within and without. Here in 2014 Giroux points to the neoliberal agenda and the conceptual corporatization of the university in a way that Giamatti only hinted at in the 1980s. While Giamatti points to the poverty of university leadership emulating corporate and government structures and norms, he is highlighting how the university purposes are eroding. Thirty years later Giroux has clearly experienced Giamatti’s future and it is decidedly not good. Responding to a question about the ways in which neoliberalism threatens higher education, Giroux explains that

What is distinct about the current threat to higher education and the humanities in particular is the increasing pace of the corporatization and militarization of the university, the squelching of academic freedom, the rise of an ever-increasing contingent of part-time faculty, the use of violence to squelch peaceful student dissent, and the view that students are basically consumers and faculty providers of a saleable commodity such as a credential or a set of workplace skills.

The article is full of indictments that touch on virtually every aspect of the contemporary university. It is worth a good read. I will certainly be referring to the article (wrapped in an interview) along with other literature written since the publication of A Free and Ordered Space that treats the changing nature of the university, public expectations, and purpose. Furthermore, in addition to exploring the challenges higher education is experiencing and the role of academics, I would like to explore ways that university academics and others are liberalizing the corporate university and perhaps recapturing and redefining the purposes of a college or university education in this new context. I would also like to take some time to identify colleges and universities that have managed to retain important elements of the public purpose of higher education, not as a throwback or as a token, but as a fundamental cultural value, exercised regularly, included in academic and managerial culture in the context of the realities in which contemporary universities are situated.

Once again, and as usual, please feel free to comment or otherwise reach out to me with your insights.


About the Featured Image

Artist: Jean-François Millet (1814–1875)            

Title: Woman and Child (Silence)
Date: 1855
Collection: Art Institute of Chicago Blue pencil.svg wikidata:Q239303
Accession number: 1968.94 (Art Institute of Chicago)

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This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Ruminations on University Presidency: The University’s Voice. by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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