Academic and Civic Conversations


The following is a introduction and rough transcript of a Harmony Luncheon made at the Pure Land Learning College in Toowoomba, Australia. During the presentation I frame some of the qualities of the university that seem to pose challenges to its ability to effectively dialogue with the broader community, while also emphasising the critical importance to do so.

“Education is essential in building a country 
and in guiding its people. Cultivation of 
oneself is the foundation; teaching 
is the first priority.”
~ Venerable Master Chin Kung



Early in August of 2015 I was invited to make a short presentation at a Community Harmony Luncheon at Pure Land Learning College in Toowoomba, Australia. As I am now preparing to make another presentation in the coming weeks for a related group, I thought that I should review what I said more than 14 months ago to see if my thinking has progressed and to ensure that I do not repeat myself (too much). Although I authored this post a while ago I hesitated in posting it, but on review I decided to make it available. I would like to start by providing just a little background about Pure Land. The College was founded in 2001 by the Venerable Master Chin Kung, for the purposes of:

  • providing a good learning environment for students who aspire to learn and practice Pure Land Buddhism and the teachings of ancient saints and sages, and
  • to nurture and train Dharma propagators and protectors.

The topic of the presentation was on the roles that dialogue and engagement play in social harmony. When invited, I enthusiastically accepted. I have been involved with a number of events hosted at the College in which members of the community participate. I feel compelled to say that I have always enjoyed the time spent at the College, but that would only be a half-truth. I have actually found my time there special. I have felt a rather intangible quality of sincerity among that community that I have found in few other places.

Although I struggled just a bit with how I would approach the topic, I decided to talk a bit about some of the challenges that non-academic communities frequently have while attempting dialogue and engagement with universities–and perhaps how that impacts the role of (some) universities relative to social harmony.

During the presentation and during the ensuing discussion, I tried to raise three principal points.

  1. Universities engage in academic and civic dialogues, which nurture and build on each other. The relationships between these dialogues are frequently not well understood, but are very important to both the university and the community.
  2. Universities, broadly speaking, have two parts. The university itself is the scholarly community that identifies with the university, which can be thought of as the thing itself, while there is also the organisational vehicle that supports the thing that takes a corporate form. Borrowing from a bit of light mythistory expressed by Ernest Kantorowicz, a medievalist serving at UC Berkeley following World War II, I frame the university fundamentally as a community of scholars and students. Everything else is the “body corporate,” which is designed to support the purpose of the university, but is not the university itself.
  3. Universities are purposeful, and their purpose is tied into the notion of conversation. In fact, universities can and have been defined as conversations. I refer to Bartlett Giamatti’s framing of the university as a conversation, once again, principally between students and teachers and the broader community. I have inferred that the nature of the conversations within the university among scholars have a different quality than some of the conversations with the broader community. Still though, the conversation is the connection with community and in it the fundamental opportunity for a university role in social harmony.

I identified the body corporate as the university-corporate in an attempt to draw attention to the changing nature of the university as a participant in society and perhaps making more explicit the corporatization of the university and the decades-long shift in balance of viewing university education as a public good to a private benefit.

The closing message is that if

  • the university is a conversation and 
  • the conversation is between students and teachers contributing to a community of scholars and 
  • that conversation is extended to the broader communities in which the university participates,

then it is important for the community to understand the nature of the conversation and the differences between engaging with the university and the university corporate.

I have included a transcript of sorts from the presentation below.

Dialogues and Engagement - Keys to Social Harmony  Pure Land Learning College Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia  August 5, 2015


In the spirit of reconciliation, I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of the Jarowair and Giabal people who have been custodians for many centuries. We acknowledge their living culture and unique role in the life of this region.

I want to thank Venerable Wu Ping, Haniff, and the Pure Land Learning College community for the opportunity to participate in this Community Lunch. I have been asked to share a few words on the nature of conversation and engagement and some of their relationships with social harmony.

Starting the Conversation

To be quite honest, I am confident that there are many others in this room and many more who could have been invited to speak who know much more about harmony than do I.

I will start by stating the obvious. I can hardly imagine social harmony without trusting and respectful relationships that are built on authentic conversations. These would be conversations conducted with honesty, humility, and transparency by people who are willing to exhibit courage.

With that said, I have been told that it is best to talk about what you know.

I know a bit about the nature of universities, so I would like to start a discussion about the ways that universities tend to engage, why we can be so frustrating at times, and how we contribute to civic life, social capital, and hopefully harmony.

In doing so, I am going to assert that universities have a civil life as well as an academic life. Frequently there is no clear distinction between the two and academics themselves may not realize how these two roles relate to each other.

So we should Probably Start at the Beginning

Practically, the unique purpose of the university is to foster a culture of critical questioning, sharing it with our next generation of students, and nurturing a critical impulse in the broader society.

If we do nothing else, universities ought to be models of critical culture – holding themselves to the highest and most exacting standards, constantly dialoging, constantly challenging and defending the current and assumed state of knowledge.

In very many ways this is the principal function of the university, and frankly it may seem to have little to do with harmony – at least in the short-term.

While showing intellectual leadership publicly, universities absolutely value academic methods of questioning and engaging in the logic of change, we willingly submit to the scrutiny of our peers, and resist illegitimate external pressure or personal economic impact.

At their best, universities value participation in the broader society, disseminating new knowledge, taking inspiration from what happens outside of our campuses, asserting the values of the academy, balancing the inherent tension between academic objectivity and engaging in topics that are inherently value laden.

Although conservative in many regards, universities are by definition progressive in spirit. They strive to discover truth and meaning, but in very many ways the academic mission and methods of the university are challenged by how things are outside of the university, are challenged by the pace of change, the pressure to make quick and easy decisions based on our emotional responses to events as they are revealed to us.

At our very worst, the university responds by withdrawing from society when faced with those things that challenge us most, but from which we all have the most to gain.

University culture tends to be deeply suspicious of revealed truth. This suspicion tends to distance the university from common and popular culture.

Even so, it is absolutely critical that the university engage with common and popular culture, and to do so through an active and respectful dialogue. A dialogue that helps build the social capital necessary for sustained social harmony.

Let’s move on with a simple question. Given the critical and conversational academic nature of the university as just described, what does it mean for a university to have a civic role? One that builds social capital.

So here is our first lesson - as frustrating as it might be...

Starting something, anything, everything, with a question is a uniquely academic trait. It is a quality that excites other academics, raises a cautious smile from seasoned university administrators, and tends to baffle and frustrate many others outside of the university fellowship.

It also points to the unique nature and purpose of the university. Although there are others in all types of organisations who ask questions, there perhaps are no others who love questions so much as those who inhabit universities.

Questions and conversation are important parts of university life, serving not only as principal sources of inspiration and the fundamental tools of intellectual trade. But they also serve as the university’s unique and defining quality.

As such, the purposes of the questions we ask and the ensuing conversation are tied to the fundamental purpose of the university and are frequently implied in university missions.

The questions of highest quality lead to conversations that are at times enjoyable and even playful, sometimes uncomfortable and confronting, but when posed in the university they are always purposeful.

And those within the academic community who are most able to pose purposeful questions and lead the evolving conversation, engage colleagues, students, and the broader public, while also using the methods of discovery refined within the disciplines with fidelity, are those who fulfill the fundamental university purpose most ably.

Arguments judged as well-reasoned and compelling by peers are rewarded, while arguments that captivate the imaginations of the public transcend the university. And frequently, it is through a series of questions, arguments, discovery, and teaching that society experiences the university.

You will note just how internally referential the university impulse is and how much work it must be to retain its civic role in light of the demands that its academic role make on its members.

If we are going to ask about the university’s civic role, we really do need to eventually ask ourselves about the nature of the university. After all, a conversation is more likely to happen if we know something about each other.

So, What is the University?

I will start poking at what the university is by referring to a story about Ernst Kantorowicz, a scholar who in the early 1950’s was at the centre of a loyalty oath controversy at the University of California where he served as a professor.

It is through Kantorowicz’s story that we can identify one perspective of what the university is, and perhaps through that perspective better anticipate why the university behaves in particular ways.

While serving the University of California, Dr. Kantorowicz was asked and subsequently refused to sign a loyalty oath. He had at least two general reasons for refusing to sign.

First, but not foremost, oaths according to Kantorowicz, have an insidious way of restraining inquiry and speech.

Second, although Kantorowicz acknowledged that the State of California had the authority to demand oath signing of its employees, including those at the University of California, it did not have the authority to ask it of the professoriate. To this second point Kantorowicz asserts that…

“There are three professions which are entitled to wear a gown: the judge, the priest, the scholar. This garment stands for its bearer’s maturity of mind, his independence of judgment, and his direct responsibility to his conscience and to his God. It signifies the inner sovereignty of those three interrelated professions: they should be the very last to allow themselves to act under duress and yield to pressure. 

Why is it so absurd to visualize the Supreme Court justices picketing their court, bishops picketing their churches, and professors picketing their university? 
The answer is very simple: because the judges are the Court, the ministers together with the faithful are the Church, and the professors together with the students are the University. Unlike ushers, sextons, and beadles, the judges, ministers, and professors are not Court employees, Church employees, and University employees. They are those institutions themselves, and therefore they have certain prerogative rights to and within their institutions which ushers, sextons, and beadles or janitors do not have.”

The point here is that the professors and students are fundamentally different from employees working for and contributing to the university-corporate: they are the thing itself.

They stand outside of the employer-employee relationship, and ultimately it is the thing that must regulate itself. At least at some level, this is to help ensure the existence of conditions necessary for the university to fulfill its academic and civil roles.

The university-corporate has become increasing important in the contemporary university. It is defined by the growing number of administrators, professionals, and academic mangers – of which I am one – that are now required to run the university corporation.

And it is important to recognise that the University-Corporate is not the university itself.

The university-corporate is intended to serve the university and its purposes. So, within the context of the university’s purpose, the university-corporate is an organisation designed to support the purpose of the professoriate and students.

And the purpose of the university is to learn, advance our understandings of truth through critical questioning and discovery, and in so doing growing our knowledge, improve our practice, and enriching human life.

And how is the University Purpose Realized?

Great university leaders have spoken passionately about the role of conversation in maintaining the relevance and purpose of the university. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale University had frequently described the university as conversation.

It is important to note that he did 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.

And Giamatti indicates that important conversations, such as those that impact human life and promote harmony are the types of splendid and serious conversation that is a great university.

According to Giamatti the university conversation is one between students and professors, across ages, overlapping with itself – building and challenging culture, while over time associating ideals with realities.

Conversation is the slow and steady way that universities together with society grow knowledge. And it is through this conversation that the university contributes to sustained civilization.

So, what happens when the conversation goes silent?

When Giamatti posed this question, as have many others, he was not referring to absolute silence, but instead he is referring to the absence of critical and reflective dialogue.

He was referring to a dialogue engaged with broader society.

A dialogue that the university needs to have about itself with itself and with the public.

When this dialogue is absent, the university loses its vitality and loses its relevance. And society also loses the benefits of the university voice.

So you see, it is important for the well-being of the university and for society to maintain a vibrant dialogue, and to nurture critical conversation about important topics.

It is also important to note that although the academic and civic roles of the university may be discussed separately, they cannot flourish without each other.

It is important that we all, as members of a society that value civil discourse leading to better understanding, respect, and dignity serving as the very foundation of harmony, not only understand the academic and civil roles of the university, but that we can also distinguish between the university as a vibrant conversation and the university as a corporate entity.

Engage with the university conversation, with the students and the professors.

Exercise your influence and help the university remain relevant so the university can take its special role that blends academic values with civil life and help build social capital.

Do not confuse the university with its buildings, mangers, grounds keepers, its commercials and tag lines, and other parts of the university-corporate. Doing so will frustrate our best efforts and honestly, will make for a very boring conversation.

--- End & Questions...

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Acadenic and Civic Conversations by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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