GREGORIVS VATIS ADVENA

Recipients in alphabetical order:

University of Cambridge
Harvard University
Universität Heidelberg
University of Oxford
Université de Paris Sorbonne
Stanford University
Yale University


Gregorius rectores salutat.

For a long time, it went without saying that the purpose of universities was to serve the cause of knowledge by means of uncompromising research and free debate. As you probably know, the first universities were founded by the Church in the Middle Ages, at a time that predates the economy of free market and capitalism as we know it. Those universities were not free to challenge church teachings, but they were free to operate with no regard to business interests. After the Reformation and the Enlightenment, research and debate became more and more emancipated.

In the 19th century, uncompromising research achieved a zenith of unparalleled excellence in Europe. Yet in more recent decades there has been a decline in the quality of research and academic standards. One of its symptoms is the understanding that universities must serve the interests of technology and business. Knowledge that is not perceived as a benefit to these interests is neglected.

Yet I want to assume that true universities want to remain independent from commercial, religious and political constraints, creating a place where love of knowledge and freedom of research take precedence over everything else. If it not be so, knowledge no longer expresses self-cultivation, but rather alienation. Only through self-cultivation, however, can we make the best contribution to a world where democracy, the rule of law and human rights are under threat.

My criticism is probably known, and I gladly join the voices that have uttered it before me. Yet perhaps I may offer a way out of this scenario. While it is acceptable that many go to university with a view to entering the job market afterwards, universities should put more effort into supporting those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I mean people whose motivation is greater than just embellishing a curriculum vitae.

Sadly, those who are most committed to knowledge are the most fragile in the job market. What is reasonable to expect from a university worth its name is this: a setting where alumni may live, work and study together in a self-sufficient livelihood and in life-long commitment to research.

This would be a permanent cell of research set up by universities and providing the most committed alumni with enough resources for independent research, maintained by a sustainable and self-sufficient way of living. This is in fact a very old approach. It is not too different from the economy of a monastery, a religious cell where activities of work and study are alternated. This provides all members with an opportunity to exert both their bodies and their minds in a healthy and constructive way.

The main difference that such a cell can make is the ability of maintaining itself independently through the work of its members. I am suggesting a different economic model for these cells, devised in a bespoke way to assist commitment for knowledge and talent that cannot be wasted in a technocratic job market.

Whether we like it or not, the concept of universities is a medieval concept of education and cultivation of the mind, and we need a medieval concept of economy and livelihood to assist those who approach a University in a spirit of sacrifice and commitment for knowledge. It is irresponsible to provide students with education and erudition just to leave them at the mercy of free-market and profit-led interests eventually. I affirm that it is the duty of a true university to provide not only the best possible knowledge, but also the livelihood that is most appropriate for those who chose to sacrifice their lives for such knowledge.

It is true that many have the opportunity to pursue a career at the university from which they graduate. But this is not enough to accommodate commitment for knowledge in its full expression. It would be unreasonable to assume that the only way of pursuing meaningful or legitimate research is by joining the paid staff of an university. Besides the formal academic world, there has to be an opportunity for those who wish to research in a more independent setting, maybe associated to an university as life-long members of an autonomous and self-sufficient research cell, yet not in the capacity of paid academic staff.

The role of the mother university of such academic cells of alumni would not be to finance it in the long term, but to lay the foundations and finance the setting-up of the cells. Its members would be responsible, then, for earning their livelihood out of the given resources. The mother university will provide, for instance, the land and the buildings. The members of the cell, in their turn, will grow their own food and perhaps produce their own clothes. They will build an independent supply of water, electricity and other forms of energy so as not to incur in any fixed costs. The mother university, in its turn, will provide technical advice to enable, among other things, the development of such independent forms of supply. It will also provide regular, or at least occasional, contact with academic staff to enrich research on both sides.

This first outline of an academic monastery, if you will, is the outline of a third way. It is a way out of the dichotomy between the constraints of a technocratic free market and the doubtful limitations of an academic career. In the 1990s, the world had more understanding for the concept of a third way, which now appears lost in intellectual resignation and cynicism. Yet you do not approach a true university and the cause of knowledge in order just to surrender to intellectual resignation and cynicism after many years of study and critical education. This is why I hope the suggestions I am outlining will be taken seriously.

Taking others seriously is not always the forte of the academic world. What concerns me most is a degree of indifference towards society, endemic among professors. This is the result of an academic life where the main focus is to embellish one's curriculum and climb on narrow career ladders that only lead to accumulation of titles and social alienation. We see this in many so-called elite universities where formalities count more than knowledge, and where everything is about manners. And money. Yet behind the manners there is always an environment of destructive competition. Any true erudite can easily see through it. This careerism cannot lead to anything good, and the last thing it will serve is the cause of knowledge.

This is an alarming reality in the world in which we live, where freedoms are threatened and where professors should be engaging in a broad and critical debate with society. To close your eyes, to think only of your career, to listen only to those who make a cult of your personality is not the way forward. Byzantinism is not the answer. If I may paraphrase Sartre, an academic who only goes quietly about his business may be an expert, a technical authority in his area. But it takes more to be an intellectual. You become an intellectual when you meddle with things people tell you not to meddle with. It is only when you leave your comfort zone that you become a true erudite and prove the depth of your commitment. For knowledge is not only knowledge that profits yourself, but also knowledge about others.

The careerism, the professional cynicism, the byzantinism of social lethargy, all this has to stop if universities want to continue to be worthy of credibility. It is time to think beyond titles, formalities, appearances. It is time to care about what people really have to say, and what I have to say is this: Clinging to narrow ladders only leads to disaster. This is why I am outlining a third way, a concept you are most welcome to work on, for the benefit of academics and societies alike. This initiative has to come from universities if it is to come from anywhere. Technocracy and business interests will never care, for not theirs is the cause of knowledge. It is now up to the strength of your character and the depth of your commitment to show that universities are more than money-making machines. It is time to prove that your institutions truly deserve a name that predates the rise of mercantilism and capitalism. It is the duty of the University, as a principle of education and livelihood, to raise itself not against capitalism, but above capitalism. There are grave doubts as to whether universities are still able to do so. Yet there is no way around it, you will have to make it work. For the sake of knowledge.

Yours faithfully,
Gregory Name


Petersfield, November 2017




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