Tag Archives: higher education

ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT–MORE THOUGHTS

It’s been too long since I last posted. I marvel at bloggers who are constantly connected and constantly conversing with the rest of us. All I can figure is that they have more hours in their days than the paltry twenty-four I get.

It’s been nearly two weeks—the internet equivalent of an “eon”—since I wrote about the academic freedom I’ve known at Wheaton College these past six years. I wasn’t trying to make a systematic argument comparing secular and Christian contexts. I just wanted to testify to my experience. Ever since my colleague Dr. Larycia Hawkins posted comments comparing Christianity and Islam last month, Wheaton has been the focal point of a social media frenzy. Champions and critics have rushed to do battle, one side denouncing Hawkins for her fanaticism, the other condemning the college for its bigotry. Charity has been scarce, but there’s been more than enough dogmatism to go around. As Alan Jacobs has observed, both sides seem able “to read the minds and hearts of people they don’t know.”

The goal of my previous post was not to take sides in the dispute, but to take issue with critics who insist that academic freedom can’t exist in a confessional community. For me, joining the Wheaton faculty in 2010 after twenty-two years at the University of Washington was a profoundly liberating experience. Day after day, I enjoy a degree of freedom in the classroom here that far exceeds what I knew at UW. And day after day, the freedom that I feel here thrills my heart and nourishes my soul.

This post elicited some thoughtful responses, and I’d like to reply to one of them briefly. One commenter says that his experience teaching at two Christian colleges was less positive than mine has been, and I take his testimony seriously. I also respect his conclusion that he “functions much more effectively . . . at a secular institution.” If that is true, then a secular institution is where he should be. And let me add here that I have no doubt that God often calls believing scholars to secular schools and empowers them to labor faithfully. But Steve’s point is not simply that his story is different from mine. While he respects the “many excellent scholars at Christian” institutions and the “amazing work” that they do, he knows that no school that requires its faculty to affirm a statement of faith can pretend that it also honors academic freedom. The two are simply “incompatible.”

So where does this leave us? I observed that I feel greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I experienced at my previous secular institution. Steve replied in so many words, “No, you don’t.” Wheaton may be a “good fit” for me, but what I’m experiencing here can’t be true academic freedom because, as he understands it, academic freedom can’t exist here.

We’re at an impasse. But before we throw up our hands and drop the matter, it might be worthwhile to go back and define our terms. To paraphrase the inimitable Inigo Montoya, let’s make sure that “academic freedom” means what we think it means. The early-twentieth-century historian Carl Becker once wrote, “When I meet a word with which I am entirely unfamiliar, I find it a good plan to look it up in the dictionary and find out what someone thinks it means. But when I have frequently to use words with which everyone is perfectly familiar . . . the wise thing to do is take a week off and think about them. The result is often astonishing; for as often as not I find that I have been talking about words instead of real things.”

Maybe we need to take Becker’s advice and revisit what we mean by “academic freedom.” What we cannot mean by the phrase is the liberty publicly to explore, espouse, and promote any conceivable value or set of values as an employee of an academic institution. Such a definition would be utterly useless, for I know of no place where it exists.

The unsubstantiated, near universal assumption suffusing the present controversy is the fiction that secular schools erect no boundaries to academic expression. When Steve says that secular universities “do not require people to hold a certain perspective,” I don’t begin to know how to respond. I could quickly tick off a long list of conservative political or moral positions that are unacceptable across a broad swath of today’s secular Academy.  There are countless positions which, if not kept private, would effectively preclude those who hold them from promotion and tenure, or even the possibility of employment to begin with. There’s no need to make such a list, however, because one simple example will suffice.

Today’s secular Academy insists that faculty adhere, at least publicly, to a materialist, rationalist world view. Its credo, to quote atheist Matthew Stewart, is that “there is nothing outside the world that may explain anything within it.” In theory, at least, faculty are utterly “free” to pursue truth wherever it leads, as long as they do nothing to challenge this a priori answer to the most fundamental of all human questions.

Again, Alan Jacobs puts it well:

Imagine a tenured professor of history at a public university who announces, “After much study and reflection I have come to believe that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ holds the full meaning of historical experience, and henceforth I will teach all my classes from that point of view.” Would the university’s declared commitment to academic freedom allow him to keep his job? No, because he will be said to have violated one of the core principles of that particular academic community, which is to bracket questions of religious belief rather than advocate for a particular religious view.

I would add to Jacobs’ example that if the hypothetical public university in question ousted this trouble-maker, it would deny that it had infringed on his academic freedom. If this looks like hypocrisy to an objective bystander, technically it’s not. This is because when the twenty-first century university speaks of freedom, it really has in mind a concept closer to the seventeenth and eighteenth-century meaning of liberty. Three centuries ago, liberty meant the freedom to behave uprightly. It was commonly contrasted with license, the practice of abusing freedom by behaving immorally. From the dominant viewpoint of the secular Academy, appeals to religious truths are intrinsically illegitimate, which means that no educator has a moral right to make them in the classroom, and an institution committed to academic freedom has every moral right to prohibit them. It’s a comforting rationale.

Let’s be clear: neither Christian nor secular institutions exalt unfettered academic freedom as their highest good or as an end in itself. This is because both claim to serve something larger, whether they speak in terms of “the public good” or of “Christ and His Kingdom” (goals that are hardly mutually exclusive, by the way). In pursuit of these greater goods, both Christian and secular schools establish boundaries within which they expect their faculty to operate.

The main difference I see is that the secular Academy denies that it does so.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: RAY BRADBURY’S “LOVE LETTER TO BOOKS”

I have one more set of reflections I want to share with you concerning the Confederate battle flag controversy, and I promise that I will get to them, but my recent experience on “my” bench at Lake Ellyn called to mind a marvelous novel that I finally got around to reading earlier this summer, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Quite a number of its passages are now in my commonplace book, and I thought I would share a few while they are fresh in my mind.

Many of you are probably familiar with Bradbury’s 1953 classic, but in case you aren’t, it’s easy to summarize the plot. It’s a dystopian novel, set some time after the year 2020 (the only year ever mentioned), at a time when the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to set them. Specifically, they burn books, almost all of which are now illegal. The novel explains retroactively how such a state of things came to be and meditates on the incalculable human cost that ensued. At its most basic, it’s a “love letter to books.”

Fahrenheit 451

Years after writing Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury identified himself as “a preventer of futures . . . not a predictor of them.” The book is speculative fiction, imagining what would happen if men and women succumbed wholly to the lure of empty entertainment and simply stopped reading, or at least stopped reading books of substance. According to a recent reviewer, the novel’s remarkable staying power stems from its ability “to symbolize the importance of literacy and reading in an increasingly visual culture, offering hope that the wonders of technology and the raptures of multimedia entertainments will never obscure the vital importance of an examined life.”

As the novel unfolds we learn the chilling truth that “the public stopped reading of its own accord.” Although the prohibition of reading is now officially enforced by the state, it originated with the people themselves, and throughout the book individuals who are hiding books are caught because they are turned in by neighbors rather than because of extensive government surveillance. The local fire chief reveals the genesis of the oppressive regime to the novel’s protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag whose eyes are opening to the heart-emptiness and soul-sickness that surrounds him: “It didn’t come from the Government down,” Chief Beatty exults. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no!”

The majority preferred to be amused rather than stimulated, titillated rather than educated, affirmed rather than challenged. Above all, they preferred to be happy rather than wise.  Because books might threaten these values, the safest course was to give up books entirely and reduce life to two dimensions: work and entertainment. The path to this impoverishment led directly through the schools, as Chief Beatty explained: “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” No firemen will set our books aflame, but doesn’t this mindset pervade our society? A generation ago, Neil Postman offered a trenchant critique of how modern media feeds our cultural obsession with entertainment in his marvelous book Amusing Ourselves to Death. More recently, Martha Nussbaum has exposed the ways that higher education is actively exalting the other pillar of Bradbury’s dystopia, the grossly misguided conviction that higher education should focus primarily on knowledge that generates income. In her work Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum exposes how both politicians and university administrators are evincing a willingness to sacrifice the liberal arts as peripheral subjects that don’t produce the same obvious public benefits as investment in science and technology. Both groups, Nussbaum writes, “prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.”

All across the country today, state legislatures and boards of trustees are concluding that the humanities are peripheral to education. Rejecting the heart of the western intellectual tradition and following the example of nations like India and Japan, they are choosing to allocate precious resources disproportionately to STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) on the grounds that the primary purpose of education is to promote national competitiveness in the global economy. Boiled down, they now champion a vision of education that teaches students how to make a living rather than learn how to live, that helps students to create technology but not to think deeply about it, that trains them to think about things but rarely the meaning of things. Bradbury saw this coming sixty-plus years ago.

As a historian (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I can’t help but notice that this glorification of the pragmatic—life is immediate, the job counts—is also a mindless exaltation of the present, a marvelous example of what C. S. Lewis long ago labeled “chronological snobbery.” Throughout Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury makes the point that it is in books that we most commonly connect with the generations that have preceded us. Professor Faber, an out-of-work literature professor who went into hiding after the final liberal arts college was shut down, explains to Guy Montag that books were a “type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.”

Toward the end of the novel, Montag—who is fleeing for his life after being caught with books and forced to burn them himself—joins a band of hobo intellectuals in the distant countryside. Each individual has memorized all or part of an important book, and they wait for the day when they can return to print what they carry in their minds. Until that day comes, they are a living library, the world’s surviving, secret connection to the best that has been thought and said in humanity’s now forgotten history. The group’s leader explains their thinking to Montag as the novel closes, shortly after a nuclear attack has devastated the nearby city:

“Some day the load we’re carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering.”

SECULAR EDUCATION HAS ITS OWN “CRISIS OF AUTHORITY”

I just finished reading Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, by Molly Worthen, and I thought I would think out loud with you a bit.  If you’re not familiar with the book, it is an intellectual history of American evangelicalism since World War Two.  It focuses on the various ways that evangelicals have tried to resolve the tension between faith and reason and the related question of how they should engage intellectually with the larger secular culture.  The book came out a year and a half ago to great acclaim, and I figured it was a book I should get to know.

Although I am a Christian who studies American history, I am not a historian of American Christianity, so I read the book more as a student than a specialist.  Primarily, I wanted to learn more about the evangelical culture in which I am now immersed here at Wheaton.  The author, a recent graduate of Yale and now on the faculty at the University of North Carolina, delivered what I was hoping for . . . sort of.  The book is deeply researched, the scholarship is careful, the argument strikes me as judicious, and the tone lacks the element of condescension that so often creeps into academic treatments of evangelical intellectual life.  Worthen doesn’t openly identify with the evangelicals she is writing about, but she takes their ideas seriously and treats them respectfully, and that counts for a lot.

Apostles of Reason

Worthen’s thesis is captured in her subtitle: there is a “crisis of authority” in American evangelicalism.  Evangelicals after WWII took the life of the mind seriously and were determined to engage the culture rather than withdraw from it, but they didn’t begin to agree on how to go about either task.  Without a single authority to formulate an official approach, they floundered, contending with each other as much as with the culture they hoped to redeem.

A reviewer for Books and Culture described Apostles of Reason as “the most exciting history of evangelical intellectual life to appear in decades.”  I was less enthralled.  Maybe that’s because I don’t know the topic well enough to be suitably impressed, or maybe it’s that I wanted a different kind of book than the one Worthen wrote.  I wanted Worthen to offer some theological reflection on the dilemma she was describing.  I would have been delighted if she had come out from behind the curtain and told us if she sees any answer to the dilemma.  But it’s not that kind of book.  Worthen has written about the Church, but she is not writing to the Church.  She has written her book for the Academy, which, to be fair to Worthen, is exactly what the Academy demands of its untenured professors.

Apostles of Reason has been reviewed extensively online, so I won’t go to the trouble to offer an extended synopsis, much less a critical assessment, which I’m not really qualified to make.  I do want to share one reaction that I had while reading, and it’s only obliquely related to the book at all.  As I read, I was concerned by what Worthen seems to imply about secular intellectual culture, the world that I have inhabited for most of my career until recently.

In the book’s final chapter, Worthen sums up her argument by explaining, “The problem with evangelical intellectual life is not that its participants obey authority.  All rational thought requires the rule of some kind of law based on irreducible assumptions.  The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time” [italics added].  The implication is that, because evangelical thinkers have to balance the competing claims of faith and reason, they face a challenge that secular intellectuals do not.  A page later Worthen backtracks halfheartedly, admitting that “some version of this dilemma afflicts all thoughtful people,” but even here she sets evangelicals apart: Only evangelicals “have turned this torment into the hallmark of their identity.”

What concerns me is how easily this book will fit into the comforting larger story that the secular Academy likes to tell about itself.  According to this self-justifying narrative, the interjection of religious faith is a “problem” for the life of the mind.  It poses insoluble dilemmas that only the secularization of education can overcome.  By vanquishing religious dogma and enshrining reason as its sole authority, the contemporary Academy banishes bigotry, breathes vitality into the open-ended pursuit of knowledge, and promotes a free, democratic, and pluralistic intellectual community.

And yet, as I’ve written before, today’s secular universities are awash in moral truth claims that reason did not lead them to, nor can it.  As philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it, a secular world view “has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort.”  This did not stop my students and colleagues at the University of Washington from holding fervent moral commitments—against homelessness, human trafficking, and apartheid; in support of affirmative action, conservation, and same-sex marriage—but these were moral commitments suspended in a vacuum.  In today’s secular university it is perfectly acceptable (and I would say typical) to start with a wholly materialist understanding of existence, add to that the axiomatic assumption that all moral values are “social constructions,” and from there to avow any number of moral dogmas.

Today’s secular university has its own “crisis of authority.”  More like evangelicals than they would care to admit, secular academics juggle the dual demands of faith and reason.  But unlike the evangelicals they often scorn, they normally lack a philosophically consistent foundation for the moral convictions that they hold.  Worthen is correct that the secular Academy is not defined by a struggle between faith and reason in the way that evangelicals have been, but this is not because the Academy has successfully resolved the tension between faith and reason.  Instead, it simply ignores it.  It’s easy to cling to a contradictory worldview when you distance yourself from those who might challenge it, and today’s secular Academy is nothing if not homogeneous.

WHY CHOOSE THE LIBERAL ARTS?

Two weeks from today I will be manning a table at Wheaton College’s annual Academic Fair.  The doors to the gymnasium will open at 11:30 and a flood of new students and their parents will pour in.  They’ll roam from table to table, nervously introducing themselves and asking questions about the various academic majors and programs that the college has to offer.  For my colleagues and I, it’s a little like sweeps week on network television.  We do our best to make the history major sound glamorous, exciting, and life-transforming.  We present ourselves as brilliant (but humble), devout, charismatic, and endlessly entertaining.  We also shamelessly give away prizes.  Most popular are the history action figures: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander the Great, and (my favorite) Marine Antoinette, complete with severable head and a basket to catch it in.

Such premeditated distraction works, up to a point, but eventually the conversations take a serious turn.  The transformation usually begins with a nudge in the ribs from the nearest parent, or perhaps an urgently whispered “Ask him,” at which point the eighteen-year old across the table will clear her throat and politely inquire, “What can you do with a history degree?”

The answer, of course, is pretty much anything.  For many of my years at the University of Washington, I served  as the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of History.  One of the things that I did in that capacity was to administer a survey each year to our graduating majors (usually 200 or more), and one of the questions that I always asked our graduates involved their immediate and long-term career plans.  Their answers were instructive.

In any given year, typically a quarter to a third of our graduating seniors intended to become history teachers themselves, and a handful more hoped to enter closely related fields such as museum studies, archive management, and historical preservation.  But the large majority were headed down wholly different paths: in banking, financial planning, and insurance; in library science and computer science; in the national park service or the foreign service; in film production, law enforcement, and public affairs; in medicine, the ministry, or the military; in politics or the Peace Corps.  Others planned careers as journalists, attorneys, fire fighters, chefs, pilots, social workers, urban planners, and labor organizers.  I always thought that this was exactly as it should be.  History doesn’t provide technical preparation for a particular job, but rather broad thinking skills applicable to a myriad of jobs.

I typically share these findings with the students and parents at the Wheaton College Academic Fair, and I conclude by expressing my view that the study of history is far more than a gateway to a specific occupation; it is a stepping stone to lifelong learning.  As eloquent as that sounds, I don’t think it convinces many of my listeners.  The parents seem especially skeptical, a pattern that may have something to do with who is actually writing the tuition checks.  I totally get it.  College is expensive at best, and a private college like Wheaton requires enormous financial commitment and sacrifice.  Of course they want to believe that their money will be well spent before they fork over the cash.

RocheWhich is why I have prepared for this year’s Academic Fair by reading Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, by Mark William Roche.  Roche is an English professor by training, but when this book came out in 2010, he had just finished a lengthy stint as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame.  I’ll be carrying crib notes from the book with me two weeks from now, I can assure you.  Roche offers a slew of statistics attesting to the economic viability of liberal arts degrees.  He cites numerous surveys of major employers who rank the ability to think critically and write and speak effectively as more important than technical expertise.  He quotes CEO after CEO in praise of the humanities, and reveals that students who major in the humanities (including history) have a higher acceptance rate into medical school than those in a more traditional “pre-med” discipline.

Yes, I’ll share some of these facts with my anxious listeners, but I wish that I wouldn’t have to.  This sort of pragmatic argument perpetuates an impoverished understanding of education that Christians need to be combating, not affirming.  At its richest, education is much more than vocational training.  Roche agrees.  He emphasizes the pragmatic benefits of the liberal arts because he is a realist, and he recognizes that we live in a culture that equates education with learning how to make a living rather than learning how to live.  (A recent survey of college freshmen ranks “being very well off financially” as their highest priority.)  Roche’s personal sense of calling is quite different, however.  Speaking as an educator to educators, he concludes Why Choose the Liberal Arts? with this stirring declaration:

 Our greatest challenge is not to help our students find a career that satisfies their specialized intellectual interests and capacities or their material needs and desires but to help them find a higher calling that allows them to gain meaning and to be both at home in the world as it is and active in the wider world as it should be, so that learning becomes service to wisdom and justice.

I totally get the “what can I do with a history degree” question.  It needs to be asked.  But I do wish that at least one time a parent would nudge her son or whisper in his ear, and the nervous eighteen-year old would clear his throat and ask, “How will studying history change who I am?”

That’s a conversation I can get excited about.

THOUGHTS ON THE SECULAR UNIVERSITY—PT. I

I responded over the weekend to a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education ridiculing the idea that any religious college could truly qualify as a legitimate institution of higher learning. (See “The Great Accreditation Farce,” by Peter Conn.) Offering a series of pronouncements rather than a chain of reasoning, the author, a professor of English and Education at the University of Pennsylvania, insists that to grant accreditation to schools like Wheaton College makes a mockery of the academic ideal of “unfettered inquiry.” Wheaton’s provost, Dr. Stan Jones, responded with a thoughtful essay that contests Conn’s twin assumptions, each equally naïve: the first, that scholars with religious convictions necessarily embrace irrationality and abandon reason; the second, that the secular university is devoid of dogma of its own. In my response I chose to offer a personal testimony of sorts, comparing my experiences on the faculty of the University of Washington, where I taught for over two decades, and at Wheaton College, where I have served since 2010. Although the UW has many strengths and numerous committed faculty, I have nevertheless felt much greater academic freedom since coming to Wheaton.

This was all that I originally intended to share, but a question from a reader has changed my mind. In a thoughtful comment to my original post, Daniel Davis asks whether, in my opinion, secular professors like Conn are aware of the holes or contradictions of their own worldviews. After some hesitation, I decided to offer a ridiculously broad reply to Davis’s focused question. In this post and the next one, I’d like to share my sense of the world view of today’s secular university. You should file this under the category of my thinking out loud with you about a question that’s way beyond my pay grade. I’d love to hear your perspectives, which may well differ from mine. As G. K. Chesterton warned, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.”

But first, two caveats:

To start with, I need to stress that I’m not an expert on the philosophy of higher education. I can only offer my individual perspective as someone who taught at a fairly typical research university for twenty-two years. This does not make me an authority on the subject (although it does give me twenty-two years’ more experience at a secular institution than Peter Conn has at any of the Christian institutions he sweepingly condemns).

Beyond that, it is imperative that I reiterate my appreciation for the many positive aspects of the secular institution where I taught, i.e., the University of Washington. Although much of what follows will be critical, I do not mean to single out the UW as having more problems than most universities. Nor do I mean to cast aspersions on the faculty there. Although I differed dramatically in worldview with almost all of my colleagues, I was nonetheless surrounded by men and women who pursued their vocations—as they understood them—with dedication and integrity.

So what kind of worldviews did I encounter there? The answer is, “It depends.” It’s important to address the question at two levels. Institutions take on lives of their own, and the philosophies that guide overall decision making don’t always bear much resemblance to the personal values motivating the individuals involved in them. Most of my colleagues at UW were at least relatively idealistic. They loved their subjects. They were passionate about teaching, or research, or both. They genuinely wanted to make the world a better place. And they were willing to make personal sacrifices to be a part of such a work. Generalizing broadly, almost everyone I met at UW could have pulled down a much higher salary by opting for a career outside the academy. As a rule, they had compiled impeccable undergraduate records, thrived in top-notch graduate programs at elite universities, and earned their jobs at UW by beating out hundreds of other applicants. In sum, they had the intellectual tools to earn handsome livings, but they freely chose the much more modest compensation that the academy typically offers.

It’s crucial to stress this because, when it comes to the institutional philosophy that guides UW and schools like it, much of this idealism vanishes. At the institutional level, these schools aren’t driven by an irreligious or specifically anti-Christian ideology, as conservative Christians often claim. Indeed, they’re not very ideological at all. They’re pragmatic. At the institutional level, the values of the university are pretty much the values of the marketplace. Universities are enormous economic concerns (the UW is the third largest employer in the state of Washington), and they are shaped first and foremost by economic forces. This may be the most important thing to know about higher education over the past half century.

As Mark Edmondson explains in his wonderful book Why Teach?, colleges and universities expanded dramatically during the fat years of the GI-Bill and the baby boom. The baby boom had ended by the mid-1960s, however, and the rate of growth of the potential college population was slowing dramatically by the mid-to-late 1980s. Compounding this demographic problem was a political one. Just as demand/supply forces began to turn against higher-ed, state legislatures began to respond to straitened economic circumstances by slashing their appropriations to state universities. In 1975, state and local government appropriations accounted for 60% of total expenditures on higher education. By 2010 that proportion had fallen to 34%.

If anything, the trend has been more dismal at UW. When I joined the faculty in the late 1980s, state appropriations accounted for about 80% of the instructional budget, with tuition payments making up the balance. In the coming academic year those proportions will be almost exactly reversed. To call schools like the University of Washington or the University of Michigan or the University of Arizona “public” schools is more than a bit misleading. They are now, for all practical purposes, private institutions.

This demographic and political one-two punch has forced public colleges and universities to respond to market forces more than ever before. Many observers will think this is a good thing, and it’s possible that it has been—in some respects. Perhaps there is greater “efficiency”; maybe there is less fat in the budget than before (although trimming the fat typically involves cutting faculty rather than administrators).

But colleges and universities cannot stay afloat solely by cutting costs. To survive, they must do two other things: they have to be more competitive in attracting students, and they have to be more successful in attracting other sources of revenue beyond tuition payments and state allocations. The latter means courting wealthy donors and eliciting grants from the federal government and from large corporations. Both trends contribute to a growing “customer-is always-right” mentality. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the grade inflation that is rampant in higher education, the widespread acceptance of A.P. courses for college credit (despite dubious evidence that they are comparable to college courses), as well as the reduction in required courses that allow eighteen-year-olds more and more to define their own programs of study.

When it comes to research, universities are more and more dependent on outside grants. This is much less the case in the humanities, where the cost of research is typically minimal, but it is the norm in the hard sciences, where the costs of equipping a laboratory can be enormous. In 2009, grants from federal agencies (most notably the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture; NASA, the National Institute of Health, and the National Science Foundation) provided 59 cents of every dollar spent on university research in the fields of science and engineering. The total amount was just under $33 billion. (The University of Washington regularly leads all public universities in federal research dollars; in 2012, UW faculty received over 5,000 grants totaling nearly $1.5 billion.) Grants from private corporations are much smaller but growing. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2012 private corporations invested more than $3 billion in academic research.

None of this means that the objectivity of the research itself is compromised, although many have made that charge. What is undeniable is that the lion’s share of the research conducted at public universities is research that outside sources with deep pockets are willing to pay for. Outside funding may not determine the answers researchers arrive at, but it surely helps to determine the questions that get asked. You would never know that from Peter Conn’s characterization of the secular Academy, however. In the secular university of Conn’s imagination, “unfettered inquiry is the hallmark” of research. In contrast to religious institutions, where blind submission to dogma is the order of the day, in the secular university scholars are committed only to the courageous pursuit of truth without respect to other considerations of any kind.

Call me skeptical.

Next time we’ll shift our focus from the institutional philosophy of the research university to the individual philosophies of its faculty. Thanks for reading.