There was a time when my skepticism about the "vision thing" was matched by my reluctance to talk about a university's "mission." First of all, most mission statements are so general ("the university's mission is teaching, learning, and research") as to be well-nigh meaningless. Furthermore, where there is a mission, missionaries are not far away. But the missionary spirit is antithetical to what a true university should do. The university's commitment is to unceasing inquiry, not to a particular belief.
Indeed, those who would like universities to propagate a multicultural nirvana or turn them into mighty fortresses of their version of Western civilization have diminished universities over the last decade. Instead of joining the debate on difficult issues, missionaries on both sides have fought the culture wars as religious crusades.
As I have found myself in daily battles over what is appropriate for a university and what is not, and what compromises are bearable, my views about discussions of a university's mission have changed. My main concern is the many attempts to leverage universities for purposes other than their core mission.
Another university president, my friend Edward Levi, once said that universities "are the custodians not only of the many cultures of man, but of the rational process itself." This is the Western university's major contribution to civilization. Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the great university reformers of the early nineteenth century, observed that the idea of disciplined intellectual activity, embodied in universities, is the most valuable element of "moral culture."
Those who complain about the neglect of this or that canon in the contemporary university ignore the fact that the most morally valuable focus that a university provides is the commitment to, and practice of, reasoning clearly and thinking critically.
The university has values that it prizes above all others: freedom (not just academic freedom), nondiscrimination (you will be heard, among other things, regardless of your sex, race, ethnicity, religion), and equality of opportunity to assure intellectual openness. The manner in which study is undertaken at a university rests on values that its members must share. These values include respect for rational inquiry, evidence, and argumentation; respect for autonomy, integrity, and contributions of the individual; freedom of thought and expression; respect for rules for action that encompass both rights and obligations.
Furthermore, in the true university, the research-intensive university, teaching, learning, and research are all equally important elements of the all-embracing search to know. The students' search to know and the faculty's search to know are interdependent: It is the faculty's task to teach and challenge the students, and it is the students' task to question and challenge the faculty. Pursuit of the university's mission depends on this synthesis of teachers and students.
While these considerations go to the conditions of creating good work and good institutions, and should be thought of as having "universal" applicability, the particular mix of disciplines that a university pursues is much more contingent. To be sure, as European universities formed in the first centuries of the second millennium, they tended to comprise certain disciplines, such as law, theology, liberal arts, and medicine. However, basically the mix was in no way, not even historically, strongly predetermined. As to American universities, the variability has been considerable.
The very role of college education in American universities reflects specifically American conditions from colonial times onward. The changes wrought by the nineteenth century have created an array of molds that ranges from, let us say, the Ivies (with great differences among them), to Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, to the University of California and Stanford. As a recent book on the rise of the American research university emphasizes, when introduced in the United States, the German model of the research university was quickly "Americanized"--the American graduate school was superimposed on the colleges of arts and sciences.
While the combination of college and graduate schools is an almost universal feature among American universities (though the exception in the rest of the world), the approach allows for considerable variety. Stanford's commitment, for instance, has traditionally been to "undergraduate" education rather than the concept of a college. At Princeton, the college seems to dominate both institutionally and in numbers of students. At Stanford, undergraduates account for a little less than half the student population. At Chicago, graduate work has been predominant in numbers throughout much of its history, though it was its college that captured the public imagination during the Hutchins era. The content of the curriculum differs sharply from college to college, from university to university.
The same lack of determinacy can be found as one looks at the disciplines that define a university's "mission." Princeton has no law school, no medical school, no business school and yet is a great university. Harvard has no engineering school, while Stanford's mission clearly includes engineering education. Chicago also dispenses with engineering but comprises a divinity school that Stanford does without.
While there is a lot about universities that is eclectic, it is important to understand that once certain choices have been made, others follow. For instance, if a university wants to be a player in the social sciences, it needs economics as a discipline. Yale recently raised the question whether sociology was essential and was told yes. If you run a medical school, there is no way you can do without a pathology department. If the humanities matter to an institution, you do need an art department--or so I believe. Whether, in addition, you should maintain an art museum, as Stanford does, depends on a variety of local circumstances.
These days there is much discussion concerning the need to make choices, to find out what an institution's comparative advantages are, and to build on those. This way of thinking seems right to me, almost obviously so. Yet it is not obvious what follows for a university such as Stanford. First of all, Stanford and its main competitors, even on the basis of worldwide comparisons, are very good indeed in many areas, and it is by no means clear what to cut.
Second, definitions of a university's scope, while largely arbitrary to begin with, have become part of the "mission" that is strongly believed in by faculty, students, alumni, even unrelated interest groups. When Stanford decided in 1995 to close a department, the Food Research Institute, the faxes poured in telling us that we were betraying Stanford's mission in agricultural economics. Advertisements were taken out, signed by prominent faculty at other universities who should have known better. When we concluded to merge the departments of Operations Research and Engineering Economic Systems, the transaction costs were high, because prominent and important faculty members thought we were redefining Stanford's mission.
Thoroughly intertwined with the question of a university's range is the matter of the size of particular disciplines and departments. Size implicates issues of quality. Therein lies one of the most difficult challenges in managing a university. While the activities that we are engaged in, as such, are not easily subject to change, the size of a particular department, the number of faculty billets, the slots for graduate students can, to some extent, be increased or decreased.
The National Research Council, in its recent study and rating of Ph.D. programs, has concluded that its results "generally support the notion that perceived 'scholarly quality of program faculty' is positively correlated with the size of the program whether measured in terms of faculty numbers or total number of doctoral students."
The correlation, to my mind, does not hold regardless of subject matter and is by no means straightforward. It does, however, pose puzzling questions. For instance, Stanford's Classics Department was once a department of world renown. It still possesses strengths, but it is not what it once was. Do we want to let it wither on the vine, or do we want to improve it? If the latter, there is no question we have to increase its faculty beyond the present number and have to assure that there is a critical mass of graduate students. The School of Humanities and Sciences, the provost, and I believe that a great university (at least in the Western world) should have a strong classics department. In this regard, I view maintaining the classics as part of our "mission." The issue is how much do we need to increase faculty size and the number of graduate students, and how fast, and how we can go about accomplishing this in light of the fact that we face serious resource constraints in general.
The greatest difficulties I have had over the last five years concerning the university's mission, however, do not pertain to academic matters, but the university's role in society. My fairly Spartan views on this subject seem to be out of sync with much university and public opinion. The matter is of such importance to any understanding of the university's mission that I should like to discuss it separately. Of the controversies that have arisen, I will mention only decision-making by ultimatum, the call for a grape boycott, the case of Corry v. Stanford, and affirmative action policy.