The 21st century mission of universities

On the evening of 12th June, Rev’d John Jenkins CSC delivered the annual Campion Lecture at Campion Hall. Fr Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana (USA) and a graduate of the Hall, spoke about the history and mission of the university in the modern world.

Emphasizing that Oxford in particular “must possess something of lasting value to survive through so many dramatic changes in society,” he suggested that Oxford’s longevity is a result of its commitment to being a free community of inquiry in which ideas are developed, shared, and critiqued for the sake of the common good.

"If universities did not provide education that prepared a student for such a range of professional occupations, they would not have attracted students, and would not have survived” Jenkins commented.

Acknowledging that the university model faces challenges today, he nevertheless counted himself a “skeptic” about fears that the university is in decline, saying: “The particular character of Oxford or any great university is that the riches it offers us transcend any time, trend or particular professional career.”

A lively Q&A session followed with interventions from students, professors, the Chancellor, and the Vice-Chancellor.

What is the idea of Universities in the 21st century was the central topic also of another important event in Oxford, on 24th May. The institutions’ defence at explaining and supporting their place in society today was the main point in the speech delivered by Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, at the 2018 Newman Lecture.

The Newman Lecture is a major annual address co-hosted by the three Catholic Permanent Private Halls of Oxford: Campion Hall (Jesuits), Blackfriars Hall (Dominicans), and St Benet’s Hall (Benedictines); it provides a platform to consider topical questions of moral and social concern in the tradition of Oxford’s own John Henry Newman.

Newman Lecture 2018. Photo Credit: Alejandro Olayo-Mendez SJ

Indeed, Newman’s presence loomed large over the Chancellor’s remarks, coming as they did nearly 170 years after the famous convert to Catholicism’s celebrated monograph on “The Idea of a University”, which argued that the university must be “a place of teaching universal knowledge” for the good of society at large. Newman was reacting against the professionalization and technicalization of knowledge in his time; for Lord Patten, these dangers, and others besides, are only more acute in the 21stcentury.

While not, of course, simply equating the attacks upon free speech in places like China with the disagreements among students in the UK about what qualifies for legitimate debate, the Chancellor was clear that these crises of confidence at the university-level, whatever their causes, ultimately jeopardize the crucial role that such institutions play in society.

In question-and-answer, the Chancellor identified further causes for concern, especially deep cuts to government support and the much too-low levels of corporate investment in higher education. He praised the work of vocational schools which, he said, need not violate Newman’s idea of a university committed to knowledge for the common good just because they train in specialized competencies.

All these factors encourage retrenchment and retreat among the defenders of the university, but Lord Patten counseled courage. Precisely in the midst of such troubled times, liberal societies need the university, and the humanities in particular, to “inform our moral sense”, as Newman put it

A written version of Fr Jenkins' talk can be found on Notre Dame website.

A written transcript of the Chancellor's remarks is available for download.