his inaugural address President Don Michael Randel termed the
making of a university, like the making of one's life, a collective
endeavor, one whose vocabulary evokes what drives the human spirit:
divine, invent, manifest, hold to.
The question before us is how to become one in spirit,
not necessarily in opinion." Thus did Marion Talbot record the
first remarks of our first president, William Rainey Harper, at
the first meeting of our faculty, on October 1, 1892.
have the great honor to become the twelfth president of this great
institution is to be but the twelfth president to take up this
very question. The record of this succession is remarkably consistent.
The result is a oneness of spirit as palpably present today as
ever it has been or could have been imagined to become and unique
in the universe of universities anywhere. That oneness of spirit
derives, as many have observed in one way and another, in considerable
measure from the negative term that is the second part of President
Harper's famous remark. A successor might be tempted to observe
that he said "not necessarily" one in opinion rather than "not
ever" one in opinion. But at the center of that spirit is that
we are of one opinion about only one thing, and that is that we
are under no obligation ever to be of one opinion about anything
else. Does this mean that we hold nothing else in common? Certainly
A number of words and phrases recur through the
eleven administrations and 108 years since that first faculty
meeting. They speak of the primacy of research, the intimate relationship
of research to teaching and to the amelioration of the condition
of humankind, a pioneering spirit, the "great conversation" among
and across traditional disciplines that creates not only new knowledge
but whole new fields of knowledge, the "experimental attitude"
and the intellectual freedom that makes this attitude possible,
the intimate and essential relationship to the city of Chicago,
and, fundamental to all of this, a distinguished faculty committed
to this spirit. At no other university is such a spirit so deeply
and widely shared among faculty, students, and alumni.
Now, this close to election day, everyone has already
heard quite enough speeches. The customary beginning points with
pride. This leads inexorably to viewing with alarm. There is surely
much in the world-even just in the world of higher education-that
ought to be viewed with alarm. But this is a day on which to assert
not only our ferocious historical commitment to the University's
unique spirit and our continuing passionate devotion to it. It
is a day on which to affirm that, because this spirit derives
from all of us who have ever been privileged to be a part of the
University, it is uniquely in our power to sustain it. Our enemies
are only complacency and its sinister relative arrogance, and
we need not view these with alarm because we need not succumb
The University's own Mark Strand writes, in A
Poet's Alphabet, that "B is for before, the acknowledged
antecedent of now, the innocent shape of earlier, the vague and
beautiful cousin of 'when,' the tragic mother of 'will become,'
the suicide of 'too late.'" Ours is the responsibility to ensure
that, against our fascination with powers of ten, our before remains
seamlessly the strength and inspiration of our now and holds indefinitely
at bay "too late." We are now the makers of our university, and
we together will determine its purpose henceforth. Only we will
be judged, not our befores, according to whether its purpose henceforth
is the equal of the purpose that it has so long served.
The making of the university is, like the making
of the scholarly work for which it exists, the making of a work
of art, and in this it is like the making of a life itself. A.
R. Ammons's poem Garbage includes the following lines:
…art makes shape, order, meaning,
purpose where there was none, or none discernible,
none derivable: life, too, if it is to have meaning,
must be made meaningful; if it is to
have purpose, its purpose must be divined, invented,
manifested, held to….
The university's purpose, too, must be divined,
invented, manifested, held to. These words capture the sense in
which the university is the product of its own creative will-a
will that asserts itself against all that inhibits the pursuit
of ideas and ultimately against the opposite of being, namely
nothing. Strand writes:
N is also for nothing, which, in its all-embracing
modesty, is the manageable sister of everything. Ah, nothing!
About which anything can be said, and is. An absence that knows
no bounds. The climax of inaction.… It is the original of sleep
and the end of life.
The making of the individual work of scholarship,
like the making of the university, like the making of a life,
is the assertion that life is worth living principally through
the exercise of our most profoundly human faculties. The making
of the university in our daily lives asserts a collective spirit
against experience that would otherwise seem shapeless, orderless,
Divine, invent, manifest, hold to. These
words deserve a place among those that we use to evoke our spirit
as a university, for they capture much about the work of each
of us as members of the University as well as much about what
it takes to carry that spirit forward as a community. Like proper
scholars, we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for
help on this point.
divine, v. 2. To make out by sagacity, intuition,
or fortunate conjecture (that is, in some other way than by actual
information); to conjecture, guess.
The university does not exist to pursue what is
easily predictable or what is predictably useful. It requires
the intellectual freedom in which to follow sagacity, intuition,
and fortunate conjecture to what was not previously predictable
and to what is unpredictably useful at some current state of knowledge.
In this sense, divine may be a better word than discover, which
might imply that the search for truth is something like an Easter-egg
hunt in which truth is a set of objects lying about perfectly
formed wherever your mother hid them, and clever girls and boys
will in due course find them all. The truth, if that is what we
are after, does not lie about waiting to be stumbled upon. It
requires the active effort of a mind. This points to our second
invent, v. 2. To find out or produce by mental
activity. +b. To compose as a work of imagination or literary
art; to treat in the way of literary or artistic composition.
3. To find out in the way of original contrivance; to create,
produce, or construct by original thought or ingenuity; to devise
first, originate (a new method of action, kind of instrument,
"Produce by mental activity," "by original thought
or ingenuity"-these are the crucial phrases. But the resonance
of "in the way of literary or artistic composition" contributes
much to our sense of what investigators actually do and what the
university is actually about. Invent is perhaps again better than
discover, and it may even add something to pioneer, which privileges
getting there first at the expense of any contribution to the
nature of what one gets to. Like the scholarship that is produced
in the laboratory or in the library, the university as an institution
is the product of "mental activity" and "original thought or ingenuity,"
and it exists only as long as that mental activity and original
thought or ingenuity continue. But what becomes of the university
and its work even in such a case?
manifest, v. 1. trans. To make evident to
the eye or to the understanding; to show plainly, disclose, reveal.
3.a. To display (a quality, condition, feeling, etc.) by one's
action or behaviour; to give evidence of possessing, reveal the
presence of, evince.
The purpose of the university must be manifested,
just as the work of its individual faculty members must be manifested.
Here the purpose of the university runs head-on into the ivory
tower, which has no obligations and from which nothing escapes.
In the first instance, this implies the obligation to submit one's
ideas to the marketplace of ideas, where without constraint they
will be tested, contested, refined. But it also implies the obligation
for the university to declare itself to a wider community and
to return to that community some of what it derives from its presence
within that larger community. This has special resonance for our
university. The University of Chicago was conceived by and in
the city of Chicago. Our responsibilities to it have from the
beginning included responsibility to our immediate neighbors,
responsibility to return to the people of the city the fruits
of our research on it, and responsibility to the city's heart
and soul as a city unfettered by prior example in its own invention
of the nature of cities, their architecture, and their cultural
institutions-a city as original as the most original of ideas
at the University.
What guarantees the university? Who takes responsibility
hold, v. 2.a. To keep from getting away;
to keep fast, grasp. 15.a. To do the act of holding; to keep hold,
to maintain one's grasp; to cling. Also with by (+upon, to).
c. Commerce. To retain goods, etc.; not to sell.
17. To maintain one's attachment; to remain faithful or attached;
to adhere, keep, 'stick' to; to abide by.
Here is a good, hard-working monosyllable. No Latin
roots here. Only a couple of columns of old, middle, low, and
high English and German. Meanings well into the double digits.
Perhaps it is the most important word of all in relation to our
tradition, our purpose, and our spirit. If they are to be held
to, we alone will do the holding. It places the responsibility
for the university squarely where it belongs-on the university
community itself to remain faithful or attached, to stick to one
another and to our beliefs about what the University is and ought
Sticking to one another turns out to be the hard
part of all of this. It is all well and good if every individual
in the university sticks to its spirit as we have all come to
define it. But it may well be for naught absent a genuine respect
on the part of each of us for the many ways in which other individuals
work out sticking to this spirit. Here, too, the spirit of the
university is as likely to be corrupted from within as from without.
It will begin when disciplines or departments or individuals assert
their moral superiority over one another.
This may simply mask envy of a position of privilege
enjoyed by one or another discipline in relation to resources
provided largely by the outside world. Or it may mask a belief
that a position of privilege in relation to resources provided
largely by the outside world constitutes a position of moral superiority.
We all have different material requirements for the accomplishment
of our work. If we cannot, independent of this fact, however,
believe in the value of the work of others, it is hard to suppose
that we fully understand the proper relationship of our own work
to the spirit of which we boast.
We should perhaps think briefly about the phrase
"not to sell." Critics of both the right and left have complained
that the modern university has sold out to the wrong interests-or
has at least compromised its noblest interests in the pursuit
of ideology or material gain. Accountability is confused with
accounting in the view of Bill Readings (in a book with the title
The University in Ruins) and others, and the modern university,
having given in to the crassest market forces, advertises itself
as standing for excellence, a term that in consequence has become
entirely vacuous. In an article in Critical Inquiry, Dominick
LaCapra points out that this critique closely approaches the critique
of neoconservatives in its too easy acceptance of an idea of a
past-a before-that never really existed.
It is naïve to suppose that universities have ever
existed independent of cultural, economic, and political forces.
The question is not whether universities exist in relation to
such forces but why and how they do. These are the questions that
we must continuously ask about the university just as we ask them
about life itself. For Mark Strand,
Y is for why. Why is the question we ask
ourselves again and again. Why are we here and not there? Why
am I me? Why not a goldfish in a fish tank in a restaurant somewhere
on the outskirts of Des Moines?
For Martha Nussbaum the question in a recent paper
is "how to live with dignity, as a rational animal, in a world
of events that we do not fully control." One could equally well
say of the university, the question is how it can exist with dignity,
as an intellectual community, in a world of events that it does
not fully control.
If this is the question that we must address in
relation to the university, what might be said to be the university's
enabling condition? In a recent lecture on this campus, Jacques
Derrida took the view that the enabling condition for the university
is that it exist precisely without condition. To exist without
condition is to require neither consensus nor dissensus (in Readings's
term). It is to insist that the university's purpose must be "divined,
invented, manifested, held to" from within rather than imposed
from without. It is to insist on the unity of spirit and the diversity,
even the rambunctious diversity, of opinion that we know so well.
I pledge myself, in all humility but with all my strength, to
hold to this spirit and to its lasting presence in this university.
Crescat scientia, vita excolatur.