The best defense
President Don M. Randel discusses how uncertain times
affect the climate and work of the University.
I write this in the final week of the
winter quarter. It is a moment of recurring tension and
concentration in the academic calendar. For students and
faculty alike there is the pressure of exams and papers.
For the administration and the Board of Trustees there is
the need to make decisions about the University’s
finances for the academic year 2003–04. But there
have been two longed-for sunny and warm days, and everyone
hopes that spring recess will make things seem better.
Yet spring recess coincides with the
beginning of a war. A moment in which the normal life of
the University calls for concentration coincides with a
moment in which that focus is steadily assaulted by the
world’s need to concentrate on solving its considerable
problems in some reasonable way. My Internet browser has
multiple bookmarks for news sources in the United States,
Europe, and the Middle East, and it is hard to resist checking
them one after another throughout the day. How to focus
the mind, and on what?
Uncertainty confounds our ability to
concentrate on the whole range of our affairs. That is,
of course, precisely the effect that terrorism and threats
seek to produce. At the level of the University’s
financial affairs, we are captives of the great uncertainty
that hangs over the economy. As financial markets remain
depressed, income from our endowment declines. Fears of
all kinds have driven extraordinary increases in insurance
costs of all kinds. Revenue shortages among the states and
growing federal deficits mean that state and federal governments
will spend less on higher education. With jobs still being
lost by the hundreds of thousands in the economy at large,
more of our students’ families need more help with
financial aid. Philanthropy too has slowed somewhat.
In this environment we read that other
leading universities face significant deficits and have
imposed salary freezes, hiring freezes, and other measures
to right the balance. Fortunately the careful application
of cost controls over the last year or so and the continuing
generosity of alumni and friends have so far kept this University’s
budget in balance and spared us the need for harsher measures.
Even in the current uncertainty, we believe that the University’s
budget will be in balance again next year.
But current trends could make the following
year more difficult. Upward pressure on costs that we cannot
control and downward pressure on revenue streams that we
do not control put upward pressure on the biggest revenue
stream over which we do have some control: tuition. Undergraduate
tuition will rise next year by 5 percent, which, though
no one likes it, will be in a narrow band typical of the
best private institutions. The only good news is that we
are not among the public institutions, where massive state
budget cuts will drive comparably large tuition increases,
though on a much lower base.
Much more important is concentration
on the purposes for which the University exists. How are
we to think of these in time of war? Let me say again that
if ever universities have been important, they are more
important now than ever. Their importance lies in their
ability to bring reason and understanding to bear on the
situation that we now confront and on our future prospects.
Essential to this understanding is the freedom to explore
and debate fully the problems before us. At a minimum we
must know our enemies. Simultaneously we must be capable
of self-criticism. This exploration and debate may at moments
be disturbing in the face of calls to patriotism or ideology.
But our first loyalty must always be to the pursuit of understanding
to whatever degree the human mind is capable of it.
There are many concrete respects in which
work at the University will contribute to the defense of
the nation against its declared enemies today. We lead a
scientific effort to combat select agents in bioterrorism
such as anthrax. Through our stewardship of the Argonne
National Laboratory, we are developing the means to detect
attacks and to ensure the security of the nation’s
communications and energy infrastructure. And humanists
and social scientists are proposing ways to better understand
the character and motives of our enemies.
Ultimately, however, our work remains
what it has always been. The best defense of a free society
will always be to remain a free society, even or especially
in the face of threats to that freedom. Thus the University,
while contributing directly what it can to defense against
any current enemy, must contribute to the enabling conditions
for a free society into the indefinite future. Those conditions
include a deep understanding of human history in all its
variety, a pursuit of science that aims both to satisfy
an innate human curiosity and to improve the health and
quality of human life, and a commitment to the study of
the structures and forces embodied in human societies. Of
course we are distracted from our long-term pursuits by
everything that confronts us today. But we must assert the
will to concentrate on what has always mattered and what
will matter always.
— President Don M. Randel