The Meaning and Purpose of the University

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In his inaugural address as the first president of Johns Hopkins University in 1876, Daniel Coit Gilman spoke about his vision for higher education generally and for his own institution specifically: “. . . it means a wish for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in schools, less bigotry in the temple, less suffering in the hospital, less fraud in business, less folly in politics.” The jury may still be out as to how our higher education institutions have done in each of these areas, but the charge from President Gilman remains today a full 140 plus years after he issued it.

Consider the word “university” itself: the prefix, uni, Latin for “unity, to be one”; and the stem, vers, “to turn.” Although disciplines on campus may be as diverse as opinions and backgrounds as divergent as areas of study, those of us in the academy should be, ostensibly, committed to the same goal: the discovery, pursuit, and dissemination of knowledge.

I recently heard Frederick Lawrence, former president of Brandeis University and current secretary and CEO of America’s oldest and most prestigious honor society – Phi Beta Kappa – speak passionately about the need for American universities to refocus its aim on its fundamental purpose and to refract everything through this singular lens: the discovery and dissemination of knowledge for the betterment of our communities and society writ large.

Professor Lawrence used the example of a hero of his, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who famously kept a card on his desk with three simple words as a constant reminder of his principal mission as Supreme Allied Commander: Win the War. All that was asked of him, the multitude of responsibilities he shouldered – everything else – was refracted through this primary focus: Win the War. Full stop.

Amidst the cacophony of issues and debates and feelings swirling about our campuses today, we would be well served to reflect on this primary focus and, even more basic still, think about the word “university” itself and its meaning at its core. A literal brother and sisterhood binds scholars together which strives to stretch beyond cultural, political, and social boundaries. Take any college or university campus in America and I would hazard the opinion that each represents a more diverse population than any other entity in our country today. A very wise man once said, “We are a nation of communities... a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” That man could have been describing any number of our colleges or universities across the United States. And that man was our 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush.

While I am certainly no linguist, I find this fact quite astounding: among the sea of European languages, one word has emerged unaltered as a symbol of this unity which binds us together: “university.” At least in Latin, Dutch, Danish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish, the prefix and the stem of the word “university” are the same. Only the grammatical ending differs among these 11 languages.

In his First Annual Message to Congress George Washington observed, “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of Science and Literature.” The acquisition of knowledge, he continued, was the “surest basis of public happiness,” even advocating in a letter of John Adams that a “national University in this country is a thing to be desired.”

The benefits of universities and colleges to our nation cannot be overstated. They have survived centuries and brought together diverse people from across the globe with a common purpose. Now, more than ever, this reminder of our primary purpose as institutions must be remembered, celebrated, and promulgated.