The Work of the Universityby Richard C. Levin
This engaging collection of speeches and essays, published on the occasion of Richard C. Levin’s tenth anniversary as president of Yale University, reflects both the range of his intellectual passions and the depth of his insight into the work of the university. By turns analytical, reflective, and exhortatory, Levin explores what it means to be a world-class university, how the university intersects with local and global communities, and why a liberal education matters. He offers personal recollections of schools, teachers, and traditions of particular importance in his own life. And, returning to his roots as a professor of economics, he discusses the competitiveness of American industry and the relations between the market economy and American democracy.
Throughout these writings Levin illuminates and inspires. Always his affection for the university shines through. Whether greeting incoming freshmen, meditating on September 11, remembering an intellectual hero, saluting graduating seniors, addressing the League of Women Voters, or celebrating Yale’s Tercentennial, Levin, by example, shows what a liberal education can achieve.
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The Work of the University
By Richard C. Levin
Yale University PressCopyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom the Beginning
Calm Seas, Auspicious Gales
The greatness of this institution humbles me. I am honored to accept the invitation of the Corporation to serve as Yale's president.
I accept this responsibility with confidence that Yale will enter its fourth century renewed and revitalized. My confidence grows from a knowledge of Yale's present and a reading of its past. Time and again in the history of this institution, its leaders have expressed grave concern about the university's financial health and the deterioration of its buildings. Indeed, one earlier candidate for this job, observing Yale's fiscal and physical condition, doubted the wisdom of assuming the presidency of what he described as a "ruined college." That candidate was Timothy Dwight. The year was 1795. During President Dwight's twenty-two-year tenure the campus was rebuilt, and the quality of the faculty improved dramatically. With the founding of the School of Medicine, the college took its first step toward becoming a university.
External pressures on the university are also nothing new. Public support for higher education and popular enthusiasm for its purposes have waxed and waned throughout ournation's history. Forty-one years ago, President Griswold lamented an "indifferent public policy" that made "inadequate provision" for the support of universities. He questioned the ability of the American people to "understand the fundamental aims and principles of a university." Yet Griswold spoke on the very eve of America's most sustained investment of public resources in higher education.
History gives us hope. The present fiscal and physical condition of this university and the pervasive national skepticism about our institutions of higher education should be perceived not as threats but as opportunities. Here on campus, fiscal constraints provide an opportunity to think creatively about the shape and focus of our academic programs, to devise new strategies to achieve excellence. In the wider world, a skeptical public challenges us to articulate for our time why liberal education remains essential to the well-being of this nation. And a skeptical government challenges us to restate what I believe to be very powerful and insufficiently understood arguments for increased public support of basic scientific research.
My confidence in our future rests not only on our history but above all on the people of Yale: our diverse and inquiring students, our generous and devoted alumni, and our extraordinary faculty. To reaffirm the value of liberal education is an especially easy task for a Yale president, because our faculty's commitment to undergraduate education is unique among the nation's outstanding research universities.
I perceive one other profoundly reassuring sign that the years ahead will be good ones for Yale and for higher education. I have in mind the growing enthusiasm among our students for community and public service. The goals of liberal education have always been both private and public: to improve the self and to prepare citizens to take responsibility for the common good. The tradition of public service is a rich and honorable one at Yale, but in recent years it has been overshadowed by the private pursuit of self-improvement and material gain. Now that a new generation has assumed the leadership of this nation, our students are beginning to commit their energies to public purposes that transcend the self.
As we rise to the challenges before us, as we learn to innovate in a resource-constrained environment, we will conduct the business of the university in the very same way that we advance knowledge in our chosen fields of scholarship and in the very same way that we engage our students in the classroom-by the use of reason. We must engage each other in conversation about institutional needs and priorities-probing and testing each other's assumptions, widening the scope of agreement even as we define the nature of our disagreements. Reasoned discourse must prevail in all aspects of university life, not only among faculty and students but also in our relationships with our managerial, professional, clerical, technical, and service staff. We must all strive for civility, respect, and trust.
Finally, although the university directs its attention to all humanity and nature, its local habitation is New Haven. It is abundantly clear that the futures of Yale and New Haven are intertwined. I intend to work closely with the leaders of our city and state, to lend strength to New Haven where Yale has something to contribute. Yale must be a source of ideas for improving our local schools and health care services, for making New Haven attractive to employers and residents. Yale will be our city's advocate in Hartford and Washington.
In closing let me express my profound thanks to the Fellows of the Yale Corporation for giving me the opportunity to serve this institution which I so dearly love and to which I have devoted my entire career.
Let us go forward with prudence in the management of our resources but with enthusiasm for the challenge of renewing our dedication to scholarship, to teaching, and to the idea of liberal education. As we look to the future, I cannot promise to "deliver all." Nor can I guarantee "calm seas" and "auspicious gales." But I can and do pledge my best effort to enhance this excellent institution, and to nurture, for its own sake and in the service of humanity, the pursuit of light and truth.
Beyond the Ivy Walls Our University in the Wider World
In the second chorus of Antigone, Sophocles celebrates humanity: "Numberless are the world's wonders, but none more wonderful than man." The chorus sings of humanity's power over nature: "Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven with shining furrows where his plows have gone year after year, the timeless labor of stallions." And the chorus praises our ability to use language and reason to create a social space in which people can debate what is good: "Words also, and thought as rapid as air, he fashions to good use; statecraft is his."
We celebrate today our university-a monument to the achievement Sophocles extols. We preserve humanity's achievement in our collections of books and manuscripts, works of art and architecture, objects and artifacts. We impart an appreciation of that achievement by our teaching and augment it by our research.
My teacher and colleague, James Tobin, Nobel laureate in economics, wrote some years ago that Yale's primary mission is the preservation, advancement, and enrichment of knowledge and culture. He observed correctly that Yale is one of the very few universities in the world with the tangible assets, human resources, and internal culture to make possible serious dedication to this ambitious task. Ours is a very special place. We are proud of our capacity to advance knowledge in the sciences, the humanities, the fine arts, and the learned professions, and we are especially proud that, within the select group of institutions that share this capability, Yale is the most committed to the teaching of undergraduates. At this inaugural, this time of looking forward, we rededicate ourselves to our primary mission and we reaffirm those values that sustain us in its pursuit.
The tragedy of Antigone and Creon teaches that human potential can be fully realized only when the laws of society resonate with the deepest truths about ourselves. This is our aspiration for the social order we create within the university. As scholars and teachers, we live by values intended to permit the full flowering of the human spirit. We cultivate human potential by a profound commitment to free inquiry and free expression. Only through the unfettered application of "clear intelligence" can we advance genuine understanding of nature and ourselves. We ask hard questions and answer them honestly, and we follow reason wherever it leads, however treacherous the terrain. We practice what we teach our students: question every assumption and pursue every argument in the search for truth.
We live also in a wider world beyond the ivy walls, a world in which we bear enormous responsibility. Like Antigone, the university stands for transcendent principles, those that permit the preservation of culture and the advance of knowledge. To avoid the fate of Antigone and Creon, our principles must coexist in harmony with the principles that govern the civil society of which we are a part. It follows that our responsibility is to educate and to lead, to shape the values of the wider world so that they, too, encourage the full realization of human potential.
One of Yale's principal responsibilities to society was enunciated in its founding charter. In 1701 the General Assembly of Connecticut approved An Act for Liberty to Erect a Collegiate School, which it described as a place "wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts and Sciences who through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State."
For nearly three centuries Yale has fulfilled its founding mission with distinction, supplying leaders to the nation and the world. Fourteen Yale alumni served in the Continental Congress; four signed the Declaration of Independence. Three of the last five presidents of the United States and ten of the one hundred senators now in office have Yale degrees. Until recently, Yale educated more leaders of major U.S. corporations than any other university. Yale produced the greatest American scientists of the nineteenth century (Benjamin Silliman and Josiah Willard Gibbs), two of our greatest inventors (Eli Whitney and Samuel F. B. Morse), the first African-American Ph.D. (Edward Bouchet), the founder of sociology in America (William Graham Sumner), and the father of American football (Walter Camp). Few institutions rival Yale's record in producing artistic, dramatic, and musical talent of distinction-from Cole Porter to Maya Lin. Yale alumni served as the first presidents of Princeton, Columbia, Williams, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, and the Universities of Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Wisconsin, and California.
We help shape our society through the highly visible and distinguished leaders we educate, and we also improve public life and public discourse by cultivating in all our students those qualities of mind most conducive to the health of our democracy. By encouraging our students to reason carefully and to form independent critical judgments, we prepare them to be thinking citizens for a lifetime. As an institution, we remain committed to this Jeffersonian conception of the role of higher education in our democracy. By encouraging freedom and independence in our students, we help defend freedom and independence for all.
Yale's early-eighteenth-century mandate was to educate leaders and citizens for a small New England colony. By the mid-nineteenth century, our compass had become the whole nation. As we enter the twenty-first century, we must aspire to educate leaders for the whole world. Our curriculum increasingly reflects those forces that have integrated the world's economy and must ultimately, if we are to survive the dual threats of war and environmental degradation, integrate the world's polity. We must focus even more on global issues if our students are to be well prepared for world leadership, if we are to be a world university.
Although the public understands that universities educate leaders and citizens, it is less well understood that universities have an important influence on the material well-being of our nation and the world. I refer in particular to the substantial contribution that university-based scientific research has made to technological progress and economic growth since the end of the Second World War. Scientific advance is the ultimate source of growth in industrial productivity, which in the modern economy is the principal source of improvement in the standard of living. Advances in basic science provide essential knowledge for researchers in industry and open, often unexpectedly, entire new areas for industrial application.
Since the Second World War, research conducted at our universities has led to dramatic increases in food supply and human longevity. University-based scientific research and training have also given this country an enormous advantage in international competition. Despite the widespread belief that America's strength in international markets is eroding, American firms have consistently led the world in those industrial markets in which technology is most closely linked to advance in science. Ironically, the practical consequences of scientific advance are often most profound when the underlying research is least influenced by commercial considerations. The revolution in biotechnology arose from discoveries made in the pursuit of pure knowledge of the molecular basis of life.
Our national capability in basic research was built by the farsighted policy of public support for university-based science articulated during the Truman administration and pursued consistently, though with varying intensity, ever since. Today, the scientific capability of American universities is the envy of the world. We neglect its support at our peril.
As we seek to educate leaders and citizens for the world, as our discoveries spread enlightenment and material benefits far beyond our walls, we must remember that we have important responsibilities here at home. We contribute much to the cultural life of New Haven, to the health of its citizens, and to the education of its children. But we must do more. Pragmatism alone compels this conclusion. If we are to continue to recruit students and faculty of the highest quality, New Haven must remain an attractive place in which to study, to live, and to work.
But our responsibility to our city transcends pragmatism. The conditions of America's cities threaten the health of the republic. Our democracy depends on widespread literacy, and literacy is declining. Freedom for all requires that those without privilege have both access to opportunity and the knowledge to make use of it. We must help our society become what we aspire to be inside our walls-a place where human potential can be fully realized.
At this time of looking forward, we reaffirm our past: to preserve and advance knowledge, to defend free inquiry and free expression, to educate leaders and thinking citizens, to teach the world around us, to give scope for human achievement, and to nurture human potential. We reaffirm these commitments not merely as ends in themselves, but as means to improve the human condition and elevate the human spirit. Let us resume our "timeless labor." Let us leave "shining furrows" behind.
The Purpose of a College Education
On Liberal Education
We begin together. As you experience the exhilaration and the anxiety of a new home, I experience the exhilaration and the anxiety of my first year as president. We have clean slates before us, enormous opportunities to make a difference, for ourselves and for our community.
It seems fitting, as we begin, to consider just what you are beginning. Your professors will tell you that the liberal education you are about to acquire is priceless. And your parents will confirm that it is, if nothing else, expensive. Let us consider what you and your parents are buying for all that money.
Liberal education differs fundamentally from professional education or vocational training. It is not intended to develop specific skills or to prepare you for any particular calling. Its teachings are more general and less obviously "useful."
Excerpted from The Work of the University by Richard C. Levin Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Richard C. Levin, the Frederick William Beinecke Professor of Economics, is the twenty-second president of Yale University. Before becoming president, he chaired the economics department and served as dean of the Graduate School. He is a director of the Hewlett Foundation and the National Academy of Science’s Board on Science, Technology and Economic Policy.
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