Scholarship at The University of Montana

Richard Drake

[Please see the note prefixed to Fred Reed's essay.]

In the mid-1930's George Orwell abandoned the field of teaching because, he later observed, despite appearances, teaching and writing do not go together. Orwell described teaching as a semi-creative activity and one that siphoned off just enough energy and time to make serious writing virtually impossible. To be sure, Orwell was not a university teacher. He taught in a prep school. But Orwell was making one of the points that John Henry Newman had made in his classic 1854 book, The Idea of the University, unquestionably the single most influential piece of writing about university life ever published.

Newman--a product of Oxford, a heavily published writer himself, and a university president--was content to leave research to research societies, what we today would call institutes or think tanks. "To discover and to teach are two distinct functions rarely found in the same person," he wrote. Researchers and writers require, above all else, seclusion and quiet. They must have ample and, indeed, unrestricted time for contemplation, archival work, and the library. But a teacher cannot hide himself away. According to Newman, a teacher is not only a person who lectures and does all the grading and preparation associated with university lecturing. A teacher must come to his office early, leave the door open wide, stay late, and welcome all comers. A teacher is deeply involved with his students, helping them to learn how to write, to sort through their confusions, to guide them intellectually in the fullest sense.

Newman takes the term "alma mater" literally. The university must be a nourishing mother to the students. In other words, the students are not like our children; they are our children. The kind of intellectual parenting that Newman has in mind is very much like the biological kind: both take an enormous amount of time, energy, and commitment.

A person who is engaged in Newman's brand of university teaching is simply not going to be able to go home at the end of the day and write a book. It is useless to expect this of a teacher. Moreover, it is wrong to expect it of him because in the process of doing research the teacher inevitably cheats his students, his colleagues, and the university community as a whole. A teacher's job--his only job--is to conserve and to propagate the inherited knowledge and wisdom of mankind or as Matthew Arnold put it in his 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy, "The best which has been thought and said in the world." This is the argument against the research university. The argument for it has been advanced recently by Jaroslav Pelikan in The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (1992).

It is with considerable diplomacy, tact, and respect that Pelikan handles Newman's ideas about university research. He expresses a deep admiration for nearly all of Newman's pedagogical principles, except for the one issue of university research. Pelikan states that the four legs of the university table are 1) the advancement of knowledge through research, 2) the transmission of knowledge through teaching, 3) the preservation of knowledge in scholarly collections and 4) the diffusion of knowledge through publication. No one of these legs can stand for very long unless all are strong. As it is the research mission, in particular, that is today the target of reform polemic--and he cites Charles Sykes's Profscam as a typical contemporary indictment against the so called soft-headedness, idiocies, and perversions of researching professors--Pelikan dedicates himself to explaining why these reformers and even his beloved Newman are wrong when they call for the university to become nothing but an institution for teaching. What is at stake, in Pelikan's view, is the university as we know it.

The university as we know it is essentially a German creation of the nineteenth century, the hallmark of which was from the beginning a strong emphasis on the research mission. In his excellent book, Fields of Knowledge, Fritz Ringer describes how the German model of university education came into existence and how and why it was adopted by France. University research was seen in Germany to pay huge practical and technological advantages, but the theory behind it was not merely utilitarian. The theory aspired to the sublime. Adolf von Hamack, one of Germany's most eminent scholars, put the case for the research mission this way:

I begin with a statement of faith: Never must our German universities and institutions of higher learning change their character of being devoted both to instruction and to research. It is in the combination of research and instruction that the distinctiveness of German institutions of higher learning is expressed; but this distinctiveness, in which research and instruction mutually fructify each other, would be completely destroyed if this combination were dissolved.... [In some countries] the chief emphasis lies on introducing students to the results of scholarship. But at our universities we want to introduce them to scholarship itself, and to teach how one arrives at the reality and truth of things and how one can advance the progress of scholarship. In other words, students must be taught the how of scholarship as well as the what.

Ringer notes that within Germany a spirited rearguard action was fought by conservatives who rejected modern theories about the research university in favor of pedagogical principles very similar to those of Newman. But the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was a decisive event in the history of university education because Prussia's stunning victory over the French was widely perceived to be, in large measure, a result of Prussia's superior educational system, particularly at the university level. After that war the German university model exercised an irresistible appeal, and this was especially true in France where the sociologist Emile Durkheim led the fight for the modernization of the university curriculum and for other institutional alterations that would permit the French university system to compete with Germany's. This process of imitation was repeated all over the Western world, with considerable variations from country to country, but no place more thoroughly than in the United States where the German graduate degree program and training were imported in an exceptionally pure form.

Commenting on the success of the German university model, Pelikan, in effect, exclaims "Thank God for the Germans"--an exclamation we do not often hear these days. They were right to insist on the indissoluble bonds between university research and teaching, and we were right to imitate them. This is the heart of Pelikan's book. Research is the best way for a university professor to validate his credentials in the classroom. It is a system that can be abused and misinterpreted, but every system is subject to abuse and misinterpretation--the research system, in Pelikan's view, least of all. What the critics of the research mission say is true: there is much meretricious nonsense and bogus scholarship passing as research, but futility, failure, and misrepresentation occur in all fields, and we cannot judge any field by its worst products alone. Jacob Burckhardt and Frederick Jackson Turner also come out of the world of university research, and it is well for a host of reasons that Pelikan enumerates to make this kind of achievement possible.

The question is, how do we make it possible. For Pelikan, the European university system--and he dwells on the Swedish case in particular--has developed a clearer distinction between the teacher and the researcher than we have in America. In keeping with the original German model, every Swedish university has a research mission, but not every teacher does research. Here in the United States we want each faculty member to do everything, and Pelikan, despite numerous misgivings, concludes that this is how things should be in a university.

But when Pelikan uses the term everything, he does not mean what we mean by it at the University of Montana. Service is mentioned in The Idea of the University: A Reexamination, but most of the discussion has to do with local, national, and international service--not the campus variety. Faculty governance does not appear to be the way of life at Yale University that it is here: the Faculty Senate, the Faculty Union, and all the many committee demands that tie people down at the U of M must have, in most of these instances, their counterparts at Yale, but Pelikan does not write about them collectively as a serious drain on the time of a researcher. He seems to be assuming that at a first-rate university, administrators administer the place while faculty members are almost entirely free to teach and to do research.

Therefore, Pelikan can suggest that in order to carry out their research mission, faculty members should spend one-half of their total professional time in the library or the lab, and, of course, at the writing desk. He says that if you are not spending one-half of your total professional time on research you simply are not going to publish books with the regularity expected at a major university. In view of our service mission, one-third of our total professional time should be devoted to research, according to Albert Borgmann in his excellent report, "Scholarly Publication at the University of Montana." The difference between these two fractions is substantial and suggests one reason why we can never be Yale, but as Professor Borgmann's report makes clear we should not aspire to be Yale either.

The real issue for U of M faculty members is how we get to the point where it is possible for us to devote one-third of our time to research. I for one cannot believe that very many people in this institution have the luxury of spending one-third of their time on research. Time is of the essence for a writer, and there simply is not enough of it at U of M.

Part of the problem lies in our traditions of faculty governance, service, and contract negotiations--all of which demand a price in precious time. In reading Pelikan's book I was reminded just how high that price is. A big percentage of our professional time is devoted to non-teaching and non-researching activities. I have been here long enough to know just how complicated the circumstances are that gave rise to our particular traditions at U of M. On balance we may be served well by them, but the writer in me wishes that we needed them much less than we do.

Another burden for U of M writers is the teaching load. There simply is no comparison between the way we conduct business and the ways major research universities and even many colleges do where researchers with book deadlines are routinely forgiven courses, where there is never any question about ample summer support--not through summer teaching, which is a drag on research, but through outright grants available to all--where young faculty members receive a full year off before the tenure decision so that they have time to get research published. Such institutional structures and programs are simply not available to us. In his report, Professor Borgmann took rueful note of our low productivity as a research institution, but I frankly am amazed at how much scholarship is published here. As research scholars we labor under some disheartening drawbacks, and these enable us to put the grim statistics of his report in their proper context.

With the new faculty contract, a bad situation is bound to get worse. The call for more teaching and greater direct faculty involvement in the facilitation of graduation rates will surely make it even more difficult to save time for the library or the lab and the writing desk. By separating the graduate faculty from the faculty as a whole we are told that a solution for the problem of research is at hand. In the present circumstances this solution may be the best option that we have, but I see some difficulties with it. First, the idea that faculty members should have no clearly defined research responsibility goes against all of our training and instincts as American university professors. Pelikan writes that the research mission is in the DNA of American Ph.D. holders precisely because the doctorate is a research degree. A non-researching Ph.D. on a university faculty is a contradiction in terms. Our ideal should be the teacher who is doing research, but I think that with this contract our ideal has been enveloped in some confusion.

Second, collegiality is not something to be trifled with, but we may be doing just that by creating a wholly exogenous caste system in which the publishing scholars are elevated over the non-publishers. One could object that this is already the case, that the small corps of publishers in our midst is carrying the institution and making it possible for us to remain accredited. Why should these individuals not be rewarded and assisted? This question becomes truly urgent in the wake of our recently ratified contract because changes in our teaching loads and other new responsibilities threaten to depress even more our already dangerously low levels of published research. In these changed circumstances it seems unavoidable that we provide some formal help and protection to those scholars whose research productivity gives the university its professional credibility.

Nevertheless, such assistance will be fraught with the potential for long-term problems. Professor Borgmann noted in his report that one of the virtues of the University of Montana is its egalitarianism and the sense that we are all in this together, but bitter feelings and resentments will be sure to arise now, particularly in an institution such as ours with its proud and highly self-conscious egalitarianism. To return to Newman's language of family, if the students are our children, then our colleagues are our brothers and sisters. As in all families, some things are better left unsaid, and to codify the distinction between the research and the non-research faculty is out of place in a university such as ours.

The third problem is the political climate in which we find ourselves. The odor of profscam, political correctness, tenured radicals, reverse racism, and reverse sexism clings to us, and we find our credibility with a conservative electorate undermined. This is a national problem, and Pelikan who writes urgently about the political crisis of the American university begs us not to think of it merely as a matter of the periodic eruption of the Yahoos. He wants us to take our political crisis with the utmost seriousness, and to begin by recognizing that our critics have some powerful arguments and that we ourselves have been guilty of an enervating political naïveté. Here at home, before the biennial prospect of budget cuts, even the tiny enclave to which we have relegated research in our faculty contract could be overwhelmed. We were threatened with an eighteen million-dollar cut this year by the legislature. That in the end this sum was cut to seven million does not change the drift of our situation. As an institution of higher learning we are clearly moving toward a crisis of the old regime.

I would like to close, however, on a moderately optimistic note. The present administration at the University of Montana is on record in its firm support of the research mission and this is important. We may be very far from the university ideal, but as long as the ideal exists hope is permitted. I have read George Dennison's draft essay, "The University: Its Uses and Ideals" and in the great debate about research he enthusiastically takes Pelikan's side. President Dennison has read Pelikan's book very carefully and with enormous profit. He could not have a better guide in his struggle to advance the proper business of the University of Montana.

For our own part, the serious political situation to which I referred a moment ago requires us as a faculty to make a concerted effort in communicating to the public what a life of the mind at the university actually entails. We need a new relationship with our patron, the public. The one that we have is not any good because there are large elements of mutual suspicion, resentment, and misunderstanding in it. Not a single criterion of Martin Buber's I and Thou model characterizes our relationship with the public or its relationship with us. This has to change, and we can begin by recognizing that we are part of a patronage system. Such a relationship does not necessarily imply subservience and conformity, as the great ages of European culture from the Renaissance to Romanticism magnificently illustrate, but if it is to work properly a dialogue between an informed public and an informative intellectual class must occur. I think that we in the university have failed in discharging our public responsibilities. We have not had a decent relationship with the people since the 1960s. As a means for the attainment and maintenance of excellence in university education this strategy did not merit the thirty-year tryout that we gave it.

Contents | Home