University & Society

Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University.
by Derek Bok.
Harvard. 318 pp. $15.95.

According to Derek Bok, president of Harvard, the ivory tower no longer serves as an image for the modern American university, which neither can nor should live in proud isolation from what he calls “the outside world.” In dealing with that world, however, the university must continue to cherish academic freedom, the very air it breathes, and it must reconcile its institutional autonomy with the legitimate needs of the state. In this book, Mr. Bok provides a detailed analysis of the scope and limits of the social responsibility which institutions of higher learning ought to acknowledge. Above all, he seeks to come up with well-considered answers and “principled replies” to the questions and demands posed by radical students and professors since the 60’s.

The radicals who brought us the campus upheavals of the 60’s—Mr. Bok prefers to call them and their successors “activists”—can take a certain pride in defining the author’s universe of discourse, but they will more often than not despise the answers he gives to their questions. After all, Mr. Bok defends Columbia’s 1977 offer of a chair in international relations to Henry Kissinger; he attacks the idea of quotas for hiring faculty members; he affirms William Shockley’s right to speak about genetic differences among races; he approves of an ROTC presence on campuses; he finds no fault with Harvard for its plans to help establish an institute of science and engineering for the Shah’s Iran; and he thinks that in almost all cases a university ought to avoid taking political positions.



In articulating such views and others, Mr. Bok shows he is capable of close reasoning, fairness of argumentation, and dispassionate presentation of evidence. At his best he manages to be at once conscientious and comprehensive, as in his model discussion of “Institutional Autonomy and the Demands of the State.” In that chapter, Mr. Bok carefully considers various governmental strategies for regulating universities. He shows conclusively that government subsidies do more to encourage good practices than to discourage bad ones, He is keenly aware of all the dangers that flow from state obtrusiveness, and he is sage in his counsel of restraint. His ideas on this subject, which all university administrators will find useful in their dealings with federal bureaucracies, should compel wide assent.

Yet it is not always so easy to agree with Mr. Bok. His case for preferential admissions, for example, leaves something to be desired. He assumes that a good university will always be faced with more qualified applicants than it can accept and will not know how to predict academic success among the qualified; why not then choose a disproportionate number of the disadvantaged? He fails to investigate the possibility that we might remedy our ignorance about the future performance of students. He would have done better to say that Harvard and other institutions have always been corrupt in their admission policies and that blacks and others are also entitled to benefit from corruption.



The problem of this book, however, does not lie with the author’s specific views. Those views will usually command respect if only because of the dispassionate sanity with which they are presented. (One can even view benignly Mr. Bok’s tendency occasionally to ride a hobbyhorse, as when he writes cheerfully about what can be accomplished by courses to further the moral development of students.) Why, then, does one put down this book with a sense that it is unsatisfactory and in decisive respects empty?

For one thing, Mr. Bok is not always well served by his commendable urbanity and his wish to be fair. Very little seems to be true for him. It is not only that he prefers to write about “knowledge” rather than truth (except in discussing the natural sciences). It is also that he hesitates to affirm the validity of anything, beyond stating that something is “widely perceived” or “generally recognized.” People are never silly; they just predict what “few observers expect” or they work to bring about what “few people would welcome.” Nobody appears to talk nonsense; one merely encounters arguments that are “very difficult to sustain.” And protesters are never hysterical; at most their “fears seem greatly exaggerated.”

Such language is a sign of Mr. Bok’s determination to speak moderately in behalf of moderate politics. But the striving for moderation and prudence can become simply mechanical. Mr. Bok is never happier than when he can think of himself as steering a middle way. In this book, that means he loves to have “activists” on his Left and “traditionalists” on his Right. The trouble is that this desire to remain in the so-called mainstream prevents Mr. Bok either from engaging the radicals at their worst or from being fully fair to the traditionalists, at least at one crucial point.

That point comes in the chapter entitled “The Purpose of the University and Its Responsibility to Society.” There, Mr. Bok attempts fairly to summarize the traditionalist critique of the multiversity. But then he goes on to criticize traditionalists for exaggerating the drawbacks of the modern university and for leaving no room for “professional education, applied research, social criticism, and expert advice—activities that are all important to modern society.” Now, no thinking traditionalist is averse to law schools as such, or the other things Mr. Bok has in mind. A traditionalist may not love dental schools as much as they deserve to be loved, but his main concern is with the vital core of the university, the liberal-arts college. If the center is healthy, it can support a host of peripheral activities without endangering or even compromising the university. If that core begins to rot, the university degenerates into a multiversity.



The main fault of Beyond the Ivory Tower is that it has very little to say about the core of the university. True, Mr. Bok’s primary focus is on the university’s relations to “the outside world,” its foreign policy as it were. But to pursue the analogy, one can say only so much about American foreign policy before one has to take into account the domestic quality of the country. And just as one has to ask what kind of a country it is, one must ask what kind of a university it is that confronts society. Mr. Bok ducks that question as much as he can.

Still, he cannot altogether avoid it. How good are our universities? At one point, Mr. Bok answers by saying they are very good indeed. He writes with evident satisfaction at the fact that our system of higher education is “universally regarded as the best in the world.” And he goes on to declare with pride: “The point is simply that our colleges and universities have become a highly successful and valuable national asset. . . .”

The real point, however, is that our universities are becoming ever more irrelevant to the needs of the nation, except as suppliers of technicians. Listless, they have lost their energy to lead. Lacking courage, they are being stifled by a suffocating orthodoxy. Supposedly bastions of freedom, they are in fact less free for the exchange of ideas than is the “outside world.” Nor is that world their main enemy. The universities have performed fairly well against the barbarians who are always at the gate. They have yet to prove themselves against the barbarians within, and in that struggle they will need more help than they receive from this otherwise sane and useful book.

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