I’m going to start with a strange kind of claim that freedom of speech is not a value of universities. Just as such. When I say universities, I’m not today going to be talking about the distinction that exists in American law between public and private universities. It is the case that American constitutional law treats public universities as being bound by the bill of rights as if they were government agencies and treats private universities with the amount of deference very near to what the Church gets that it is able to make its own rules. I don’t think that division makes complete sense and can’t support the weight that its being asked to bare and moreover it has the consequence if you think internationally or comparatively that outside of the US there aren’t any “real” universities left in the world because the US is the only country left that has a very substantial private university system.
But because I think real universities are really, rightfully, self-governing associations I think that it can’t be the case that the gradual change from public to private universities in the rest of the world has meant that there aren’t really any universities left, and I take that thought back to the US and say probably public universities here also shouldn’t be treated as if they’re just the DMV. They are meaningfully public, but they are also meaningfully self-governing institutions. So when I say that freedom of speech isn’t a value of universities, I’m not making a claim about the details of the first amendment, I’m making a claim about how universities ought to be able to govern themselves.
[The] kind of misrepresentation which is fair game as a matter of freedom of speech is not fair game in terms of the structure of community of inquiry and discourse that is part of a college or university. It is one of the very worst offenses in a college or university...None of which is to say that the heart of the academic enterprise doesn’t have some questions about free debate or free inquiry in it. But they are not well captured by the norms that we associate with freedom of speech or freedom of the press out there in the wider society or in the legal system of a constitutional democracy. In this I believe, universities are typical of association and associational life....
[Oakeshott] distinguishes what he calls enterprise associations from civil associations. Enterprise associations don’t mean businesses, it’s not a narrow definition. Enterprise associations are associations with a purpose. We come together for the sake of some common enterprise....these are distinguished says Oakeshott form the civil association. The civil association has no purposes...Does the university have purposes like a church, or is the university open ended and purposeless like the government? And I want to suggest that it’s genuinely an enterprise association, though it is a complex association, that has rule of law elements in it. That is, it has moments of purposelessness but the moments of purposelessness are all structured toward the end that is the overall purpose of the institution....The purpose of the university is organized, structured, teaching, and research. It’s organized into specified domains of knowledge.... it was students of professors or both; creating a shared institution for the transmission of knowledge through teaching (research came later). The norms that eventually developed about how that proceeds, go under a specialized label that has meaning only really within an academic context, and that specialized label is “academic freedom”. It’s not the freedom of speech, it’s not the freedom to lie, to commit research fraud, to submit plagiarized work. It’s more than that though. spaces, academic freedom, and the university as a complex association" at Bleedingheartlibertarians.Safe
I shared Levy's essay enthusiastically on Facebook, and I am pleased it has received a wider audience. The essay develops the intellectual foundations to discuss (as it does through the lecture) the ongoing controversies about safe-spaces, coddled students, and protests over commencement speakers in a way that does genuine justice to the mission of the university. (I had also addressed these issues from a vantage point not too dissimilar from Levy's while criticizing one of his fellow BHL bloggers, but I lack Levy's neo-Burkean/Tocquevillian sensibility.) But here I want to make two observations on Levy's general argument. The second is presented as a disagreement, but I would not be surprised if Levy were to agree with me.
First, not all degree granting institutions of higher learning (that often call themselves 'university') are real universities by Levy's lights because "real universities are really, rightfully, self-governing associations." This ontological sounding claim has a normative consequence. What I am about to say is extremely context specific, but in many places 'the university' has become an arm of the neo-Weberian, technocratic state* where, if there is still a semblance of self-governance, it is often farmed out to professional managers (sometimes with an academic background, but not always) who are imposed by the state or are hired because they fit the larger vision of national, bureaucratic governance of purportedly self-governing bodies. (The previous sentence is true for quite a few English and Dutch universities--but certainly not all.) It does not follow that such un-real universities do a bad job at 'research' -- after all, Bell Labs and the French Académie des Sciences are not universities, -- or education/training, but they are not really universities.
That such 'neo-Weberian, techno-universities" are not really universities (in Levy's normative sense) is also clear from the fact that they tend to lack something. What they often lack is a shared purpose. And this allows me to offer my second observation. Levy writes that "the purpose of the university is organized, structured, teaching, and research. It’s organized into specified domains of knowledge." I think this is right (as a necessary condition), but falls short in some way. To be sure, this purpose is non-trivial because it allows Levy to point to the fact that teaching and research is oriented toward truth in some way such that there are strong norms against deception and "research fraud." And as Levy hints at, these norms are sometimes hard to explain to outsiders (and insiders): the punishment for academic deception is often far worse than for transgressions that from the perspective of interpersonal morality are clearly worse (harassment, rape, theft, etc.). (Undoubtedly this has also facilitated too much tolerance for some of these non-trivial moral transgressions.) Coetzee's Disgrace explores these issues in troubling ways.
What's lacking in Levy's analysis of the 'purpose' is the universal in university, that is, that can be traced back to the "Medieval Latin universitatem (nominative universitas), "the whole, aggregate."" Levy's analysis is compatible in which a really, real self-governing university ends up being a hyper-specialized research and educational institute--this is meant to be a reductio. This reductio can occur because of shared intellectual inquiry, but, more likely, it is driven in that direction because of budgeting/enrollment constraints. Of course, time, money, and talent are scarce, but once one gives up the drive toward the whole something is lost from the mission. Again, one can point to curricular and staffing decisions that are driven by administrative processes that facilitate a complete undervaluing of the pull of the whole.
So, it follows then that real universities are really, rightfully, self-governing associations in which organized, structured, teaching about, and research in the whole aggregate of things (events, being(s), etc.) is the main aim. Obviously, this is compatible with lots of other very important (humanitarian and social) aims. I hope you agree.
*I use neo-Weberian here to contrast it with the Weberian spirit that animates Levy's lecture.