I was recently in Salzburg, Austria, and I did what I always do when I get to a new city/country: I looked for the local university. I love universities in all their forms, and I’m drawn to them whenever I visit a new place. Universities have a unique feel wherever I go, and I achieve a certain peace of mind when I’m on a campus. I feel smarter.
So, when we were in Salzburg, we hung out and prowled around the Universistat Salzburg. It’s just a couple of buildings in the heart of old town, but they have an Information and Communications Technology program. Surrounded by the wonderful history of this place made me feel pretty small — but it reminded me what a great tradition we’re all part of.
Let me wax philosophic about this for a minute–not about what universities are, but what they aspire to be when they are at their best. Universities are one of only a few institutions that have endured over centuries. Universities exist for the dual purpose of creating and sharing knowledge. In the service of these goals, we don’t always get it right, and universities sometimes lose their way. And yes, there are some pretty cheap knock-offs calling themselves universities today that don’t deserve the label. But in the larger scheme of things, universities flourish because they are places where learning and truth are the only things that are held sacred. We can–and should–ask anything, risk anything in the service of learning and discovering truth. At least, that’s the call to arms.
But in modern university life, there are incredible pressures to change, to be accountable, to be efficient, to be solvent.
As universities redefine themselves, I hope they remember that their greatness isn’t based on how they operate, on their solvency, or the patronage of any government, private or commercial sources of funding. Rather, the soul of the university is the free expression and unfettered exploration that is part of the daily life of every professor who steps into a classroom, library, studio or laboratory. Any move to “save” a university that threatens that freedom–however insignificantly–serves to harm the very institution we all treasure.